Food: shape, speculators and security

Article: Food

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The credit crunch has modified attitudes and the public perception of food. While the foodie lifestyle, and food culture is alive and well (though ‘organic’ has suffered a little), health and wellness in the wider sense is back on the food agenda.

Allan Jenkins is editor of the Observer Food Monthly, a supplement which comes with the Observer Sunday newspaper in the UK. Now in its 10th year, the multi-award winning magazine has tracked the change in food culture during the boom times, and now the crunch times, and has followed the rise of celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey, to 24/7 wall-to-wall food TV.

The Curve asked Jenkins about consumers’ shifting relationship to food and what will be driving the food agenda. He highlighted some dramatic changes that will shape communications around food.

The Curve: What does the phenomenon of celebrity chefs say about our relationships to food in 2011?

Allan Jenkins: Jamie Oliver does say something quite interesting about food culture because he chooses to say interesting stuff about food culture. He challenges the idea of obesity in children, partly it was to do with that lad schtick he had at the beginning of his career which wasn’t working any more.

He did the kids thing and suddenly he had a whole new breadth of career, energy and direction to some extent. Oliver does the big TED events and tries to look at America. He challenges America, but also at the same time sold a million pounds worth of books in three months.

“There's that idea of connection of where something comes from”

For the sake of argument these are the two paradigms of food coming out of the last decade, and the Jamie Oliver version – a more reflective take – is where we are heading?

The story with Jamie is still about food, whether it’s food in schools, whether it’s about education, or fat, or mothers pushing burgers through the school fence. You thought you’d never see that in a million years, mothers fighting for the right to feed crap to their children.


Your magazine does celebrity chef, or at least ‘hero chefs’, but also does other things, such as growing food in Africa, issues around provenance of food?

We did a thing last issue celebrating those other people who actually make those kitchens work. We used a lot of photographs to grab people’s attention to make it brighter and make it appeal to people who aren’t just interested in food per se.

But the piece that got the most traction was just a small piece that we put in with just a few drawings and no clever images. It was a piece on food security and the price of food and food speculation. The magazine is basically an education sandwich so people do like Heston Blumenthal, but you also say ‘Hang on! Look at this, look at some trends’. One of the interesting trends is that people are now smoking their own fish, but another trend is that the week we came out with that piece, Tunisia took down a government because of food that tore a dictatorship apart, and the thing that put people on the street was the price of food.

“It's all very well giving a portion of your business to someone in Africa, but if you're not making any profit you are not doing them any good”

So what is driving the agenda around food?

At the moment we have banks who can no longer speculate on property and are now speculating on food futures. There was a hedge fund last year who owned something like 10 per cent of the world’s cocoa. They bet on coffee, or they bet on grain. The price of grain goes up 20 to 40 percent in two months but people’s income doesn’t, especially in poor countries whose diet relies on grain. And that’s when you tear down the Tunisian Government. And that, to some extent, is why Egypt turned.

It’s interesting – a totally repressive regime will pour money into subsidising staple foods. It’s like that old idea that ‘religion is the opium of the people’, the truth is that ‘rice and grain are the opium of the people’ because you can run a dictatorship as long as people aren’t hungry. Hunger hits. (Read The Guardian editorial Food security: bread and freedom).

If you can’t have any political debate, and you can’t have anything else and you’re hungry, the least dictatorships have always done is feed their people. And that’s the problem for North Korea because it can’t do that. But if there are two guys in London and two guys in Chicago speculating, that’s something that’s never been seen in history before – 24-hour markets speculating on grain.

Read part two

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