Whenever I explain to people that my new book is about how so many of the assumptions made by die-hard foodies are wrong, there is always a moment of brow-furrowing. They say "Like what?", I mention local food. I tell them it’s not necessarily the great, pure, sustainable wonder they’ve been told it was. They often flinch. It’s like I’ve just slagged off Mary Berry. So I tell them to get out their mobile. It’s usually an iPhone or one of those huge things by Samsung you could use as a tray for a TV dinner. I ask them where it was made. They shrug. China, they say. So why, I ask, didn’t they buy their lovely phone from a local consumer electronics web?
Because, they say, labour is cheaper in China.
Quite right. China makes iPhones more cheaply. It’s called comparative advantage, and it applies to growing food just as it does to making snazzy gizmos. Some places, for example, are better at growing potatoes than others; so much better that it will take far less carbon to grow them there and transport them, than if you grew them close to you. Transporting your food only accounts for between 2% and 4% of its carbon footprint. And it’s when I tell them this that they stop fondling their phone and their jaw drops open.
I’m not surprised. Food is very emotional. We care about the food we eat, much more than the clothes we wear or the cars we drive. Food nurtures us. We express love through food. And sometimes we let all that emotion get in the way of the realities. Which is where A Greedy Man in A Hungry World comes in. It is, I believe, a food book like no other, not least because at its heart is one of the most pressing questions facing us today: how do we feed ourselves in the 21st Century, with a population expected to peak at nine billion, resources under pressure and humanity’s impact upon the planet at the front of every one’s mind? After years of in-depth journalistic research, I have come to some stark conclusions: that the items of faith clung to by the foodie middle-classes and the foodie media are simply wrong. Local, seasonal and organic produce may sound lovely, but they are not always the most sustainable option. Indeed they are mostly just lifestyle choices for the affluent. We need to face up to the realities of modern agriculture and food retailing, embrace technology without excusing its worst excess, and come up with a truly radical way to feed the planet without killing it or us.
The issues are very serious, but the book really isn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to read one of those dreary lecture-heavy polemics, let alone write one. So I’ve written it through sharp memoir and comedy: the excruciating stories of growing up with a mother who was an agony aunt and therefore the go-to person in Britain for sex advice; of working as a butcher’s boy; of my youthful experiences on the wrong side of the drugs laws. It’s also packed full of reportage, be it from the hills of Rwanda--you try finding a good Chinese meal in Kigali--to the corn fields of Illinois. I’ve set out to take you on a rollicking journey which will both give you belly laughs and make you think about how you fill your belly.
I promise you: you’ll never look at your lunch--or your phone--in the same way ever again.