Start: 95.4 Last week: 89.5 This week: 89.5

Darn! I slipped below 89.0 on two days, but this morning was up at 89.5. No cheating.

Five Farms is a wonderful, engaging audio documentary series that tracks five American farm families through the year in five episodes. It comes from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in North Carolina, and really requires an undisturbed hour, not a snatched morning commute, to appreciate each episode as it unravels, tightens again, and then sets off again. So I’'m not getting through it very quickly. Which is good, because a couple of sentences right at the start of episode one brought me up short. John Biewen, series producer and narrator, feels he has to convince us of the importance of the subject.

The work of farmers is as central to our lives as ever. We are what we eat. While providing our food, farmers and ranchers are the stewards of almost half the nation’s land, a billion acres.

It is those first two sentences that are so important. Farmers are indeed central to our lives. Without them, we starve. But farmers do not provide our food. They provide the raw materials for a huge industry that provides our food and that has subverted farming, and manufacturing, and our own appetites, to feed itself.

Walking up and down the aisles of a giant US supermarket -- from any point on the wholesomeness spectrum -- I am simply astonished by how many of the items are not the ingredients with which to make food, but the food itself. This is a soft target, I know, but remarkable nevertheless. Frozen fully-formed hash brown cakes? I mean, really.

There have been enough analyses of this post-war shift that I don’t need to add my own thoughts on the subject. The question is, what to do?

One name -- Michael Pollan -- and a couple of his aphorisms, have come to dominate the conversation.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

And that is indeed very sound advice. What constitutes food? Anything that contains fewer than five ingredients when you buy it. Some of my favourite multi-grain breads would not qualify under this rule, and some pretty undesirable things -- at least as regular items in the diet -- slip though.1 Again, though, Pollan’s advice is generally sound. And he recently tarted it up and put it, one assumes, out of the grasp of the marketeers, like this.

Don’t buy any food you’ve ever seen advertised.

All well and good, but what should you buy and eat? And how should it be grown?

Long before Pollan happened on botany and then food there was a writer called Colin Tudge.2 Starting with The Famine Business in 1977 and moving through Future Cook (a gussied up Diet for a Small Planet) and many other fine books (not all about food or farming) he arrived a couple of years ago at Feeding People is Easy. And he certainly makes it sound so, although I have no intention of paraphrasing any of his complex ideas here. Instead, I want to pluck one sentence from page 57.

Plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety.

Alas, there are neither notes nor references, but knowing Tudge as I do, I’m pretty certain that this is entirely original and owes nothing to Pollan. The rest of the book builds up to this most perfect of dietary advice and then indicates how it could be made a practical reality by embracing a new agrarianism that he calls “real farming”. Tudge is not the most web-savvy of authors (the links to Feeding People on his own site are bust) nor the greatest of self-publicists, although he has recently launched a blog.3 That’s a pity, because he is by far the most sensible, most eloquent and most passionate voice talking about who should provide our food and how, and has been for 40 years.

  1. 2021-09-01: Absolutely untraceable, unless you know better. 

  2. Declaration of interest: I count him as a good friend, and he taught me much. Since writing this, I've had the pleasure of recording two podcast episodes with Colin: Feeding people is easy in 2017 and then The Great Re-Think: What is agriculture for, really? in 2021.  

  3. 2021-09-01: That got hijacked by real-estate marketing, and his original site has mostly shifted to The Campaign for Real Farming

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