The ABC of Fat and Thin Down Under

Fat Bastard, Upside Down

I’m here at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, buoyed by a good review in the Guardian, and by some great audience response here at the Festival. Seems only fair to give something back. So here’s a piece that’ll soon be up on the ABC’s website. It’s a slightly rejigged version of the introduction to Stuffed and Starved, with an Australian twist.

Update
An especial thanks to those of you who came to the Brisbane Writers Festival – they ran out of books, and Stuffed and Starved made the Festival’s bestseller list.

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Today, when we produce more food than ever before, more than one in ten people on Earth are hungry. The hunger of 800 million happens at the same time as another historical first: that they are outnumbered by the one billion people on this planet who are overweight.

Global hunger and obesity are symptoms of the same problem and, what’s more, the route to eradicating world hunger is also the way to prevent global epidemics of diabetes and heart disease, and to address a host of environmental and social ills.

If you think this is a problem far removed from Australia, think again. Latest figures suggest that two out of three Australian men are overweight or obese, as are about half of Australian women, and a quarter of Australia’s children. Over 400,000 Australians have diabetes and don’t even know it. And this happens at the same time as hunger persists in Australia, particularly in aboriginal communities. Indeed, in some studies, almost one in four households were reported as going hungry one or more times a week.

These are two sides of the same coin. Overweight and hungry people are linked through the chains of production that bring food from fields to our plate. Guided by the profit motive, the corporations that sell our food shape and constrain how we eat, and how we think about food. The limitations are clearest at the fast food outlet, where the spectrum of choice runs from McMuffin to McNugget. But there are hidden and system constraints even when we feel we’re beyond the purview of Ronald McDonald.

The concerns of food production companies have ramifications far beyond what appears on supermarket shelves. Their concerns are the rot at the core of the modern food system. Even when we want t o buy something healthy, something to keep the doctor away, we’re trapped in the very same system that has created our ‘Fast Food Nations’. Try, for example, shopping for apples. At supermarkets in North America and Europe, the choice is restricted to half a dozen varieties: Fuji, Braeburn, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and perhaps a couple of others. Why these?

Because they’re pretty: we like the polished and unblemished skin. Because their taste is one that’s largely unobjectionable to the majority. But also because they can stand transportation over long distances. Their skin won’t tear or blemish if the apples are knocked about in the miles from orchard to aisle. They take well to the waxing technologies and compounds that make this transportation possible, and keep the apples pretty on the shelves. They are easy to harvest. They respond well to pesticides and industrial production. These are reasons why we won’t find Calville Blanc, Black Oxford, Zaberga Reinette, Kandil Sinap or the ancient and venerable Rambo on the shelves.

Our choices are not entirely our own because, even in a supermarket, the menu is crafted not by our choices, nor by the seasons, nor where we find ourselves, nor by the full range of apples available, nor by the full spectrum of available nutrition and tastes but by the power of food corporations.

It should come as little surprise, then that this situation isn’t something we can shop our way out of. Our current way of eating, whether the drive through or the supermarket, is part of the problem. These corporations are in the business of persuading us otherwise. But we ought not to be fooled. Evidence from Britain and the US points to supermarkets reducing choice, trampling on alternatives, and siphoning money out of local economies.

If we’re to reclaim our food system, we’ll need to do something far more systematic than buying ‘fair trade’. We’ll need to reclaim how our food comes to us – by having a democratic conversation about how our lives force us to consume so much of the wrong kind of food, at the same time as the world’s poorest, who work in agriculture, are left behind.

The need for this democratic conversation about food is something that supermarkets can’t provide. For we are more than merely consumers. We’re human beings, with a sense of empathy and compassion to those around us – it would be odd indeed if we could simply pluck these virtues off the supermarket shelf. Changing the world has never been easy, but for the sake of all of us, stuffed and starved, change couldn’t be more urgent.