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A good table is the heart of a good home. Image: The Ecologist Guide to Food.
A good table is the heart of a good home. Image: The Ecologist Guide to Food.
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Lifting the lid on Food's secrets

Jan Goodey

6th February 2014

The Ecologist Guide to Food is no soft-centered feel-good flim-flam, warns Jan Goodey, as it tackles tough topics like the slave labour behind your prawns and tomatoes: essential reading for concerned gourmets everywhere.

The processing plants pump out effluent through pipes running through their villages and the smokestacks exude a noxious, chemical smog causing respiratory and skin disease.

The Ecologist Guide to Food tells it as it is. No flim-flam, just relentless, hard-hitting reporting on the state of the food industry and how we as consumers can play a part in its overhaul.

Key issues throughout the book include food safety, animal welfare, supermarket power, and the growth of mega-scale livestock farms. Not to forget the people at the sharp end of exploitation.

Egregious exploitation

Andrew Wasley is a seasoned investigative journalist (a former corespondent for The Observer and The Independent). And he's not afraid to put himself in harm's way to get to the bottom of egregious exploitation.

His recent reportage of slave labour in the Italian tomato and orange industry is a case in point - along with his mordant commentary.

In a way it's perhaps easier to look to what this book isn't. "This book is not a shopping guide, or a food guide in a traditional sense, where an A to Z of foodstuffs are profiled and given an ethical rating - there are plenty of those already."

There are six chapters dealing with Fruit, Vegetables, Meat & Fish, Dairy, Grocery, and Drinks. The recurring theme is one of migrant workers in Europe and indigenous workers in developing nations working for less than subsistence wages in appalling living conditions.

The positive side of change

But the investigations don't end there. Interviews with committed staff from NGOs and pressure groups like UK-based Banana Link - a not-for-profit co-operative with outreach in Latin America, Africa, Costa Rica and the Caribbean - show that these conditions can be improved.

An example of their excellent work is the formative aid they give to unions working to ameliorate the situation for employees in the Costa Rican pineapple market, where wages are half what is required to live on.

Workers toil up to 80 hours a week to survive and this work is non-stop, often in direct sunlight and heavy rains, without shelter, even during rare breaks. Heavy and repetitive lifting takes its toll with many plantations and packing plants operating 24 hours a day.

Add to this nightly eye strain due to inadequate lighting; snake bites that have caused a number of deaths; toxic agrochemicals causing skin lesions, eye irritations, and birth defects. When all this is taken into account you get something like the real picture.

Bearing witness

The story remains the same throughout this, the sharp end of the food industry. We witness first hand, victims' stories of ruthless, violent gangmasters running the shrimp industry in Bangladesh, a plight similar to that suffered by African migrants working in the Italian tomato business.

Then right back to the UK where supermarkets put pressure on mega farms to provide large volumes of fruit and veg 24/7, which leads to precarity in a largely European migrant workforce with zero hour contracts and short term lay-offs once the picking season is over.

Small scale organic farming is posited as a possible alternative but as groups like the UK's Reclaim the Fields make plain - the problem is one of access to a countryside owned largely by the landowning class as well as breaking down the reliance of agribusiness on EU subsidies.

The dark side ...

When it comes to livestock and farming the investigations at home and abroad lead to similar, no less shocking results: antibiotic overuse in intensive farming resulting in artificial growth and a timebomb resistance in humans as witnessed with the MRSA, E. coli and Clostridium difficile bugs.

In Peruvian waters the anchovy is being fished near to extinction to make fishmeal for the Western-backed salmon farms while the locals live and work in abject poverty nearby.

The processing plants pump out effluent through pipes running through their villages and the smokestacks exude a noxious, chemical smog causing respiratory and skin disease.

Helpful Q&As

As well as these topical and serious issues, the book also offers up thoughts on those nagging questions that we, fortunate enough to live in countries where seasonal fruit and veg aren't the only fruit, are often flummoxed by.

Questions like, "If I wash my produce will it remove the pesticides?" or "Is it OK to buy my out-of-season apples from New Zealand?"

The answers? Pesticides remain in the body of the particular fruit or vegetable and as for the out-of-season apples, well the importance of a balanced diet and the relatively small carbon footprint of sea-freighted stock makes the import 'sustainable'.

That plus the fact that without imported fruit, our prices would go through the roof, leaving poorer and more vulnerable people without recourse to a healthy, balanced diet.

An essential read

So to sum up, this well-written and informative guide is neatly designed with handy, positive alternatives sections as well as box-outs which sum up the chapter if you're simply after the skinny at a glimpse.

An essential read for the concerned gourmet to committed activist.



The Ecologist Guide to Food by Andrew Wasley is published by Leaping Hare Press at £9.99.

Jan Goodey is a freelance journalist who reports on the environment.



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