BY SARAH LAURENCE
To be honest, I’ve never been interested in reading any of the increasing collection of books on the global food shortage or horrors of modern farming methods. It’s not that I don’t think that they aren’t important – of course we should know how our chickens are treated and killed, or what has been injected into our meat before we’ve bought it – but I have taken the very consciously naïve stance of letting others worry about it for me, buying the food I can afford and not thinking about it terribly much. On seeing Jonathan Safran Foer promoting his book Eating Animals on Oprah (a book mentioned in less than glowing terms by Jay Rayner), I think I shuddered a little. I just didn’t want to hear it.
So, having picked up A Greedy Man in a Hungry World (attracted by its title and the image of Jay Rayner holding a large knife on the cover) I began reading about our impending struggle to feed nine billion people with not a little trepidation. How could the book not be boring and dreary and still do justice to its subject?
The British restaurant critic, novelist, TV host and general loud-mouthed celebrity foodie somehow manages the Herculean task of weaving his memoirs – growing up with a mom who was famed agony aunt and arguably Britain’s first television chef, Claire Rayner – with a sans-bullshit, accessible overview of the global food shortage that cuts through the heightened emotions and hype of placard-waving extremists to explain, very simply, the very complicated.
“Just as there’s no point reading a book about sex written by a nun, or a book about morals written by a banker, there’s also no point reading a book about food written by a picky eater. Sometimes gluttony isn’t a vice, it’s a virtue, and this is one of those occasions,” he writes. And so, the self-proclaimed “greedy bastard” weaves anecdotes from his research process and life in general with his findings, travelling to Rwanda, America and around Britain to see for himself how food is grown, modified, reared and to take part in the slaughter process of livestock. To spice it up he writes about his unashamed love affair with food from his youth (“there were no flirtations with vegetarianism, fuelled by youthful outrage and disgust”), his experiments with narcotics (scrupulously researched in his mother’s “N for Narcotics” folders), and the surprises contained in his mother’s mail (which I can’t really put in these brackets, so in true review cliché, you’ll have to read the book to find out).
Very quickly, Rayner debunks so many of the assumed myths that have shaped our food-consumption paradigms – for instance, that supermarkets are always evil, local is always better, sustainable farming is the way forward and that there’s such a thing as “natural” when it comes to growing food. That said, he’s in no way an out-and-out proponent for all things corporate or genetically modified either. What he’s interested in is the unemotional truth – the whole truth, including the parts of it so often ignored or unknown by punters who still insist that we’re going to solve the food shortage by each growing our own potatoes. (Spoiler alert: we’re not.)
“I hate polarised arguments. They serve no one, because nothing is ever black and white. Even while I pick fights with the diehard foodinistas, and I do on a regular basis, it’s obvious to me that there is a lot of good stuff in what they are saying. When they describe the modern food chain and the way we eat its product as being deformed they are absolutely right. A lot is wrong. The problem lies in the solution they propose, which is too often based on a fantasy, mythologised version of agriculture.
In short (and this is in very short, and does terribly little justice to the arguments carefully outlined by Rayner), he argues that farmers’ markets, much like Ferrari showrooms and Chanel handbags, are lovely, but exclusively for those who can afford them, and offer nothing in the way of a longterm solution to what is rapidly becoming a shortage – a shortage that is already driving food prices up. He discusses China’s wooing of much of Africa as a pasture to feed its emerging middle class, the complete lunacy of sacrificing human food for energy-hungry biofuels and Rwanda’s struggle to feed its own people (including his feelings of inadequacy as he interviews the – malnourished – mothers of children suffering from malnutrition).
Scything through generally-unexamined senseless grumbles he points out that, as with people, disease tends to sprint through animals without antibiotics and vaccinations and that while chickens reared on a mass scale may bring with them the risk of bugs such as salmonella, this is the price we pay for having cheap, readily available good quality protein sources denied to many malnourished in previous generations. He explains that big (companies and farms) is not necessarily bad and small is not necessarily better, and that much like the fact we don’t buy locally made smartphones, it’s not always better for the environment to buy locally grown food – while flying in exotic ingredients all year round certainly doesn’t lower carbon footprints, many food sources can be grown and transported with a lower carbon footprint than they can be grown at home.
Home really is the crux of the matter. While A Greedy Man in a Hungry World discusses the food shortage as a global problem, it is essentially about British foods and farming methods and for Britain’s people. When he mentions that none of the farmers he’s ever spoken to express anything but care for the welfare of his animals, or that not everything about the practice of supermarkets can be loudly or enthusiastically maligned (although some of them are the cause of several shocking and well-hidden problems), it is important to remember that these are presented in an English paradigm and that while there are certainly parallels to the South African farming industry and marketplace, England really is a different sort of country.
The fact that this book is impossibly not-dreary has much to do with Rayner’s self-effacing honesty, Clarkson-style (but more intelligent) bluntness, genuine conscience about people who can’t afford good food and enviably wonderful writing skill. Master of description, he writes about a burn blister as a “great ivory bubble of smooth, denatured skin that ran the length of my index finger”, a suit for fuller figures such as himself being an “engineering challenge” and the spray of blood at a slaughterhouse (literally and figuratively, “a dying trade”) as a “huge, swirling scarlet tide”.
If, much like me, you really have no interest in reading any serious matter about the global food shortage but have a passing interest in life of the chicken you’re about to braai – not least because it’s what you’ll be eating if you don’t fill up with chips first, and because it effects what your children will be feeding their children – this is a book with which you can just as easily block off the doom-bringing bore at the dinner table as chuckle over while tanning at the pool, watching over the kids you’ll be feeding chicken for lunch.