Food is complicated. For those that read Wicked Leeks regularly, this will come as no great shock. For chef turned blogger turned author Anthony Warner, the absolute cardinal sin is espousing simple solutions that claim to solve all our food woes.
“It’s a complex problem that people really want simple solutions to, and there are no simple solutions,” says Warner. “Very much part of being human is wanting simple solutions to complex problems. They don’t always exist. In the space where people desire them is where a lot of pseudo-science comes from.”
In 2014 Warner made a name for himself “exposing lies, pretensions and stupidity in the world of food”, in his blog Angry Chef. The initial target of his pent-up fury was the pseudo-science rife among food media, especially Instagram and Twitter.
The success of his funny, well researched, expletive-replete, myth-busting rants has subsequently led to the publication of a trilogy of books all about food.
“The first book was The Angry Chef, which was about those health diets, The Truth About Fat was about obesity, and the most recent book is about the sustainability of our food system,” Warner explains. “I felt those were the three big areas where we get misled and where there is a lot of misunderstanding about our food.”
The premise to Warner’s most recent book, Ending Hunger: The Quest to Feed the World Without Destroying it, is, indeed, an intriguing take on the sustainability of our food system.
“My belief is that our modern food system is actually an incredible and remarkable thing,” continues Warner. “It’s an easy thing to forget because it’s so effortless for us to live a life where we don’t really encounter hunger.”
In a world that is sailing towards environmental Armageddon driven in part by industrial agriculture, where the worldwide prevalence of obesity has tripled since 1975, where even in the UK, it is estimated that food poverty affects 8.4 million people, to say that our food system is “extraordinary”, in a positive way at least, could be deemed a little tactless.
“I know there are people in this country who do experience, certainly undernutrition. But it is pretty frankly such a rare thing for people not to have enough to eat,” emphasises Warner. “The fact that we can have such low rates of hunger in recorded history is something that we should celebrate.”
Warner backs this up with an armoury of stats to hand showing the declines of hunger over time as a global average. Although he is keen to stress that for the first time in decades this is starting to tip in the other direction due to climate change.
“I think it’s really important to understand the importance of a food system that doesn’t result in mass hunger. Look at hunger through the ages and realise how devastating it is, and humans don’t do anything beyond survival when they’re struggling for food,” he says.
Warner claims that this aspect of the food system, that crucially it needs to feed people, is all too often forgotten by environmental conversations.
And it’s an experience he feels particularly personally, and reveals why he puts such an unusual emphasis on hunger.
His teenage daughter battled with emetophobia, an eating disorder that manifested in an extreme fear of vomit. “She was starving in front of my eyes,” Warner describes in his book. “True hunger is deadly and insidious. I have seen what real hunger looks like and I would not wish it on anyone.”
It is partly this traumatic experience that he says was “formative” in his writing, plus his degree in biochemistry, and 25 years of experience as a chef, which inform his insight into the world of food. It’s an unusual combination of influences and not one that is easy to pin down.
There is nuance to his arguments that can come off as conflicting at times. He is pro gene editing, fertiliser, and technology, but also pro rewilding, anti-industrial meat, and wary of silver bullet solutions like fake meat. “You know you’re doing alright when different sides of the debate don’t like you,” he chuckles.
For instance, he extols the work of the Green Revolution pioneer Norman Borlaug as a “genius” who developed modern varieties of wheat in the 1960s. But he also accepts and criticises the destructive effects of the industrial, chemical-heavy model that was subsequently created.
Similarly, he is highly critical of retrograde messages that claim that a return to small organic farms and ancient practices will solve all our societal and food issues. But, typically contradictory, he also believes that the techniques of organic farming have an important role to play.
“Organic can create good practice and an evidence base which can be then rolled out and influence conventional agriculture,” he explains.
Despite his own strong opinions, Warner concedes that food is messy and complicated, and that’s even without addressing how politics and power affects it all.
“I am very keen that people don’t worry and blame themselves for food choices,” Warner insists. “Food should be a pleasure and free from guilt because the real problems are systemic and aren’t going to be changed by one particular meal.”
But does this celebration of the food system simply justify inaction and the status quo, and cement the path towards further environmental meltdown?
Warner argues that humans are not inherently evil and, in his book, writes that “much of the destruction has been the result of our battle against hunger, and it is hard to view that as anything other than a noble cause.”
In this sense, he seems to advocate for an attitude of acceptance rather than celebration. Perhaps it’s an acceptance that is desperately needed before we can foster a more productive collaboration, one in which we are all pulling in the same direction in order to overcome the great many challenges of our time.
Ending Hunger: The Quest to Feed the World Without Destroying it by Anthony Warner is out now (Oneworld Publications).