Mums who sell junk food? Arrest them

In London last night, mayor Ken Livingstone outlined his radical agenda for punishing parents who dare to eat 'unethical food'.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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‘If I was running the schools, you’d have had all that crap out of the schools right away. They’d have had good healthy food. And you’d arrest the mums passing junk food through the school fence.’

This was not some crank caller to a radio phone-in, but London mayor Ken Livingstone speaking last night at the Hay Festival event ‘The Ethical Food Debate’ at London’s Garrick Theatre. Even more disturbingly, he was wildly applauded. This could only laughably be described as a ‘debate’, since all four panellists – and most of the audience – were quite in agreement about the need to protect the environment, eat organic, avoid chemicals and reduce ‘food miles’.

Despite the title, the debate wasn’t particularly about food. Led by Sheila Dillon, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme, it was really all about education, markets, transport, obesity and GM crops – and what policies would be needed to foist the prejudices of the gathered company on to the population at large, who apparently must be saved from themselves.

While Ken was saving the kids, Keith Abel – co-founder of organic food delivery company Abel & Cole – thought it was the Third World that needed rescuing from agribusiness. ‘There are currently around one-and-a-half billion subsistence farmers in the world, who are being told by the chemical industry that they need to either adopt their GM crops or start covering them in artificial fertilisers so they can all move into shanty towns and live as prostitutes.’ So if you think that Third World farmers might actually be keen to modernise their farming methods, and in the process make their lives a bit easier and more fruitful, think again. According to Abel, modernisation is a risky business and agribusiness companies are the moral equivalent of people-traffickers.

Abel argued that kids here at home need protecting, too. ‘I’ve got two little monkeys of primary-school age.… I think there are a number of very straightforward things we can do to prevent these vulnerable little beings being taught the wrong way.’ Specifically, he called for junk food advertising aimed at young children to be banned.

Meanwhile, Jenny Jones, Green Party councillor and former deputy mayor, argued that the main challenges are how to reduce London’s ‘ecological footprint’ and also reduce food poverty. She claimed that six per cent of Londoners go to bed hungry. That may be true, but perhaps they might be better served by better pay and benefits rather than Jones running a mission to provide them with organic vegetables, locally sourced.

The fourth member of the panel, former Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers, didn’t seem to be terribly well-informed or insightful. Her main policy suggestion was that the government should ‘do something’. But then, being ill-informed didn’t seem to be much of a barrier to participating in this debate.

Livingstone, for example, showed that he was a dab hand at elevating personal prejudice into established scientific fact. His opening statement, on why he thought food was an ethical issue, was a list of deeply dubious ‘facts’ that encapsulated every green scare of our time. There was his claim that ‘the smallest amount of artificial or toxic substances can cause all sorts of problems, not just cancers but everything else’; his comments that pollution was much worse today because ‘I grew up in the postwar world where it was heavy, dirty old soot you could wash away – now it’s particulates and nitrous oxoids [sic] which are just getting worse and worse’; and his assertion that all this ‘goes a long way to explaining the huge increase in kids in asthma and eczema and hayfever’.

In truth, very small amounts of chemicals are harmless. Even deadly poisons in the quantities in which pesticide residues occur – parts per million – would cause no injury. But pesticides are not deadly poisons; they are selected because they are harmful to pests rather than humans. We consume far more naturally-occurring poisons than pesticides or other manmade chemicals. As Bruce Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold note elsewhere on spiked ‘The natural chemicals that are known rodent carcinogens in a single cup of coffee are about equal in weight to a year’s worth of ingested synthetic pesticide residues that are rodent carcinogens.’ (1) And London’s air used to be thick with particulates at levels more than 10 times greater than today before first smokeless fuels and then alternative forms of heating were introduced. During the Great Smog of 1953 they were 1,000 times their normal levels today (2).

Livingstone also claimed that the ‘tipping point for irreversible climate change is most probably four or five years away at most’, which apparently means we need to crack down on agribusiness now, because agribusiness is a ‘disproportionate’ generator of carbon emissions and ‘food miles’.

Normally, I don’t like to criticise people for their backgrounds; after all, they can’t help it, and I prefer to challenge their ideas. But when audience members like Rosie and Henrietta joined with Thomasina to tell us how ‘we’ – the decent right-thinking middle classes – could protect the poor, the blacks and the children, it was more than I could stomach. Panellists and audience members seemed to believe that the masses are too stupid to treat junk-food advertising with a pinch of salt, and too feckless to feed their children properly. The proper approach to food, as exemplified by Livingstone, is to wrap yourself up in ethical knots about which food has the least-worst balance of food miles and pesticides while still being ‘fairtrade’ and avoiding supermarkets.

Fortunately, I am a man of direct action. So after the insufferable non-debate finished, my partner and I adjourned to a nearby pizza chain for mass-produced convenience food, the ingredients of which may well have been produced in pesticide-soaked fields and flown thousands of miles to my plate.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Food

(1) Risk, cancer and manmade chemicals, by Bruce Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold

(2) See The smoke clears, by Austin Williams

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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