The Potato Famine Diet

I’m not a fan of ‘the past’. There’s too much of it quite frankly, most of it is messy and violent, full of bad people with bad ideas and there’s no internet. (Yep, sorry folks, I’m one of those dreaded ‘millennials’ that are apparently ruining everything, sorry……..#notsorry)

I feel in the minority however, most people these days love the past! They’re obsessed with it. So much so they will stop at nothing to take us back to it!

It may surprise you that I am not actually talking about politics (for once). I’m talking about food. More specifically I’m talking about diets. There’s a trend in faddy diets and ‘clean’ eating at the moment that focusses on going ‘back to basics’, going back to a simpler time and eating like our ancestors did. They obviously make a convincing argument, the whole ‘wellness’, ‘clean eating’ movement are extremely popular and don’t seem to be going anywhere. (Dammit). So with that in mind…….

tomatoes, garlic and a red pepper on a wooden chopping board

Looking for a diet that’s based on a famine that killed over 1 million people!? Well look no more my friend because I present to you the ‘Irish peasant diet’!………seriously. That’s a thing.

The Irish ‘peasant’ diet

I spotted an article on twitter from The Irish Independent titled ‘Is this Ireland’s answer to the Med diet?’ In which it went on to describe how research had found that a diet from mid-Victorian Ireland in poor, rural communities made them healthier than their city dwelling counterparts, they were living longer and contracting fewer diseases, and therefore we should adopt a similar diet now.

The ‘diet’ consisted of vegetables, milk and fish. Sounds pretty healthy right? What’s my issue here?

The average life expectancy of a man in Ireland during the 1800’s was 40 years old. Sanitation was basic, people were starving and healthcare was minimal if there at all. The reality is that ‘peasants’ were eating what was available to them. Sure, it was a ‘low-calorie’ diet but when you look at all other lifestyle factors that might not count for much. The article mentions that Tuberculosis cases in rural areas were lower compared to cities and attributes that to die. But let’s remember that in Victorian city slums, people were living in unsanitary conditions, closely packed together with limited access to clean water and that tends to help diseases, like tuberculosis, spread like wildfire. The article also talks about the benefits ‘peasants’ had due to their ‘low caloric intake’……….aka. STARVING TO DEATH.

lots of potatoes

Following the logic of that article I have a few of my own ideas on ‘limiting caloric intake’: How about the 1930’s ‘Stalin Diet’?, or maybe the 1940’s ‘Warsaw Ghetto Diet’? or if you fancy something a little more up to date why not the 1980’s ‘Ethiopia Diet’? Sound flippant? So does basing a diet on a tragedy that killed over a million people…

Maybe I’m wrong though, maybe these Victorian peasants weren’t starving because they had no food, maybe they were the early pioneers of the ‘Keto’ diet! – the diet based on the idea of putting your body in a state of ketosis to lose weight. It’s unlikely though….unless they were so determined to make their diet work that the death of millions didn’t prompt them to rethink their methods…..anyway, I digress.

We are living in a world that has never been more medically and scientifically advanced. Life expectancy and our ability to treat and cure disease has never been better and yet people are desperate to go backwards. Back to a simpler time, when we didn’t have the big scary GMO’s and nasty (un-defined) chemicals in our food. A simpler time, when disease amongst the poor was rife and living beyond 50 was a significant achievement.

The article does what a lot of the ‘it was better in the old days’ types tend to do which is cherry pick ‘evidence’. They select the positives and ignore everything else, presenting a false, rose tinted view which ignores the inequality and suffering of many in favour of pushing an agenda……….still talking about diets. Definitely diets…….

The article gives the opinions from a few nutritionists, one of which says…

“Peasants may also have experienced periods of food scarcity. Whilst this is clearly not always beneficial and malnutrition would have been a concern, we now understand that limiting caloric intake can trigger biological processes that support health and help prevent disease.”

two hands held outwards together cupped in a form of request

I had to read this quote several times to fully understand the point she was trying to make. Food scarcity is ‘not always beneficial’? When is a lack of availability of a basic human resource ever ‘beneficial’ exactly? It’s fine though because we now know that those malnourished peasants were clearly just paving the way for the ‘faddy’ diets of the future right? This take is flippant and condescending. This ‘peasant diet’ is nothing more than fetishizing and trivialising poverty.

A symptom of a wider problem?

If we move away from the past and take a look at the present this patronising attitude towards poverty is everywhere. Although instead of praising the poor on their dietary ‘choices’ we now condemn them.

There is a great deal of ignorance when it comes to poverty and the realities of living with austerity. This can be seen clearly in the approach to advising or criticising poor people on their diet. You might see ‘clean eaters’, chefs and other middle class ‘foodies’ telling people to stop buying ready meals, cheap takeaways and processed food, or as Mr Jamie Oliver calls it, ‘crap’, and instead get down to our local farmer’s markets at the weekend, buy fresh produce, prepare fresh meals for their families everyday and just live a ‘better, healthier life’. They see these changes as easy and simple, insinuating that a failure to do so is just down to laziness and a lack of self-care.

three bacon cheeseburgers on a wooden board

What they fail to understand or even consider is the restrictions that exist on many, when it comes to what food is available to them. Much like the ‘peasant diet’, it isn’t about choice. The truth is that, now, in 2018, ‘junk’ food is widely available, it’s convenient and it’s affordable. Many families and individuals in this country are living hand to mouth or having to rely on foodbanks (a polite reminder that it is 2018). They can’t afford (whether it is time of money) to get out to a market every weekend. As Anthony Warner (aka The Angry Chef) said, “We need to stop mistaking the markers of inequality for the causes of inequality”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure a lot of people giving advice are well meaning, but they’re not helping. They’re just being patronising.

Oh, and another thing! Seeing as I’m on the subject. What is the obsession with poor people owning TV’s? It is often always a criticism of people on benefits or below the poverty line that they have a tv. The TV always gets a mention. I have 3 issues with this…

  1. They’re often always described as being a ‘big’, or ‘massive’ or ‘huge’ flatscreen tv……ALL tv’s are flatscreen’s these days. It’s just a TV.
  2. Who cares if they own a TV?! We don’t know the circumstances of how they came to own that TV or how much it cost. That TV is a source of entertainment for that family or individual, why is that an issue?
  3. It’s 2018, people have TV’s. What kind of Dickensian vision of poverty do the upper and middle classes of this country have of poor people?! And more importantly, is that vision how they think the poor should be?

There are many reasons why someone might struggle to eat a healthy balanced diet. Disability, chronic illness, employment or lack of, isolation, a potato famine. We need to stop blaming and misrepresenting people in poverty for things they cannot control, all that does is gloss over the chronic failings in our ability as a society to care for our most vulnerable in times of vast inequality, it ignores all other lifestyle factors and it completely disregards people suffering in order to justify an agenda that leads to widening inequality and punishing the poor just for being poor………………………………..…………….DIETS! DEFINITELY STILL TALKING ABOUT DIETS!…..

 

Karin McClure

Karin has been actively involved in skepticism for 4 years and has been involved with the Merseyside Skeptics for 3 years. She has given talks on the pseudoscience around diets and health at QED
Skepti-camp, Ignite Liverpool and Merseyside Skeptics and has been interested in diet and health for 3 years. Karin is also an artist and has sold her work at events around the country and online, information can be found on her website lunalynes.wordpress.com where she also shares posts about her experiences with mental health, as well as art updates.

No Comments

Skeptics with a K: Episode #228

Walking on the beach, grounding rods, hot ankles, and the Monkey. Plus electric blankets, cheap shirts, screen recordings, and plane wi-fi. Covertly listening through your phone, it’s Skeptics with a K.

There are fewer than fifty tickets for the final QED of this decade remaining! Get yours now at qedcon.org.

Play

3 Comments

The problem with volunteering in the Global South

Voluntourism – the act of both volunteering and travelling a new place at the same time – is a booming multi-billion dollar industry; with some sort of trip to the Global South to work in an orphanage or build a well becoming a rite of passage of sorts. This market for Western volunteers is fuelled by the belief that because we come from financially wealthier countries, we have the right or duty, to bestow our benevolence on people. Who cares if we don’t speak the language, don’t have the experience for the jobs we’re doing, or don’t know anything about what life is like in the country we will be visiting? We want to help, and that’s a good thing.

More harm than good?

Christina and two Ugandan youth activists sitting along with their backs to the wall of a shop chatting

Meeting with local youth activists at a village shop in Busede, Jinja District, Uganda

 

Despite this obvious ethical nuance, and the “Gap Yah” stereotypes of posh kids with saviour complexes, sporting elephant print trousers, I have no doubt that most people who undertake voluntourism do so with the best of intentions. I was one of those people once (sans the elephant print trousers) and I’m pretty certain I am not a horrible person. I was, however, hugely naive, ill-informed and probably as much use as a chocolate teapot. People don’t choose to travel halfway around the world to spend weeks or months of their life doing more harm than good, but often, being part of a voluntourism scheme can do just that. If you’ll forgive me the religious nod, as the old saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

A group of UK and Ugandan volunteers and activists stood together in front of a tree facing the camera

UK volunteers with Zambian volunteers and community activists at a community HIV testing event. Nkumbi, Mkushi District, Zambia

A group of Ugandan young people and Christina pulling faces and waving their arms towards the camera

Filming a music video with a local youth group. Busembatia, Iganga District, Uganda

After school games and songs with local children in Mukonchi, Kabwe District, Zambia

A group of Zambian students all holding a white certificate proudly and smiling at the camera outside in Zambia

Students of Nkumbi Basic School proudly displaying completion certificates for a Peer Leader training event. Nkumbi, Mkushi Distric, Zambia.

We’ve seen this pattern of failing at intervention in the past, with foreign aid propping up dictatorships and fostering corruption and with the dumping of cheap food and clothes collapsing industry and encouraging a dependency culture. This is down in large part to outside actors deciding what is good for people without research or consultation, and yet we appear to have not learnt from our mistakes. Voluntourism has been linked to commodifying children, endangering vulnerable people, encouraging harmful stereotypes and to damaging local economies, as it is often organised by profit driven companies. Being suckered in by a company, who will charge you thousands of pounds to gawp at some poverty porn for a fortnight, brings broad and complex socio-economic and ethical issues. By continuing to support voluntourism trips to countries that have historically been classified as the “third world” we reinforce ideas that countries in the Global South need to be saved by us, which further disseminates a colonial mindset between Western countries and the rest of the world.

Commodifying the vulnerable

Perhaps these issues are best illustrated by means of example, so let’s look at working in an orphanage, which is one of the most popular voluntourism trips. Orphanage programmes, whilst being really good at pulling at the heart strings of travellers, are also hugely problematic. In areas of extreme poverty, people paying money for the chance to interact with orphaned children creates a market for orphans. It has become a good business model to fill orphanages with children with families to tempt tourists in to donating, indeed it is estimated that 80% of children living in orphanages have one living parent. That’s of course not to say that orphans don’t exist, but it does mean that you should be cynical about the opportunity to “help out some orphans.”

A group of Ugandan students all wearing a school uniform of white shirts and navy trousers sat at wooden desks watching their teacher at the front of the class. Many of the students are looking at the camera.

Sexual health class with students of Busede Basic School. Busede, Jinja District, Uganda

But, what if the orphanage was legitimate? I’m pretty confident in saying a short term volunteering stint still isn’t a good idea. For children growing up in orphanages, being able to create long-term, stable attachments to caregivers is paramount and parading twenty-odd, twenty-somethings through for a cuddle every other week does the exact opposite thing. Research shows that the experience can have a terrible impact on the physical, social and intellectual development of children, with a 2009 Romanian study showing that the institutionalisation of toddlers is one of the biggest threats to early brain development. And that’s before we’ve even discussed the ethical issues of pimping out affection from orphaned kids to strangers who have rarely gone through any comprehensive vetting procedure!

Still want to volunteer?

If you still really want to volunteer in the Global South, and there are lots of reasons why you should, there are a few questions you can ask yourself, and a few measures you can try to put in place to avoid doing more harm than good:

A Ugandan teacher and her young students gathered around a blackboard while a young girl writes on the board.

Pre-school class in orphanage near Bugagali, Jinja District, Uganda

 

  • Why are you doing this? Are you going overseas to help, or to look good or forward your career? Be introspective about your motives and avoid saviour complex.
  • What are the intentions of the organisation you’re working with? As we’ve learnt, even if your intentions are well meaning, that might not be the case for the organisation you’re working with/for. Don’t be afraid to look in to their financial breakdowns, impact reports, the types of marketing they use (and why!) and whether they offer community led initiatives, which are often much more sustainable. If in doubt, don’t give them your money.
  • Are you the right person for the job? Would you be trusted to do this work in your own country? If the answer is no, then you’re probably not the right person for the job in another country, either. A popular activity for many volunteers is building, but if you’re not skilled in building then you could be putting people at risk and stealing work from community members who do have the experience that you’re lacking. The kind of volunteering you do should depend on your skills and qualifications, not just what you’d like to do.
  • Do you have the time needed for this project? It should go without saying that longer term development projects tend to be more sustainable and effective than flash in the pan initiatives. If you’re going to be volunteering as a teacher then a week is probably not long enough to have any real impact, however, perhaps it could be enough time to do some skill sharing and peer training with a teacher in the community, so do look at other “less hands on” ways to support.
Walking down a populated street in Uganda, a group of Ugandan and UK volunteers with their backs to the camera

Group of volunteers in Jinja Town, Uganda

 

Better ways to help

Perhaps after asking yourself the above questions you’ve realised that voluntourism isn’t for you, but you probably still want to do something. Luckily, there’s lots of ways you can influence change without hopping on a plane and parting with huge amounts of cash. You can volunteer at home, in person and online, on campaigns that will directly impact the issues you care about. You can also vote with your money by buying ethically, donating wisely and supporting entrepreneurs with microfinance loans.  Finally, you can start to dismiss some of these stereotypes about the Global South and how much voluntourism really helps, maybe sharing this blog could be a good conversation starter with your networks?

 

Christina Berry-Moorcroft

Christina is a Communications and Fundraising Manager for a UK wide dementia charity, and Trustee for a women’s focused refugee and asylum seeker charity. With over a decade of experience in the third sector, and a specialism in campaigns, capacity building and social impact, Christina has worked on issues like global health, hunger, and wealth inequality in both the UK and across Sub-Saharan Africa. In her spare time she’s an avid bad dancing doer, board game player, city break haver and tea drinker. She tweets as @ChrissieBM, but can make no apologies for her endorsement of terrible puns online.

1 Comment

Skeptics with a K: Episode #227

High blood pressure, cannabinoids, days of the week, and high blood pressure. Plus complicated questions, sea lions, high blood pressure, and high blood pressure. More research needed, from Skeptics with a K.

To get your tickets for the last QED of this decade, head over to qedcon.org.

Play

1 Comment

Be Reasonable: Episode #053 – Eben Alexander

Joining Marsh this month is Eben Alexander, neurosurgeon and author of Proof of Heaven.

Play

4 Comments

Gene edited crops arrive in the UK!

The observant skeptic might have noticed a brief flurry of media activity at the end of May that discussed a field trial of gene edited crops that is being conducted at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire (1, 2).

You might think, “So what”? There have been loads of field trials on genetically modified crops over the years, why is this news?

Not so, this trial is different as the devil is in its details. This is a trial of both genetically modified (GM) crops AND a trial of gene edited (GE) crops.

This is the first UK field trial of GE crops so although the difference might seem minor it could be extremely important for the future of scientific research and crop improvement in the UK and throughout Europe.

In general, GM involves the addition of foreign genes to your crop of interest. Classically this has included genes from bacteria that confer herbicide or insect resistance. However more recently has included the production of Golden Rice (3) and purple tomatoes (4) both of which have potential health benefits.

All skeptics will know that the debate surrounding the use of GM has been extremely controversial and currently the growth of these crops is prevented throughout the EU. The regulation of these crops is complex but unfortunately in the court of public opinion the positive case for the use of GM has been mostly lost due to the activity of those organisations that fundamentally oppose this technology.

Gene Editing is similar to breeding…but better.

GE is subtly but importantly different to GM. This technique allows the precise modification of genes that are already in the organism without the long term addition of a foreign gene (5). In turn this could alter some growth attribute of the plant. This allows scientists to use their knowledge of plant biology to predict how this alteration will alter crop growth, test it in the lab before applying for a field trial license if the results look good.

Importantly GE is a modern cousin of mutagenesis, a process that has been the genetic basis of conventional breeding throughout the history of agriculture. Over millennia humans have selected new crop varieties that are more nutritious or better suited to different growth conditions, the results of which is the food we eat every day.

Conventional breeding relies on random mutagenesis that ultimately takes many years to develop new varieties. GE allows scientists to target these specific mutations to improve crop growth and therefore remove the years that breeding can take. Importantly the end-products of GE are essentially identical to the products of conventional breeding so why should they be regulated differently?

A figure depicting the difference between genetic modification and genome editing as described in the text

The newly approved field trial at Rothamsted is really a test-case for the regulation of GE crops. The scientists have produced varieties of the potential oil crop Camelina sativa that will allow them to better understand lipid metabolism. At this time the crops won’t be used for food or feed but critically the UK Government Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) has determined that this GE crop does not need to be regulated like GM crops, mostly because it contains NO foreign DNA (6).

This indicates that in future ACRE will regulate GE crops differently to GM crops and therefore might offer future opportunities for scientists and breeders to develop potentially useful crop varieties.

Unsurprisingly the EU is in regulatory limbo

This decision comes in the light of continued EU delays in a ruling that will decide the fate for the growth of GE crops across Europe. Recently there have been promising noises coming from the EU but as yet this decision has not appeared (7). The decision by ACRE shows that, like Brazil, Argentina, Sweden and the USA (8), the UK has a progressive and evidence-based position for the use of GE crops and is potentially great news for scientific research.

Skeptics: get the facts!

Over the coming months I predict that we will hear plenty about the debate about GE crops so I urge skeptics to arm themselves with facts about the differences between GM and GE. This will allow us to inform our family, friends and colleagues about the benefits of GE and that it really uses the same technique as conventional breeding but is just much cheaper, quicker and more precise!

Promising times ahead for the UK plant science community.

 

Dr Geraint Parry, PhD

Geraint is the national coordinator for GARNet, which is a network that supports uptake of new technologies and knowledge dissemination amongst UK and international plant scientists. He is the science communication manager of the EU INDEPTH COST Action (https://www.brookes.ac.uk/indepth/) as well as being the secretary for the Multinational Arabidopsis Steering Committee. He tweets for GARNet from @GARNetweets and personally @liverpoolplants

 

 

(1)- https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/news/where-gm-meets-ge

(2)- https://t.co/G77fhPCc9S

(3)- http://www.isaaa.org/kc/cropbiotechupdate/article/default.asp?ID=16278

(4)- http://www.norfolkplantsciences.com/

(5)- The process of gene editing does involve the addition of a foreign gene but is removed during preparation for field trials.

(6)- https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/acre-advice-application-for-a-trial-of-gm-camelina-18r0801

(7)- https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/articles/edits-mutations-and-gm

(8)- https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/apr/07/gene-editing-ruling-crops-plants

 

,

No Comments