Happy New Year fellow food lovers. At this important time of renewal and reflection I have been undergoing a degree of port-induced self-analysis.
And what, you may ask, keeps bubbling up?
It is a rather fundamental matter as it happens.
I’m mired deep within a dilemma of existential proportions - I just cannot decide whether it is ok to write about great food whilst so
many people in Scotland can’t access or afford it.
Through my various forays into social media and the world of blogging, am I unwittingly promoting an unachievable lifestyle?
Does highlighting the delights of foraging, organic box schemes, pick-your-own fruit and farmers markets place me at the same (low) level as those highly curated instagrammers and facebookers promoting self-help books and fad diets of whom I think so little?
Fortunately, I have a degree of balance, despite the port. My day job with a food and farming charity allows me to see through the eyes of people in schools, care homes and hospitals and in doing so I
see inadequate access to good food in many parts of the country with people lacking essential equipment or the cooking skills needed to prepare it.
Even so, I’m finding it hard to square the circle of my actions to gently encourage people to make slightly different choices about food whilst also knowing that those very choices are out of reach for
It seems unfair to “provide” for those who can and do nothing for those who cannot.
Thinking about this has taken me back to an experience I had on my honeymoon. It was 2006. My wife and I were staying in the beautiful Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.
One day I rose late and walked down from our wooden beach shack to sit on warm, white sand looking out across a calm, turquoise
Yet I felt uneasy, despite the sound of the gentle waves and the warming sun overhead.
My unease stemmed from knowing full well that the fish in the sea were depleted through overfishing; that plastic waste was drifting unseen beneath the pristine surface; that the very sand I sat on had been swept clean by local people paid a pittance.
A huge penny dropped at that moment and I have felt a twinge of guilt whenever I experience luxury ever since, knowing it is so often
underpinned by gargantuan inequality and unsustainability.
Knowing these things and being unable to ignore them is my curse and probably explains my career move shortly afterwards into the charity sector.
By sitting on that sand and being briefly transported into the life of someone far richer, I blew open a Pandora’s box, crammed full of knowledge about what goes into making our world work and recognising the ugly truth that lies beneath the polished veneer of so much of what we take for granted.
Now, more than a decade later I still try to apply this knowledge to the food I buy. As such, shopping takes ages!
It’s actually very hard to buy food that hasn’t got an off-putting backstory about something.
Whether it’s the chemicals used to grow it; the amount of transport, processing and storage to bring it to market; the labour used to harvest and prepare it; or the levels of animal hardship in the case of most meat, eggs and dairy products we buy. It’s a minefield!
I find it especially hard during the Christmas season, seeing so many people, myself included, spending money we don’t have on a feast of food and gifts produced by the overworked and underpaid with such a cost to the natural world.
How can we eat, drink and be merry, consuming vast quantities of industrially produced meat; sharing gifts made in China from dubiously mined precious metals, wrapped in un-recyclable paper whilst the entire time our fellow members of society, perhaps in the very same street, may be struggling to put food on the table at all or be overburdened by debts they incur to try and live up to the standards portrayed by glossy magazines and TV ads?
This is not just Christmas, this is an ethical and ecological nightmare of a Christmas.
It seems obvious to me that it cannot be right to fully enjoy such pleasures once we are aware of the suffering to our fellow people and the planet that results.
It would be like Mr Scrooge carrying on as normal after his visit from the three spirits of Christmas past, present and future.
Yet even in an age of information overload about the future we are creating for ourselves, we seem able to do just that.
Perhaps this is because such inequality and ecological damage has persisted since the beginning of time and, as a species, we have only recently become aware of it and haven’t yet invented the means to fix it.
After all, nature lacks morality and we are products of nature. As Darwin showed, survival in nature is of the fittest, or sometimes the luckiest. It is only when we apply the uniquely human perspective of morality, where we introduce rights and wrongs, that we can even begin to appreciate that there might be something inherently unfair in the levels of consumption the “haves” enjoy whilst the “have nots” go without.
So, assuming I am not alone in finding such inequality and unsustainability uncomfortable, what can we do about it?
The answer cannot simply be for those of us who have enough to stop enjoying anything until we can all enjoy it. That would be puritanical in the extreme and entirely unworkable.
Neither will hand-wringing and guilt-laden articles like this do much. As with most things, the solutions rely on leadership within society to forge a new normal over time.
This means community-led action and true political leadership with long term policies that bring about the changes we need to see across Scotland.
This won’t happen overnight but there are some positive signs – new rules that govern how things are made and bought, social investments by the government in charitable programmes that advance these causes (declaring a conflict of interest here!).
As always, thanks for reading and sharing.
The crux of good food is taking simple ingredients and transforming them into a meal. Why not take your favourite dish and find a recipe to make it from scratch? Learning to cook a new recipe with friends or family makes for a social occasion that is hard to beat.
From providing cookers to offering cooking skills and training, there are brilliant things happening all over Scotland and we could all do more to support these charities either through donations or volunteering our time.
It’s better to moderate calorific intake than try to remedy through exercise. It’s not easy to cut down calories of course but one known culprit for too-easy-to-consume calories is sugary drinks.
Fermented foods like live yoghurt are a great way to help your gut’s “microbiome” (the community of micro-organisms living inside you). Strong evidence is emerging that this affects your immune system and mental health. You ideally need to build fermented foods (which act as probiotics) into your usual diet to establish a healthy gut.
If we all deliberately chose Scottish versions of the fruit and vegetables we already buy then we would support our economy whilst eating with the seasons. Of course, if you have the means then buying Scottish produce generally (e.g. meat, fish, dairy) is mostly better than the imported equivalents.
Three reasons for this - One: most of us eat too much meat for a healthy diet and cheap meat is a major cause of this. Two: most of the cheap meat we eat comes from animals that have not had a life worth living. Three: farming intensively for cheap meat is a major contributor to climate change and deforestation.
This is an easy one to follow – just don’t listen to anyone or anything that recommends cutting out entire food groups, eating only raw foods, eating no bread (unless you’re celiac) etc. etc.
All foods made by or with nature contain goodness that has the potential to enhance health and wellbeing. It is humans (or businesses) that create nutritionally devoid “foodstuffs” by processing the goodness out of food. The key is variety and moderation.
Food labelling tends to focus on “macro nutrients”. These are the levels of fats, salt, fibre and sugar/carbohydrates. In contrast, the micronutrients - the vitamins and minerals - are often left out even though they may be more important for our health. Micronutrients support our overall health and all foods have them - unprocessed most of all.
Processed food such as cereals are often fortified with vitamins which are not the same as being present naturally and we don’t fully understand the interactions between the different micronutrients, of which there are over 100, but we do know they are essential for life.
In August 2015 I took a month-long challenge to only eat food or drink that was 100 per cent grown or reared in Scotland. I ate plenty of animal fat in the form of butter, cheese and within meat; I ate plenty of oats and organic wheat from East Lothian; I mixed in as much veg as I could from a local box scheme.
I drank good beer. I lost weight.
I felt great, knew loads more about the food around me and hadn’t spent much more on it. I concluded from the experience that natural foods which have not been processed in a factory are so much better for us.
• You can follow Joe on Twitter at @ScotlandSeasons