Paying the price

It's hard to keep your conscience entirely clear while shopping for food

When you examine your shopping bag and your conscience, how easy do you feel? If you are a carnivore, is the meat free-range? Are the vegetables seasonal? What is their carbon footprint? Have you patronised small producers? Have you shopped at a supermarket or in a local independent? And is your bag ecologically sound?

Not many of us can give ourselves a high pass mark in this test. It tends to be contingency, rather than conscience, that dictates our consuming habits. And even when we do what is supposedly the right thing, we do not feel entirely good about it. It is like giving money to charity: it always seems to be a morally compromised action.

These thoughts have been prompted by watching Hugh's Chicken Run (Channel 4), in which Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall set out to convince his neighbours in Axminster, Devon, to convert to free-range chickens in preference to intensively farmed birds - the attraction of which was that they were "two for £5" at Tesco. You or I might produce leaflets, lobby retailers, arrange a town meeting: Fearnley-Whittingstall did all that, and also set up a temporary chicken farm. In one half of a large shed, he kept chickens in free-range conditions, with access to the open air; in the other, he packed them in three times as densely, as a factory farmer would do.

Meanwhile, residents of a local estate were managing their own, Fearnley-Whittingstall-sponsored, small-scale chicken farm. When they visited the intensive operation, most of them were shocked into concluding that they would not want to eat animals reared in such a way.

The exception was an assertive woman called Hayley. An enthusiastic assumer of the lead role in the estate's farming project, Hayley nonetheless continued to insist that factory-farmed birds were the ones for her. As a single mother, she could not afford more expensive options. "That," she said, pointing to the grim half of the shed, "is the reality."

I wrote rather smugly here last year about how, with a little menu-planning, you could ensure that a free-range chicken was an inexpensive purchase; Fearnley-Whittingstall made the same point on air when he used a chicken carcass to prepare a risotto for five. But risotto with sweetcorn and cobnuts is not a dish that's likely to get whipped up in Hayley's kitchen.

At least Hayley looked unblinkingly at her choices. What realities do I ignore? I may insist on free-range or organic chicken, but I am not so rigorous when it comes to bacon. My daughters prefer Tesco's "Wiltshire cure" bacon to the butcher's ethically produced version; the trip to Tesco Express is a three-minute walk; the butcher, further away, is somewhere I visit once a week. These are lamer excuses than Hayley's. So, though already a convert, I did not watch Hugh's Chicken Run with any sense of salvation.

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism