Hungry for justice

Issue: 147

Simon Shaw

Elaine Graham-Leigh, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change (Zero Books, 2015), £12.99


In December last year the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the UK, “Feeding Britain” (funded from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Charitable Trust), reported that in the sixth richest nation on the planet 4 million people were going to bed hungry. In the same year The Trussell Trust, a Christian charity that currently runs 420 food banks in the UK, recorded a 38 percent increase in referrals. Those on the right reacted to these figures by accusing the working class of being profligate, lazy and stupid. Conservative Lady Jenkin was widely reported as saying she could cook a decent family meal for 54 pence, and that generally working class people could not cook. An equally disdainful Iain Duncan Smith has more recently claimed that people on benefits don’t have the right mindset to take the help available to reduce their weight.

The main theme of A Diet of Austerity is that: “the spread of processed foods is neither the result of indolence, decline of cookery teaching in schools nor any other personal changes, but of the fact that our food system is capitalist” (p158).

Elaine Graham-Leigh argues that, historically, the working class have been damned for being the creators of their own hunger. Now, ironically, they are blamed for their own obesity. The working class are berated for demanding the wrong sort of food in a system where the consumer is supposedly king. Companies only respond to consumer demand; high consumption and therefore climate damaging behaviour are seen as the fault of working class ­ignorance and greed.

Using content analysis, Graham-Leigh shows that the “headless fatty” shot, the favoured image on news items about obesity, is predominantly of the working class at play, while the images used to show health and fitness are usually of the lycra-clad middle class. “The lack of fat bankers in particular is surprising, given the possibilities for visual representations of bankers’ greed” (p23). The aim is continually to implant the idea that being fat and working class are synonymous.

What this book also makes clear is that climate change should be at the heart of our campaigning, as it is the working class who are being identified for accelerating climate chaos. Even those who are part of “the movement” are culpable. At the climate change march on 7 March 2015 I spoke to a member of the group Population Matters, a biologist who argued that people who have too many children should be fined or means tested in order to save and feed the planet.

Historically, Thomas Malthus’s argument in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population—that the poor were outbreeding available resources and that their misery was their own fault—has driven ruling class thinking and policy. During the Irish potato famine (1846-1851) the million who perished were the victims of trade more than the blight. Reliance on potatoes was the result of Britain exporting Irish grain, a policy overseen by the civil servant and student of Malthus, Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan.

Little has changed. Since 2007, there have been worldwide food riots as a result of rocketing prices, caused partly as a result of crop failures due to climate change, but also because the system demands crops be used to fill car engines for the rich rather than people’s bellies.

Graham-Leigh clearly shows that neither lack of resources nor the carrying capacity of the planet is the issue. The problem is capitalism. It is estimated that one third of all food produced globally is not eaten. This again is not down to individual wastefulness; waste is central to the system, and it is what “big food” demands. Profits are built on commodity speculation, just in time production and the manipulation of the supply chain.

This book deals effectively with the solutions posited by the capitalist class to the linked crises affecting our food and climate. Some are risible. Whether cows are kept for slaughter or milk, they will still fart—it has been estimated that up to 40 percent of methane emissions are from cows. So giving up meat for milk and cheese won’t fix the problem. Anyway, it is not meat heavy diets that cause obesity; the problem is worldwide poverty. The poor will always chase the most calories at the lowest price. Avoiding processed or fast food is not an option for the majority; it’s all they can afford.

Similarly, technofixes are inadequate as they leave intact a system that has profit as its driving force. The climate expert Jørgen Randers recently lamented that efforts to stop climate change would come up against a profit motive: “It is cost effective to postpone global climate action. It is profitable to let the world go to hell.” But this does not mean no change can be wrought out of the system before a socialist transformation. In 1906 Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, in which he used the image of the shiny tin and the rancid meat it contained as a metaphor for capitalism. The novel exposed shocking health violations in the meat industry, leading to the passing of The Pure Food and Drug Act 1906.

For perhaps too long, many on the left have ignored climate change. However, the issue is now forcing itself onto the agenda. In September last year 400,000 marched in New York City and 40,000 in London against climate chaos. Green Party membership has surged from 14,179 in March 2014 to 55,775 in March 2015, higher than that of UKIP or the Liberal Democrats. In December negotiators will descend on Paris for what has been billed the “last chance for humanity” and “the most important diplomatic gathering ever”. A Diet of Austerity and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything will go a long way towards supplying the arguments we will need to mobilise for the next UN climate change conference in Paris at the end of November.