Friday, 30 June 2006

The Future of Food – Brian J. Ford ****

Anyone who attempts to keep on top of what we’re supposed to eat, what’s important in our diet, the debate on natural versus processed foods, infections from foodstuffs, and how trends are developing into the future, is liable to be confused. This slim volume from Professor Brian Ford aims to put us all straight.
What’s good about the book is that Ford pulls no punches and makes it clear just how spurious the whole “natural food” sales approach is, given that familiar “wholesome” foods like bread and butter are anything but natural, but the result of long-term human interference with nature. He is particularly unnerving on the subject of the various bacteria that can be found in food, and how the move away from cooking ourselves to ready meals and eating out puts us more at risk from the dangers of food poisoning. He also spends a fair amount of the content on an essential consideration for everyone with a conscience – feeding the world. As Ford points out, it is entirely practical to feed the world if we had the collective will and the systems in place. The food is increasingly there. He points out that during terrible famine in Ethopia it was a net exporter of grain. There’s something very unsettling about this.
The book isn’t without problems. Firstly it’s a little dated, being produced in 2000. So, for instance, though he refers to the health promoting bacteria of the gut, there’s no comment on the claims of pro-biotic drinks and yoghurts to make much difference there. Secondly it’s difficult to follow a structure through the book – it’s rather piecemeal, and often we hear what’s wrong with things without a clear suggestion of how to do anything different. (A certain resemblance to the TV show, Grumpy Old Men, here.) Where there is a solution, such as to feeding the world by setting up an international Food Force, it can be simplistic – how would such a force deal, for example, with the problems of a country where the ruling minority have no interest in relieving starvation of the masses, and resent outside interference (pick the dictatorship of your choice)?
Finally, when Ford looks to the future – this is part of a series designed to get the reader thinking about the future – he does so in powerful polemic form. We keep getting told we “will do this” and “will do that”, yet these bits of the book are the least convincing. Oddly, Ford himself points out the difficulty of making scientific predictions, but then charges in and does so wholesale. We are told we will probably witness the death of domestic cookery. “Old fashioned food will become a special treat. Today’s junk food will disappear…” Hmm. With a vigour that seems more wishful thinking than realistic he predicts that supermarkets will lose their stranglehold. “In the future, individual shops, friendly, warm and welcoming, will begin to reappear.” Why? What evidence is this based on? He’s on firmer ground when predicting there will be more food delivered to the home, but again imagines the cosy world of the little local greengrocer’s van, where actually it’s the supermarket’s massive distribution network that extends to most of our houses.
However, don’t get the impression that this is a bad book – it doesn’t get four stars for nothing. Firstly Ford highlights the stupidity of our anti-science backlash, and our irrational approach to (for instance) GM, reinforced by the heavy handed money-mindedness of the companies that make GM crops. Secondly he makes us aware of uncomfortable facts. And thirdly he makes us think – never a bad move. You are unlikely to agree with all this book, whatever your personal viewpoint. You may even be irritated by it. But I challenge you not to be stimulated by it.
Paperback:  
Review by Jo Reed

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