In his new book, agriculturalist Colin Tudge argues we can still rescue the world from total collapse but only if we re-think everything we do, from science and politics to the minutiae of farming and cooking. This abridged extract is from a chapter entitled ‘A New Food Culture’
Truly modern nutritional advice, as opposed to the magic-bullet, snake-oil kind that has become the norm, veers closer and closer to folk wisdom. Thus we were told in the old days –
Eat what grows naturally
– which accords perfectly with the modern insights into gut microbes and cryptonutrients: the evolutionary idea that our gut flora and our general physiology have largely become adapted to the myriad products of nature over the millions and billions of years through which our human and pre-human ancestors have been exposed to them, and are not adapted to laboratory novelties.
We live in fear of “germs” too but our grannies were also wont to tell us to –
Eat a peck of dirt before you die
I have met only one other person – an octogenarian – who remembers this adage, but it was certainly current in my day. It can of course be taken too far. Hygiene still matters. E coli and Listeria are always ready to pounce and the horrors of Covid-19 are reminding us that novel, rogue organisms can arise at any time. Yet the old motto makes sense nonetheless. We need to nourish and cultivate the gut flora just as farmers need to nourish the microbes that turn dirt into soil. Extreme hygiene in extreme circumstances is necessary but in normal times it can very definitely be counter-productive.
Our forebears were also wont to assure us that –
A little of what you fancy does you good
Again this seems perfectly in line with modern nutritional theory, which among other things emphasises the importance of what I call “cryptonutrients”, such as the plant sterols which seem to lower blood cholesterol. It now seems too that animals may go to great lengths to seek out particular herbs and minerals that they know, by whatever means, will make them feel better. Thus enlightened zoo-keepers and farmers provide their charges with patches of herbs which, demonstrably, the animals seek out when they are feeling poorly (as revealed, for example, by loose stools and general mopiness).
Modern nutritionists tell us too that we need to have a diet with a low fat content and only moderate protein, but that is high in fibre and rich in micro- and cryptonutrients. The science is all hugely complicated but it can be boiled down to nine words:
Plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety
Just cook and eat with these nine words in mind and you should not go far wrong.
This little adage too leads us into a series of huge serendipities – suggesting that God really is on our side. First, the kind of “Enlightened Agriculture” that we really need – farming based on agroecology and designed expressly to provide good food without wrecking the natural world, and not simply to maximise short-term wealth – must focus on arable and horticulture, with sheep and cattle raised in places that don’t lend themselves to cropping, and pigs and poultry fed primarily on leftovers and surpluses. Such farming indeed provides plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety.
Secondly, all the greatest cuisines on an axis from Italy to China use meat sparingly, primarily as garnish or stock. Thus, “plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety” also describes the basic structure of all the world’s best cooking. So –
There is perfect correspondence between agroecology, sound nutrition, and the world’s greatest cuisines
In short, if we want to be healthy, and really want to keep the world as a whole in good heart, we need above all to take food seriously; value whatever grows, and has been grown with tender loving care. In other words –
The future belongs to the gourmet
This again is in the sharpest contrast to what we have been told from on high, which is that if we want to survive in large numbers then we have to tighten our belts and/or live on lab-made food, especially ersatz meat. Such life-savers can, of course, be produced only by courtesy of high-tech food companies; and so we are invited once more to give thanks to the corporates for our salvation.
Yet all we really have to do, short of taking up farming, is to –
Re-learn the arts and crafts of cooking
In the history of the world many millions of people were and still are great cooks, albeit unheralded and working in tiny kitchens. Raymond Blanc tells us that he first learnt to cook like a peasant, at home. So too, surely, did many or most of the world’s greatest.
Good food is at the centre of all great cultures and social life; cooking should therefore be at the heart of all truly enlightened education. But that, of course, is far from the case. Above all, perhaps, we need to re-think our priorities.
‘The Great Re-Think: A 21st-Century Renaissance’ by Colin Tudge is published by Pari Publishing and is available here.
Colin Tudge is a special guest on “A Drink with the Idler” on Thursday 13 May. Get tickets here.
Read more of Colin Tudge’s work here.