Sunday, December 30, 2007

Why I've no appetite for the Fife Diet

A 'small, grassroots movement' has sprung up in Scotland based on eating only food produced nearby. Local boy James Panton is appalled.

Burntisland is a picturesque town on the banks of the River Forth in east Scotland. It is home to the Fife Diet, the latest eco-trend, in which people are attempting to minimize their `carbon footprint' by living only on food that has been grown or produced in Fife. I grew up in Burntisland and lived for the first few years of my life on an enforced `Fife diet' - and I find the idea of eating nothing but local produce appalling.

The Fife diet, at least the one I vaguely remember from childhood, seemed to consist of an awful lot of mince with neeps and tatties (turnip and potatoes), stovies (bacon or corned beef with potatoes and onions) and stews (made of god-knows-what, but there were definitely potatoes involved). My mother was an immigrant from Nottingham in the English midlands, so she knew of culinary possibilities that existed beyond the Firth of Forth and she worked hard to educate my dad's rather conservative tastebuds.

Once a week, she would slip in a spaghetti bolognese, which Dad approved of as sufficiently mince-based, although to this day he cuts up his spaghetti with a knife and fork and is suspicious of parmesan. One of my sisters was a dab hand at quiche lorraine (or egg and bacon flan with exotic aspirations). A couple of times a year we had food from the Chinese takeaway on the High Street. Traditional Scottish egg foo yung, which I remember bearing remarkable similarities to scrambled egg with peas and onions, was a favourite. I know for a fact that we had a fondue set, but it was never used in front of the children.

I suspect that my early childhood diet wasn't that different to many people with my kind of Scottish small-ish town background in the late Seventies and early Eighties. We weren't particularly conservative, but the menu was pretty traditional, based on ingredients that had been used for decades and cooked in the same old ways. More interesting ingredients and ways of cooking were available: Edinburgh was just over 30 minutes away on the train and it was home to fruit and veg shops selling exotica of all shapes and sizes; there were Italian delicatessens with cheeses that came in a wider range than `red cheese' and `yellow cheese', and there were general stores that smelt of Indian spices and even Chinese supermarkets if you knew where to look. The foods from such specialist shops weren't part of my daily diet, though - they were expensive treats and curiosities, not daily staples, and they weren't generally available down in our local Co-op store.

Since I left Burntisland and moved to London at the age of 18, my daily diet has changed beyond all recognition. But what is remarkable is that so too has the daily diet of my parents and my older brothers and sisters who still live in or around Burntisland. Things that were once exotic are now commonplace in the supermarket and even at the Co-op: shipped and flown from around the world in bulk, they are available at a price that makes them affordable as everyday grub.

So there is something depressing about the news that Burntisland is now home to what the Guardian has called a `small grassroots movement' (1) (note the radical twang) that thinks the way to make the world a better place is to eat only foods that have been grown in the region of Fife. Inspired by the Vancouver-based 100 Mile Diet (2), in which participants attempted to survive on food produced within 100 miles of their homes, the Fife Diet draws its ingredients from an even smaller area of land. The diet is premised on the notion that reducing the number of `food miles' (the miles travelled by the food we eat between production and consumption) is one of the most important contributions individuals can make to saving the planet.

Mike Small, the inspiration behind the diet, claims that this is `not a back-to-nature movement rejecting the twenty-first century. It is a flexible, consciousness-raising exercise to show what realistic changes individuals can make'. He is surely right - the Fife Diet is a product of a peculiarly twenty-first century form of moralistic miserliness where the future of the planet is understood to be dependent upon the consumption choices made by individual families. The more they can reject the advances of food production and transportation that the late twentieth century brought to small towns like Burntisland the better.

The Fife Diet is celebrated as a way of bringing local communities together and supporting local producers and their products against `the ecological insanity of transporting food around the world' (3). Implicit in this is a politically correct kind of economic protectionism which seeks to celebrate everything local in opposition to producers from other parts of the world. Although I'm a fan of Burntisland, and I have many friends in Fife, I'm not convinced that its small farmers are any more deserving than the rather more efficient producers in many other parts of the world.

According to the diet's website `It's no good just saying no. We can't just oppose Tesco, rage against food miles and rant against food-packaging. In all aspects of socio-ecology we need to build alternative platforms and movements from within the shell of the old decaying society' (4). Unlike the 19 families who have so far signed up to the Fife Diet, I'm not at all convinced that having a diet so exotic as to include such luxuries as salt and pepper, tea and coffee and even the occasional glass of wine - all of which are ruled out in the Fife Diet in an attempt to curb climate change - is an expression of social decay. On the contrary, these foodstuffs were even part of the rather limited diet of my family when I was a young child.

And I am certainly not convinced that Tesco and other supermarket chains are the source of social decay. In fact, they are the means by which everyone from London to Burntisland can get hold of cheaply produced and distributed food from around the world - and all a damned sight more interesting than the neeps and tatties of my youth. The Fife Diet may be regarded as radical by those with low horizons, but attempting to solve the world's problems by retreating to the local shows that such campaigners are starved of imagination.


In praise of McDonald's

To gauge this pell-mell nation's velocity, visit here with Jim Skinner, chief executive officer of a company on pace to have a net income for 2007 of $3.46 billion, up 12.7 percent, on revenues of almost $23 billion. The evolution of McDonald's mirrors that of the nation in which it serves 27 million customers a day.

Americans commonly say this or that distinction is "as clear as night and day." Americans, ricocheting around the country around the clock, are erasing the distinction between night and day. Breakfast, the meal most apt to be eaten at home, now accounts for more than 25 percent of U.S. business for McDonald's. More than 90 percent of its restaurants have extended hours - beyond the regular 6 a.m. through 10 p.m. - and about 35 percent are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, up from less than 10 percent just five years ago.

America is in the third era since its meals began to mirror its mobility. First came the Steak 'n Shake Era. That restaurant chain began downstate in 1934, in the perfectly named town of Normal, Ill., as Americans were getting used to eating out. They were leery of food that came from a kitchen they could not see, so Steak 'n Shake put its grills behind glass in full view and adopted the slogan "In sight it must be right."

In 1955, when Ray Kroc launched the McDonald's Era, Americans were doing what Dinah Shore urged them to do, seeing the U.S.A. in their Chevrolets, seeking novel experiences - but not in food. When they got out of their cars for nourishment, they wanted no surprises. Hence the rise of franchising - the same food here, there and, eventually, everywhere.

Now we are in the Snack Wrap Era. Last year McDonald's started selling chicken and other stuff wrapped in tortillas. This product was a response to consumer appetites for something to eat between meals and with one hand on the steering wheel. More and more Americans do not want to get out of their cars: Most of America's McDonald's have drive-through windows, and most of these restaurants sell most of their food through those windows.

McDonald's exemplifies the role of small businesses in Americans' upward mobility. The company is largely a confederation of small businesses: 85 percent of its U.S. restaurants - average annual sales, $2.2 million - are owned by franchisees. McDonald's has made more millionaires, and especially black and Hispanic millionaires, than any other economic entity ever, anywhere.

McDonald's has 14,000 restaurants in America, another 17,000 in 117 other countries. The company will add another 1,000 in 2008, more than 90 percent of them abroad. Such is the power of the McDonald's brand, 48 percent of the people of India were aware of McDonald's before it opened its first restaurant on the subcontinent.

Skinner's job is to maximize shareholder value. Shareholders should be pleased. The value of their stock has more than doubled during his three-year tenure. McDonald's stock will have either the best or second-best (if second, only to Merck & Co.) gain among the Dow industrials this year.

The food fascists are not pleased. Pursing their lips and waxing censorious at the mere mention of McDonald's, they blame it for fat people. But although it might seem peculiar to cite McDonald's customers as evidence of Americans' increasing health consciousness, consider this: Red meat has become suspect and McDonald's now sells as much chicken as beef - 150 percent more chicken in dollar volume than just five years ago.

Do the arithmetic, says Skinner. Americans eat 90 meals a month. The average American, who has 900,000 restaurants to choose from, eats three of those meals at McDonald's. Surely the other 87 meals are more of a problem. Even McDonald's core customers, who eat there 50 times a year, consume more than 1,000 meals elsewhere.

Although its core products remain hamburgers, fries and milkshakes, it sells a lot of salads to the 52 million customers it has every day worldwide. Kroc, who died in 1984, once said he did not know what his company would be selling in 2000 but he knew it would be selling more of it than anyone else. He was right.



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter and margarine? They are just about pure fat. Surely they should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

9). And how odd it is that we never hear of the huge American study which showed that women who eat lots of veggies have an INCREASED risk of stomach cancer? So the official recommendation to eat five lots of veggies every day might just be creating lots of cancer for the future! It's as plausible (i.e. not very) as all the other dietary "wisdom" we read about fat etc.

10). And will "this generation of Western children be the first in history to lead shorter lives than their parents did"? This is another anti-fat scare that emanates from a much-cited editorial in a prominent medical journal that said so. Yet this editorial offered no statistical basis for its opinion -- an opinion that flies directly in the face of the available evidence.

Even statistical correlations far stronger than anything found in medical research may disappear if more data is used. A remarkable example from Sociology:
"The modern literature on hate crimes began with a remarkable 1933 book by Arthur Raper titled The Tragedy of Lynching. Raper assembled data on the number of lynchings each year in the South and on the price of an acre's yield of cotton. He calculated the correlation coefficient between the two series at -0.532. In other words, when the economy was doing well, the number of lynchings was lower.... In 2001, Donald Green, Laurence McFalls, and Jennifer Smith published a paper that demolished the alleged connection between economic conditions and lynchings in Raper's data. Raper had the misfortune of stopping his analysis in 1929. After the Great Depression hit, the price of cotton plummeted and economic conditions deteriorated, yet lynchings continued to fall. The correlation disappeared altogether when more years of data were added."
So we must be sure to base our conclusions on ALL the data. But in medical research, data selectivity and the "overlooking" of discordant research findings is epidemic.


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