Every so often something completely unexpected happens. Usually it’s something bad. The death of President Kennedy when I was 13 and the tragedy of 9/11 when I was 51 stand out in my memory as events which came from nowhere, knocked me sideways and had huge repercussions that are still felt today, not just by me but by everyone.
But this week something equally unexpected, yet good, has happened, and while it’s only the publication of a book, it’s a book that has the potential to do at least as much good in the world as those two events have done harm.
The book is called More Human, and in chapters on Government, schools, health, food, business, nature and much more, it shows how we are losing the essentials of what it is to be human and suggests ways in which we might reverse that process and regain our humanity as individuals and as societies.
The chapter on food pulls no punches; it calls for an outright ban on factory farming, for example. But, while many of the examples it uses to support such calls have also been written about by others, this book has the potential to move mountains where others have not.
There is something powerful and synergistic about a book that paints such a broad picture and sees the common threads between a ruling elite that has become alienated from the real world, excessive bankers’ bonuses and the inherent cruelty of factory farms. A book that gives just one chapter to food, yet makes such a compelling case that the current system can no longer be supported that one chapter is enough to do the job. The book claims:
“We are no longer driven by a human economy; we don’t know where our products come from or how they are created… We live in an age when the consequences of our decisions seem less and less important, because we don’t really know what they are… We troop to the supermarket but don’t see the small businesses and farmers whose livelihoods are wrecked by ‘everyday low prices’. The human consequences of our decisions are felt by people separated from us by time, space, and class.”
But the biggest reason for hope is that the book is written by Steve Hilton, former director of strategy to the Prime Minister, David Cameron. And while Hilton has been parodied by the character of Stewart Pearson in the TV series The Thick of It and seems to invite controversy, dressing in bright yellow T-shirts and orange-coloured trousers, his outspoken honesty and grasp of the issues gives him an irrepressible and naturally charming quality.
In the two years since he left to take up a professorship at Stanford University in the US, ideas of his such as the big society may have lost their traction, but he clearly still has the ear and the friendship of his former political colleagues. The post-book launch party to which I was invited on Tuesday evening was attended by David and Samantha Cameron, the Chancellor George Osborne, Oliver Letwin and former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, amongst other influential figures.
Food and farming
Hilton demands to know how we have sunk so low as to allow such levels of cruelty in the production of food. For him this is an issue of ethics and our humanity; he says factory farming is torture and should be considered as morally wrong as slavery. And just as Britain took a global lead in banning slavery, he feels we should do the same with factory-farmed animals. Eating factory-farmed meat, he argues, is “cruelty by proxy”.
But he recognises that not everybody is making an informed choice when they buy food. Instead, people are made to behave in inhuman ways by the systems and structures around them – it’s the politicians, regulators and business executives who are the real culprits. And what is new to my ears about this is only that he’s been saying this to his influential political friends for some time.
Hilton is still a capitalist and totally associated with a political party itself connected with this. He’s pro-business too, but he wants to see business being honest, decent and held to account.
Food, he tells us has become untraceable. When we go to a café or get a takeaway, how can we know for sure that what we’re eating hasn’t come from a factory farm? Hilton details some of the ways in which Big Food retains its consumer control; first and foremost being engineered to be addictive. Companies like Kraft and PepsiCo, he says, spend millions of dollars a year on researching how to reach the ‘optimisation’ point with a product – i.e. how to make people want to keep eating it. They’ve found that bland food fills you up but you don’t feel like stopping, whereas strong flavours overwhelm the brain, which suppresses your appetite for more.
True cost accounting for food
But the real killer strategy has been spinning the lie that good food is expensive, whilst their food is cheap. “Why do you think factory food is cheap?” asks Hilton, “It’s not because it’s inherently cheaper or more ‘efficient’ to farm animals and process them in a highly mechanised way. We’ve chosen to make it cheaper as a deliberate act of policy, through direct and indirect corporate subsidies, regulations and laws to protect Big Food and crush any challenge to it.”
This all comes down to true cost accounting. Hilton quotes SFT Chief Executive Patrick Holden, “Most people have little idea just how much they are paying for food in hidden ways. The failure to introduce true cost accounting into food and agricultural policy is the biggest single impediment to the wider uptake of more sustainable farming.”
Hilton emphasises the health issues associated with factory food, especially the looming crisis of antibiotic resistance. The industrial system may look efficient, he says, but it is inherently fragile and open to huge risks – major disease outbreaks being one of them. Obesity and its related diseases are also major costs, predicted to reach £49.9 billion per year by 2050 in the UK alone.
There are though huge costs that Hilton doesn’t cover adequately; all those associated fertilisers, pesticides, soil degradation and much more. And he doesn’t quite seem to get the fundamental part played by current farming systems in the dramatic decline in biodiversity – the role, for example of monocultures (and the pesticides that make them possible) in the collapse of pollinating insects, farmland birds and the populations of many small mammals, even though these are driven by the same forces he identifies elsewhere in the book.
He does, however, recognise something fundamental about our modern food system. That the root of the problem stems from the rise of industrial farming, which he illustrates with a story about the replacement of horses with tractors; Farmers “were no longer limited by hours in the day but by how many acres they had. Except that without enough acres, they couldn’t actually pay off the cost of the tractor. So they took out more loans, bought more land, and farmed it like never before.” Increased productivity drove down prices, and farmers became trapped by the endless cycle of debt.
The tractor example is brave. At one level it will seem to many that he’s gone too far. How many farmers could or would go back to working the land with horses, and even if they did, might we not simply create another huge area where the abuse of farm animals could occur? Yet, tractors here are little more than a metaphor and just one small component of the industrial food production; fertiliser, pesticides and GM crops all have similar effects. It is here that Hilton gives a stark warning, that this technology is masking the productive capacity of our soils and that ultimately this will doom future food production. “Simplistically: no nitrogen, no crops, no food.” Farming has become a “depletive act”, Hilton says.
What he really wants is true cost accounting, redirection of subsidies to farmers who do the right thing, and an outright ban on factory farms. But his experience with government has left him under no illusions about political apathy and fear of change. So he lowers his expectations – a little.
First and foremost he argues people should know where their food comes from. Current labels, he feels, are useless. People won’t get a truthful image of the origin of the food they eat unless at least a portion of the packaging is given over to honest images depicting where the food is produced. This must surely count as a radical proposal and one that will seem far-fetched. Yet, it’s not that long ago that the idea of putting ‘smoking kills’ on packets of cigarettes seemed just as impossible to achieve.
Certification schemes get a similar dismissal to labelling, he calls them, “just another black box that consumers don’t really understand and can’t see into”.
Another radical suggestion, which apparently got nowhere when he was helping government, was that 24 hour videos of every part of every facility of every factory farm and every food factory be live streamed online. And yet here too there are signs of movement. The campaign to introduce CCTV cameras into every abattoir may not have achieved its goal yet but the moral argument that they are needed is now fully established.
He also thinks the true risks associated with factory farming, such as major disease outbreaks, antibiotic resistance and reliance on unsustainable energy, should be reflected in share prices. This, Hilton argues, would be beating Big Food at its own game.
But what really underpins his thinking is more fundamental than these ideas. He believes, “We need to dismantle and reconstruct the entire food industry.”
More Human isn’t going to change the world on its own or overnight, but its importance lies in the fact that it sets out an optimistic vision for the future, and that it opens up a crack in the establishment view that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the current cheap food policy. Campaigning organisations still have their work to do, to counter the well funded industry farming lobby, but if we do our job well and as thoroughly as we possibly can, then on those occasions when we get the ear of a Minister something might just click, that they have actually already heard something similar from within their own ranks.
Photograph: Policy Exchange
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