Who’s the big cheese around here?

Gatt talks, WTO tariffs and trading partnerships all sound a bit remote – at least they do to me – until, that is, – I start to wonder where we’re heading with our grip on global climate change, atmospheric pollution, biodiversity loss, food policy, the obesity crisis; zoonotic pandemics, and feel free to add any other candidates. The official government line on all this is to stick its fingers in its ears and shout lalalalalalalalala as loud as it possibly can. Scientists?? pifflewaffle; we know what we think and we think what we know! The great joy of knowing the answer before you’ve even formulated the question is the amount of time it releases for doing more fun things.

Anyway, I listened to a programme on the radio last evening about Flann O’Brien’s novel “The third Policeman” and whilst thinking about bicycles (if you’ve read it you’ll know!) I remembered a theory I formulated many decades ago when I was studying ceramics. My lecturers, with the exception of the saintly David Green (the rest deserve to remain anonymous) regarded my interest in the science and technology of firing clay and decorating with glazes as a dangerous diversion from the main task of being creative. I simply couldn’t understand how I was supposed to create anything without the knowledge of the chemistry and the physics that made things possible. The alternative was the opposite of creativity because it limited you to flicking through magazines and catalogues and making things with readymade ideas and readymade materials. I paid for my interest with a drinker’s degree but with some grasp of what you could do with mud and fire.

So my theory was simple. The sum of human knowledge is accessible from any single point you might start out from rather as a bicycle wheel is supported and rendered strong and functional not by a single spoke but by a multitude of spokes radiating from the centre. A pHd in the study of one spoke will leave you as powerless as when you began. Beginning with hand made ceramics at the centre of the hub I was able to explore chemistry, physics, history, industrial and domestic design, the economic geography of the Midlands; geology – of course – and the evolution of industrial ceramics; and that’s not to mention Chinese, Korean and Japanese ceramics through their history and bearing in mind the religious cultures in which they were situated. Altogether a marvellous complement to the business of creatively expressing the idea of being human through mud, fire and human hands.

It seems to me that the same bicycle wheel analogy can be applied to any or all of the challenges I outlined in the first paragraph. Yes I’m an allotmenteer but also I’m a cook, a writer, a parent, a partner, a shopper and a human being struggling to discover how best to be human in this strange century. So all the old disciplines come back again, because to understand what’s going on it’s not enough to follow a single spoke. We need sound grasp of all of them if we’re to deal creatively with the challenges – otherwise, as my argument suggests, we are chained to endlessly repeating old and (as we now know) ineffective solutions.

What would an ecologically virtuous form of traditional mixed farming and local food chains actually look like

Let’s take cheese as a starting point – no surprise there then! The wheel of thunderous raw milk Cheddar or the block of its industrial, cling wrapped namesake share some features but it’s the differences that really count. To take an interest in cheesemaking necessitates taking an interest in farming and demands that we consider the carbon footprint of dairy farming. The two cousins may share a common ancestor but they grew up in different cultures, thriving and failing in different economic structures. They each have roots in many other questions – not least how should we feed ourselves without destroying the earth? What should we do with the waste products? Is it possible to feed the population without resorting to industrial farming with its chemicals? Can we even afford the additional expense of time and human labour if we turn our backs on the feedlot and the intensive dairy operations? Can we afford not to? What would an ecologically virtuous form of traditional mixed farming and local food chains actually look like?

We’ve become so reliant on technological solutions for complex problems that we’re shunting lethal earth-threatening events down the line awaiting the arrival of the uninvented as if technology were like the Seventh Cavalry – always appearing over the hill in the nick of time. The reality is that we’re locked in the cabin of an aeroplane that’s plunging earthwards while the crew argue about which button to press.

There will be ways of changing our bearing and finding a way through the challenges but it will demand the understanding and collaboration of the sociology and economics, psychology, agricultural and horticultural sciences and political structures in order to untangle the threads that have created this disaster. But most of all this can’t be an imposed solution without the input of farmers and the food distribution networks; of consumers and – dare I say – the thousands of workers who depend on ultra processed food production for jobs. A bicycle with a one spoked wheel is suitable only for leaning against walls.

I had a friend who was a keen amateur cyclist and once or twice he tuned my bike wheels in order to remove a kink acquired in a pothole. The sensitivity required as he turned the spoke spanner tiny amounts was amazing. Every twist on one spoke would demand a tweek somewhere else – it took ages; and so it will be as we try to deal with the crises we’re facing. The devil will always be in the detail.

not so much an orchestra as a rather poor beggar playing Annie Laurie on a school fiddle

The crisis of end stage capitalism has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. Basic foodstuffs have been so commodified that they have no relation even to the country, let alone the county of origin. Commodified milk, for instance is often sold at below the cost of production and I remember well a dairy worker telling me that when one chain wanted to depress the farm gate prices they began importing milk from Poland which, by the time it finally arrived was beginning to turn. This doesn’t matter much because, as a result of lobbying pressure from the largest producers, all milk has to be pasteurised to such an extent that the friendly natural yeasts, bacteria and microbes on which regional artisan cheeses depend for their unique flavours are all dead. So then they have to add one or more industrial starter cultures. Unsurprisingly, most commercial Cheddars taste much the same – not so much an orchestra as a rather poor beggar playing Annie Laurie on a school fiddle.

Where the trade agreements come into this is that the big producers have found it easy to crush artisan cheesemakers by imposing regulations that destroy the handmade product. The fightback has been fierce, beginning with the trumped up charge that raw milk cheeses were quite likely to infect you with Listeria. It took a titanic battle to prove that traditional raw milk cheese production – when done properly – is actually less likely to give you Listeriosis because all those naughty microbes are able to create an environment that’s hostile to Listeria. It’s just that you should avoid raw milk cheeses and soft blue cheeses if you’re pregnant or immunocompromised.

I’m sorry to have focused on cheese, but the same thing exactly goes on with cattle breeding – most high yield grain fed cattle are too closely related to one another due to the international trade in bull semen. Consequently many cattle are born sick and need copious amounts of prophylactic antibiotics just to stay alive. Traditional herbal remedies, many used effectively for centuries, have been driven off the shelves because the producers can’t afford the huge costs of testing and registration. In fact, as I’ve been reading about the scandalous results of the actions of agrochemical industries, big pharma and intensive farming and their relationships with industrial and ultra processed food.

The commodification of the food chain in order to drive down prices is the principal engine of almost every challenge we face. Cheap ultra processed food makes us sick while it drives ecological and climate devastation and, worse still, is the fact that it’s only cheap because we the longsuffering taxpayers subsidise it; throw money at it. There’s only one way forward and that’s to turf out governments that refuse to take this problem seriously; to bear down hard on the industries that spend billions on lobbying (more than 500 fossil fuel lobbyists were members of official delegations at COP26! – let alone the big pharma and agrochemical lobby), and to regulate fairly to protect and promote sustainable agriculture within local food chains. If we were to remove the subsidies for junk food and apply them to genuine producers we’d see the price differential close dramatically.

Do I sound cross? ….. you’ve no idea !!!!

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