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Book Reviews: 'We Want Real Food', & 'The Social and Political Thought of George Orwell - A Reassessment'

'We Want Real Food'. By Graham Harvey, (Constable £9.99)

Criticisms of food production usually concentrate on the supermarkets: with their emphasis on selling homogeneous produce and driving down the prices they pay to the producers, they play a major role in depriving consumers of healthy and tasty food. The fast-food industry is also attacked for its bland tasteless pap. In this book, though, Graham Harvey points the finger of blame at the companies that produce artificial fertilisers.

It is true that life expectancy is far greater than it used to be and that diseases like TB and cholera are almost things of the past in Britain. But degenerative diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis are reaching epidemic proportions. Harvey ascribes this to a change in the make-up of the soil, owing to the increased use of nitrogen compounds in fertiliser, which itself has been pushed by the companies who make big profits from selling the stuff.

Traditional farming exploited the minerals in the soil that contributed to a healthy lifestyle, but modern methods have relied more and more on chemical fertilisers that destroy these nutrients. According to one study, for instance, carrots lost 75 percent of their magnesium and copper between 1941 and 1990.

Minerals have various roles in protecting and promoting human health: copper, for instance, is important for the functioning of the liver, brain and muscles, while selenium protects against the onset of a number of kinds of cancer.

Harvey's solution is a programme to reintroduce these crucial minerals to the soil. But this will face a problem: "For the best part of half a century, the chemical industry has effectively vetoed every attempt to remineralize over-worked soils and restore the health benefits to everyday foods." So "What's needed is leadership - from farmers, retailers or politicians." Effective government legislation could supposedly promote sensible agriculture and hence healthier and tastier food. But food production would still be at the mercy of the profit motive rather than be aimed at satisfying human need.

Assuming that Harvey's science is on the right lines, he makes a convincing case for changing the way in which agriculture is organised, but the problem is that this cannot be divorced from how society as a whole is run. His website at http://www.wewantrealfood.co.uk/ is also of interest, though we wouldn't recommend bothering to write to supermarkets asking them to change their ways.

PB

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'The Social and Political Thought of George Orwell: A Reassessment'. By Stephen Ingle. (Routledge, 2006, £65, hardback)

Despite the title this is more a work of literary criticism than political theory. But since Orwell wrote mainly on political and social subjects the two are intertwined. Orwell considered himself a socialist and was briefly a member of the ILP in 1938. Later, he wrote for the leftwing weekly Tribune and was a declared supporter of the post-war Labour government.

In fact one of the issues Ingle discusses is whether Orwell should be described as a "Trotskyite" or as a "Tribunite". He opts for a third choice: "ethical socialist". Although we wouldn't regard him as a socialist in our sense, he was always clear, at a time when few others besides ourselves were arguing this, that Russia had nothing to do with socialism. Which was why the Russia-lovers called him a "Trotskyite" and why his fear of being assassinated was not entirely groundless.

Two of Orwell's works in particular have been appreciated by socialists. Homage to Catalonia, an account of events in Barcelona in 1936 and 1937 when workers took over the running of the city and the subsequent suppression of this by the so-called "Communists". And Animal Farm, a brilliant satire on Bolshevism (including Trotskyism).

The main book for which Orwell is known is Nineteen Eighty Four. This paints a horrifying picture of a world in which the evolution towards a totalitarian state-capitalism (which, in the 1940s, many to the left of the Communist Party thought was under way) has been completed. It was mainly aimed at those left-wing intellectuals who thought that Russia was "progressive" and deserved support. Inevitably, and whatever Orwell may have intended, it was used by the West as an ideological weapon in the Cold War.

Ingle mentions that Orwell and Aldous Huxley offered contrasting views on how class society might evolve. It has to be said that, in the event, Huxley in his Brave New World turned out to be more prescient than Orwell. Capitalism has survived not by treating workers more and more brutally, but by making them think they are happy - happy slaves who don't even realise they are slaves rather than down-trodden proles.

ALB