Some harsh truths about what we eat

I’ve never met Jay Rayner. I have seen him a few times on television, though, and have always written him off as an opinionated Londoner who could wax lyrical for hours about the joys of the perfectly cooked scallop, but didn’t know diddly squat about where food actually comes from.

Jay Rayner

In ‘A Greedy Man in a Hungry World’, Rayner proves me wrong – on one of these counts, at least. And makes me feel a little bad, if I’m being honest, for dismissing him so readily. Sure, he is a Londoner. And he is, indeed, extremely opinionated. But he does, I’d now be the first to admit, know quite a lot about where our food comes from.

The book takes us on a meandering journey through the production, preparation and sale of the things that we eat. It takes us inside the dark workings of an abattoir, onto the trading floor where wheat is bought and sold, and behind the scenes in our largest supermarkets. It asks what it means to be ‘local’ and ‘organic’. And it confronts us with some harsh truths that challenge (if you’re anything like me) what you thought you knew.

In contrast with many people who write about food, Rayner cleverly avoids falling into the trap of portraying global food systems as black and white. This is apparent from the get-go, with chapter 2 (‘Supermarkets are not evil’) and chapter 3 (‘Supermarkets are evil’) serving to highlight one of the arguments that the author makes throughout the book: these things are “ear-bleedingly, eyeball-gougingly complicated”.

Rayner backs this up with detailed arguments about organic food (he’s not a big fan), local food (he’s a little dubious that it will be enough to feed us all), biofuels (he thinks they’re “total bollocks”) and biotechnology (he urges us not to be so dumb as to dismiss it outright). The narrative is a personal journey, illustrated with the author’s anecdotes and insights, but an enlightening one, too.

To be honest, the book raises more questions that it answers. But I think that’s its point. Rayner wants to convince us that there are no easy answers and that anything we do will be a trade-off. Anyone who claims to have a simple answer to feeding the world while fighting off the yoke of global capitalism and combating climate change is, in Rayner’s view, deluded at best and downright malicious at worst.*

Sure, the book seems to go a little off-course at times, especially when it lurches away from food and into personal memoir. And the chapter on genetically-modified foods seems a little weak and unconvincing, reading like little more than a literature review, especially as it devotes far more space than is perhaps strictly necessary to Rayner’s teenage drug-taking.

Such minor quibbles aside, though, ‘A Greedy Man in a Hungry World’ is useful reading for anyone who cares how their food gets onto their plate and how we’re going to continue to feed people as the world’s population grows. Even more so for anyone who thinks they already know the answers. Jay Rayner may still be an opinionated Londoner, but he’s my kind of opinionated Londoner. And if I were to meet him, I think we’d get on quite well.

* I’m paraphrasing here. His actual words are ‘the self-appointed food Taliban’. I told you he was opinionated.

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