The Food Chain

The Food Chain

United Kingdom

The economics, science and culture of what we eat. What does it take to put food on your plate?


Should We All Be Vegans?  

What would happen if we all became vegans? Veganism – cutting out animal products from your diet, and often your wardrobe – suddenly seems more mainstream than ever. It is attracting followers from Beyoncé to Al Gore, and there’s a new breed of vegan, too: vloggers espousing their veggie-heavy lifestyle to millions of online fans. Whether it is for health, environmental or ethical reasons, more and more people are embracing plant-based food. The BBC’s Mike Johnson sets out to explore what the world would look like if everyone gave up animal products tomorrow, and the economic consequences of a meat and dairy-free world. We talk to the owner of the first vegan café in Qatar, we test a meatless burger that ‘bleeds’ beetroot juice and we weigh up the human cost of an animal-free diet. (Photo: A detail of a painting by Giuseppe Acrimboldo featuring a man's head made out of vegetables. Credit: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

Stories from Syria  

How do people living through the Syrian conflict find food? The BBC’S Dan Saladino explores what’s happening in Syria, where food is often used as both a weapon and target of war. Bakeries have been reportedly targeted in bombings, and profiteers look to gain from the scarcity of staples by hiking up prices for the food that is available. We speak to Jakob Kern, who oversees a $700m operation for the UN’s World Food Programme as he attempts to get food aid into besieged towns and hard to reach communities. And we hear a meal shared between two re-settled Syrian families as they try to start a new life away from their war-torn homeland. Plus, we further explore how a food culture re-forms after it’s forced to flee and relocate, as Syrian-American Dalia Mortada shares the food stories she’s been collecting from the diaspora in the United States. And the small industries that might offer hope for farmers in a post-conflict country. (Photo: Bakers pack bread at a bakery in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Credit: Karam Al-Masri/AFP/Getty Images)

The Olympics of Chinese Food  

The world's top names in Chinese cuisine meet once every four years in a prestigious and gruelling cooking contest to determine which of them is the very best. Can a team of UK chefs make a gold medal-winning debut? The BBC's Celia Hatton takes a front-row seat at the World Championship of Chinese Cuisine, often called the Olympics of Chinese cooking. She follows Gavin Chun, a first-time competitor from London, who hopes to help his team to culinary glory. But will the chefs be able to execute the complicated 56 dishes they have to make? And what does the competition say about the evolution of modern Chinese food? (Photo: A chef at the World Championship of Chinese Cuisine)


The aliens have landed. This week, we’re looking at an unlikely product of globalisation: invasive species or pests. That’s a species of animal that ends up in an ecosystem that isn’t their natural home. As we'll hear, they pose a huge environmental risk to local ecosystems and food systems. But perhaps there’s a solution and it might involve getting our taste buds used to the idea of eating them. Some of us are doing it already. One of the most popular items on one London menu is the pesky grey squirrel. We also head to Australia to hear how feral camels have found an unlikely market with an immigrant community. And why a lobster has Sweden and North America getting their claws out. If you can’t beat em’, eat ‘em? (Picture: A camel at QCamel dairy, Queensland, Australia. Credit: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

The New Sushi  

It's widely agreed that bugs could be a sustainable source of protein for humans in the future, but large-scale production is very labour intensive. As the BBC’s Katy Watson discovers, in Mexico - where there is a long bug-eating tradition - the infrastructure required for a profitable bug industry is almost non-existent. In the US though, where the idea of having insects for lunch still turns most stomachs, some farmers are adding bugs to protein bars and crushing them into powder for health-conscious Californians. Some proponents say insects could be the new sushi. But are they right? (Picture: A scorpion served up in Mexico.)

Food on the Open Road  

It could be argued that our global economy is in some ways, driven by drivers. That is, long-haul truckers who carry goods from one side of a country to another. But truck driving is a profession that is struggling to recruit new members and a lot of it has to do with lifestyle and what’s available to eat. The BBC’s Mike Johnson discovers that a lack of fresh food options, combined with a sedentary lifestyle and strict schedules, leave truck drivers facing a higher rate of obesity and a shortened life-span when compared to other professions. But some truck drivers are working to change that. Plus, we discover what it’s like to eat on the road in the world’s longest country, and get a lesson in cab cooking along the way. (Photo: Truck drivers wait to pass at the border between Greece and Bulgaria. Credit: Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP)

Big Beer  

Next month, the world’s current largest beer maker, AB InBev is expected to take over the world’s second largest beer maker, SABMiller. If the plan goes ahead, together they will become the world's largest brewer, making about one out of every three beers around the world. But many, craft beer drinkers especially, do not like the idea of a single company making so much of our brew. The BBC’s Manuela Saragosa asks whether their concerns are valid - or whether it is all just froth. She talks to beer writer Peter Brown and travels to a hop farm in the English countryside to see where it all begins. We head to Uganda where homemade brew is still the traditional drink of choice, and Jasper Cuppaidge from Camden Town Brewery - a London-based brewer - tells us what being taken over by a global company has done for his business. And, the BBC’s Rob Young breaks down the deal for us in the pub.

Naturally Misleading?  

What is 'natural' food and is it better for us? We explore the language of food labelling. Does a product bearing the word 'natural' on its label make you more likely to buy it? Or, is describing food as 'natural' just a marketing trick? We hear from a cattle farmer in the US state of Vermont who stopped using growth hormones on his herd so that the meat can be sold as 'natural'. Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, professor emeritus at Goldengate University in the US, explains how companies market "natural" food to us. Are some supermarkets misleading their consumers with the way they are presenting their food? Journalist Tom Levitt from The Guardian tells Manuela Saragosa why some packaging may not tell the whole story. And we hear how the mislabelling of food in China can provide rich pickings for professional label readers. With more and more products declaring their 'pure' origins, David Jago, director of Global Insight and Innovation at the market intelligence company Mintel, outlines the size of the market. Should the word 'natural' be more closely defined? We ask Daniel Fabricant, CEO of the Natural Products Association in the US and a former FDA official. Also, Manuela asks whether a diet of completely unprocessed natural food could actually be healthier for our bodies. Nutritionist Dimple Thakrar from Fresh Nutrition tells us why some processing could add to a healthy diet. And lawyer Kun Hoe describes how some professional label readers in China can benefit from mistakes in packaging. (Photo: Shoppers in China's Anhui province. Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Survival Stories: Fish bacon for breakfast  

Our second episode of Survival Stories further explores our relationship with food in the most extreme circumstances. What choices do we make about what we eat, when we’re all alone in the wild? Do our reflexes, instincts and tastes change? First, the story of Steve Callahan, who was adrift on an inflatable raft in the middle of the Atlantic ocean for 76 days. He tells the BBC’s Emily Thomas how he began to make three courses out of just one fish, and how it felt when his only companions and friends were also his main source of food. Plus, the tale of Yossi Ghinsberg who was lost in the Amazon rainforest. When he got separated from his group, Yossi survived for 20 days on what the forest gave him, and hoped desperately for a monkey to fall from a tree. We also find out what happens to our bodies when they go into survival mode with Dr Chris Fenn, who specialises in survival in extreme environments. How much can we rely on our gut instincts? And should you ever drink from the sea? (Photo credit: BBC)

Survival Stories: Lost in the Desert  

What happens when your food choices are determined by nothing but the environment around you and your own resolve? The Food Chain follows the story of 72- year-old grandmother Ann Rodgers, who went missing in the Arizona wilderness in March 2016. In this illustrated food survival story, we examine the food choices we make when left with just our animal instincts. The BBC's Emily Thomas uncovers the science behind those decisions too – and what happens to our bodies when our diet goes from balanced to bare with nutritionist Dr Chris Fenn. (Photo credit: Ann Rodgers)

Fertile Food  

How much could your diet affect your ability to have a child? Throughout history, harvest and the abundance of food have been associated with the creation of life. Join us on a journey from ancient traditions to the latest science. When the vegetable sellers of east London shed little light on which foods make us fertile, the BBC’s Emily Thomas goes to the Wellcome Library to look through some 16th century recipe books with Dr Jennifer Evans from the University of Hertfordshire. From stags' testicles, to ‘mad apples’ we find out which food the ancient Egyptians thought to be the biggest aphrodisiac, and why a 300 year old recipe book tells us beans lead to babies. How well does this all sit with the latest science? We talk to Dr Jorge Chavarro, from the Harvard Schools of Public Health and Medicine. Also, unless you're a woman trying for a baby, you may think folic acid isn’t something you should be too worried about… but in about a third of countries in the world, it is mandatory to add it to main food products, such as wheat flour. Why supplement the whole population with something that might only be needed by some? We speak to Mark Lawrence, Professor in Public Health Nutrition at Deakin University in Melbourne. Plus, hear some Bulgarian fertility music and find out why the grinding of black peppers is a ritual performed by men at weddings. Finally, we look at how hormones get into the food chain with Dr Richard Lea of the University of Nottingham, and ask if this should be a cause for concern. (Photo: New arrivals at the Queen Charlotte Hospital, London, in 1945. Credit: Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Food on the Move: What We Want, When We Want It  

Fruit in the summer, grain in the autumn - our diets once consisted of eating what was around us and what was in season. But we now live in a global food village, where in many countries the idea of eating seasonally has been consigned to history. In the 21st Century we ship, fly and truck our food supply across huge distances. Britain, for example, imports 90% of its fresh fruit. The BBC’s Mike Johnson is dockside at one of Europe’s biggest ports to hear how - and why - the world is racking up the food miles. Ross McKissock at the Port of Tilbury outlines the importance of the food trade to the port business. We step inside a vast refrigerated warehouse and ask Dale Fiddy of NFT Distribution if the new facility is a sign that the industry is on the up? Technological advances have made their mark on the way our food has moved over the centuries - Susanne Freidberg, professor of Geography at Dartmouth College, takes us back through time with the history of food transportation. We hear from a vegetable packing plant in Kenya, which leads the world in terms of exports of fresh produce by air. Shipping food over vast distances is now an established part of global trade, but does it really make financial sense? Washington economist and expert on international shipping, Marc Levinson explains the economics of moving food in huge volumes. And, could it actually be good for the environment? A question for Kath Dalmeny from environmental group, Sustain. (Photo: Factory workers sort out creates of peppers. Credit: Sergio Camacho/Getty Images)

Inside the Kitchens of Power  

Why is cheese essential when the German Chancellor comes for dinner? For millennia, international relations have been massaged by the chefs working inside palaces and state kitchens. The BBC’s Dan Saladino finds out about their unusual vocation and how their food might have influenced some of the biggest decisions in history. He meets Gilles Bragard, the founder of the world’s most exclusive culinary club, Le Club des Chefs Des Chefs, which brings together twenty people who cook for Heads of State. Gilles shares some food secrets, including how the Kremlin's kitchen keeps President Putin’s food safe. We visit the huge kitchens of Hampton Court Palace, where in 16th Century England, wine fountains and extravagant roasted meats were cooked to help Henry VIII impress - and intimidate - foreign dignitaries. We move from there to look at arguably the most powerful cooking place in the modern era - the White House kitchen. Sam Kass, a former chef and close friend to the Obamas, explains how new ideas and even food policies for the future can be cooked up in State kitchens. Plus, we go behind the scenes in the Belgian Embassy in Chile to see diplomacy in action – and talk to professor Stephen Chan of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies about Mugabe’s lavish feasts. We also meet David Geisser, a former Vatican chef and hear insights into the culinary preferences of Pope Francis. We find out if the Vatican leader practises what he preaches about food. Finally, we talk to a journalist in Brussels who has witnessed some recent and dramatic EU meals, including the former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s last supper with European leaders. (Photo: Barack Obama in 2008. Credit: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

Beauty from Within?  

This week we're looking at what happens when the worlds of food and beauty collide. The market for nutricosmetics - foods that have claimed beauty benefits - is growing by 10% every year. A beauty blogger in Tokyo tells us why she thinks these products are already popular in Asia, particularly Japan. In China, the concept of beauty from within sits comfortably with traditional medicine. One 'beauty food' that's been consumed for thousands of years is gelatin from donkey hide. We talk to the owner of a Beijing restaurant and the customers tucking in to his donkey hotpot. Plus, we look at the rise of ingestible beauty in the West, and the products that have failed along the way. Could the food industry turn the beauty industry on its head? One company that thinks so invites us to take a look at their laboratory where they’ve created a small chocolate bar, which they say prevents ageing and promises all the goodness of 300g of Alaskan salmon. The promises made by these products are compelling - but is there enough science to back them up? We speak to an experts from Yale University in the US and a global collagen company in Europe. Finally, we ask whether we should expect food to be the elixir of eternal youth, or if nutricosmetics feed an unhealthy pressure to be beautiful from the inside. (Photo: A young woman eats strawberries in 1936: Credit: Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Can Cheese Help Save an Economy?  

The BBC’s Dan Saladino takes a journey on a newly built road through the remote mountains of the country’s north in search of a slice of mishavin cheese. After decades of communist rule, Albania started its transition to democracy in 1991. It hasn’t been easy. The country, which borders Greece and Macedonia, remains one of the poorest in Europe; it experienced massive rural depopulation, emigration and has stubbornly high levels of unemployment. However, many are convinced one answer to many of Albania’s problems lies in its food and farming past. Tucked away in the mountainous communities of the north are some of the oldest food traditions in the Balkans, from dairy and meat products to foraged fruits and fermented vegetables. Could these foods be the basis for a new form of entrepreneurialism and kick start a tourism industry? The Albanian government and NGOs operating in the country think so. (Photo: Albanian mishavin cheese)

Plough Your Own Furrow?  

The British people have voted to quit the European Union. That would leave the UK once again in charge of its own agricultural and fisheries policy – so what should that future look like? Could we see a return to the Cod Wars, where countries used gunboat diplomacy to assert their fishing rights? We hear from fishermen in Scotland, keen to win back control over their waters. Plus, dairy farmers in Cornwall tell us they fear a future where exports to the EU may become more expensive. And, we look to New Zealand, which became the only developed country in the world to withdraw financial support for its farmers in the 1980s - could that be the model for the UK to follow? We are joined by a panel of guests - Geoff Pickering, a Yorkshire sheep farmer, Guy Smith, vice-president of the National Farmers Union and Vincent Smith, an agricultural economist at Montana State University in the US. (Photo: A ploughing competition in Scotland. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Mind your Manners  

It's not what you eat, but the way that you eat it on this week's The Food Chain. As people are exposed to cuisines from all over the world, we ask if there has been a global shrugging off of table manners. From how we sit, to the tools we use, is there a best way to consume food? And what do your eating implements of choice - hands, cutlery, or chopsticks - say about your cultural identity? We start at Lalibela, an Ethiopian restaurant in North London where experts in dining etiquette and history join us to eat a feast with their hands. Food historian Bee Wilson tells us cutlery is about so much more than just manners, and explains how entire cultures of eating are founded on utensils. Lunchtime diners in Delhi reveal what we are missing when we pick up a knife and fork, and Indian food historian and critic Pushpesh Pant explains how people across the country are rediscovering their regional and cultural roots in the way they eat. Plus, a chef at a top-end Delhi restaurant tells us why he thinks the tide is turning in fine dining. In ancient Greece elite men reclined to eat. Dr Ayesha Akbar, a Consultant in Gastroenterology tells us why they may have had the right idea. We also discuss the benefits of communal eating - and find out why some people fly into a frenzy of rage at the sound of chewing and slurping. Finally, it has been said that while on the European continent people have good food, but in England people have good table manners. We ask James Field, from the very British institution, Debretts, for a lesson in how to eat in polite company. (Photo: Food at Lalibela restaurant in London)

Seeds, Syrup and Subversion  

A rebel grandmother faces losing her livelihood after smuggling maple syrup in Canada, a Vermont gardener stocks fridges full of seeds, an artist plants vegetables on the streets of Los Angeles, and a widow in India blames ‘foreign seeds’ for a string of suicides. Meet the rebels and revolutionaries fighting back against what some see as a growing food dictatorship. Just six companies sell almost two-thirds of the world's seeds, and potential takeovers raise the possibility that number could shrink to three. Are we heading towards a world where all seeds, fertiliser, and pesticides are in the hands of just one company? We are joined by experts from both sides of the debate as we listen to stories of subversion. (Photo: An Indian farmer arranges a display of grains and seeds. Credit: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images)

Faster Food  

As the Olympic torch edges closer to Rio, we explore how food can make you a better athlete. We start in Brazil where we meet the man responsible for feeding the best athletes on the planet - from a kitchen the size of three football fields. Our producer has a kick about with Arsenal Football Club’s nutritionist in London, and we talk to Olympians past and present about what they eat. We delve into the science of nutrigenomics and ask whether you can give athletes an edge by designing their diets around their DNA. At what point does a specialist diet give an athlete an unfair advantage? And what do nutritionists and athletes really think about sports drinks? Plus, a man moves his family to the Kenyan highlands to train and eat with its highland runners. And, a New York punk singer and vegan Ironman tells us why he thinks strong athletes do not need meat. (Photo: Athletes running through a field. Credit: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

Extreme Farming  

How has one of the world’s smallest countries become one of its biggest food producers? This week we visit a tiny nation responsible for the second largest exports of farmed food. Its vegetable, fruit, and livestock farmers are pushing the limits of productivity – how do they get so much food out of so little land? We visit a dairy farm run almost entirely by robots, one of the country’s many industrial-sized greenhouses, and a farm on the roof of a former factory. With the planet’s soaring population, could this country be a model for global farming? Plus, what impact is such intensive farming having on the environment, human health and animal welfare? Presenter: Anna Holligan. Editor: Simon Tulett

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