Using food to explore all manner of topics, from agriculture to zoology. In Eat This Podcast, Jeremy Cherfas tries to go beyond the obvious to see how the food we eat influences and is influenced by history, archaeology, trade, chemistry, economics, geography, evolution, religion -- you get the picture. We don't do recipes, except when we do, or restaurant reviews, ditto. We do offer an eclectic smorgasbord of tasty topics. Twice nominated for a James Beard Award.
The original global food system
The idea of planetary boundaries, within which human life can “develop and thrive for generations to come”, was launched in 2009. Even then, we had crossed three boundaries, all intimately tied up with food production. But the process of “using up” resources, rather than simply making use of them, to supply our food is a much older pattern. In his book Diet for a Large Planet, Chris Otter, professor of history at Ohio State University, makes a powerful case that it was the British Empire that set the pattern, outsourcing the production of its food around the world. If food could be produced more cheaply elsewhere, then it made sense to do so, as long as the reckoning did not have to account for the wider costs.
By the 1880s, almost all the meat and wheat consumed in the United Kingdom was traveling vast distances to get there. Globalisation required mechanisation and turned food into an industrial commodity. The consequences of that original global outsourcing are still with us today, and still exceeding planetary boundaries. And the trade deals being struck in the aftermath of Brexit may well repeat that history.
* Diet for a Large Planet is published by University of Chicago Press.
* An article by Chris Otter — Scale, Evolution and Emergence in Food Systems — is a good introduction to his thesis.
* This rebuttal of some misconceptions is probably a good place to start finding out about planetary boundaries.
* Here is where you will find the transcript in a few days.
* Banner and cover images from Fortune magazine, thanks to the exceptional VTS.
Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet?
Food systems have been in the news lately, not least because the United Nations will be convening a food systems summit some time in September or October. The lead-up to the summit has drawn a lot of attention to the notion of food systems, which roughly means everything about food, from how it is produced to how we eat it.
If you’re looking for a guide through the tangled thickets of global food systems, you can do no better than Jess Fanzo’s book Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet?
Jess Fanzo started her academic life as what she calls “a lab rat,” studying nutrition at the molecular level. She didn’t stay there. Moving further and further away from the laboratory, she went into the field, studying public health, diets and nutrition in many different countries. Not surprisingly, her experiences made her more and more interested in food systems. She’s now a globally-recognized thinker on food systems. Her book illuminates her thoughts on the big picture with her experiences in the field, and is a terrific introduction to the food system, what’s wrong with it, and how putting it right will require everyone, everywhere, to get stuck in and do the work.
* Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet? is available for pre-order from Johns Hopkins University Press.
* I refuse to get into the pros and cons of the UN Food Systems Summit 2021. It’ll go on whatever happens, it’ll cost a lot of money, and I have no idea whether it will result in any changes. But, as Jess Fanzo said, it is about time.
* The transcript is here.
A very modern spice merchant
Midleton, in County Cork in Ireland, is not the kind of place where you would expect to find the headquarters of a growing global spice merchant. The farmers market in nearby Cork is where Arun Kapil and his wife Olive first started selling spices. Since then the company Green Saffron has grown steadily, drawing on Arun’s love of spices and family connections in India. It is still selling at farmers markets. But it is also shipping containers of carefully sourced spices to a European hub in Holland. And Arun told me that he has not compromised on quality along the way.
* As promised, a link to the Green Saffron website.
* Here's the transcript.
* Arun referred to “the very unfortunate cumin incident”. I knew nothing about that, and am investigating. Later: see Digging into contaminated cumin
* A few other episodes from Ireland:
* Eating Alone
* A sweet sour story
* A cheese place
* An experiment in sound and taste
* Banner photograph of cumin seeds by Ajay Suresh on flickr. Black cardamom by Kurman Communications on flickr.
Coffea stenophylla tastes terrific
A little less than a year ago I talked to Professor Jeremy Haggar about his search for a forgotten coffee of Sierra Leone. It was a species called Coffea stenophylla, named for its narrower than usual leaves, which had an extremely good reputation a hundred years ago. Unfortunately it was not very productive and so, despite its excellent flavour, it was shoved out by much more productive robusta coffee. After quite a search, Haggar and his colleagues found a few plants, probably not more than 100 in total. Although they were delighted to have rediscovered stenophylla, they were disappointed that there were no coffee berries on the bushes.
In early 2020, a colleague returned to the rediscovered bushes and gathered a handful, literally, of fruits. Then came covid, and efforts to taste the coffee stalled. In the meantime, prompted by the rediscovery, the French agricultural organisation CIRAD decided to take a closer look at the C. stenophylla on its research station on the island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean. They gathered a slightly bigger handful, maybe half a kilogram, and both sets of coffee beans have now been appraised by experts. Just last week the researchers published their conclusion: “we are able to corroborate historical reports of a superior taste”.
For this episode I spoke to Jeremy Haggar again to catch up on the story and what it means for the future of coffee and the future of Sierra Leone.
* The original episode with Jeremy Haggar is It’s coffee, but not as we know it.
* If you are in the UK and interested in good coffee, the outfit that micro-roasted beans from the Sierra Leone is Union Hand-Roasted Coffee
* Here is the transcript.
* Banner photo by CIRAD, others by RBG Kew.
The Great Re-Think: What is agriculture for, really?
Colin Tudge has been writing about food and farming for a long time in a series of thought-provoking books. His latest is The Great Re-Think, which examines the current state of the world and sets out the steps needed to get to where he (and many other people) think we ought to be. They include skill and craft over automation, complexity over simplicity, and diversity over monoculture. The start, though, is to really think about what it is that we want our food system to provide.
A word about the pictures. They are from a Puffin book for children, Farm Crops in Britain, and are undeniably bucolic, rustic, from a bygone age. But that was only 65 years ago. The book was written by Sir George Stapledon, one of the great agricultural scientists of the early 20th century, who wrote at length about many of the same things that we talked about in this episode. I should do one on him.
* The Great Re-Think: A 21st Century Renaissance is available from Pari Publishing.
* Three places to find out more: The Campaign for Real Farming, the
Oxford Real Farming Conference and The College for Real Farming and Food Culture; all of which come under the umbrella of The Real Farming Trust.
* Get tickets for the two-day online discussion of The Great Re-Think.
* There is a Henry George Foundation, “Promoting Economic Freedom Since 1929”.
* Illustrations by S.R. Badmin. I cobbled the banner together from a two-page spread.
* A transcript is available, thanks to the generosity of supporters. Please consider joining them.
What is the value of functional foods?
Açai, goji, chia. Pepino, mangosteen, rambutan. Quinoa, teff, fonio. Names to conjure with, especially if you’re in the business of selling food dreams. All of them have been touted at one time or another as being the next big thing. Superfoods that can cure all the ills that ail you. Many more mundane foods — chocolate, coffee, red wine — have mutated into functional foods, imbued with power to promote good health and fight disease.
“[B]etween 2011 and 2015 there was a phenomenal 202% increase globally in the number of new food and drink products launched containing the terms ‘superfood’, ‘superfruit’ or ‘supergrain’,” according to Mintel research.
Whether you believe the claims — I remain dubious — there’s one group of people that these foods could definitely help: the farmers who grow them. There are, however, reasons to be cautious.
A recent issue of the journal Choices brought together a set of case studies from Central and South America. I chatted to Trent Blare, one of the two editors of that issue, about some of the success stories and some of the difficulties.
* Choices Magazine Online: Functional Foods: Fad or Path to Prosperity?
* Chocolate really does “contribute to normal blood flow”.
* But here’s what Harvard School of Public Health thinks about superfoods.
* And that enlightened Swiss chocolate company Trent Blare mentioned? That would be Choba Choba.
* A transcript? Sure, as soon as it is ready.
* Cover photo by Neil Palmer/CIAT shows a lulo farmer in Darién, Colombia. Banner image of açai fruits in Brazil by Kate Evans/CIFOR.
Love this traveler/ writer/ food aficionado so delighted to find this well presented and intelligent podcast. Coupling my intense desire to get back to traveling with my unending desire to learn about foodways from all over the eatable globe. Thank you both for a nourishing interview.
So well researched and interesting!
Jeremy creates such an amazing podcast. I’ve learned a lot of fascinating things from all around the world. His narration, remarks, humor and music are perfection!
Enjoy his bites of the food world