Friday 15 November 2019

Waste not, want not? Fat chance

Rosita Sweetman

Two books shed light on the relentless rise of obesity and waste while so many go hungry, writes Rosita Sweetman

Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal

Tristam Stuart

Penguin, £9.99

Fat, Gluttony and Sloth: Obesity in Literature, Art and Medicine

David and Fiona Haslam

Liverpool University Press, €30.85

At the height of the "boom" I was invited to a party. Vast bosoms (female), and huge bellies (male), appeared around the door, followed 10 minutes later by their owners. I mean these people were enormous. I began to feel like Hunter S Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I scuttled home, pondering the weirdness of our 21st-Century world where an obesity epidemic raging out of America threatens us all; where, for the first time in history, obesity competes with hunger and malnutrition to be the number one global health risk. What's going on?

Two recently published books, Waste by Tristam Stuart, and Fat, Gluttony and Sloth by husband and wife duo, David and Fiona Haslam, attempt to shed some light.

First Tristam Stuart, who 10 years ago adopted a "Freegan" life, ie scavenging food out of supermarket bins as a way of showing up what the big guys throw away. The stuff he comes across is mind boggling -- perfect fruit, ready meals, cheeses, yoghurts, bread, vegetables.

He estimates that Britons chuck/waste a quarter of all food they buy, or 4.4 million apples, 1.6 million bananas, 1.3 million yoghurt pots, 660,000 eggs, 440,000 ready meals, and 5,500 whole chickens. A day.

And it's not just the food that is wasted -- there's the land being gobbled up every year to produce it (yes, we humans really are daft enough to rip out virgin forests in the Amazon to grow soya), the pesticides poured on, the oil needed to harvest and get it to market. And, finally, the cost of disposal -- ever bulging landfill, polluted ground water, noxious methane gases.

As if all that weren't bad enough, Stuart confirms that your granny was right: our profligate attitude to food does mean starvation for others: "The energy it takes to produce the 660,000 tons of tomatoes chucked in UK bins every year, could feed 106 million hungry people.

"The food wasted by the food industry, and by consumers, in the UK and the US, would be enough to feed the world's hungry between three and seven times over.

"Between 40 and 50 per cent of all vegetables and fruit produced in the UK go straight to landfill because they are too knobbly, too thin, too fat, too wrinkly.

"Of all fish caught, it is estimated only 40 per cent is consumed -- the rest thrown back dead because of bad fishing practices, and EU regulations."

One of the big problems of course is that we've become, been encouraged to become, disconnected from our food and how it is produced.

As farms and farmers are replaced with the vast fields of the global "agri-business", farm animals stuffed into factories or "intensive feeding lots", we are told, food-wise, we have never had it so good. I wonder. Yes, you can buy a chicken and lettuce roll the length of O'Connell Street for half a cent, but if it tastes like boiled lino, is so lacking in nutrition you're starving again 20 minutes later, and so packed with fat, sugar, salt and additives that you'll probably put a kilo on while taking 10 years off your life, what exactly is the point?

One of the points is that the globalised food industry doesn't care about the waste, the environmental degradation, the lagoons of shite from factory farms, or the obesity, diabetes and heart failure. It doesn't have to care. It doesn't pay. The world does. We do. Which is where, Tristam Stuart says, we consumers come in. You only get to vote every five years for your government, but you vote every day with your consumer pound or euro. It's up to us to tell them to stop.

David and Fiona Haslam come at the whole food and fatness issue from an historical perspective. Obesity, like poverty, has been with us a long time, but the obese were once so rare they were put in circuses and people paid to gawp. Now obesity is everywhere and the circus freak shows replaced by reality TV, Gillian McKeith and Jerry Springer.

Fat, Gluttony and Sloth is a fascinating trawl through the attitudes to, and examples of, fatness, plus astounding descriptions of meals consumed by famous fatties in the past. Still, despite the jolly names, Dainty Dotty, Dolly Dimples, Helen Melon, Jolly Joe, there's something terribly sad in most of these faces trapped inside their 900lb, 1200lb, 1275lb walrus-sized bodies. Obesity meant, and means, heart failure, respiratory problems, early death. Waste doesn't just mean wasted food; it means hundreds of thousands of wasted lives.

There is also a fatal flaw with the Haslams' prediction that a cure for obesity is just around the corner -- pills, genetic manipulation or surgery.

There'll be food you can stuff yourself with -- stripped of calories. Improved gastric bypasses. Removal of "fat" genes from babies. Sadly, this all sounds like exactly the same codswallop offered, at vast expense, to vulnerable fatties down through the ages.

The only safe cure is presumably a) to try and find out why you feel so utterly miserable that you want to eat yourself into monstrosity and b) to stop.

Surely it can't all be that difficult? Grow food as naturally as possible and as close to home as feasible; don't overeat; don't buy so much that you end up chucking half of it out.

As Hippocrates, that wise old bird, said: "Everything in excess is an enemy to nature".

The financial markets seem to have spent the past 20 years convincing us there is an "infinite abundance" -- we must shop till we drop and eat till we bust, because we're "worth it" -- and to hell with everyone, and everything, else.

As our boom turns to ever more painful bust, it's clear these were damned, and dangerous, lies.

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