The politics of food is a story that will be revisited many times in the next decade as pressure on resources mounts. And it’s one where the growing impact of advocacy journalism is evident.
We’ve already seen riots in Algeria, Haiti, Senegal and Bangladesh over rising food commodity prices.
Climate change, growing populations, pollution, drought, migration and consumption habits in the developed world all contribute to imbalances in supply and demand, with a knock-on effect on the stability of prices.
Wyatt Investment Research has said it expects food riots in the US within the next 18 months, on the basis that food stamp participation has risen sharply and shows no sign of abating.
The researcher Kevin McElroy says that more than 42 million US citizens rely on stamps, which amounts to 14% of the population being already unable to afford to feed themselves.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Big Fish Fight, which began on Channel 4 on Tuesday night, taps into the politics of food, with the chef using his celebrity status to champion sustainable fishing practices and to seek changes to Europe’s Common Fisheries Policy.
Whatever your views on discards (almost half of all fish caught in the North Sea are apparently thrown back dead), the campaign has been skilfully coordinated between TV, the web and external partners to tap into crowd-power in an attempt to effect change.
If you’d dived onto Google during the programme, as I did, you’d have seen hashtagged tweets barrelling through the search results page at a huge rate of knots.
The programme’s Facebook page (above) is active and the campaign has captured 276,000 signatories to a letter that is going to EU Commissioner Maria Damanaki, MEPs and members of the Common Fisheries Policy Reform Group.
Harnessing signatures to apply political pressure sends a strong message to businesses, institutions and government. But on its own, it’s not enough.
At grassroots level, Fearnley-Whittingstall wants people to move away from eating overfished species such as cod and to try alternative varieties.
The message is being carried into the chip shops of Britain where owners are being urged to back the campaign by offering sustainable mackerel as an option and to display stickers in their windows declaring their support.
An online pin-sticker map will let consumers seek out the chippies that support the campaign and, presumably, avoid the ones that don’t.
Changing footfall patterns and consumer habits – hitting businesses at the till – is much more powerful.
Fearnley-Whittingstall has already notched up a couple of successes. Before the campaign went public, Tesco – which was in his sights over its “marine friendly” labelling – pledged that all of its own-label canned tuna would be caught using more sustainable pole-and-line fishing techniques by 2012.
Selfridges also committed itself to stocking only sustainably sourced fish products in its food halls and restaurants.
Now, at the BBC we’ve been reporting on this stuff, consistently, for ages. An article from 2006 by my colleague Richard Black, the news website’s environment correspondent, is headlined “Only 50 years left” for sea fish.
A more recent piece states: Over-fishing means UK trawlers have to work 17 times as hard for the same fish catch as 120 years ago.
It begs the question: why does it fall to a celebrity chef to carry the argument? For that matter, why is Jamie Oliver in the vanguard of trying to change a nation’s school meals and eating habits? When did he become the new-age John Pilger?
Celebrities, of course, have always lent their names to causes they believe in. The difference now is they’re doing far more than merely endorsing.
Fearnley-Whittingstall and Oliver are asking the questions and taking us on a journey as they front up to the people they think can supply the answers. These are chefs with a cause who are whipping up a controversy and doing a great job in focusing attention on the issue.
John Lloyd, writing in the FT, has highlighted the danger of surrendering journalistic neutrality for the polemical approach that is gaining ground on US cable networks. He describes it as:
“… a broadcast journalism deeply convinced of the rectitude of its own point of view, and skilled in using the medium to imprint that view on the mind, and the emotions, through image, interview and evocative music”.
The bedrock of trust in information comes from rigorous enquiry, honest reporting and non-partisan perspectives, delivered without fear or favour.
So we have to be careful not to compromise a hard-won reputation for enquiring journalism.
But it does beg the question: is our journalism compelling enough to galvanise people to act – even if we have to stop short of making the connections to activism?
Is that our role, anyway? Or should we continue to simply present evidence and leave the newly informed people to act on their own volition?