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'We eat pigs, that's why Britain has foot and mouth.'

March 4, 2001 Sunday Times (London) by John Humphrys

It may seem a callous comment to make as we watch the countryside closing down and ever more farmers facing ruin, but that nasty little foot and mouth virus may have done us all a favour. It is just possible that in 10 or 20 years we will look back at these past couple of weeks and recognise a great turning point.

For more than half a century, the single aim of what passes for our agricultural policy has been cheap food. Now at last, the truth is beginning to dawn. "Cheap" food is not really cheap at all.

Oh sure, the prices in the supermarkets are lower than they once were. We spend only a fifth of our incomes on food today, compared with a third a couple of generations ago. But cheap milk and beef look a shade more expensive if you add in the cost of BSE, the billions of pounds in compensation and the tragedy of young lives lost to variant CJD. Cheap pork looks more expensive if it turns out that foot and mouth was indeed caused by fattening pigs on cheap food imported from countries where the disease is endemic.

Cheap food, by its very nature, rates quantity over quality. "Pile it high and sell it cheap" was the motto of the man who founded Tesco and it made him a lot of money. Big profits come from relatively small margins on mass turnover. The trick is to persuade us to buy lots of the stuff—whether we want it or not.

So, a standard marketing ploy is "Buy one–get one free". I once asked a supermarket manager what would happen if I bought one and did not take the free one. Could I expect a modest discount? He was telephoning for the men in white coats before the words had left my lips. Cowed, I took the two and ended up throwing the other one away. We waste a vast amount of food. Half a million tons of perfectly edible food gets dumped by the supermarkets every year. But we eat a lot, too.

I happen to be the inventor of the CPI–the Crisp Packet Index. I am a sucker for crisps. Anyone who shares my affliction will know that the whole point of them is that it is impossible to have enough; you always want more when the packet is finished. That was once the appeal. But for years the packets have been getting bigger and bigger. Most prepackaged foods can be measured against the CPI with the same result.

My local fish and chip shop (you will see from all this how sophisticated are my tastes) serves vast portions of chips. I always ask for a smaller portion, but the nice Chinese lady keeps scooping away. I suspect she thinks I don't really mean it.

The effects of this gluttony are evident: We are bigger now than we have ever been. Research just published shows that a 15-year-old boy is an extraordinary 9 inches taller than his Victorian counterpart. No harm in that, you may say; we are obviously eating a more nutritious diet. But we are growing wider even faster than we are growing taller.

A Worldwatch Institute report last year found that the number of people who are overweight globally now stands at 1.2billion. For the first time that number is equal to the number of people who are malnourished. How nice to see equality finally arriving–the equality of excess.

As in everything, the United States leads the way. Since the 1930s, the width of the standard seat in sports stadiums and theatres has been 18 inches. Now, the Americans are in the process of ripping them all out and replacing them with wider seats. The modern American backside requires an extra 4 inches. Pity they can't make the seats expandable. One in five American women and one in six American men are officially classified as obese. Not that we have anything to feel smug about in this country.

Last month, the National Audit Office reported that obesity here has tripled since 1980 and more than half of us are officially overweight. Even more worrying, when Wirral health authority conducted its own survey of toddlers under the age of 4, it found that one in five was overweight and one in 10 was actually obese.

Did I say worrying? Grotesque might be a better word. So much for the targets set by the Department of Health 10 years ago for reducing obesity.

Perhaps we should not worry. James Watson, the Nobel prize winner, argues that fat is good for us because it makes us happy. That is more than just a casual observation of how fat people tend to be jolly and thin people miserable. Chemical analysis apparently shows that fat produces hormones which cheer us up. The hormones also give us better sex lives, which may, of course, explain why we seem happier.

It may be the case that some people resort to overeating as a way of dealing with depression. The scale of overeating may itself be a measure of how much depression exists in our modern society -more, perhaps, than we assume.

Or it may be that we are simply more greedy and more lazy. We succumb willingly to the slick selling of "cheap" prepacked processed food which contains far too much sugar and far too much salt, and we buy more than we need of almost everything simply because it is cheap. That is the story of the United States, and according to the Worldwatch report, it is happening here.

In 10 years from now, it says, many thousands of British adults will have never eaten a meal cooked with fresh ingredients in our own kitchens. and the second most favourite place to eat, after fast-food chains, will be our cars. Our portions will be bigger still. School meals, for what it's worth, will be supplied by the fast food chains.

The simple truth is that we are eating ourselves to death. Watson may be right that being fat cheers you up, but I'll bet there aren't too many happy people in the cancer and heart wards. Obesity is one of the chief causes of heart disease and of some cancers.

There has also been a sharp increase in the number of people with Type 2 diabetes, which is linked to obesity. Years ago, it was a disease that mostly hit middle-aged people. No longer. A growing number of young people now have Type 2 diabetes with all the associated problems: kidney and heart disease, strokes and even amputations.

The social costs are considerable. The National Audit Office reckons that diseases associated with obesity cost the NHS £ 500 million a year and the economy as a whole, in lost output, £ 2 billion. Add that to the cost of cheap food.

It may seem a shade callous to suggest that everyone should eat less when the farmers are going through such a hard time one way and the other. Quite the opposite. Intensive agriculture, whose only aim is to produce cheap food, is precisely what has led to so many of them being in the mess they are in today.

It is not beyond the wit of man to develop a system which rewards farmers properly for recognising quality as well as quantity. As foot and mouth ravages the countryside, there are the first glimmerings that that particular message is beginning to get through–even to Downing Street.

The supermarkets, which control our food industry, tell us that the idea of local food produced and sold locally at high quality and a reasonable price is a pipe dream. Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? They are doing very nicely out of a system they have refined over the past decades.

Traditional societies have tended to formalise ways of regulating excess. Ours is called Lent, and it began last Wednesday. No, I didn't give up anything either. But maybe we should–and not just for Lent. Maybe we should start eating less and recognising that cheap food is a mirage.

Then we might turn our backs on the future of obesity toward which we are waddling, and British farmers might have the prospect of more local markets for better food at sensible prices.

Let's eat less and better; it will do us good in the long run.


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