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The return of the Mockney Missionary

When a billion people remain malnourished, it’s perverse for Jamie Oliver to bang on about a ‘global epidemic’ of obesity.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics Politics

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It’s an enormous problem that has been swelling for years. Soon it will engulf the entire world, causing untold suffering to millions of people. The only way this menace can be tackled is by collective global action. The time for pussyfooting has gone. No, I’m not talking about obesity – I’m talking about Jamie Oliver’s head, which is now nearly as big as Bono’s.

The Mockney Missionary’s latest demonstration of megalomania is an open letter to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. The hook for the letter was the UN’s High-Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases, a two-day jamboree about such illnesses as heart attacks, strokes, cancers, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease which took place in New York on Monday and Tuesday this week. One of the big issues was diet, with the claim that millions are dying because they either eat too much or eat too much ‘junk’.

Oliver’s letter to Ban Ki-moon begins: ‘In the few minutes that it takes you to read this letter, more than 25 of our fellow human beings will have died from obesity and diet-related diseases. That’s 2.8million people a year, according to the World Health Organisation, dying from one of the entirely preventable diseases which combined kill more people in the world than wars, terrorism, HIV and road accidents.’ He later says that ‘worldwide, being obese or overweight now causes more deaths than under-nutrition’.

Really? That’s not what another UN meeting in 2009, specifically about food, was told by, err… Ban Ki-moon: ‘Today, more than one billion people are hungry… Six million children die of hunger every year – 17,000 every day.’ In truth, all these figures are guesses, and the most alarming guesses are usually the ones that get pulled out when someone is on a mission.

But it should be bleedin’ obvious that hunger has a much bigger impact around the world than obesity. Oliver declares that ‘one in 10 people in the world is obese’, yet the vast majority of these people are merely chubby, without any wider consequences for their lives or their life expectancy. On the other hand, children facing chronic hunger will struggle to develop properly and will be much more prone to a variety of diseases, including diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia. While even very fat people will likely live to old age (and most ‘obese’ people are far from being very fat), malnutrition is a major factor in infant mortality worldwide.

This obsession with obesity, and the delivery of ‘junk’ facts, are all part and parcel of Oliver’s crusade. Prejudices and well-worn horror stories prevail. When ‘fast-food becomes every meal, every day, that’s when we get into difficulties’, claims Oliver. He cites the example of a mother feeding her infant Coke in a baby bottle. He has claimed elsewhere that today’s generation of children will die before their parents. But this is just rehashing middle-class snobbery about the eating habits of the working class and the poor into an attack on fast-food chains, alongside demanding greater intervention into the lives of the majority by those who think they know what’s good for us.

As writers from George Orwell to John Carey have noted, the middle classes have often taken it upon themselves to moralise to the rest of us about how we should eat while turning their collective noses up at any kind of ‘mass’ catering. (Maybe that explains why, when he first tried his hand at mass catering in the form of school dinners, Oliver was useless at it.) In the past, it was fish-and-chip shops and tinned food that attracted opprobrium. Today, the food snobs are appalled by burger joints and microwave meals. Health scares are merely the latest justification for peddling such prejudices, which are still built on thoroughly conservative views about what and how we should eat.

So Oliver ends his letter to the UN with the declaration: ‘Cooking skills and national family meals must be kept alive in homes, schools and communities across the world. Without them, our only option will be the one which is killing us.’ But most people in developed countries get by very nicely without knowing the traditional skills of how to grow food or how to make and repair their own clothes. We find it much more convenient (and efficient) to get other people to do those things for us. So why not have the same attitude towards cooking food, too? If you enjoy cooking, go ahead, it can be fun. But cooking can also be a chore and many of us are glad to have the option not to have to do it three times a day.

But what does seem new is the way that celebs such as Jamie Oliver, Bob Geldof, Bono et al think they have some divine right to lecture the rest of us – including the world’s leaders – on Big Global Issues. What’s even worse is that the political class, desperate to be associated with anyone or anything remotely popular, is all ears. It is bad enough that health policies are so often informed by junk science – it is even worse when that junk science is being parroted by someone whose most recent claim to fame is producing a book of recipes for 30-Minute Meals that no one has ever been able to cook in anything like 30 minutes.

The one food problem that is really worth talking about on a global scale is malnutrition, which is not caused by a technical inability to grow enough food but by something far trickier to solve: poverty. That is one word that doesn’t appear in Jamie Oliver’s letter, and it is one problem that Ban Ki-moon and chums don’t have any meaningful solutions to.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, will be published in October. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

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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