The starting point for Bee Wilson’s latest book is the fact that we face an unusual crisis in food and eating. No longer are we struggling to grow enough food to feed the world. Instead we have tipped into a situation where we are consuming so much junk food that poor diets have become the ‘single greatest cause of death in the world’.
It started, as so often with man-made crises, with good intentions. ‘Abundance’ is the hollow word that rings out as Wilson describes how scientists have attempted to pump up the volume of agricultural production. The early 20th century saw the introduction of the Haber-Bosch process, ‘a method for synthesising ammonia which made highly effective nitrogen fertilisers cheap to produce for the first time’. This might not sound like a particularly fascinating development, but with her characteristic eye for a gripping statistic, Wilson goes on to explain that ‘as of 2002, 40 per cent of the world’s population owed their existence to the Haber-Bosch process’. And with that solution to world hunger came the problems of world eating.
The fact that we can even discuss world eating is itself part of the problem. Wilson is terrifyingly convincing on the problems of globalised food production. Everywhere, foodstuffs are pumped out by the same vast corporations, introducing the same exploitative models to strip consumers of healthier traditional foods.