Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…