‘A Greedy Man in a Hungry World’ by Jay Rayner – My Review

I bought this book (the fancy signed copy and all) quite a while ago, and due to essays, exams, and a whole load of other excuses it has taken me a while to finish it. But having (finally) finished reading Jay Rayner’s tongue in cheek view on the food forecast of the future, I can recommend it to each and every one of you.
Rayner’s basic argument seems to be that siding with one way of growing/producing/transporting/selling/eating is a no-go. That’s right, farmers markets and locally sourced may in some cases be worse for our planet than shipping in lamb and vegetables from abroad (New Zealand specifically), the vegetarians don’t have the final word when it comes to saving the planet, and GM crops could be a way forward. There was plenty of content in this book that surprised me, that educated me with regards to food security, and in places repulsed me (see the chapter “Something To Chew On” for abattoir details, and you’ll get what I mean).
The main points that I took from this book were these:

  • Supermarkets are both evil and not evil. For example they don’t spend those extra few pennies to increase the meat content of their ready meals- but they do make life a hell of a lot easier. Rayner tears down the romanticised notion of skipping to the butchers, and then to the greengrocers, and then whichever other shop you needed to visit, having to queue forever, with screaming brat in tow, for hours, whilst some old woman natters on about the rising cost of tomatoes. Which brings me to the next point…
  • Food prices are poised to go through the roof. The cheap deals that supermarkets give us actually push some farmers out of business, and lead to a less stable economy overall. Supermarkets used to throw out weirdly shaped produce, but can no longer (since the book has been written) afford to. They go into mixed bags now, in an attempt to reduce food wastage. On page 263 Rayner states ‘the era of cheap food is well and truly over’. I agree with this wholeheartedly, but also for other reasons than importation costs and lack of food security. I believe we have become too used to paying too little for “junk” food, so that now wholesome, healthy foods appear to be more expensive; they’re seen as a pricy buy, akin to the mortgage on a small chateau in France.
  •  Vegetarians need not feel so smug about their having less of an impact on the planet than meat eaters. Whilst yes, they do have less of an impact than someone wolfing down fillet steak every day, Rayner cites Simon Fairlie in that vegetarian and vegan staples do have a carbon footprint too. How else do you think we stay surrounded by soybeans all year? Do you think that Britain’s climate is ideal for growing these? What about the land they are grown on- where do you think the animals such as rats and voles from there end up? (supermarket or fast food chain burgers perhaps?). Not all climates and landscapes are ideal for growing vegetables: think of the moors and highlands. But sheep and cattle can feed here, making it ideal to expand the amount of food we have meat-wise. However (you will learn that there are many, many contradictions in this book, as it isn’t a simple topic at all), meat free days (and not just Monday’s) are a way forward in food security and providing for everyone.  But…
  • I don’t (to reply to Rayner) feel like telling China, whose economy has expanded enough to allow them to now eat like the UK and USA, that meat is off of the menu, just because we’ve f**ked up the planet already. On page 214 Rayner discusses the concept that eating has become a class issue, in regards to eating “free-range” or not. Free range products are notably more expensive, but the idea that those on lower incomes should only eat offal and offcuts, whilst the fat cats in their chinos can come home to a juicy sirloin cooked by the help, probably served at their “welcome back” ball, following their “gap-yah”, is ridiculous. More so, it’s unfair. This argument surrounding holier – than -thou free range/organic activists actually brought to mind more recent developments in the foodie world for me: that of elitist vegans, flashing their moral superiority around at unsuspecting bystanders. I won’t go into this now, but you only have to pull up a chair and watch the YouTube war currently raging between elitist and non-elitist (I love the latter; they’re a very likable bunch really, and have educated me enormously) to understand what I mean.
  • The final point I took from this book, which only backed up other curiosity fuelled internet and textbook research into the area I have done, is with regards to GM crops. Back when I was a spotty 15 year old sat in my biology class the answer was simple: they aren’t natural, ergo they are wrong. Rayner builds on what my mind has been coming around to for some time now: what exactly is natural? And what right do we have to reject GM crops when we’re able to go home, eat a huge meal, and then sleep tight- what about those whose lives could be greatly improved by drought/pest resistant crops? I’m pretty sure that at least a handful of those who buy Fairtrade and make a monthly donation to Oxfam also reject GM crops, but do we really have the right to make that decision for those starving in other countries? (If you want to watch something on GM crops then check out this video, and then take your research into both sides from there: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aA4I-WRu_s0)

There are so many more points I could discuss with regards to this book. I love that it made me think: it made me question how we view our food. Some of Rayner’s ideas I don’t fully agree with- for example packaging in supermarkets. It makes sense to get rid of it and have loose apples, I buy loose apples from the age old market next to my uni, but in supermarkets? I have seen (and told off, and then been told off by the parents of) screaming brats throwing food at each other in Tesco. Do I really want them picking up my apples and throwing them around? Of course not. If no packaging in supermarkets became a thing I would want all produce out of all sprogs’ clutches. But I have to admit that while supermarkets would need a major re-think in child proofing stores, us humans get used to things very quickly. This would be absorbed into our culture. Maybe children would become better behaved in supermarkets as a result- who knows? The power of social media has a lot to contribute to this: if YouTubers (the newest celebrities) began tweeting and facebooking about how they love buying loose produce from Asda, in place of WholeFoods, then who knows what might happen. IG a picture and we could have a revolution on our hands.
The financial implications of Type-2 Diabetes are mentioned on page 276: each diabetic costs £900 per year to treat. I’ll attempt a bit of maths here (I’m sorry in advance): the NHS website (http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Diabetes-type2/Pages/Introduction.aspx) reckons that by 2030, 4.6 million people could have diabetes, with 90% having the type-2 variation. So, 90% of 4.6 million is 4140000 people. 4140000 x 900, means that by 2030 we could be spending £3726000000 on treating people with type-2 diabetes. That is ridiculous. That is appalling. That money could pay for my degree 138000 times over. It could be redirected into improving our food supply and used to invest in food security. It could possibly buy me an island complete with monkey butler (I tried to confirm this, but those island estate agents are quite cagey).

So, if anything this book made me think. And it was honest. I like honest. I like Rayner’s anecdotes, candid approach to his own views, and the amount of research that must have gone in to writing this. And I have to admit, the tag line of the book was right: almost everything I thought I knew about food was wrong.

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