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This month’s books examine the power that food has over all of us, both on a personal and on a global scale.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Food, inglorious food

Photo: Peter Solbjerghoj Food is something in which we all have a vital interest. And it is a subject on which views are as firmly held as they are conflicting. Whatever the concern everyone, it seems, has an axe to grind and a book to publish. Half-truths and wishful thinking abound. So where does the gentle reader begin?

Probably not with Food Politics: The Regional Conflict, if time and temper are at a premium. For in this collection of essays there is more preambling towards laboured definitions of concepts such as ‘the affective and cognitive tenor of food policy’ than there is pertinent discussion of what use they might be. Practical details of desirable food policies are side-stepped in favour of assumed global advantages. Nor are the regional groupings themselves all that straightforward: for example, it’ s never spelt out why Mexico should want to abandon the ‘nationalist’ and ‘separatist’ attitudes which purportedly prevent it from entry into a North American food consortium with Canada and the US. (And isn’t it a little late in the day to be talking about regional policies when food production and consumption are largely controlled by a handful of multinational companies?)

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Food Politics: The Regional Conflict
By David N. Balaam and Michael J. Carey
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Croom Helm (hbk) £16.95
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This is a book whose prejudices are as unpleasant as its prose style. It doesn’t openly say that food policies should be used as a ’weapon’ for forcing the recipient countries to adopt the political ideologies of the donor powers. It talks instead of’ a resource of influence’. When the book later announces that EEC foreign ministers ‘are only too willing to let military strategic matters rest with NATO and the United States’ (sic), we begin to realise whose ‘influence’ is meant to prevail.

The slightly cranky committedness of Food: Need, Greed and Myopia makes an appealing contrast. Unlike the US academics. Geoffrey Yates has no admiration for a Common Agricultural Policy which institutionalises waste and yet cannot provide enough food for the people who fund it. He sees the world food problem as one of dislocation rather than shortage and argues that we can do our bit for development by adopting more self- sufficient diets.

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Food: Need, greed and myopia
by Geoffry Yates
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Eastwright Publications (pbk) £1.60
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Shipping the food surpluses from North to South is not, therefore, a solution which Yates would accept Nor is it an approach which has met with more practical success, according to the more scholarly John Cathie in his book The Political Economy of Food Aid. In one sense, it’s a shame that his study concentrates on multinational project food aid, since this leaves the massive US agencies CARE and CRS completely off the hook. At the same time, the subject benefits enormously from his detailed investigation of the World Food Programme, whose raison d’être is that food aid is ‘an irreplaceable tool for development’. Cathie makes pointed contrasts between WFP’s poor field record and the rhetoric emanating from head office in Rome, where’.., the average time spent on considering a project is 3.6 minutes’ From his attentive reading of their documents.

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The Political Economy of Food Aid
By John Caithie
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Gower (hbk) £14.50
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Cathie concludes that ‘WFP would do better to concentrate upon relief work and the logistics of food delivery for famine and disasters’ — a view which will be shared by many fleld-workers throughout the world. But for a comprehensive account of world food problems and politics, Food for Beginners, the latest in the Writers and Readers comic documentary series, ranks amongst the best. (See update NI 118) Always a trenchant and challenging writer, Susan George uses a witty and informal style to cover a remarkable amount of material. It’s held together by the focus on the relationship between hunger and

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Food for beginners
Susan George and Nigel Paige
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Writers & Readers Co-operative (pbk) £2.50
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poverty, and between poverty and the lack of power to determine food policies.

At a mere £2.50. this has to be the best bargain of the lot.

Deborah Eade
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Deborah Eade is co-author of ‘Against the Grain: Dilemma of Project Food Aid’.

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Rash Food

Food for Thought
by Maureen Minchin
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Alma Publications (pbk) Aus: $2.50 ($1.00 for low-income earners)
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I was standing in a bus queue with Maureen Minchin’s book on allergies in my hand, when the woman behind me started explaining to her companion that the commonplace pills she’d taken to suppress her cold symptoms for an evening out had made her so ill she’d ended up in bed with bronchitis.

The conversation spread down the queue. A young man said a girlfriend of his was so allergic to fish that she broke out in a frightening rash if he’d been eating it. We ended up discussing allergies on the bus for the next 20 miles. Everyone, it seemed, has some alarming tale to tell about an unexpected and violent reaction to a harmless-sounding substance. My mother, born and bred in the tropics, was told by a specialist that she was allergic to heat.

What our bodies can or can’t tolerate is a vast and mysterious subject. Maureen Minchin makes it clear that her book does not consist of infallible proof; rather, it attempts to draw attention to a under-researched problem that she fears is far more widespread than recognised. A sudden, burning skin rash causes concern, but subtler symptoms— fatigue, irritability, hyperactivity in children, acne in teenagers, bags under the eyes are swallowed up in the general acceptance that these are natural’, especially in our stressful ‘modem’ way of life. Try telling your doctor that you feel listless because you think you’re allergic to your dinner. You’re more likely to be labelled a neurotic than be taken seriously.

Worse, a substance you can tolerate on Sunday, when you’re feeling rested, you may not be able to tolerate on Friday after a tough week when your CTL — that’s your Current Tolerance Level — is low. It’s worse than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, since the haystack keeps changing shape.

That the first edition of Food for Thought: A Parent’s Guide to Food Intolerance was a sell-out in health-conscious Australia should come as no surprise. It is an admirable book, terse, unpatronising and full of important ideas. But what is its relevance to the Third World?

Ms. Minchin suggests that peasants rarely suffer from allergies because the peasant diet is simple and has varied little over generations: their bodies are well adapted to the local foods they are likely to come by. Unlike bodies in the rich world, they are not subjected to constant, uncontrolled dietary experiments. And, crucially, most peasant infants are still breastfed.

The newborn baby, she explains, is at particular risk because his immunologic and digestive systems are immature; until these systems are functioning fully, he must rely on his mother’s milk to protect him. So to push imported foods, especially infant formula, on a poor society is to press yet another danger onto lives already heavily at risk. She ends the book with a plea to dairy farmers and formula manufacturers to stop pushing products because, she says: ‘If children under six months or so are not exposed to milk products or any other food than human milk, the likelihood of intolerance is enormously reduced.’

Perhaps it’s time for the rich world, for once, to listen to the poor instead of doing all the telling.


A backward place
being the book that holds a comic
mask over India’s tragic poverty

RUTH PRAWER JHABVALA has been praised as India’s Dickens, her novels compared to Forster’s A Passage to India, as India’s answer to Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

One might reasonably suppose from all this that Ruth Jhabvala is Indian. In fact, the literary comparisons she attracts —Dickens, Forster, Thackeray— give a better clue to her background. She grew up in England, a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany. She comes, indeed, from a long line of exiles: her father had fled from Poland to Germany; her maternal ancestors from Poland and Russia

That accounts for the Jewish ‘Ruth’ and the Polish ‘Prawer’. At a party in London she met a young Indian architect, married him and left to live in Delhi. That explains the ‘Jhabvala’, and also why her novels about family life in India are so peculiarly accessible to a Western audience.

A Backward Place is an elegant comedy whose sympathetic central character, Judy, is (unsurprisingly) a young Englishwoman married to an Indian. Like Jhabvala, who promptly fell in love with India’s sensuousness after the greyness of wartime England, Judy slips readily into her new role. She enjoys the sisterly companionship that comes from sharing the house with her husband’s relatives; she and her sister-in-law wash each other’s hair and giggle about the day in girlish solidarity. When she visits her smart European friends, Judy becomes briefly aware of her material poverty and makes desultory attempts to reorganise her makeshift furniture — but even as she plans to replace her tatty sofa, she is lulled by its comfort into dreamy acceptance. At the beginning of the novel Judy’s life in India seems jumbled and unproductive but at least it is affectionate.

English suburban life, with its neat security and well-defined aims, Judy remembers as tight and cold. Judy’ smother is shown devoting her life to dusting knickknacks and protecting herself from the outside world — until her emotional agoraphobia leads her to the logical extreme of suicide.

But Judy becomes increasingly aware that her present cosiness in India has a perilous base. Her sister-in-law is as passive, bored and undeveloped as her mother had been. If Judy had not insisted on breaking convention by getting a job, the family would have had no sure income. There is no safety net to catch the unemployed or the sick from falling into destitution. For all its sparkle and humour, the novel hovers on the verge of tragedy.

For example, Sudhir is a brilliant student whose talents are wasted when his father dies because his family has neither influence nor money. Without these, Jhabvala repeatedly suggests, you haven’t a chance in India Sudhir is sensitive, industrious, idealistic. (In a conventional novel, Judy would have ended up in bed with him. Mercifully, Jhabvala is too fastidious for such clich6s.) But weeks that turn into years of waiting patiently outside the doors of influential men in the hope of getting a job— any job — have burned Sudhir’s idealism down to a thin flame of impotent anger.

The spectre of poverty haunts the novel. India’s inequalities deprive each man and woman in turn of dignity. Clarissa, the upper-middle class trendy, goes slumming in India and gushes about the ‘real’ life of the villagers — but survives by sponging off rich friends. The Hochstadts, development experts’ of the most patronising kind, thrill to the aesthetic wonders of Indian culture but are far too culturally superior to drink other than imported coffee. Jhabvala damns them with the ultimate stigma: she describes them as ‘tasteful’.

Jhabvala’s most naked contempt, though, is saved for Mrs. Kaul (the stereotype of the rich Delhi wives who thought it so nice’ that Jhabvala wrote novels). Mrs Kaul runs the Cultural Dais but only recognises ‘culture’ in its fossilised form, as blessed by the Westernised establishment:

she is busy with organising a performance of Ibsen’s ‘Doll’s House’ translated into Hindi. Any manifestation of living culture, like the natural dignity or the creative talents of her employees, she would not —could not— recognise. She is vulgar, cruel, fawning on Europeans; she betrays her culture during the pretence of preserving it.

In an interview with journalist Ian Jack, Ruth Jhabvala said that when she first went to India, ‘I loved everything there; yes— to my shame I have to say—even the beggars... it was life as one read about it in the Bible:

whole, I thought: pure. I thought.’ But the bubble burst, as it begins to for Judy. ‘To have to look at this terrible abyss of poverty and chaos all the time’ was too painful.

After a quarter of a century of a ’continuous fight to keep oneself almost human’, Ruth Jhabvala gave up the struggle and exiled herself once more, this time in New York. Hardly a place to protect wounded sensibilities. I would have thought, but the only place ‘bizarre and desperate enough’ to be stimulating without also providing her with moral dilemmas too great to bear.

Anuradha Vittachi

A Backward Place
by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
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Penguin (pbk) UK: £1.95/Aus: $5.95/Can: $4.95
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