A long wordy account of the first morning of the Food & Morality conference

On Saturday morning I hopped a bus to Oxford at the unearthly hour of 7am on my way to the Oxford Symposium on Food and Drink, whose theme this year was food and morality. It was a gorgeous morning and I walked towards the college, passing a sunny graveyard.

By 8.45 I had dropped bags in my room at St Catherine’s college and was on my way to a vigourous survey of the ups and downs of right-thinking foodies in Berkeley California from the sixties to the present by the simply wonderful Ruth Reichl, in an opening address called What Should We Eat?

Speaking from her considerable experience in documenting food trends, she pointed out that we have been agonising over food ethics from the year dot, and that the underlying reasons have swung between efforts to control class, religion and the economy.

In the fifties and sixties, efforts to churn wartime industries into moneymaking economy meant that advertisers positioned cooking as symbolic of an unworthy, undesirable prison that modern women would be fools not to shed. We were encouraged to liberate cooking time for other aspects of life: time was more valuable than food in those days of plenty. Movement followed movement: food was politicised by such books as Diet for a Small Planet. Meat was out, boycotts were in.

By the mid nineties, industrialisation of our food had created all kinds of new jumping points for protest: chemical adulteration, genetic modification, contamination and disease; the end of food as we knew it. She mentioned a test by English volunteers who had tried to live as battery chickens for a week, and lasted 18 hours. There were starting to be a lot of questions about how our food animals were treated, and the demand for ethically raised meat has rocketed as a result.

For a while fish seemed like the answer, but fish are fighting a losing battle with the modern world: oceans are being drained of species by fishing technology, and the global hunger for sushi has had a huge impact, a food that is less about tradition and health than it is about the possibilities of refrigeration and air freight. Bluefin tuna was a despised fish 35 years ago, but its price has increased 10,000 times since then, and it is vanishing as a species.

And we have contamination of farmed fish, and contamination of sea and land and deforestation of wetlands resulting from increased fish and shellfish farming.

But what do we do? Technological advances mean it’s unrealistic to expect farmers to go back to ploughing the fields by hand. For the first time in history, we have too much food AND starvation: “while half the world goes hungry, the other half is killing itself with calories.” We have, she said, so many moral choices today it’s a wonder any of us eat at all.

We are hearing a lot about growing our own food, cutting down our food miles and buying locally. But is that the correct moral stance? There have been studies that show it’s a far from simple equation: the nature of mechanisation on the farms, the type of feed (it takes a lot of fossil fuel to produce grains like maize) and the slaughtering systems for meat (where are they, how are they powered, etc.) can all throw calculations off. So one New Zealand study found that 1 tonne of lamb raised in New Zealand and eaten in London was less fuel dependent than the same amount raised in Oxford and eaten in London.

She cited a recent review in Atlantic Monthly of Michael Pollan‘s Omnivore’s Dilemma as formulating an attack on gourmets: the author’s moral stance appeared to be that the only moral choice is vegan, “where the Christian and the gourmet part ways.” Will the vegetarian diet be the only acceptable diet of the future?

Most of us, she concluded, would like to do the right thing.. if only we could figure out what that was.

Well. That was some beginning. We turned then to a swiftly-moving panel.

Chocolateer John Scharffenberger talked all too briefly about ethical sourcing of cacao beans. The all-too familiar gist was that farmers are getting the short end of the stick, being paid very badly while supporting with those poor wages whole communities. He proposed instituting higher quality varieties of healthier beans which would allow a fair living to the people who grew them.

Then Raymond Blanc stepped up to dash our illusions about the charmed life of the kobe beef cattle. He’d visited Japan and, eager to see their living environment, met many stone walls. Finally he set up a visit himself and found filthy calves, confined to small pens, and force fed grain until a final year of grass fattening. And a slaughterhouse where the cattle were killed and hung in the open air in front of their fellows, the blood running between the hooves of the waiting animals. In short, marketing mythology at work.

Henrietta Green, described as the mother of farmers markets in Britain, talked about the evolution of chicken from a food of luxury to something valueless; bizarre questioning by supermarkets and fast food chains to decide whether chickens can suffer; questions about whether a battery chicken has a right to life or anything else just to feed us cheaply. And that, as always, it’s all about taste: a better reared chicken (free range and longer lived) tastes better.

And finally, Armando Manni talked about the decline of the polyphenols – the health-giving components of extra virgin olive oil – through poor bottling, transport and storage. I was thanking my lucky stars for my olive oil technology classes which meant I was, I gather, one of the few who understood every word he said.

Tim Lang talked about public policy and the role of the state as arbiter of food morality in a world where private morality can’t address most of the issues – since they mainly have to do with industrialised food whose safety and availability has been decided for us by the state. We may think we have too many choices nowadays, but according to Lang, we can call it choice but it’s really selection. The individual consumer cannot influence the food chain when it’s in the hands of a few large food companies. We are all, he concluded, juggling with highly complex bundles of contradictions.

Well, didn’t I take a wrong turn during the tea break. Look what found me

And here you could buy quinces and jams.

And here I’ll stop, for now.

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