“Eat your greens.”
Yes, I know now this is good dietary advice. No, I did not care to take it back then. I was five and my mother was rapidly ageing throughout this tea-time standoff. Poor woman. Poor anyone cursed with the care and feeding of a stubborn little kid. I forgive her, as I forgive all who resort to a version of the following reproach:
“Don’t you know there are children are starving in Cambodia?!”
This was my first lesson in food ethics. I understand why it was taught, but I didn’t learn it well. And, this wasn’t just because I loathed broccoli back then. It was because it made no damn sense. To suggest that the act of chewing held within it some great moral power – you eat to honour those who suffer famine – seemed absurd.
Between you and me, it still seems absurd. Every time I hear an echo of this old reproach, I feel as though I’m five. When a coffee chain claims this takeaway cup will save a life, or a supermarket brand boasts that breakfast cereal will build schools, I run straight back to pre-school. “No,” I want to tell 'em. “If you care so much, build the school and send the broccoli and don’t make me responsible.”
Across the past decade or so, 'ethical' foods have arrived to market our individual sense of moral responsibility right back to us. We have genuinely come to believe we can eat and consume our way into a better, fairer world. Do you care about justice? Well, then you’ll buy quinoa. It boosts the “developing” economy of Peru.
If you care about tasty salads, buy quinoa. If you care about the farmers of Peru, consider smashing a globalised trade economy that rewards a wealthy few and penalises many.
Both economists and food ethicists remain divided about whether the quinoa craze helped or harmed the nation of its traditional cultivation. When global market demand for the crop went up, so did the price. Great, right? Impoverished farmers were now growing gold. But, the people of Peru and Bolivia who had relied for many years on this staple were no longer able to afford it. Oops. Next, modest farmers unable to meet mass demand are offered financing by high-minded people, because economic growth is always good. Except, of course, it’s not. The crop price drops when a few farmers – those who borrowed money to expand their operations first – can produce it more efficiently on a mass scale. The other farmers are (a) paying off debt and (b) selling their little crop at a greatly reduced profit and … well. You get the idea: things ain’t simple.
To suggest that the act of chewing held within it some great moral power – you eat to honour those who suffer famine – seemed absurd.
A bratty pre-schooler knows this, but somehow, we forget it. Tell a mouthy kid like Helen, “Eat your greens because children are starving in Nation X”, and they’ll answer, “Well, pop it in the post, then.” When you’re little, you know that the world is big and complicated and well beyond your control. When you’re older, you can be tempted to think that you’re now big enough to control it.
If it makes you feel good to purchase a coffee that comes with some rainforest promise, do it. If you feel moved to withdraw your support from a fast-food franchise, then move that support elsewhere. If you really want to retain your faith that one small act can save so many, that’s okay, too. Faith can be a comfort. And truth can be a real bore.
The boring truth is that we can’t buy our way to international justice. The boring truth is that we can’t exchange money for morals. A more exciting truth, however, is that we adults can come to learn that food, good food, is a right for all. Through understanding this simple truth, and then the more complicated ones about uneven distribution, we can again have faith. The faith that all might be very well fed.
Helen Razer is your frugal food enthusiast, guiding you to the good eats, minus the pretension and price tag in her weekly Friday column, Cheap Tart. Don't miss her next instalment, follow her on Twitter @HelenRazer.