Hungry for more than cooking shows

This was written in 2011. What’s changed? Do you agree?

WHEN the ratings period starts again next month and TV programmers serve up a banquet of new cooking shows, spare a thought for the world’s hungry.

There are about a billion undernourished people in the world today, according to the website, an online publication of the Washington-based private charity World Hunger Education Service.

While you digest that, I can also tell you that there are more than 1.1 billion overweight people and that in America, alone, nearly 70,000 tonnes of food is being wasted each day, while $140 billion is being spent on obesity-related diseases.

More or less. It’s hard to put a final figure on it as features all these stats in real time, which means you can watch hunger grow before your very eyes.

Like you, I can do without lashings of guilt to add to the New Year’s diet plan, but today’s national obsession with cooking and eating does seem incongruous when you think that while half the world is cooking or watching cooking shows or reading cookbooks, a significant other part is starving.

It will be interesting to see whether predictions of food shortages and price rises resulting from the devastating Queensland floods will diminish our appetite for this feast of food shows.

While economists are predicting that the food shortages will have only a minor effect on the Australian economy, and that the ensuing rebuilding program will even boost our GDP, people in developing countries, where most of the world’s hungry live, are not so lucky.

As reported in this paper last week, the price of soft commodities such as sugar, grain and oilseed drove world food prices to a record last month, according to a monthly index published by the United Nations.

Increasing demand due to population increases, rising oil prices, a decline in agricultural investment, and the effects of war, drought, flood and earthquakes, have all contributed to the global food security crisis.

But while Rome burns, back in the kitchen we are fiddling around with our food processors.

A report by the Australia Institute in November 2009, titled What a Waste – an analysis of Australian expenditure on food, revealed that “Australians are throwing out more than $5 billion worth of food each year – more than we spend on digital equipment and more than it costs to run the Australian army”.

This is especially sobering when you consider that poor nutrition contributes to half the 10.9 million child deaths in the world each year. Most of these occur in developing countries, but before you dismiss this as “other”, it may surprise you to learn that in Australia, 12 per cent of children live in poverty.

Like most of the people not living in poverty, my resolution for the new year is to buy less, eat less and give more. Again.

But it’s not just these stark contrasts that bother me. It’s the fact that the national focus is so firmly fixed on our stomachs.

Television is a prime example. It seems that every second show on TV revolves around food. These days, instead of Nana and Mum telling us how to cook, we have Nigella, Jamie, Poh, Hewie, Paul, Luke, Maggie and Simon, Guy, Anthony, Maeve and friends, not to mention George, Matt, Anna and Gary.

Cooking shows have been a staple diet of TV since its invention, but we are now pigging out on them. And we love it. When lawyer Adam Liaw won MasterChef last year, 3.9 million people tuned in.

Who can blame them? Food is irresistible when it’s on your 25-centimetre plate. How much more seductive is it when it’s on a 152-centimetre screen in all its high-definition glory?

Food competition shows are especially tempting: it’s sustenance, it’s entertainment, and it’s drama, with all the thrill of the chase that our hunter and gatherer ancestors knew, without even having to get up from our chairs.

But it’s also a symptom of how self-absorbed and over indulged we are. Cooking may have made us human as Richard Wrangham, professor of biological anthropology at Harvard, says, but a national obsession with cooking and eating is just making us fat and boring.

A friend once prefaced our luncheon meeting with the request that we only spend 10 minutes talking about our health and 10 minutes talking about our children. These days, I would like to add a request that we restrict our conversations about what we ate, or are going to eat, or regret that we ate, to just five minutes.

Perhaps we can spare a few minutes instead on what we can do to help solve the world food crisis? Luckily, there are almost as many hunger sites as cooking shows.

Not only would it make us more interesting, it would help make us part of the solution instead of part of the problem.