I had fully intended to release a podcast today, but the honest truth is that I’m not ready. I am still trying to get more guests lined up for the next season and I did not want to launch prematurely. In the meantime, here’s some reading matter.
JStor is a huge library of academic publications in which, with suitable access, one could spend endless days metaphorically wandering the shelves, head craned to one side reading titles. In lieu of that easy access, I’m glad that it offers a daily selection of topical articles which, not surprisingly this month, includes one about Percy Bysshe Shelley. The poet is famous in vegetarian circles for his essay A Vindication of Natural Diet, published in 1813. Leaving aside the vacuity of claims for long-life, the essay does argue that vegetarian eating is good for the environment and human welfare.
He argued that if people ate the products of farm fields themselves rather than inefficiently using them to fatten animals, they could stop “devouring an acre at a meal” and end “the long-protracted famine of the hard-working peasant’s hungry babes.”
Intrigued by a brief passage in the article, I went to look at the paper it was based on, gloriously entitled In Pursuit of Percy Shelley, “The First Celebrity Vegan”: An Essay on Meat, Sex, and Broccoli. That makes clear, with a quote from his friend (and biographer) T.J. Hogg, that young Percy was prey to the same great temptation that pulls many off the road to life everlasting.
Hogg describes meeting Shelley at a “humble inn” where Hogg had just ordered a repast. “I asked for eggs and bacon, but they have no eggs; I am to have some fried bacon,” Hogg explained. Shelley “was struck with horror, and his agony was increased at the appearance of my dinner. Bacon was proscribed by him; it was gross and abominable. It distressed him greatly at first to see me eat the bacon.” Shelley slowly approached the dish, studying it. “‘So this is bacon!’ He then ate a small piece. ‘It is not so bad either!’ More was ordered; he devoured it voraciously. ‘Bring more bacon!’ It was brought, and eaten. ‘Let us have another plate.’” Eventually they exhausted the innkeeper’s larder. Shelley “departed with reluctance, grumbling as we walked homewards at the scanty store of bacon, lately condemned as gross and abominable”.
One the one hand, Shelley. On the other, John Lewis-Stempel. He is a farmer who raises sheep (among other things) in the west of England. Lewis-Stempel rails against the fashion for politicised vegetarian and vegan diets, and attacks many of the claims with vigour. But he also has no time for modern livestock rearing, putting forward instead a manifesto for what he calls “Medievalist ethical carnivorism”.
Much of his manifesto will be familiar to you and, perhaps, incontrovertible. And yet …
I liked Lewis-Stempel’s notion that the idea of banning beef in university dining facilities is “literally pig-ignorant,” even though it undermines his own claim that “farm animals possess the capability of intelligence, and the capacity of emotion,” but I’m willing to let that go. What I cannot let go is that he lumps #MeatFreeMonday in with the “vegetarianism, veganism or variants thereof” which which he has no sympathy. If we are to move to a world in which livestock is raised according to his credo, it will be important to eat better-quality meat less often. And even (especially?) if we don’t, reduced meat consumption on Mondays or any other days, will make a difference to greenhouse gas emissions.
Success breeds its own requirements when it comes to tomatoes. That’s the message of an article on Modern Farmer about the programme that kept Campbell (and Heinz, and others) supplied with varieties that met the particular requirements of tomato processing. One of the interesting twists is that although Campbell bred several important tomato varieties, it did so primarily to supply itself, rather than in the guise of a seed merchant. So although some its varieties did find a market, and were taken up by growers, they weren’t very widely distributed, and many were believed to have gone extinct. Recently, however, breeders who wanted to recover some of those varieties discovered that Campbell had a stash of old seeds, including some of the parents of its famous varieties. That enabled the breeders to recreate a new version of the variety Rutgers, once upon a time planted by 72% of commercial tomato farmers in the US.
The article doesn’t mention it, but one factoid I have been trying to dredge up from the swamp of my memory is a study into the commercial value of wild tomato genes. It calculated that a tiny increase in the solid matter of a tomato represented a huge cost saving to the processing industry, because it needed less energy to turn the tomato into whatever. Alas, I cannot now find the details. Back in the day, Campbell was concerned with disease resistance, ability to withstand mechanical harvesting and even – gasp! – flavour. But not, it seems, the energy requirements to make all those endless cans of tomato soup.
A month or so ago, I marvelled that anyone writing in the United States could possibly imagine that food needs to be cheaper there. In fact, is there anywhere among rich countries where food needs to be cheaper? I don’t think so. If people cannot afford to eat well, I believe, the solution is to pay them more. Data, though, is hard to find. Fortunately, Our World In Data came though. This chart plots median income against the cost of a healthy diet, based on research by Anna Herforth that she told me about on the podcast.
As you can see, median income in the US is more than 10 times the cost of a healthy diet. Of course that leaves some people who may not be able to afford a healthy diet, but making food a bit cheaper certainly won’t help them much. Increasing wages, however, is liable to have all sorts of good effects in local economies, inflation be damned, especially if people spend their money in ways that help it stay in local circulation.
That section of Our World in Data, by the way, contains a huge basket of relevant facts and figures of food and finance, some of which may surprise you.