eating disorders

At this time of year, when we’ve all stored enough fat to see us through till April, the sensible and enjoyable course would be to hibernate till it warms up a bit. (Actually, I think I may be hibernating already. Read this: ‘With true hibernation, the animal appears dead. There is no movement, and it takes a long time for it to wake up enough to walk around.’ Substitute ‘mother’ for ‘animal’, and that’s me, any January morning).

But for some reason this practice is not approved by most large employers, while small businesses, who can give themselves permission to do so, sometimes wake up to discover all their  acorns have been eaten by Tesco.

So we stay awake, and force ourselves to do stuff, and sooner or later we’ll need to eat again, if only to take a break from work. But eat what? This question, once simply answered by seasonal constraints (turnips, carrots, onions, more turnips, and is there any of that mouse biltong left?) is now fraught with guilt, desire and uncertainty.

There’s a food crisis looming, we’re told, and everybody has different ideas about how to deal with it.

For Peter Mandelson, it’s simple: “If you ask me where in 15 or 20 years’ time I’d like to be, it will be probably on a farm somewhere close to the land, getting up early in the morning… I like properly grown food from organic soil. I don’t like processed and I don’t like packaged.” All you need is a few millions to buy a nice farm and hire the help so you can get up early in the morning and watch them at it, preferably through binoculars from the bedroom.

Of course, organic produce is more expensive, which is probably not much of a worry for him. On the other hand, maybe it would be good for us to spend more on food, or even possibly buy less of it, given the obesity statistics. (As Marie Antoinette might have said.) It used to be 20% of household income, and now it’s half that 

But everybody knows we need that 10% we save, to fund our binge drinking!

Anyhow, Mandy’s love of organics makes an interesting contrast with his government’s chief scientist, John Beddington, who tells us we’re going to need to grow fifty per cent more food than we do already, by 2030.

And Mike Bevan from the John Innes center in Norfolk is even more alarmist: “We are going to have to produce as much food in the next 50 years as was produced over the past 5,000 years.  Nothing less will do.” Unfortunately, even the Soil Association admits that yields from organic farming appear lower, so if the whole of the UK converted to organic, we’d be growing half the cereals we do at the moment.

There are good reasons for going organic even so; chemical fertilisers dump loads of nitrogen in the soil, while depleting its other minerals. And where do they come from? Oil. And phosphates, which are due to run out in a couple of decades, specially as the more you use, the more you need.

And is it even true that organic farming produces lower yields? A couple of recent studies seem to indicate that after a few years, they catch up. Plus, rotation means they’re fertilised with things that renew, not deplete, the soil. Isn’t clover just – well, more charming – than stinky old chemicals? And while organic methods produces slightly lower yields in good times, they seem to deal better with droughts, hurricanes and weather in general better, so in the long term they’re just as productive 

Given the amount of weather we’re having, this might seem a good idea. However! What about that extra fifty per cent we’re supposed to need? Well, yet another bit of the government hands out £450 million in research money every year, and much of it is spent in the top secret labs of the Rothamsted Research Institute, where GM, now just too last-millennium, has been succeeded by  Targeted Mutagenesis. Scary, huh? Here’s a definition for science chickens.

Basically, it’s a nutcracker to crack the genome nut, not a sledgehammer like GM, but the ‘messing with nature at warp speed’ argument still prevails.

GM crops aren’t all bad; blight-resistant potatoes don’t need pesticides, and vitamin A enriched rice could make people healthier. The trouble is not just that the things themselves are produced in ways none of us understands; that applies to our entire world these days – when did you last make an iPod from scratch? GM crops are patented and expensive. Farmers buying  Monsanto’s soy beans this year face a 42 per cent price rise. And the seeds are sterile, so you have to buy more each year. Bad news for small scale farming everywhere. (sorry, Mandy)

There are two other solutions to food shortages: changing our diet, and educating girls. Not to make them give up burgers, but take up birth control. This is not Malthusian fascism: just the well-documented and pretty obvious fact, to anybody who has had even one child without anaesthesia, that the charm fades pretty fast after the first four or five (Or two, to name no particular names.)

The other solution being urged on us is, of course, to give up eating meat or if we eat it, to eat all of it, apart from the hairy bits which we can redeploy for our yurts, saddlebags and snow shoes. Meat is a notoriously inefficient use of land, requiring vast acreages to grow the soy and cereals most animals eat.

But stop! Even this is not so simple. Most cattle and lamb in this country is grass-fed, on miserable windswept hills that would be useless for growing anything else. Grassland also provides a home for barn owls which are now queuing in the long line for extinction since farmers are no longer paid to leave their grasslands alone.

And though the animals themselves produce methane, the grass stores carbon in the soil, producing  carbon sinks’  which go a long way to offsetting the gases from the animals.

You’re probably no less confused than when you started reading this. It’s enough to put a person off her dinner (almost). But there’s one simple answer, which our distant ancestors turn out to have discovered a hundred thousand years ago When I used to ride to school on a woolly mammoth, as my children often remind me.

What is this miracle cure for the food conundrum? Porridge! It’s local, it’s cheap, it’s extremely filling, and you can gussy it up as much as you like: au naturel for breakfast, or drowning in whisky, cream and bananas for dinner. (Actually, the latter option is pretty good at breakfast too, specially at this time of the year).

It may not be quite as comforting as hibernation, but it’s not a bad alternative.

“Always the story of the downfall of nations has been connected with failure to conserve the soil. A nation’s land is its greatest resource. When we ruin the soil, we ruin the nation. Men, whom have studied the problem, find that a worn-out soil is followed closely by a depleted citizenship.” (US President Harry Truman, speaking in 1940)