Work fair: a tea grower waters his crops in Changxing County, eastern China. Photo: XU YU/XINHUA PRESS/CORBIS
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The everyday heroes who think about what they eat

Julian Baggini thinks that eating well is one of the most important ways we live our values. But would he ask a dinner host where she got her chicken?

I’m trying to work out what kind of dinner guest Julian Baggini would make. The philosopher has just told me that he routinely quizzes waiting staff on the provenance of their meat – but would he do the same to a friend?

He hesitates, weighing up the obligations of hospitality against the responsibilities of the consumer, and then moves the conversation on to his pescetarian past, leaving the question hanging between us. I’m fairly sure that he wouldn’t refuse your roast chicken if you were a bit hazy about its origins (as he observes, such a gesture is of little benefit to the animal concerned) but I’m not guaranteeing it.

Questions of this sort come up a lot in his latest book, The Virtues of the Table, a rare foray into the philosophy of food. I wonder why the subject has received so little attention in the past, given that even Aristotle had to eat.

We decide to pin the blame on a historical tendency to privilege the intellectual life over the mere “plumbing” of our physical existence (though, as Baggini wryly observes, the fact that it’s “very hard” to be pretentious about “nutrition and excretion” may have something to do with it, too).

But in an age when even petrol station pasties proclaim their artisan credentials, it’s amazing how incurious we are about the food we eat; even those of us who think of ourselves as conscientious consumers rarely look beyond the particular buzzwords that we have decided fit our world-view. Such labels – “local”, “Fairtrade”, “sustainable” – undoubtedly save time at the supermarket, but matters are rarely so simple. There is no algorithm to help you make the right choices every time.

For example, I drink organic milk on welfare grounds, yet I have farmer friends who, like the cheese-maker quoted in Baggini’s book, would never switch to organic for the same reason: “If I get sick, I’ll go to the bloody doctor and get antibiotics and I’d expect to do the same thing with my animals.”

Baggini would like us all to ask a few more questions about our milk, our coffee and even our Egg McMuffin (free-range, he notes approvingly), and not to beat ourselves up over every slip. “If you accept you can only ever do your best, you won’t get disillusioned,” he says, when, for instance, someone publishes an exposé of exploitation in Fairtrade co-operatives or the environmental cost of British tomatoes. And though the Auguste Escoffier quotation that serves as the book’s epigraph (“To know how to eat is to know how to live”) may sound rather grandiose if you’re opening a tin of beans, Baggini thinks that eating well is one of the most important ways in which we live our values.

“You don’t become a good person by performing occasional acts of great heroism,” he points out. It’s the quotidian things that make a difference – the decision to spend a little more on our morning cuppa to ensure that growers in Malawi are paid fairly for their crop, or just taking a moment to appreciate and be thankful for that tea.

Baggini believes that if we embrace ideals such as compassion, justice and generosity in the choices we make three times a day, the food we eat will have the power to make us better people. As becoming a better person is an ongoing project of mine, it’s a relief to discover that the coffee shop I have chosen for our rendezvous boasts impeccably sourced beans and has hidden its rather less carefully sourced milk behind the counter, away from my companion’s eagle eye. I don’t think he’d have refused that flat white if he’d known . . . but then again, I’m not 100 per cent sure.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.