Eat yourself fitter

The Great Food Gamble

John Humphrys <em>Hodder & Stoughton, 306pp, 12.99</em>

ISBN 0340770457

The Great Food Gamble ends with a set-piece interview between John Humphrys, enemy of modern cant, and . . . er, John Humphrys, enemy of modern intensive farming. You can picture the scene: Humphrys No 1 is at home - perhaps after a long, hard morning jousting with politicians - a tape recorder and bowl of organic cornflakes in front of him, a mirror opposite. And what does he see in the mirror? Why, he sees good old craggy, white-haired Humphrys No 2, the very image of avuncular wisdom, with his homely good sense and forehead as crinkled as an accordion. The conversation that follows, as recorded in this book, has all the spontaneity of canned laughter, with No 1 subjecting No 2 to a Today-style interrogation, punctuated by the occasional waggish aside. Oh, what fun!

Now, the dialogue is part of a long and noble tradition in western thought. It is a philosophical form, at once digressive, flexible and, crucially, self-revelatory. For Plato, the dialogue was the ideal medium through which to animate the genius of Socrates and grapple with epistemological uncertainties. For the poet Andrew Marvell, writing before the Cartesian turn in philosophy, the dialogue afforded a stylised representation of the duality and conflicts of the self, as in his famous poem "A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body", in which a soul and a body are locked in antagonistic combat. This poetic dialogue, to adapt Schlegel on Shakespeare's sonnets, has the power to acquaint one with the passions of man. For Humphrys, however, the dialogue serves as nothing more than an engine of self-congratulation, acquainting one not so much with the passions as the passionlessness of BBC Man.

Reading The Great Food Gamble, you lose count of the times that Humphrys reminds you of his role at the BBC, posturing before the ephemeral microphone - as if we could ever forget, John, as if we could ever forget. Which is a shame, because at its best, his book has a strong polemical purpose. It is both a warning (of the dangers of industrialised farming) and a plea (for a return to more balanced, sustainable agricultural practices). It is driven by conviction and by a certain pastoral fatalism - it can be read as the latest contribution to the thriving sub-genre of eco-cultural criticism, the leading practitioner of which is Jonathan Bate (whose The Song of the Earth was published last year).

Humphrys is a hard pessimist. Distrust is the defining characteristic of his work, as an author and broadcaster. He boasts here of trusting no one, least of all scientists, and he specialises in a curious form of ad hominem attack - those academics writing against organic farming are invariably caricatured as having been funded by vested interests.

More worryingly, Humphrys emerges as an archetype of the modern confrontational journalist. He is the model of the public pontificator who builds an entire career on magisterial distrust. But what must this relentless distrust, the daily desire to expose and humiliate those in public office, do to the soul? After all, the politicians may change - they are, as Robin Day once said during a celebrated interview with John Nott, nothing but transient figures, "here today, gone tomorrow" - but our leading commentators and broadcasters remain ever the same: the thick-haired Dimblebys, the small but perfectly formed Simon Jenkins, the bouffant Paxman, the omnipotent Hugo Young, the sage Humphrys. Here are journalists in thrall to their own instant opinions, endlessly seeking to entrap and condemn. The result is a degraded and infantile culture, in which the slightest equivocation is seized upon as a sign of weakness, in which doubt has no place and the government must be immediately and absolutely certain on each and every issue of the day. Small wonder, then, that our politicians increasingly cower like cardinals in their cathedrals of lies. (Listening to Humphrys on the Today programme, you can't help thinking that he would be happiest if an interviewee simply said: "OK, John, I agree: Tony Blair is a wanker and I'm a complete fraud.")

Humphrys was motivated to write this book, he says, by the BSE catastrophe, which prompted the need for a "proper national debate which addressed the most fundamental questions [sic]. Sadly it took another great farming crisis to bring that debate about." Well, yes and no. The likes of Colin Tudge and Peter Singer, and even Prince Charles, had warned of the barbarity of industrialised farming long before BSE became an acronym even more dreaded in this country than Aids. Yet Humphrys is correct to call for a national debate, and he is sincere in his passionate irritation, even if, in his position of contented affluence, he fails fully to empathise with those who must daily feed large families while living on less than the basic minimum wage - those who have perhaps benefited most from the availability of mass-produced, and thus cheap, food.

No, what disturbs most about the book is its under-lying self-congratulatory tone and its wrong-headed conception of science. How can anyone trust scientists, he writes, "when they disagree with each other all the time and when each new generation of scientists disproves half the conclusions reached by the previous one?"

Here, alas, is yet another example of Humphrys's immoderate demand for certainty, which so undermines his journalism. For science is nothing if not progressive, open to endless improvement and refinement. While Aristotle's ethics and aesthetics remain compellingly contemporary, his science is now read merely for historical interest. In agriculture - as in medicine, defence electronics and so many other aspects of our lives - science has enjoyed spectacular success; and it has done so because we have learnt from the experience and failures of those who have gone before. Error is fundamental to the progressive nature of scientific knowledge. If we have a problem with our method of food production, science, not a reactionary retreat into the past, provides by far the best hope of solving it.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A spin too far