issue 203 - January 1990
The taste of salvation
Sugar was like a revenge of the slaves, ravaging the health of the West.
But the deadly diet of the rich is now being exported to the Third World.
Geoffrey Cannon explains how you can save the planet by saving yourself.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the Highland Scots were the tallest and heaviest of the European peoples. The average height of a man was six feet, while seven-foot giants were by no means uncommon. Of 600 crofters evicted from Glen Tilt at the end of the eighteenth century, not one was less than six feet in height or measured less than 17 inches around the calf. People remained active long after their eightieth year, and ages of over a hundred were common.
The staple diet of the Highlanders at this time was oatmeal porridge, cakes made from barley or stoneground oat-flour, vegetables, milk, butter, eggs and cheese with occasional fish, beef, venison, wild fruits, honey and the famous Scottish soups.1
But things have changed. Today the rates of premature death among people under 65 are higher in Scotland and Northern Ireland than in any other European country.2 What has happened?
Dr Walter Yellowlees has spent much of his life working in the Scottish county of Perthshire, where he has daily encountered diseases related to poor nutrition such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and above all cancer. 'When visiting patients at mealtimes,' he says, 'I have been repeatedly appalled at what was on the family table: things like tinned vegetables, white bread, biscuits, sweet drinks, and, in place of porridge, the ubiquitous sweetened breakfast cereals.'
His observations reinforce the findings of the Royal College of Physicians - that whole fresh food is healthy and highly processed food is not. Their report concludes that people should be 'enabled and encouraged to eat foods which are closer to the natural grain, vegetable or fruit than the highly processed and refined products which now form a large part of our food.'
Dr Yellowlees goes further. He explains Scotland's dietary changes in terms of the Highland Clearances which destroyed the peasantry. Small industries were destroyed and people driven to the cities where they were forced to switch from home-grown food to imported processed food. In England too, industrialization meant that peasants became the first working class and were alienated from the earth and its fruits. They subsisted on primitive versions of the 'store food' that wrecks the health of the dispossessed urban poor all over the world today: white bread and flour, white sugar and fat, some salted meat or fish, pitifully little fresh food.
Sugar was one of the most destructive elements of the new diet. The British sweet tooth was cultivated by sugar traders who formed the third side of the triangular slave trade: British cotton goods were exported to Africa, African slaves to the West Indies and West Indian sugar to Britain. Rotten teeth and all other sugar-related diseases are like a revenge of the slaves.
Today Britain is notorious as the country with the worst food in the world - and therefore the worst record of suffering and premature death from non-infectious diseases. It shares this reputation with countries that were once British colonies and where native peoples who had lived in harmony with nature were massacred: Canada, the US, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand.
The British swept aside traditional food-and-agriculture systems in all the countries they ruled, replacing them with food-store and cash-cropping. And the destruction continues even now as Third World countries are devastated by the highly processed, chemicalized food and agriculture exported to them by the West.
'Now that we know British food is just about the worst in the world,' says Jonathon Porritt, director of Friends of the Earth UK, 'how ironic it is that we and other rich nations are exporting fat and sugar to starving people in Africa and Asia. Early colonists ravaged native populations with syphilis and typhoid. Now it's heart disease and cancers.3
This is done not only in the name of trade but also of aid. Nutritionists from the London School of Hygiene report that refugees in Africa are dying in their thousands from vitamin-deficiency diseases caused by the sugary, fatty food supplied by aid agencies.
Sri Lanka is a good example of this dietary imperalism. Its national policy has opened the door to the West: and that means Western food. Advertisements reflect this fad. 'Write in your own handwriting "I am a Vegemite Kid",' reads one. Village hoardings are covered with adverts for Astra margarine - a product made of saturated fat so hard it stays solid even in tropical heat.
In the supermarkets of Colombo and Kandy, Puffa-Puffa Rice breakfast cereal is on sale for the equivalent of three dollars a packet. Hoardings for Nespray - the Nestlé dried milk - are everywhere. And fly posters promote a 'Build a Motor Bike Contest with Coca Cola'.
Not everyone in Sri Lanka is deceived. 'What has happened to mankind (sic)?' asks a doctor in a Colombo Daily News article, side-by-side with the ads for Lemon Puffs, Orange Crush and Lakspray. 'Cardiovascular and coronary heart diseases are a major public-health problem,' he writes. 'The diet should not have excessive calories and saturated fats.'
Sri Lanka would never have such problems if the country relied on its own resources - if it cultivated appreciation of native food and agricultural systems which have evolved over centuries to meet the population's needs.
People in the Sri Lankan countryside have got the right idea. By the bus-stop outside the baby-elephant orphanage at the Udawattakelle Forest Reserve, a little roadside shop sports a massive Coca-Cola sign. 'That's for tourists,' commented the owner, handing me a king coconut. He slashed the top off. 'No chemicals in this,' he said. 'Natural.'
Our problem in the West is that we have forgotten where food comes from, and therefore we ignore its real value. But food and agriculture are the original environmental issues. It is a law of nature that when food and agriculture become business commodities, the health, the culture and the very identity of that nation will eventually be destroyed.
This has happened all over the Western world and we must now start to pick up the pieces. As Jonathon Porritt says: 'Our environment starts with ourselves, and with our own wholeness and health. We can begin to clean up our act by eating whole, fresh food and by working for a high-quality, environmentally benign food supply'.
Healthy eaters look for food which has good nutritional quality. Green eaters go further, buying food with good environmental quality as well. For example, most people buy free-range eggs not only for the extra taste and nourishment, but also because they approve of the conditions in which the hens are kept. Refusing to buy Outspan oranges from South Africa is making another sort of green choice.
In the 1980s, what came out of the mouths of environmentalists was mostly green; what went in, was often junk. In the 1990s, thinking and talking green means acting and therefore eating green. Saving the planet and saving yourself are indivisible. It is no accident that the words 'health', 'whole', 'healing' and even 'holy' all derive from the same root.
Geoffrey Cannon is secretary of the British Guild of Food Writers and author of The Politics of Food. He wishes to make contact with anybody in the world who is concerned to protect the quality of indigenous food and agriculture systems. Please write to him at 6 Aldridge Road Villas, London W11 1BP.
1 'The Highland Problem' by Ronald Taylor, in Mother Earth. (UK Soil Associalion, Sammer 19481.
2 'On the state of the public ill-health: premature mortality is me UK and Europe. by J cattord and S Ford. in British Medical Journal. 1984.
3 Jonathon Porriti. director of Friends of the Earth UK, at the Royal Society of Arts' Caroline Walker Lecture, October 1989.
'Why don't you take care of the child'? She's always sick,' Samy shouts above the baby's screams. His wife, Meena, shoots an anguished glance at the infant and yells back. 'I do take care of her. It must be these damned flies. You are a municipal worker; you should do something about them.' Samy slaps her face and storms out, criticizing her for suggesting actions that could cost him his job.
Domestic disputes like this happen every day between the 1,000 squatters who live in Buntong Tiga, Malaysia. They have been living here for seven years but now they are being inundated by refuse. The residents complain to the city council that gave them the land - and discover that it has now designated the area as a garbage dump.
At first people suffer silently, afraid that protest will mean eviction or sackings. But whenever the women meet, their talk always retums to the flies, the unbearable stench and the deteriorating health of their children.
Finally, a small group visits Poopathy - the most educated woman in the area. She agrees to go the city council and lodge a complaint. There is no response. She approaches politicians who promise action, hut months pass and nothing happens.
Meanwhile, the dump grows higher: there are plastic containers filled with decaying food, hundreds of plastic bottles, factory rejects including drugs. Even amputated limbs are found in this smoky mountain. It is a time bomb waiting to explode.
The city council has cheated them. Potiticians have failed them. In despair the women approach a local consumers' organization - the Education and Research Association for Consumers (ERA) - which takes their complaint seriously.
The ERA is conscious that change can only come from the residents themselves, and it begins to organize the women. A committee is elected. Poopathy is chosen to liaise between the women and ERA, and the group draws up a plan of action. A press conference is held and articles about the dump begin appearing in local newspapers.
Then the women draw up a petition and go from house to house explaining the problem and collecting signatures. Politicians make threats and some husbands forbid their wives to be involved.
The consumer group encourages the women to continue. And shortly afterwards the television carries a special report about them. Buoyed by the media coverage, the women decide to picket the dump. More than 150 women and children gather there. They shout, sing and hold their placards high, demanding the right to a clean, safe, healthy environment. They picket from dawn till dusk, organizing themselves in shifts.
Then the women and children blockade the dump to stop the city council's garbage lorries from entering. The press and television focus on the blockade; public sympathy is aroused. The city council, health officers and politicians begin to react.
The deputy president of the city council, Datuk Haji Umar Abu, visits the site with his entourage and assures residents that the council will stop dumping rubbish in the area. He agrees to cover the garbage with sand and to spray the area with chemicals to kill the flies and mosquitoes. He even suggests fuming the area into a recreational park.
The women are overjoyed. Their hard work has paid off. They giggle as their men rush forward in front of the TV camera to ask the deputy president questions. As usual men want to claim the glory. But the women know that they themselves have created a happier, healthier environment for their children. And because of this they are empowered.
Mary Bala is a Malaysian journalist.
· Buy fresh produce. Organically grown fresh fruit and vegetables are better for you and the environment.
· Choose wholegrains. Wholemeal cereals, bread, pasta and rice are rich sources of fibre, carbohydrate, B vitamins and protein.
· Avoid unethically produced food. And tell shopkeepers why.
· Eat simply. As a general rule, the fewer ingredients there are in an item of processed food, the better it is for you.