Learning the locusts’ lesson

We depend on insects for our existence, yet we abuse them casually.

Some years ago, at a time in my life when I was close to unemployable, a friend wangled me a job at Zoology Field Station No 3 (Insect Breeding), which, in spite of its grand title, was a series of small, almost ramshackle wooden huts and a couple of old glasshouses on a tiny plot of land just off Huntingdon Road in Cambridge.

My task there was simple: I grew plants to feed to the locusts and tobacco moths, I carried buckets of food mush into the cockroach house and scattered it across the concrete floor and I vacuumed the glass cases where the various insect tribes lived and died, and, in ways that never ceased to fascinate me, transformed themselves from one form into another. The locusts were my favourites: they would fasten themselves, upside down, to the side of the case, then gradually slip free of their old skin, leaving behind a perfect, if slightly shrunken image of the shining new body that had emerged. It was an astonishingly beautiful process and I would often take my lunch in the locust room so I could watch it happen, over and over, the new form emerging from the old, the massive continuum of transformation that is the essence of what we call nature, occurring before my eyes in one emblematic instance, endlessly repeated, yet always individual in the fine detail.

It is common knowledge, now, that we depend on insects for our continued existence; that, without key pollinators, the human population would collapse in less than a decade. Yet there is no other life form on the planet that we abuse so casually, as the current neonicotinoid controversy shows. In serious matters, our duty is to err on the side of caution – a policy that goes undisputed when the ecology of Wall Street or the City of London is in apparent jeopardy – but when it comes to safeguarding bees, all manner of folk, from government departments to the National Farmers Union, are now up in arms about the proposed ban.

Meanwhile, all over the country, garden centres and hardware stores are stocking their shelves for the summer with a wide variety of poisons, so their untrained and unconcerned customers can eliminate any variety of insect life that might cause them the least annoyance.

In response to the introduction of agricultural DDT in 1945, the great entomologist and popular science writer Edwin Way Teale said, “A spray as indiscriminate as DDT can upset the economy of nature as much as a revolution upsets social economy. Ninety per cent of all insects are good and if they are killed, things go out of kilter right away.”

When Teale uses the word “good” here, he is speaking from a human point of view. There is no good or bad in nature, which is the great lesson that careful attention to insect life teaches us – and nobody paid closer attention to insects than Teale. He saw how essential even the most common or, to human eyes, annoying bugs are to the economy of nature but he also understood that the lessons they teach us can be subtly philosophical, even spiritual.

“In nature, there is less death and destruction than death and transmutation,” he said – and, as I munched on my cheese and pickle sandwiches in the locust room at Field Station No 3 almost three decades ago, I was subtly, perhaps even subliminally, learning the truth of that saying.

As they move from phase to phase of their life cycles or shrug off an old skin to emerge brightly reborn in the summer light, insects remind us that life’s changes, life’s transmutations, are subtler and more varied than we think – and that our ordinary narratives of profit and loss are rather tawdry compared to the generational play of the butterfly, which in ancient Greece (lest we forget) was synonymous with the soul. 

There is no good or bad in nature. Photograph: Laura Letinsky/Gallerystock
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The cult of clean eating in a fast-food nation

In Britain, it used to be vulgar to comment on one’s food. Now, it’s a bit weird not to.

These are the top food trends that the British media predicted for 2016: seaweed, parsnip puddings and sprouted seeds. And yet what was the most popular recipe on BBC Good Food, the country’s biggest cooking site? Lemon drizzle cake. When it comes to the food that we eat, the gulf between fantasy and fact has never been wider.

A third of British children are overweight, yet from the pictures tagged as “kids’ food” on the photo-sharing platform Instagram you would think they lived on pumpkin muffins and raw breakfast cereal. The same site boasts 290,229 posts on #avocadotoast and a mere 7,219 for #baconbutty, but I would bet my best spiraliser that we eat more of the latter.

Food trends have always been the preserve of those wealthy enough to enjoy the luxury of choice. If social media had been around in the 18th century, the exotic pineapple would have been trending heavily even as the majority of Britons subsisted on bread and gruel. Yet rarely have these fads been so hard to ignore: right now, we are a society obsessed with our stomachs . . . or, at least, our eyes, given that these seem to do much of the consuming.

The average British adult spends five hours a week watching, reading about, browsing and posting about food – and just four cooking it. A record 14.8 million of us tuned in to the final of The Great British Bake Off – almost as many as saw England’s dismal performance against Iceland in last year’s Euros – yet the most commonly eaten meal in the UK is a sandwich. That conjures a depressing image of each one of us sitting in front of a screen, scrolling through endless pictures of kale smoothies and activated quinoa as we tuck in to a floppy BLT.

A nation in which it was once considered vulgar to comment on one’s food has turned into one where it’s a bit weird not to. The current feverish interest in all things culinary feels, I imagine, like the Sixties must have done after Britain discovered sex “Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP”. And as with the sexual revolution and its fantasies of free love and cosmic joy through tantric chanting, perhaps the idea is more popular than the reality: increasingly, this endless parade of recipes cooked and meals eaten seems to be about more than the food itself.

While sex has (largely) thrown off its ancient shackles of judgement and shame, our diets are increasingly becoming their own morality tale. Once upon a time, “bad food” meant adulterated food – cheese dyed using lead, bread bleached with chalk – or perhaps cruel food, such as battery-farmed eggs. Occasionally someone who seemed to take too much pleasure in their meals might feel the weight of the country’s Protestant past, but wholesome food was generally seen as good rather than sinful.

Social media can’t be wholly to blame for the demonising of simple nourishment in the 21st century. Writing in the Observer last year, the philosopher Julian Baggini cited Salman Rushdie’s “naughty but nice” cream-cake advertising slogan from the Seventies as an early example; but “wicked” food was once a largely playful concept. Now, it is hard to find the humour in the modern idea of clean eating or, indeed, in its “dirty” dark side.

Clean eating, if you’ve been lucky enough to have avoided the torrent of smoothie bowls and bone broths pouring forth from screen, billboard and printed page in recent years, is a way of life (most adherents reject the word “diet”) with many rules – the Hemsley sisters’ “simple, mindful and intuitive” approach for “a long-term lifestyle change” takes up six pages of their bestselling recipe book Good + Simple. But there is little consensus among its advocates as to what these rules are.

Although clean eating is often described merely as a movement that champions minimally processed, “natural” foods, one of the few things that unites its various congregations is the need to eliminate what they deem to be unclean alternatives. Gluten is a popular target for dismissal, because it can be “hard to digest”; legumes are sometimes blamed for “bloating”. Cane sugar is definitely out, but consumption of dates and honey is actively encouraged, often served with a generous spoonful of coconut oil or nut butter (but not peanut butter, because that “gives you cancer”).

Given the often spurious scientific grounds for these strictures (tomatoes are said to cause inflammation; dairy steals the calcium from your bones), it’s little wonder that clean eating stands accused of promoting what the food writer Bee Wilson described recently as a “twisted attitude to food”, valuing certain ingredients as pure and cleansing, while others come with an unwanted side order of guilt and anxiety.

The backlash wasn’t long in coming – and on social media, the crucible of the eat-clean craze, nothing is served in moderation. “Dirty” food, which revels in its own naughtiness, is the inevitable flip side of the clean-eating coin, a world where adherents compete to outdo each other in crimes against cookery. Online audiences encourage such extremes; they like their food, to misquote Longfellow, either very, very good or horrid. In short, a simple spag bol is never going to get as much attention on Twitter as an “Italian-style” beefburger, dripping with Bolognese sauce, drenched in Parmesan, and served between two slabs of deep-fried pasta (this does exist).

Such fantastical foods are fine online; as with pornography, the problem comes when they influence the way people eat in real life. Bee Wilson, who was subjected to a barrage of online abuse when she dared to question the thinking behind one clean-eating guru’s “philosophy” at last year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival, cites growing evidence of the dangers of clean eating from those working with people who suffers from eating disorders. One specialist in London told the Sunday Times in May that between 80 and 90 per cent of his patients were following so-called clean diets.

At the other end of the spectrum, an ­Oxford University study published last year in the journal Brain and Cognition explored the possibility that “exposure to images of desirable foods can trigger inhibitory cognitive processes such as self-restraint”. The researchers concluded that our brain has to make a great effort to resist temptation when looking at “food porn”, in order to “maintain a reasonably healthy weight”. And not everyone succeeds.

It remains to be seen whether this appetite for public displays of ingestion endures. I can’t imagine the world needs any more pictures of fried eggs but others disagree: 264 have been added to Instagram in the time it has taken me to write this piece.

Technology will decide – work is already under way on virtual-reality headsets that allow diners to eat one food while looking at an image of another. This is a significant development, as evidence suggests that changing the appearance of food can affect our perception of its taste and flavour.

It is possible to imagine, in the not-too-distant future, chowing down on a plate of steamed fish while gazing lasciviously at a bacon cheeseburger. Or we could just learn the old-fashioned art of moderation. Is there a hashtag for that?

Felicity Cloake writes the New Statesman’s food column

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 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times