Friday 13 November 2015

“I’ve never met a hungry atheist”

‘The theme was world hunger and we were in a salad bar’ is not the opening of a macabre joke but what happened. We had been invited to listen to Spanish journalist Martin Caparró tell us about the making of his book, ‘Hunger’, some of what he learned and who he met along the way. Hunger, he told us, was something that happened to others, not to us. It’s a cliché, the solving of which is on the eternal to-do list of every Miss Universe, and something that is easy for us to ignore.

Remember where we were sitting.

Caparró told us a story. He told us about the time he asked a woman what she would ask for if she had magic powers. “A cow”, she answered. And if she could ask for anything, no matter what or how much? “Two cows?” This incident, he said, showed him how small someone’s world can be. How simple. Surely, we can improve such a simple problem? Our own worlds are so big.

When lunch was brought to the tables, three big salads full of rocket and other non fork-friendly salad leaves, Caparró told us “There is no hunger in abstract. There are people who are hungry” at a time where, for the first time in history, we have been producing enough food for everyone living on Earth (7 billion when we have the capacity to produce for 12). Hunger, therefore, is not from a lack of food.

Hunger is a symptom of wealth distribution, or a lack thereof. It’s a symptom of the way we live and what we expect from life. Of the way we use the resources we have and the way we use those of others, those that don’t have. Let’s take meat: every 1 kg of flesh needs 10 kg of grain. When you choose to eat that kilo, there are a lot of people not eating grains. Worldwide, forty per cent of grain is used to feed livestock. I don’t know the percentage of the people – worldwide – that don’t get fed.

Bear with me, we'll get to the salad bit.

Recently, for the first time in my life, I felt bad about eating a couple of kilos of meat. What’s worse than eating meat is the way we drag millions of (animal) lives through hell to process them into forms unrecognisable as meat. Forms undeserving of meat and containing only 2% of meat. Just because we can, we stuff percentages of what was life – although it’s easy to forget the cows, pigs, chickens were alive - in with the additives, preservatives, flavourings, colourings, fillers and enhancers. We turn our heads when our eyes are drawn to the horror stories of how we farm. How the pigs are butchered. How cows mourn the separation of their young. How the chickens will never know what it is to stand and how they are trucked across member states, thirsty. Did you know chickens get thirsty?

Last week I took a step back from Facebook activism and looked in the pantry. My favourite cookies list palm oil as an ingredient. I don’t know where the palm oil comes from but as the forests burn, a (small) step forward will be to choose not to eat them. And there are only so many petitions one can blithely sign and share without knowing at least some of what monoculture ala Monsanto means; namely the depletion of the Earth’s soil, a top up of lethal herbicides and fertilizers, runoff pollution, fish dying and the collapse of bee colonies. We need to choose better.

We know these things, we say we do, but we don’t do them. If we did, wouldn’t someone have brought up the fact we were considering world hunger eating salad? That great vessel of transport for water and next to no nutrition?  Wouldn’t I have brought it up?

For all the crop acreage it occupies and fossil fuels burned to ship and refrigerate it, we get to throw away that old head of soggy iceberg that’s been forgotten at the bottom of the vegetable bin (1 billion pounds of uneaten salad are thrown away every year). And if we do manage to make the time to cook everything we’ve consumed (another travesty), then what we’re consuming when we eat that head of iceberg, cucumber, radish or stick of celery is about the same as what we suck in with a 1-litre bottle of Evian water (these vegetables contain 95-97% water) and sometimes with as much plastic.

But I didn’t make a peep.

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