The cheese sandwich killing the planet

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by Alex Renton (BBC £16.99, 335pp)

In 1979, when the first series of The Food Program was broadcast on BBC Radio 4, the show’s presenter asked if further episodes were to be ordered. The station controller asked in surprise, “But haven’t you said everything about the food?”

Apparently not. Today we watch endless TV cooking shows, worry about food miles, trans fats and calorie counts, and also get fatter and fatter – 63% of UK adults are now overweight or obese .

For proof of the complexity of the food industry, look no further than 13 Foods That Shape Our World, billed as “the first official book” from The Food Programme, which has been around for 43 years. The cover suggests it’s a joyful adventure through the history of our most important foods, but it’s actually a long howl of anguish about modern dietary practices.

The ingredients in a cheese sandwich produce harmful emissions.  Alex Renton's new book shows the impact of the food industry on the climate

The ingredients in a cheese sandwich produce harmful emissions. Alex Renton’s new book shows the impact of the food industry on the climate

Take the sun-kissed Italian tomato: what could be healthier and happier? In fact, many Italian tomatoes are picked by migrants who work in appalling conditions. Plus, your favorite pasta sauce might not even come from Italy. China is now the world’s largest tomato producer and processor, and as long as the paste is repackaged in Italy, it can be labeled as Produce Of Italy. “As a tomato lover…there is plenty to worry about,” wrote Alex Renton sadly.

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Raising cows, sheep and goats for their milk may be “as old as civilization”, but Renton disapprovingly tells us that modern dairy farming generates almost as many “climate-damaging emissions” as world aviation and shipping combined. The ingredients in a cheese sandwich produce more than five times more harmful emissions than a peanut butter and jam sandwich – but isn’t it packed with sugar?

There’s darker news when it comes to our favorite fruit, the banana, that “incredible package of dietary benefits.” There are over a thousand types of bananas in all sorts of colors and flavors – there’s even one that tastes like vanilla ice cream – but almost every banana sold in the world is the same variety, the Cavendish.

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Worryingly, a virus is ravaging many Cavendish banana plantations and could end up wiping them out completely. The obvious answer is that we try different varieties of bananas, but we consumers are firmly attached to our yellow, cheap and flexible banana.

Unless we broaden our horizons, we risk running out of bananas.

13 FOODS THAT SHAPE OUR WORLD by Alex Renton (BBC £16.99, 335pp)

13 FOODS THAT SHAPE OUR WORLD by Alex Renton (BBC £16.99, 335pp)

13 Foods That Shaped Our World was clearly inspired by another BBC spin-off, Tim Harford’s highly entertaining 50 Things That Made The Modern Economy, but while it has a lot to say about the history of our diet and the way we eat today, the tireless finger-wiggling tone is getting rather boring.

Renton rightly despises the poor quality of many cheap, mass-produced breads, but for anyone considering baking their own wholemeal bread without additives instead, he points out that heating your oven to the right temperature for the bread’ is ten times more costly in terms of climate-affecting emissions like buying one from a store”.

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So what should the eco-conscious foodie do? The author’s answer to almost all ethical food dilemmas is that we should simply be willing to pay more for what we consume (and in the case of bread, that means frequenting your local artisan bakery).

For all its occasional preaching, this book contains many interesting food-related nuggets. For example: the secret to a really smooth mash is to let the peeled potatoes sit in hot water for half an hour before boiling them.

In a blind tasting organized by Renton, experts couldn’t tell the expensive extra virgin olive oil apart from cheap supermarket produce. And coconut oil, often touted as a “superfood,” contains twice as much saturated fat as deeply old-fashioned lard.

But overall, 13 foods shaping our world will leave you depressed about what’s going on with food production and confused about how to be an ethical shopper. The days when a radio boss thought there was nothing more to say about food seem long gone.

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