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

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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