Q & As about food

  1. Don't people in developing countries want to eat more protein?
  2. Aren't people genetically programmed to crave fat and sugar?
  3. Can poor people afford to eat healthy food?
  4. People want cheap food, don't they?
  5. Will genetic engineering solve the problem of world hunger?
  6. Is it not better to import some foods than to try to grow it nearer to us, even if it means more food miles?
  7. Is it better to eat butter than margarine?
  8. You say that farm animals are fed on maize and soya, but oil is extracted from both of these before they are made into animal feed. Is it not true that the animal feed is a by-product of edible oil production?
  9. Health advice for several decades now has been that people should eat less fat and in particular less saturated fat. And yet people have been getting fatter. How do you account for this?
  10. Health advice has backfired because people seeking low fat products are eating high sugar products. Isn't that what is making people obese?
  11. People already know what healthy food is. They don't need to be told. Isn't the problem that they just can't afford it?
  12. Will food have to become more expensive?
  13. Is it a good idea to tell poor people how they can eat more cheaply or more healthily?
  14. One of the advantages of genetic modification is that farmers can more easily control weeds by spraying weed killer. Crops can be genetically modified to be resistant to weedkillers. This means that farmers can use the 'no till' system, where ploughing is avoided. Ploughing has a number of disadvantages. Is this not an advance?
  15. How has agriculture got into this mess?
Question: Don't people in developing countries want to eat more protein?
Answer: There are two different types of people we're talking about here. There are poor people in parts of the developing world who don't get enough protein and it is affecting their health. These people don't get enough protein because they don't get enough food. If they were able to get enough calories per day from (for example) rice then they would get enough protein. Rice does have protein in it; not a great deal, and it is slightly deficient in lysine (one of the amino acids that go to make up protein). But it's enough for people to live on. The amount of protein that people need has been overestimated in the past. Once you start adding a few beans then they will get all the protein they need.

There is an emerging middle class in Asia and Africa who want to eat more meat. There are a few reason for that. One reason is that they see meat eating as attractive because it is a modern and a Western way of doing things. Meat tastes good, but so do traditional dishes based on a starchy staple (wheat, maize, rice, sorghum, millet or yams) and pulses (beans, peas and lentils) together with vegetables, herbs and spices. They are moving towards a Western diet where the main flavours are fat, sugar and salt. People think they need more protein than they do, and that meat and cheese are the best sources of protein.

For people to eat more meat or cheese there has to be more factory farming. Modern agriculture produces crops such as wheat, maize, rice and soya very efficiently. But once we start feeding large quantities of wheat, maize and soya to animals then modern agriculture becomes very inefficient. Animals are not net producers of protein. Animals cannot convert starch or cellulose into amino acids. They can digest protein and then reassemble the amino acids into protein in their tissues. They do this inefficiently.

Not only does factory farming use up maize and soya in large quantities that could be eaten by people, there are a number of other problems. Meat and cheese have lots of saturated fat which contributes to obesity, heart disease and strokes. Large amounts of manure are produced which is difficult to dispose of. It is a system that is dependent on antibiotics which increases the risk of the development of resistance in bacteria that could kill people. It is a cruel system, so there are animal welfare issues there too.

Question: Aren't people genetically programmed to crave fat and sugar?
Answer: If I was to put half a pack of butter in front of you and ask you if you wanted to eat it, my guess would be you would not. If I said I would pay you £10 to eat it you would probably still say no. If I offered you £100 to eat it you might try it but be unable to do so, it would make you feel like vomiting.

But if I took that pack of butter and baked a cake with it, using the usual proportion of ingredients, I would end up with a medium sized cake. If I took it out of the oven and you got that lovely smell of freshly-baked caked, you might well want to eat it all. You wouldn't want to eat 10 sugar lumps all in a row, but put them in a cake and you would be happy to eat that amount of sugar.

When you put different ingredients together such as fat, sugar, starch and acids (like lemon juice) then it's difficult for your body to recognise the constituents. That's the problem. It's not that when we were cavemen and cavewomen we found high-energy foods in short supply so we never developed an off switch. The problem is that with processed foods we just don't taste all that fat and sugar.

There are some people who are either on a diet or eating cake. They never seem to be eating normal food. Normal food is food with an appropriate energy density. Things like rice with lots of vegetables and a few beans. If we all ate as we have done for thousands of years it would be much more difficult for us to put on weight.

Question: Can poor people afford to eat healthy food?
Answer: If we're talking about poor people in Britain and other relatively affluent countries, then yes they can. I am poor but I have a healthy diet. So it can be done. Why is it that so many people insist that poor people can't eat a health diet?

If you go into the Iceland supermarket or somewhere like that you can buy a little macaroni cheese for £1. If you then try to find a healthier alternative you might end up in Marks & Spencer with a lower fat version for twice the price. So the conclusion is that healthier food is more expensive.

However, you need to ask yourself what else can you buy in Iceland for £1. You can buy a medium sized bag of rice for that. Then you can take it home and make one of a wide range of rice-based dishes from around the world. Rice together with a few beans and lots of vegetables flavoured with herbs and spices tastes good and is cheap and nutritious. When you start adding cheese, butter and cream to rice or pasta dishes then you add calories, saturated fat and expense.

A lot of people right now are finding themselves on Job Seekers' Allowance or whatever the modern equivalent of that is. They are struggling to feed themselves. The two most important things they can do is give up animal protein and not to try and replace that protein with plant-based protein. People think they need more protein than they really do and animal protein is one of the most expensive parts most people's food bill.

They don't have to give up meat all together. Just treat it as a luxury, which is what it is. When meat is seen as a luxury instead of a necessity, then people might as well have something that tastes good. This means a good quality chicken and not cheap chicken. People might think that poor people can't afford anything but cheap chicken. A good quality chicken costs twice as much as a cheap chicken. If you think poor people can't afford that, they can. If they eat half the amount then they won't be paying more, they're still getting all the protein they need, they're getting less saturated fat, and they're eating something that tastes better.

Cheap chicken isn't as much a bargain as people think. It is higher is fat and therefore lower in protein. Also some cheap chicken is processed so that is absorbs water. So you get even less protein.

I think some people may prefer the taste of cheap chicken to good quality chicken. Or in taste tests it might be described as more succulent. When people get used to the flavours of fat, sugar and salt that can happen. People prefer fatty foods.

The problem with the diet of most people, including poor people, is not that they don't get enough of certain nutrients. The problem is that they get too much. Too many calories. Too much fat especially saturated fat and omega-6 fat. Too much sugar and sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup. Too much salt. If people just ate 10% less of everything their health would improve and they would save money.

They could do better than that by increasing the quality of their food as well as decreasing the quantity. It is true that poorer people tend not to get their 5 a day portions of fruit and vegetables, but this is of less importance than the amount of saturated fat. Vitamins and minerals are important, but you can get beta-carotene (for example) cheaply if you eat carrots instead of mangoes.

Apparently there is a housing estate outside of Glasgow where people find it very difficult to buy fruit and vegetables. This is held up as proof that poor people cannot afford a healthy diet. However, I have lived in different cities in the North of England (Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle-upon-Tyne) and there have always been excellent markets.

I think there are a lot of well meaning middle-class people who have some kind of guilt complex about the working class. They don't want to be seen to be telling the working class what to do or to 'blame the victim'. There may be some misplaced solidarity or political motivation in what they say. I don't have that problem because I'm not middle-class or a socialist. I don't think of poor people as victims.

Question: People want cheap food, don't they?
Answer: Most British people have lost sight of what cheap food is. If they understood what cheap food is they wouldn't want it. People who come to Britain from other continents know how to eat cheaply. I've seen Africans and Indians coming back from shopping trips with sacks of rice and beans.

Meat can never be cheap protein. Even cheap chicken is not cheap protein. How could it be? How could chicken be cheaper than the maize or soya that the chicken is fed on? The cheap protein will always be soya or other beans.

A factory farm is like a machine that converts £20 notes into £5 notes. Think of a factory farm or CAFO as a system with inputs and outputs. The inputs are usually maize and soya, together with vast quantities of water, lots of electricity and good quantities of antibiotics. The outputs are meat and milk, together with vast quantities of manure and methane.

It doesn't matter how you measure the inputs and outputs, whether it's in terms of calories or proteins, you always get less out than you put in. Factory farms are not net food producers. Animals are not net protein producers. Animals digest protein into amino acids and then (quite inefficiently) re-assemble the amino acids as protein in their tissues. Animals do not make amino acids from starch or cellulose.

If you were to ask the inventor of a machine that converts £20 notes into £5 notes what is the purpose of his machine, he might say that it is more efficient than what went before. He might say that it converts £20 notes into £5 notes more rapidly than the machine he replaced. That's how stupid factory farming is. Cows in the field convert grass into meat or milk. We can't eat grass. But we can eat grains and pulses. People in Mexico and China have been eating maize and soya for thousands of years.

You might think, reading this blog, that I am obsessed by protein. It is not me who is obsessed by protein. I think protein should be regarded as less important than it is now. Scientists would or should agree with me. There is no dispute about what the facts of the issue are. It is easier to feed billions of people on a mainly plant-based diet.

If you want to read more about how much protein people really need I suggest you read So Shall We Reap by Colin Tudge. Especially the section 'Protein' in chapter 3.

Question: Will genetic engineering solve the problem of world hunger?
Answer: When I listen to people who think that genetic engineering will solve hunger in the world, I think that they don't know much about global food production. They don't seem to understand concepts such as overproduction and added value. The world already produces enough of the basic crops to feed all people. Hunger exists because some people can't afford to buy wheat, maize, rice or beans.

Could genetic engineering make food cheaper so that the poor of the world could afford to buy it? Well it might, but then it probably won't. Even if there was a genetically-engineered crop that was more productive (and we haven't seen one yet) it would probably just result in more chickens, pigs and cattle, more biofuels and more high-fructose corn syrup.

We used to have grain mountains and an over-abundance of other crops. You might think that has all gone now but it seems to me that the world has got better at soaking up this over-abundance. Factory farms have become ever more numerous and CAFOs are spreading from America to Europe despite all the problems they create. More and more maize is being used as biofuel.

Then we have so-called 'golden rice'. Well, we already have a different-coloured rice that is higher in vitamins. It's called brown rice. People don't seem to be eating it much. Why do people think that golden rice is going to be consumed more than brown rice is? Especially when yellow rice is thought of as no longer fit for human consumption. You could have a million-dollar education programme to teach people the value of golden rice. But then you could have a million-dollar education programme right now to teach people that the beta-carotene molecule is actually one of the most abundant in nature and can be found not only in some fruits like mango, but orange-coloured vegetables like sweet potato and carrots, green vegetables like cabbage etc and weeds that people can pick for free.

What is the point of genetically-engineering a plant to do something that another plant can do easily? Sorghum and millet are more drought resistant than wheat will ever be. Lentils are more nitrogen-fixing than wheat will ever be. Yellow maize has more beta-carotene than rice will ever have. Maize, sorghum and the various species of millet are C4 plants and have more efficient photosynthesis than wheat.

There is an emerging middle-class in Asia and Africa who don't want to eat sorghum or millet. They want wheat. They want toast for breakfast because that is modern and Western. Well, food production in the future will have to be about providing for the needs of the majority and not the whims of a minority.

This might sound as if I am against genetic engineering. Far from it. I regard genetic engineering as being like fusion energy. If we can ever get fusion energy to work it should solve our energy problems and reduce carbon dioxide production. But it might never happen. By all means spend billions on it, but don't rely on it.

If we could genetically re-engineer the chloroplast of plants we could make photosynthesis much more efficient. Billions of years ago chloroplasts were free-living bacteria that became incorporated into larger cells. Chloroplasts have not been able to evolve as much as bacteria, and they have not been able to develop advanced features that make photosynthesis more efficient. If we could introduce enhanced chloroplasts into food crops they would become much more productive and it would be a great advance.

Question: Is it not better to import some foods than to try to grow it nearer to us, even if it means more food miles?
Answer: Obviously there are some foods that cannot be grown in Britain. Citrus fruit, tropical fruits and olives, for example. I wouldn't want people to be without these. Some people say it is better to import tomatoes from Spain in winter than to grow tomatoes in this country where you would have to have heated greenhouses. However, there is no ecologically sound way of having fresh tomatoes in winter. You can have tinned tomatoes in winter, or bottled tomatoes, or tomato paste. But not fresh. Tomatoes in winter aren't going to have much flavour anyway. Part of the problem is that British people think that if you can buy two tomatoes for the price of one then it's a bargain. Even if those two tomatoes don't have any flavour. Maybe that's why British people don't eat as many fruit and vegetables as the French or Spanish.

Question: Is it better to eat butter than margarine?
Answer: I wouldn't eat either of them. It's one of the false choices that people are presented with. There are many alternatives. Olive oil or mayonnaise, for example. Or hummus. You might think that poor people can't afford olive oil. In terms of calories per penny, extra virgin olive oil from Lidl is considerably cheaper than even the cheapest butter.

250g of value butter from Tesco costs £1.19 and has 1,875 calories. That means it has fewer than 16 calories per penny. 750ml of Primadonna extra virgin olive oil from Lidl costs £2.25 and has 6,180 calories. That means it has more than 27 calories per penny. I'm not saying it's good to eat lots of calories, I'm just saying that even the best quality olive oil is affordable.

Butter is becoming more popular. "Eat real food, and forget the calories." This is what presenter Sheila Dillon said at the end an episode of The Food Programme called The Calorie. She was suggesting that counting calories is not a good way to be healthy. I have listened to arguments by people like Michael Pollan and Zoe Harcombe and I have found them unconvincing. If they are wrong in what they say about saturated fat not causing obesity and heart disease then they will be causing a lot of suffering.

Michael Pollan believes we should eat 'real food' and not eat anything our grandmothers wouldn't recognize as food. So any amount of butter is good, then, but tofu is out. Unless of course you have a Chinese grandmother for whom any kind of dairy produce would be regarded as weird and unnatural. Removing a fluid from a lactating mammal and then concentrating the fat is something our hunter-gatherer ancestors would not have known. It's not really natural. Would you drink milk from a pig? No? Why not? It's just as natural as from a cow. The idea that if something feels 'natural' then it must be OK is quite dangerous. It's like these people who tell diabetics that they can eat honey because it's natural. Not true. There's something quite anti-scientific about Pollan's ideas.

The popularity of the Atkins diet has led people to believe that meat and fat aren't harmful, and that counting calories is a waste of time. It does seem that the Atkins diet works, but probably not for the reasons that Atkins believed. A low carbohydrate diet doesn't produce the blood glucose highs with the attendant high insulin levels. That helps a person not put on weight. However, there are other ways of avoiding high blood glucose. Eating low GI starchy foods (such as long grain and whole grain rice) in moderation will do this too. Lots of protein seems to act as an appetite suppressant.

When you remove a food group from what you eat then you tend to notice the flavours of the other foods more. Cake has a lot of fat in it, but you can't really taste it. Neat fat is actually quite repulsive. It could be that people on an Atkins diet limit the amount of food they eat because they can't stomach any more of it. They are repulsed by the idea of eating yet more fatty food. Maybe that's the way all restricted diets work. It doesn't matter which food group is removed, people will quickly get bored.

I'm not saying that people should never eat butter. Butter on peas or sweet corn is delicious. I wouldn't have it every day on toast though.

Question: You say that farm animals are fed on maize and soya, but oil is extracted from both of these before they are made into animal feed. Is it not true that the animal feed is a by-product of edible oil production?
Answer: Soya beans are 40% protein, 35% carbohydrate and only 20% oil by weight. Maize doesn't have a lot of oil in it either, less than 20% even in maize bred to have a high oil content. To say that animal feed is a by-product of vegetable oil production would be like saying that cheese is a by-product of whey production. Anchovies and other fish have their oil removed before they are fed to animals, but it is still an enormous waste of protein.

Question: Health advice for several decades now has been that people should eat less fat and in particular less saturated fat. And yet people have been getting fatter. How do you account for this?
Answer: People have ignored the advice. The national diet has become meatier, with more saturated fat. People are also consuming more vegetable oil, in the form of processed foods. This is the unhealthy omega 6 rich vegetable oil. People have lots of saturated fat, lots of omega 6, and little omega 3. People are eating more processed food and portion sizes are increasing.

Question: Health advice has backfired because people seeking low fat products are eating high sugar products. Isn't that what is making people obese?
Answer: It is true that some manufacturers have decreased the amount of fat in certain products but increased the amount of sugar or sugar substitutes. They have then targeted people who are trying to slim or just be healthier by labelling these products as 'low fat'. I don't think this can be a major contribution to obesity though. Increases in obesity are mainly due to people ignoring health advice, eating more processed foods and more meat, and eating bigger portions.

Question: People already know what healthy food is. They don't need to be told. Isn't the problem that they just can't afford it?
Answer: People don't know what healthy food is. Every time you mention healthy food people will say that they can't afford organic blueberries. They don't understand that long-grain rice at 40p per kilo is healthy food. It's healthy because it isn't high in fat, sugar and salt.

Question: Will food have to become more expensive?
Answer: No. Food can be cheaper. If people ate more starchy foods and less fatty foods they can save money. You have to think of foods as being in two groups. Firstly grains, pulses and vegetables. These are cheap and should stay cheap. They should be the staples from which we get most of our calories. Secondly the luxury foods such as meat, cheese and butter that we should have occasionally. A good chicken costs twice as much as a cheap chicken. Eat chicken half as often and you won't spend any more on your food bill. Don't worry about protein. So maybe meat has to become more expensive, and cheese and butter. But we should eat much less of them and more rice, pasta and porridge.

In the luxury category would be things like ice cream. There could also be a third category of things like fish, seafood, milk, eggs and fruit. Things a poor person might not be able to afford every day but are good to have for variety.

Question: Is it a good idea to tell poor people how they can eat more cheaply or more healthily?
Answer: Some people get angry when someone suggests that poor people can afford enough healthy food to eat if they knew how to do it and were willing to do things differently. They think that to do so is 'blaming the victims'.

This seems very strange to me, and I have struggled to understand why they think this. After all, if someone on a blog gives tips on how people, and especially poor people, can save money on their heating bills no-one would say they are blaming the victims. There are ways that people can have more heat for less money, and there are ways that people can have more food for less money - and the food that they eat can be more healthy too.

First of all, I'm not blaming anybody. People can choose to do what they like. I'm not telling them what to do. There is information available that people can use if they want to save money on their food bills and be more healthy. If they choose not to listen that's up to them. If they listen but then choose not to use the information that's up to them too. I'm not a health fascist. I would defend someone's right to smoke tobacco or some other things if they're not harming anyone else.

How is it that these people think that they are helping the poor? How is it helping them to tell them something that I can prove to be untrue - that they are condemned to eating fast food and processed foods for the rest of their lives and getting ill? What is it they are saying? Just wait till the Labour Party gets back into power or until the revolution comes and capitalism is replaced and then everything will be OK?

It's almost as if they want the poor to be hungry and ill, because that is what motivates them politically. They don't want people to be well fed and healthy because that would mean that capitalism isn't as bad as they make out. I am poor. I understand that 'the poor' aren't an amorphous mass, they are several different groups.

There's a difference between people on a minimum wage and and people living on benefits. There's a difference between people on Jobseeker's Allowance and people on a higher benefits which comes to about as much money as the state pension. There's a difference between British people and people who come to Britain from Eastern Europe and other continents. People from other cultures can feed themselves much better because they are happy to eat lots of rice, beans, lentils, bread and pasta which are the cheapest and healthiest foods.

People in Britain have got a long way to go before they can't afford to eat healthy food. In India there are many people starving but most people not only manage to feed themselves but manage to eat quite healthy food. Rice, chapatis, naans, dal and subji are healthy food and really cheap.

The reason that people tend to think that healthy food is expensive is because they set up a false dichotomy between fruit and vegetables on the one hand and processed and fast food on the other, leaving out the starchy foods altogether. It is the starchy foods, like rice and pasta, and not the fatty foods that are cheapest in terms of calories per penny.

It's not that I think poor people need to be educated about food. I think most people need to be educated about food. Especially Guardian journalists who assume that cheap foods are fatty foods. They should check their facts. It's not difficult to do.

It's not that I think people shouldn't take a political stance on this issue. I myself can see how personal nutrition and global agricultural practices are linked. But if you're going to take a political view, then it has to be something more sophisticated than the idea that the government isn't giving people enough money for them to be able to eat healthily. Wealthy people are investing more and more money in commodities such as grains and soya instead of sub-prime mortgages. That's pushing up the price of food and pricing more and more poor people out of the market. Wealthier people want to eat more and more meat. This means that there are more farm animals eating more grain and soya, again pushing up the price.

So I will continue to advise people on how they can eat cheaply and healthily, just as I will continue to advise people on how they can save money on their heating bills, or advise people on how they are better off using credit unions than loan sharks.

Question: One of the advantages of genetic modification is that farmers can more easily control weeds by spraying weed killer. Crops can be genetically modified to be resistant to weedkillers. This means that farmers can use the 'no till' system, where ploughing is avoided. Ploughing has a number of disadvantages. Is this not an advance?
Answer: The no till system seems to have advantages, but it is not dependent on weed killers. Ploughing controls weeds between crops, and I don't see why some other mechanical means cannot be used to control weeds between crops.

Question: How has agriculture got into this mess?
Answer: It is often said that farming should be treated like any other business. There has always been one big difference though. A factory manager can produce a precise number of goods. Farmers can aim to produce a certain amount of a crop but they may get much more or much less than what they aimed for, depending on weather conditions or pest attacks. You would think that the years when more is produced would make up for the years when less is produced. You would think that farmers would make more money when they produce more.

However, when farmers produce more than they intended, the law of supply and demand means that they get very little for their produce. When there is a glut of a crop, the price drops greatly. Not only that, but when farmers are faced with low prices they attempt to produce even more food to try and make a profit. This just makes things worse. So, farming as a business is a risky way to make a living. One way out of the problem is for farmers to try and produce as much food as they can, and for others to process the food and give it added value.

People can't eat lots more bread, and a manufacturer can't make much profit from selling bread. If however they remove the bran and wheatgerm from wheat, mill the flour finely and add fat and sugar, they can make cake and sell it for a higher price. They can also feed the wheat to animals and sell the meat and cheese for a higher price. So we end up with a wasteful system where people eat little bread or pasta but much cake, meat and cheese. Calories and protein are wasted in the process. Affluent people get fatter and the poor of the world can't afford to eat bread. These are the twin problems of overproduction and added value.

You can't solve the problem of world hunger unless you understand the twin problems of overproduction and added value. We are already producing enough food to feed everyone on the planet, producing more food isn't going to result in the hungry being fed. The grain mountains no longer exist, but that is only because we have become better at soaking up the vast quantities of grain and soya that are produced.

Maize is used for biofuel in ever increasing quantities in America, as well as for high fructose corn syrup (used as a cheap sweetener for processed foods and soft drinks even though we now know it is unhealthy). Anchovies and other fish are used to feed pigs and other farm animals. Fish are being overfished. The system doesn't work. We need to find another system.

Another problem is that scientists used to think that people needed lots of protein. The estimate of how much protein that people need has been reduced, but people haven't taken that on board yet. They still think that they need to feed their families lots of protein, and that meat is the main source of protein. That's why poorer people think they need cheap burgers. That and the fact that people have become used to the flavours of fat, sugar and salt. The recommended amount of protein is 55g per day for adults between 19 and 50, but the average British person eats 85 grams.

Governments thought that people needed lots of protein, and farmers were overproducing grain. It seemed sensible to feed the surplus grain to farm animals and have lots of cheaper meat and cheese. Lots of money was spent advertising meat and encouraging people to eat more meat. It seemed that if everyone could afford to eat lot of meat then society must be prospering and this reflected well on politicians. So today we have people queuing outside food banks to get tins of meatballs, hotdogs and corned beef because they think they need the protein.

If farmers and fishermen were employees instead of self-employed businessmen and women then it might not be so much of a problem. If the price of farm land was cheaper or if farmers didn't need to pay high rents or big loans then things could be different. If politicians thought that feeding people properly is important then we could start to solve some of these problems.