Last Night’s Television: The Future of Food, BBC2
The Street, BBC1
Eat your heart out
Tuesday 18 August 2009
Of all the contenders in the BBC News department, George Alagiah was the perfect pick to present The Future of Food.
Had it been someone with the demeanour of, say, Orla Guerin, the hollow-eyed Africa correspondent who looks as though she last heard a joke in 1981 and could introduce existential angst into a chimps' tea party, then I would have needed to lie down for an hour afterwards in a darkened room. Because the prognosis for food production on our planet is not good. In fact, it is rotten. But Alagiah presented it with a twinkle in his dark eyes and a half-smile playing on his lips, which gave this viewer at least cause for gratitude.
I have always rather liked the cut of Alagiah's jib, so it was good to see his jib out on the road for a change, albeit in pursuit of evidence that we are heading to hell in a handcart, a handcart shedding nutritious food every inch of the way. The statistics came as thick and fast as pancakes in an American diner. Within 15 years, the burgeoning water shortage will have reduced global food production by the extent of the current US grain crop, which is to say, a lot. A billion people lack access to safe water. The impact of climate change on India is already catastrophic, and every single degree increase in temperature means a five per cent decrease in yields. Oh, and apparently it takes two pints of crude oil to produce a roast dinner in a London pub, which came as no great surprise when I considered some of the meals I've had in pubs, although what he meant was the oil required for working the land, transportation, storage and processing.
Alagiah, who spends most of his working life in London's White City, was here dispatched to India, Cuba, Kenya and Mexico, at what cost in crude oil to the licence-payer I wouldn't like to think, although I didn't begrudge him a single air mile, or a single stroll through a sun-dappled plaza.
In whichever direction you look, and he looked in several, the world's food resources are under siege. From the weather, from depleted oil reserves, and indeed from Western consumerism. Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, dropped the stark statistic that a billion people in the world are overweight, and another billion go to sleep hungry every night. No prizes for guessing where the respective billions live. And the Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva exposed the troubling connection between consumption in the West and developing world deprivation. A lettuce exported to England from India comes, she pointed out, with "a heavy water footprint". In other words, their precious water is being used on us, not them. And Britain now imports 40 per cent of its food, up from 20 per cent just two decades ago.
But what would be the financial impact on India's lettuce farmers if, like Tom and Barbara Good writ large, we in Britain were to become self-sufficient in lettuces? Perhaps in another programme in this three-part series, Alagiah will explore the economic dynamics of importing and exporting food. In the meantime, it's clear enough that the world's population needs to change its eating habits, and equally clear that we won't.
Eddie did, though, in the final episode of The Street. Eddie (Timothy Spall), whose wife Margie (Ger Ryan) had gone to look after her ailing father, started making his own packed lunch, with pride of place going to cheese and pickle between two manhole covers disguised as slices of bread. But one day Sandra (Ruth Jones), his colleague on the switchboard at Alpha Zero Cabs, brought him in a variety of healthy salads in Tupperware boxes, the opening salvo in her attempt to get him into bed. Later, she tempted him back to her flat and made him boiled bacon and cabbage, while waxing lyrical about the sardines and salad that she once had on Naxos. I don't know why the writer, Jimmy McGovern, made food so prominent in this slice of Northern life. Maybe to show that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. At any rate, Eddie didn't have it in his heart to refuse Sandra's sexual overtures, with disastrous, in fact fatal consequences (in a curry house) when Margie found out.
Now, all that reads rather like a Coronation Street storyline, but while I am not one to knock Corrie, this version of The Street was practically Shakespearian in terms of its pathos, bathos, and whatever the Third Musketeer's name was. I've been racking my brains to think of other actors who inhabited their characters as completely as the majestic Spall did Eddie, and indeed of characters who were as sublimely written as Eddie was by McGovern, and only Bernard Hill as Alan Bleasdale's creation Yosser Hughes springs instantly to mind, maybe because his travails too were set against a bleak landscape in an industrial Northern city. Whatever, if his performance as Eddie doesn't land Spall a Bafta, then all acting awards should be abolished.
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