Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a something of a hero in my eyes. Ever since the tousled toff first appeared on our screens tramping around in his wellies in the original River Cottage garden, I have admired his stance on how our food should be produced. From those humble beginnings, he has moved on to tackle issues such as environmentally damaging farming methods, the £2 supermarket chicken, wasted land, factory fishing, etc. He has in fact done a brilliant job of raising awareness of some troubling aspects of modern food production and he is to be highly praised for it.
He has also created a very profitable business empire based on the whole River Cottage idea. And he sells books. Lots of them. I have two of them sitting on my bookshelf at home, and they are amongst my favourite reference books, because the author tackles the subject of food with a clear understanding of what that might mean to an omnivorous ape with a big brain. His take on the issues involved in producing food for human beings has been refreshing, practical, honest and, for some no doubt, challenging. Above all, though, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has adopted a straightforward omnivorous stance that is novel in its apolitical stance. Until now, that is.
Now he has just had a new book published, River Cottage Veg Every Day! Yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title – why? There is nothing unusual about veg every day. Suddenly it seems that the Sensible Omnivore has become unwittingly entangled in the web of food politics. His blog and subsequent articles, designed to give the book a good plug, plunge straight into the mire by mentioning ‘food politics’ in the first sentence. As if being persuaded subliminally by some unseen force (a vegetarian Jedi knight, maybe), he then describes himself as a ‘notorious carnivore,’ when it is clear to anyone who is familiar with his ethos that he is no such thing, but simply an all-round omnivore. Almost too quickly, in six short sentences, he is into food politics, making the statement, “We need to eat more vegetables and less flesh because vegetables are the foods that do us most good and our planet the least harm.” Oh, is that so? By whose reckoning?
He then qualifies this statement by adding, “Do I need to spell out the arguments that support that assertion? Is there anyone who seriously doubts it to be true?” Well yes, Hugh, there are those who seriously doubt it to be true. So you probably should be spelling out the arguments that support the assertion, for an assertion is what it is. For all the evidence that vegetables ‘are the foods that do us most good,’ there is as much evidence that makes the same claims for meat. To be fair to HughFW, to use his self-styled moniker, he does go on to talk about factory chicken farms and intensive pig units, and concludes by saying, “The problems associated with the industrial production of meat are, globally speaking, as bad as ever.” Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. But I see no mention of the problems associated with the industrial production of vegetables, cereals or those animal products that vegetarians so enjoy – milk, cheese and eggs.
How many politicised vegetarians have seen pictures of 25 enormous combine harvesters in a V-formation traversing a hedgeless, treeless moonscape of soya beans where Amazon rainforest once grew? How many of them make the link between their daily bread and the worldwide wheat prairies doused in pesticides? How many have seen the ‘industrialised organic’ monocultures of vegetables, increasingly grown in intensively irrigated desert lands, taking the water they need from irreplaceable aquifers? And how many of them consume green beans, mange-tout peas, pak choi, potatoes and out-of-season tomatoes grown on lands that were once communally owned by indigenous people now displaced and forced to seek work in overcrowded slum cities? As for the eggs, milk and cheese, it is heart-breaking to see the amount of suffering endured by the animals that are forced to the point of exhaustion to supply us with these foods under factory farming conditions.
So, please leave out the politics of vegetarianism, Hugh. There might well be a debate to be had, but the subject is emotive and far from simple. A sales pitch for a cookbook is the wrong platform for such a debate. If you want to plug your book, that’s fine, but why not tell us how wonderful vegetables are without wrapping them up in a cloak of political rhetoric. If there is anything political to be said within the context of selling a book of recipes, it is this: we need to aim to eat foods that have not been produced under industrialised, factory-farmed, chemically supported, factory processed conditions, because these are the foods that do most harm to us and the most damage to the planet. The eating of vegetables (or grains, fungi, meat, fish or insects) is irrelevant in this context. What will make the difference is good husbandry and a compassionate understanding of how all food should be produced.