farming

What to Eat

What to Eat is a risky title for a book. People can get very defensive about diet – hardly surprising, given the number of confusing and judgemental messages out there. Writers who tackle food-related issues run the risk of sounding either unbearably preachy or so full of doom that the reader is driven screaming towards the nearest doughnut.

Only a first-rate writer with a deep understanding of the issues could write successfully about how to eat in ways that are ethical, inexpensive and good for you. Fortunately, Joanna Blythman is just such a writer. She easily achieves the goal she sets out in her introduction of helping people ‘recognise and locate food that’s good in the broadest sense of that word – food that’s healthy, affordable, doesn’t trash the environment, exploit producers or cause unnecessary animal suffering, and, last but not least, tastes great’.

The book is divided into sections, each devoted to a particular food group, such as vegetable, meat and dairy products. Within each section she lists a range of foods and gives tips on how to prepare them, along with information about price, seasonality and health benefits. Although I’ve been interested in food for years, I learnt a lot from this. Did you know for example that grapes can contain residues of up to eleven different pesticides? An argument for buying the organic variety if ever I heard one.

Blythman also gives information about how our food is produced, along with an indication of the impact of that production on the environment, and whether people or animals are exploited in the process. Some of this is genuinely horrifying. In Costa Rica, for example, pineapple plants are drenched in so much pesticide that the workers who put them in the ground often end up with deformed fingernails. I was also shocked to learn that half the UK’s pear orchards have disappeared in the last 30 years, and that several of our native breeds of pig are classified as endangered species.

My only criticism of the book is the puzzling lack of an index. It’s the kind of resource you want to return to again and again, and it would be far easier to use if you could look up individual foods by name. Otherwise, though, this was well worth the money and I came away from it with a new enthusiasm for eating well and at the same time using my power as a consumer responsibly.

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A sheep is a good thing to have on an Advent calendar but the weather has been far too horrible for me to go out and get a picture of one. So hurrah for these badges from Felicity Ford’s Etsy shop – they arrived today, beautifully presented with this lovely sheep stamp.

Felicity Ford wrote a really thought-provoking blog post yesterday about the relationship between wool and time. As I admired my new badges and thought about how I would write about them, I suddenly realised that her post that had already raised so many issues was particularly relevant to the Advent season.

Felix writes: ‘Wool is produced through the slow activity of grazing, and the alchemy by which grass is turned over weeks and months into the fleece of the sheep

You can’t hurry wool.’

She then raises some searching questions about how, in that case, it is possible for chain stores to sell wool items at knock-down prices.

‘I went to the High Street last weekend and I saw 3 for 2 offers on knitwear in a well-known retail outfit, and I realised that – however much their storefront alludes to ancient knitting traditions – their 3 for 2 offer markedly does not. For … sheep cannot be fed on a 3 for 2 basis; … wool cannot be baled on a 3 for 2 basis; … in the UK at least it is not possible for a scarf to be produced as part of a BOGOF deal unless you are hurrying wool to the shelves. And what do we know about wool? That you can’t hurry wool.’

So the high street tells us a lie and the lie is that you can have wool cheaply and you can have it when you want it. And then it presents the lie in cheerful colours scattered with words like ‘joy’ and ‘gift’ (see Felix’s photos for the proof) – and therein is another lie. Which is that if you acquire this discount wool, you will be full of joy and you will be able to spread joy and you will have a gift in your hands, either for yourself (presumably because you’re worth it) or  – marvellously – for somebody else. What’s not to like?

Well, the fact that all this is nonsense. There are a variety of ways to get real wool from real sheep onto the shelves at this price, as Felix points out. Either someone has not been paid at all, or everyone involved in the slow process of producing wool has been paid less than the minimum wage, or the garments on display don’t actually contain much real wool.

Where is the ‘joy’ in this? Who wants a ‘gift’ for themselves or for others that is wrapped up in a tissue of lies and injustice?

The word ‘advent’ means ‘coming’. It is a season in which Christians wait expectantly for the birth of Jesus.

You can’t hurry a baby.

Yet somehow over the years this once holy time of waiting and preparation has morphed into a season of rush and over-consumption. And the more we accumulate and the faster we want it, so the more the injustices pile up

And in the run-up to Christmas, these injustices increase in the name of the one who said:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Luke 4: 18-19

I have been a Christian for quite a few years and I have been slow to grasp this, but if I could wish for one thing right now it would be that more people both inside and outside the Church could really understand that the Bible reveals a God who gets angry when farmers are forced to sell fleeces at rock-bottom prices so that high street stores can provide consumers with cheap products to give as gifts.

Especially, I would dare to suggest, at Christmas.

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It was cold, wet and grey in Todmorden yesterday but I still came away completely inspired – as I always do. Todmorden, a market town in west Yorkshire, is home to the brilliant Incredible Edible project and the folk who are the driving force behind it have a saying: ‘We don’t do negative.’ Just what I needed to hear.

The town has been through a period of decline but is now forging a new identity from the simple but radical starting point of growing food for everyone to share. Today I spoke to a wonderful woman who works full time without pay on spreading the incredible edible message. Then I visited a self-confessed ‘city girl’ who has discovered a passion for growing vegetables and built a whole new network of friends since she took on one of the 30 raised beds that her son’s school makes available to parents.

I can't write about Todmorden without including a vegetable picture. This cabbage was growing in one of the community beds outside the college.

Finally, I called on a couple of farmers who are passionate about animal welfare and have a flourishing business selling meat direct to the public. Not only that, they also work with the local secondary school to help deliver a BTEC in Agriculture, which has engaged many young people who were finding the mainstream curriculum had little to offer them.

In between, I feasted on Mexican bean soup in the wonderful Bear Cafe. Thank you, Todmorden – you’re a tonic for anyone fighting the winter blues.