By - Tuesday 16th July, 2013

Why there really is no such thing as a free lunch: Review of Jay Rayner’s ‘A Greedy Man in a Hungry World’

SUSTAINABILITY is one of those words that you seemingly can’t avoid in this troubled world of ours – and if you are avoiding it, you really shouldn’t be. Almost as impossible to avoid in recent weeks has been food critic and writer Jay Rayner – and again, if you’ve managed it, big mistake.

Thanks to Harper Collins for the image.

The reason for his ubiquity on the radio and TV airwaves, in person in bookstores, and in print in his weekly columns, is that Jay Rayner has a book to sell. But the reason that his diary is full to bursting is that the book in question: A Greedy Man In  A Hungry World, contains some powerful messages about the environment and sustainability. It ruffles feathers. It asks uncomfortable questions and comes up with some unpopular answers.

So, what has this got to do with Croydon?

Well, the Beddington Incinerator is already producing plenty of hot air without a match being struck. As a newcomer to Croydon I am impressed with the depth of feeling that the issue has raised and have followed the debate with interest. Sustainability, recycling, waste re-engineering, going for the burn. It’s pretty obvious that the opposing sides will not be easily convinced by any argument, but in my opinion it is rare for there to be only two sides to an argument, and there are, it seems, way more than fifty shades of grey.

With conflict in mind, I was keen to read what gastronaut  Jay Rayner had to say about a subject vital to us all – food. The book is indeed big on sustainability, the popular concepts, the oft quoted arguments, and the hokum. It appears that there is quite a lot of the latter.

It is shocking, thought provoking, and it is also a rattling good read

I know that in Croydon we do have some very enthusiastic wavers of the green flag and I would be the last person to deny their right to wave it. But this book does make you think in a very critical way about some of the claims made. Cutting to the chase, what A Greedy Man In  A Hungry World does is explain very well that there literally is no such thing as a free lunch.

I’ll give you an example of my own to think about. Bicycles = sustainable transport, yes?

Well, they don’t guzzle gas or constantly pollute with petrochemicals, they are largely emission free apart from increased CO2 from extra effort, or perhaps the odd puff of methane (work that out for yourself). I know that there is a sizeable and quite vocal pro-bike lobby in Croydon, and a lot of enthusiasm for Boris bikes.

Quite a few years ago, the town where I used to live embarked on creating miles of cycle tracks as part of the then leading edge ‘Sustrans’ scheme. The tracks largely ran alongside the local canal towpath, they were metalled, flat, well signposted, and totally under-used. Given the choice, the vast majority of cyclists preferred to dodge anglers and dog mess on the towpath, just as they always had done.

So, money spent, facility under-used, and, it must be said, an impact made on the environment, be it ever so small. But, those issues apart, ask yourself this: where do bicycles come from?

Boris Bikes

Bikes: As sustainable as we might expect? Photo by anonphotography. Image used under Creative Commons License

They are pieces of engineering, made largely from metal, and increasingly likely to be made in a country with a poor industrial pollution record. We can’t complain too much about that – we had our turn during the industrial revolution and now other parts of the world want to have their turn at making a carbon footprint. Fair’s fair.

Well, that’s making them and painting them, plus rubber for tyres etc., plastic for cables, oil for the chain (hemp oil if you are lucky) but then they have to be shipped over here – we don’t do much in the way of mass manufacturing ourselves these days. OK, not as big and bad as cars, but not free of taint either.

Everything has an ecology cost. Even if we all rode bamboo bicycles (and I’m pretty sure they are possible) the bamboo would be taking the place of another potential crop and there would be water usage to consider. I’m not anti-bike, far from it, but sustainability is a tricky business all round.

So, where’s the meat? What about that most indigestible of environmental issues, the production, distribution and all too often, the waste of food?

It might be a cliché to suggest that we are dining in ‘the last chance saloon’ but if not dining, we are in the queue

I did know that Jay Rayner has reviewed one of Croydon’s premier restaurants (Albert’s Table) and not surprisingly gave it a big thumbs up. I’d take issue with his assertion that it doesn’t do subtle – the smoked fish tart that I had as a starter was too light on the smoke for my taste – but the rest was just as he had enthusiastically reported.

Jay Rayner calls for more joined-up thinking. Thanks to Harper Collins for the image.

What I didn’t know, until I read about it in his book, was that the very FIRST supermarket in this country was opened in Croydon (Sainsbury’s) in 1950. Some Croydon residents may also recall being accosted by Jay Rayner in 2010 (page 211 if you are interested) in respect of meat, and the price we are willing to pay for it.

It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that food prices are on the up. But in some respects they remain ludicrously cheap. The question is: are we in a sustainable situation where food is concerned?

Predictably, the answer to that is rather uncomfortable. It might be a cliché to suggest that we are dining in ‘the last chance saloon’ but if not dining, we are in the queue and the greeters are waving us forward.

The book deals with not just the cost of food and where it comes from, but also issues like genetically modified food, the big supermarket chains, farming on a gigantic scale, carbon footprints or otherwise, bio fuels, why meat should perhaps be viewed as a luxury, how one of the most fertile countries on Earth cannot feed itself, and why China is buying vast tracts of Africa.

It is shocking, thought provoking and it is also a rattling good read. It is not preachy nor hectoring, but neither does it pull any punches. It is the sort of book that makes you think.

I liked it a lot.

In Croydon we are desperate for investment with Westfield and the like. But I would ask how much joined-up thinking are we actually doing about traffic, pollution, sustainability, waste disposal, recycling and the rest, as we look ahead to becoming – within five short years – potentially the home of the largest indoor retail centre in the British Isles?

On matters environmental, Jay Rayner’s key point is that we don’t join up our thinking, and if ever a place needed to take THAT piece of advice, Croydon does.

Jay Rayner – A Greedy Man In A Hungry World

William Collins ISBN 978-0-00-723759-3

Paul Dennis

Paul Dennis

An award-winning journalist, Paul has worked on angling titles for much of his career, including 16 years as deputy editor of Angler's Mail and 4 years as editor of Total Sea Fishing magazine. He is a regular freelance contributor for a wide array of non-angling-related titles, author of two books on angling and a widely-followed authority on the subject.

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  • museumoftechno

    I think Westfield’s the polar opposite of joined-up thinking about sustainability.

    Westfield, and Marco Cash’s new department store (Gucci and Prada at a discount, we’re told) are based on a model of “the more retail, the better,” and I’m convinced bargain fashion is linked to abusive and dangerous working conditions in manufacture.

    A while ago, the Council put up a series of billboards on Cherry Orchard Road: “sustainable secrets.” The idea was, hidden out of sight are things like couples gardening their allotments and children on swings made of re-used tyres. If that’s all that’s sustainable, then logically that’s all that will be left of Croydon in the long run.

  • Kake

    I think very few people, even the greenest of Greens, would say they’re aiming for zero impact on the planet; as you point out, this is impossible. For me, sustainability means not using things up faster than they’re renewed. In that context, perhaps the bicycle is sustainable despite the costs of manufacture, shipping, and maintenance, whereas the private car isn’t. Cars are also manufactured, shipped, and maintained, after all.

    I wonder if the failure of the cycle tracks in your previous town was due to a failure to consult cyclists in the planning process?

    (Also, a minor point, but does the book really say the first supermarket in the UK was the Croydon Sainsbury’s in 1950? Because that’s quite a misleading way to phrase it. The Sainsbury’s at 9–11 London Road was indeed the first of the Sainsbury’s shops to go self-service — i.e. customers walk around with a basket rather than being served by people behind counters — but this was an evolution of the existing store, which opened in 1882, rather than a completely different type of store. Plus, the Co-op claims to have beaten Sainsbury’s by 8 years.)

  • ArfurTowcrate

    ” I would ask how much joined-up thinking are we actually doing about traffic, pollution, sustainability, waste disposal, recycling and the rest, as we look ahead to becoming – within five short years – potentially the home of the largest indoor retail centre in the British Isles?”

    Not very much at all. In fact, the opposite. Watching Boris on Mayor’s Question Time this morning, I heard Steve O’Connell refer glowingly to the increased “wallet-share” as people drive in from north Surrey into Croydon – through an “improved” Fiveways junction and into an increasingly residential town centre where the air pollution record has been consistently poor – below EU health standards – for years.