Book Review, Felicity Lawrence, Food Industry, Not on the Label: What Really Goes Into the Food on your Plate, Nutrition
Angering and disturbing
As someone who has always found feeding, eating, preparing and sharing food one of life’s pleasures, and as a vegetarian, with a keen interest in health and wellbeing, who has read fairly widely about the subject, I thought this passionate and starkly laid out book would have little to teach me about ‘what really goes into the food on your plate’
I’m a keen follower of information about the paucity of nutrition in the average Northern Europe and North American shopping basket. I abjure and loathe junk food, eat far more than my 5-7 portions of fruit and vegetables, avoid trans fats, prefer butter to marge, avoid anything labelled ‘low fat’ (what is put into it, is the question for me, what ghastly made up synthetic chemistry or manipulated molecular structure we are not evolved to process), never knowingly eat anything with artificial sweeteners, read labels to make sure that ingredients are RECOGNISABLE if I do buy anything ready made.
So I thought I was going to be smugly and superiorly nodding at everything I knew, and patting myself approvingly on the back for my nutritional choices. Which, in the main, I was.
However, where Lawrence delivered a huge gut punch to me was in her section on what is staple in my diet – fresh fruit and vegetables. And the punch was not due to nutritional value information – I knew already that monoculture factory agribusiness, intensive crop growing has depleted the soil, is depleting the soil, and that in the main our fruit and vegetables are no where near as nutritious as they used to be, since the trace nutritional minerals have been taken out of the soil plants grow in. Way back, we husbanded, and grew crops in rotation, and were prepared to leave fields fallow, allow weeds to grow and die back in, to remineralise. Different plants have different mineral needs, so rotation growing was a skilful nurturing of the earth, what grew in it, and what we ate.
The big shocker for me was Lawrence’s revelation of the existence of virtual slavery, yes, even in this sometimes green and pleasant land. The bullying techniques of supermarkets and just in time delivery has placed all the power in the hands of multinational bullies and their shareholders. Farmers are forced to comply, the independent small holding goes to the wall – this I knew, but what I didn’t realise was how deeply the grower’s margins are squeezed – so that in the end, the only way to make a profit, is to cut what costs you can – wages, of a mainly unskilled, often seasonal, often migrant, ununionised workforce. The production of even our ‘buy British’ fruit and vegetables is often linked with terrorised, exploited workers, living in overcrowded, substandard accommodation, recruited (often by being forced to pay hefty backhanders to gangmasters – some of whom are linked with organised crime and human trafficking). Lawrence shocked me by saying ‘do not think slavery was abolished a couple of hundred years ago – it is still going on, in all but name – and in THIS country’
She comes from a solid, investigative journalist tradition, and indeed worked undercover to experience what goes on in this country (as well as others) in slaughterhouses, meat processing plants, bakeries, and in the fields.
And, sadly I believe that though this book is quite elderly now, its lessons are still largely unheeded
Other books, by another writer writing equally well and starkly about how far we have departed from any sort of sensible relationship with our daily bread and more, is the excellent Michael Pollan Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual; In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating: An Eater’s Manifesto
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