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?

Episodes

One Potato More  

In our second and final episode on the humble spud, we meet the people who see the global economic future as being potato powered. The potato is the world's most produced staple food after rice, wheat and corn - yet historically, it was seen as the root of filth, misery and obesity. In our previous episode we heard how over time it came to be used as a tool of power by the state, to create a healthy and robust workforce. This week, food historian Rebecca Earle, tells us that history is repeating itself in China, which is now the world's biggest producer of potatoes. China's central government sees the potato as key to food security, but it's got some work to do to produce a cultural shift away from rice. We'll be serenaded by one of the country's potato champions, the operatic 'new farmer' Sister Potato, who says she is changing hearts, minds and cuisine with her songs. Then we'll head to the streets of Beijing to gauge enthusiasm and ask can the spud shake off its lowly reputation? Africa and developing countries have the biggest predicted growth in potato production in the coming decades. But is the world in danger of putting all its spuds in one basket? We’re asking whether the potato is the answer to food security or if the vegetable’s patchy history doomed to repeat itself. Plus we head to Peru to visit the scientists protecting thousands of varieties of potato, and meet the man who ate nothing but potatoes - for a year. (Image: A farmer eats a potato in China . Credit: Spencer Platt/ Getty Images)

Poor Old Potato  

In its time, the potato has been called the root of filth, misery and obesity - but is it fair to call it the 'food of the poor'? In the first episode of a two-part series, The Food Chain goes to the very roots of the world's most popular vegetable, digging up some new perspectives on its history. We visit the British Museum to meet Bill Sillar from the Institute of Archaeology at University College London. He explains how the early Andeans and Inca developed innovative ways to cultivate potatoes, but preferred to celebrate maize instead. From there we move to the kitchens at Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, and find out how the spud was met with scepticism in Europe when it first arrived. Food historian Marc Meltonville tells the BBC's Emily Thomas how the humble spud was made into pasties and pies. By the 19th century, the potato had firmly taken root in the west, but it was still subject to widespread disdain. The journalist and farmer, William Cobbett said potatoes should be fed to pigs, not people, and that they were the root of "slovenliness, filth, misery and slavery". We speak to food historian Rebecca Earle at the University of Warwick, who explains how despite its reputation, the potato has played an important role in agricultural and economic development. The tuber was perhaps one of the very first products of globalization, and we hear how it became associated with capitalism, being equated with a robust and hardy workforce. Finally, we ask what the future holds for the potato, and if it will ever be able to shake off its unsavoury reputation. Is history repeating itself? (Image: A variety of raw potatoes. Credit: Ernesto Benavides/ AFP/ Getty Images)

The Food We Breathe  

As part of the BBC wide #SoICanBreathe season, The Food Chain explores how the ways we grow and cook our food can affect how we breathe. From the indoor pollution generated by cooking, to how farming practices change the air for miles around, our food can have a big impact on how we breathe. We come full circle to find out how air pollution can get in to our food and why your lettuce might have spots. But it's not all bad news, and we'll also visit India and Ghana to explore developments that might help us all breathe a bit more easily. Plus, if our diet is potentially part of the problem when it comes to air pollution, could it also be part of the solution? (Image: A Pakistani woman blows on a small cooking fire to bake bread at a makeshift camp. Credit: Rizwan Tabassum/ Getty Images)

McAsia?  

What can fast food tell us about the changing global economy? This week Karishma Vaswani, the BBC's Asia Business correspondent, takes a closer look at the history and the future of McDonald's in Asia. For many the company is a symbol of globalisation and food. To globalise though, the company has had to localize, and with that comes challenges. From Beijing, to Hong Kong, to Delhi, we explore the changing tastes of Asia, and what the future might be for a market many multi-national companies have set their sights on. Is the business model of franchising still an effective way to export a food business? And as countries modernise is it getting harder for a global brand to compete with local rivals? (Photo: Ronald McDonald at the opening of a McDonald's in Beijing. Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty)

Post-Truth Food  

Remember the great bacon shortage of 2012? No? What about the one earlier this year? Still no? Well maybe that’s because they didn’t happen. The Oxford English dictionary defines post-truth as: "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief". This week we're looking at why stories about food shortages take hold so quickly – whether they are true or not. We’ll start with a popular food story from recent weeks, which warned the US could be running out of bacon. Brad Tuttle, journalist with Time Magazine separates the facts from the fiction. But why do stories like these spread like wildfire? We speak to Michaela DeSousey, Assistant Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University, who says it’s not just our brains that react to food shortage scares – our behaviour changes too. And Paul Buckley, a psychologist at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales in the UK, explains why an abundance of information leaves the consumer confused. What can be done about all this confusion in a world where we are bombarded with information - and increasingly hear that we shouldn't believe much of what we are told? In a post-truth world, are we even more susceptible to exaggerated or untrue stories? We speak to Dominique Brossard, professor and chair in the Department of Life Sciences Information at the University of Wisconsin. Finally - in a week where famine is officially declared for the first time in six years by the United Nations (UN) - we turn to the most worrying headline of all: that the world could run out of food. We speak to Joel Cohen, professor of populations at the Rockerfeller University and Columbia University in New York and Abdolreza Abbassian, senior economist at the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. (Image: A long-nosed figure with a carrot dangling off the end leading people off a cliff. Credit: wildpixel/ Thinkstock)

Wheelchair Fajitas and Talking Scales  

Food is how we structure everyday life. For some people living with disabilities, the smallest of culinary tasks can be very frustrating and difficult. As part of the BBC’s Disability Works season - exploring the experiences of disabled people in the workforce and as consumers - the Food Chain looks at the important role food plays for people who have, or acquire, a disability. We hear what it’s like to grow up in a tribe when you can’t take part in the most valued activity – farming. Kudakwashe Dube had polio as a child in rural Zimbabwe and is now the CEO at the African Disability Allowance. He explains how people with disabilities can be discriminated against when it comes to taking part in agriculture, and receiving food aid. The BBC’s Kathleen Hawkins hears stories of how technology, like mesh gloves and talking scales, can create an adaptive modern kitchen. She also takes us to her own home where we hear how she cooks from her wheelchair which struggles to fit between the kitchen cupboards. How can the kind of problems she faces be resolved? We speak to occupational therapist assistant Ann Kelly and registered dietician Juliette Harmer from the UK’s Ministry of Defence to find out. Plus, we’ll discuss how modified chopsticks in Japan can be life-changing for people with disabilities. Katsuyuki Miyabi, a craftsman, doesn't think anybody should be excluded from using this age-old tool which is so important in Japanese society. Finally, Emma Tracey from the BBC’s Ouch programme visits a café where food is made by a blind cook and his autistic helper. (Image: A man in a wheelchair in a lowered kitchen. Credit: Huntstock/ Thinkstock)

The Plankton Problem  

You've swallowed many of them throughout your life without realising, and some look like aliens: we look at plankton, the sea's smallest living creatures that have a big global impact. At the centre of the food web, and responsible for most of the air we breathe, these microscopic plants and animals are eaten by fish in our seas, which are eaten by bigger creatures, and eventually eaten by humans. But what happens when new problems hit these ancient critters, which have existed for millions of years? And how does it affect our health - and our plates? We speak to Jeff Herman in the US, whose skin was left crawling and in sweats after he got Ciguatera food poisoning from eating a hogfish. He tells us how his nightmarish symptoms were linked to toxins created by plankton. We share a voyage with the crew in charge of the world's oldest plankton recorder in Plymouth, England. They have been monitoring the world's seas since the 1930s to check on the health of these tiny creatures so vital to our food chain. Plankton scientists tell the BBC's Emily Thomas that new types of plankton not seen since the Ice Age are moving in - prompting questions around how plankton will adapt to new challenges like pollution and climate change. And what would you do if the sea around you turned bright red? So-called red tides can blight seasides and devastate fishing industries from Florida to the South China Sea. Hong Kong journalist Ernest Kao tells us about the devastation created by an overpopulation of algae, another kind of plankton. And Professor Lora Fleming tells us about the movements and patterns of these tiny creatures, how toxins from some can skew with your sense of hot and cold, and how new research is helping us to harness the power of plankton in a more sustainable way. (Image: Man swimming towards a 'red tide' or algal bloom in Sydney. Credit: William West/ ThinkStock )

Got Gumbo?  

What can one single dish tell you about America's history? One particular bowl of soup gives us an insight about the future of cultures that convene around it. Gumbo is eaten by nearly everyone in New Orleans, but its past speaks of the deep inequalities in American history that still resonate to this day. The BBC's Dan Saladino looks in to the origins of this dish and discovers influences from Native Americans, slaves from West Africa, settlers from Nova Scotia, and European immigrants from Spain, France and Italy. Dan tries to track down the perfect recipe for one of Louisiana's most famous dishes, and discovers how the politics of which food belongs to whom, is still at play, hundreds of years later. (Image: A close up of a bowl of gumbo. Credit: Warren_Price/ Thinkstock)

The Queen of Creole  

Meet 94-year-old Leah Chase. For 70 years she has led the kitchen at New Orleans famous Dooky Chase restaurant. During her time, she’s hosted US Presidents, civil rights activists, and music legends from Ray Charles to Michael Jackson. Her specialty is serving creole classics like gumbo, fried chicken and sweet potatoes. This week, in collaboration with BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme, the BBC’s Dan Saladino sits down with Leah as she tells her story through the food she’s cooked - and asks whether a restaurant can change the course of a country. (Image: Leah Chase in the dining room of the Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans. Credit: Dan Saladino)

Should You Drink Your Food?  

Why won't our brains let us feel full on liquid food? After all, we spent the first months of our lives living on milk alone. We talk to a man who lived on liquid alone for 30 days, as we explore why adults are ditching the knife and fork in favour of meals in liquid form. We visit a juice and smoothie café in London where a gourmet smoothie can cost as much as a hot roast dinner, and meet a woman who is only too happy to swap her meal for a drink. Sociology and Food expert Anne Murcott, from SOAS, University of London, tells us this trend is all in the marketing, and Richard Mattes of Purdue University explains why our adult brains are not perfectly wired to detect calories in drink form - and takes us on a journey through our digestive system to help us understand how we process liquid food. And a warning about a little known problem that could be hiding in your smoothie, from allergy expert Dr Isabel Skypala. Plus, we talk to the companies making whole meals in a bottle. The CEO of German company Bertrand, Tobias Stöber shares the thinking behind his product. Professor Amy Bentley isn't convinced though. She's from the Department of Food Studies, Nutrition and Public Health at New York University and tells the BBC's Emily Thomas why she doubts the nutritional value of these drinks. (Image: A spilled glass of strawberry smoothies. Credit: Kondor 83/ Thinkstock)

Of Maize and Men: Unpicked  

This week we continue the story of the most abundant crop on earth. Last week we established its position as the king of the crops. This time we ask: are we producing too much of a good thing? Does the way we produce this crop epitomise everything that’s wrong with the global food system? Maize - or corn, as it’s also known - is the lynchpin of the industrialised food supply. The BBC’s Emily Thomas talks to Ricardo Salvador from the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Stephen Macko from the University of Virginia about how the crop could be the fuelling the obesity problem in the developed world. Conversely, hundreds of millions of people in the developing world rely on maize for their very survival. Prasanna Boddupalli, from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, explains the value of this crop – and the impact of US policy in sub-saharan Africa. We visit a farm in Aylesbury in the South of England and explore the role of corn in intensive livestock farming, with farmer Tom Morrison. From there we move to the cornbelt in the US Midwest, where corn farmer David Brant explains his solution for growing maize without stripping the soil, and polluting the rivers. (Image: An eerie scarecrow in a crop field. Credit: pick-uppath/ Thinkstock)

Of Maize and Men: The Rise  

Corn is everywhere, in much of our food, drink and even packaging. It has found its way, in a myriad of guises, into thousands of products and has come to dominate the industrialised food supply. Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world rely on it too, for their very survival. This week we bring you the story behind the king of the crops, in the first of two programmes dedicated to its spectacular rise, and its implications. The BBC's Emily Thomas learns how maize rose to pre-eminence with author Betty Fussell, and takes a crash course in plant biology with Ricardo Salvador, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, to hear why corn is so productive. . We hear one woman's unenviable, life or death battle to avoid this ubiquitous ingredient and talk to a man who can estimate your corn consumption from a single strand of your hair. Finally, we ask what lengths a government will go to to protect their corn secrets, and find out why the Chinese government is scaling back its production of the crop. (Image: A man standing next to a field of tall maize crops. Credit: alexsalcedo/ Thinkstock)

Food Chain: The Quiz  

Have you ever wondered how many litres of water it takes to make one egg, or what links a 19th-Century electrician to modern pet food? Whose job was it to eat a corpse cake, what really happens when you burn your toast, and what are the world’s most powerful chili peppers? For the answers to these and many more questions, join us for the ultimate test of culinary trivia in The Food Chain’s inaugural quiz. Get your pens ready and play along with our studio panel: BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones; BBC Radio 4 correspondent Matthew Price; Jozef Youssef, chef and founder of Kitchen Theory in London; and BBC World Service presenter Jackie Leonard. (Photo: Flour plus egg equals spaghetti. Credit: Ryan Michael Rodrigo/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Food Chain: The Musical  

What can our music tell us about our culinary and cultural heritage? We explore the ways songs about planting, growing, milking and cooking reflect our lives and our livelihoods. The BBC's Kent DePinto takes us through a sampler of music from around the world, all performed with one thing in mind - food. We'll interpret the rhythm of milking songs in northwest Scotland, visit the hey-day of Yiddish theatre in Manhattan's Lower East Side, dip our toe into an age-old culinary beef in Ghana, and hear how a samba about fish eggs pinpoints social inequality in Brazil. Plus, we get a lesson in playing the leek from an orchestra that only plays vegetables. (Image: A music sheet made of edible salad leaves. Credit: ShaunL/ Getty Images )

Survival Stories: ‘We Ate Spiders, Flies and Worms’  

Lost in a barren and unforgiving part of Turkey, and forced to hide for days in a cave to get away from torrential rain and floods, a group of students turn to berries, grass and insects for sustenance. We speak to two of the students: Merije de Groot and David Mackie. Plus, what happens when you’re surrounded by people, but still have nothing to eat? We hear from Amin Sheikh – who survived alone on the streets of Mumbai for three years from the age of five. In the third of our Survival Stories programmes, the BBC's Emily Thomas is joined by Max Krasnow, an evolutionary psychologist from Harvard University, who explains how your tastebuds could save your life, and Dr Chris Fenn, a nutritionist and survival expert. (Image: David Mackie, after being rescued in Turkey in January 2015. Credit: Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images)

Hunger in the Rich World  

Why do people struggle to feed themselves in wealthy societies? Food banks - depositories of donated and excess food where the neediest can collect ingredients for basic meals - have been running in America since the 1960s. But they are only meant to be for emergencies. Why then, does it seem that in some developed economies, they have become the last defence for those unable to feed themselves? The BBC’s Manuela Saragosa visits the Oasis Waterloo Foodbank in London to hear the stories of people who depend on donated food during times of hardship. We look at the different perspectives around food aid and charity – is it right to treat food banks as a political issue? And, we explore how hunger and food waste - another perennial food problem - might make interesting bedfellows. (Photo: A woman browses canned foods at a food bank in San Francisco. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The Hidden Cost of a Home-Cooked Meal  

Who does the cooking in your house? In many cultures the responsibility for preparing meals at home traditionally falls to women. But as more women join the global workforce, traditional household responsibilities are changing. What impact is that having have on our internal family dynamics? As part of the BBC's 100 Women season, we hear about the social and economic costs of putting a meal on the family table, when the most expensive ingredient is time. Four women from different continents explain the challenges they face trying to balance family life, work, and food. A working mother in Mumbai tells us why she won't give up her kitchen, and a stay at home mum in New York explains why her working husband does most of the cooking. Plus, we hear that in parts of rural Kenya women who cannot cook are far from marriage material. (Picture: A woman prepares vegetables in a village in Bangladesh. Credit: Jewel Samad, Getty Images)

Full English Brexit  

Twentieth century British playwright and novelist Somerset Maugham said that to eat well in Britain, you should eat breakfast thrice daily. And, nothing speaks to British culinary tradition more than the Full English breakfast - bacon, sausages, egg, beans, black pudding and mushrooms all on one plate. But how much of the ‘full English’ today is actually English? And, in a post-Brexit United Kingdom, how will the industries that cater to British breakfasters fare? The BBC’s Manuela Saragosa works her way through each food on the full English breakfast plate and explores how they could be impacted following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Ian Dunt, author of Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?, explains why many believe food prices are set to eventually rise. The UK imports two thirds of its supply from neighbouring Ireland, but as the BBC’s Diarmaid Fleming finds out, some Irish mushroom farmers have already gone out of business. Claire Macleod of Charles Macleod Butchers tells us why Brexit has cast uncertainty on the future of her black puddings. And, we speak to the staff and diners of Brunchies Café in Sutton, south of London – are they concerned about adding a sprinkling of Brexit to their breakfast and if costs rise, is it a price worth paying? (Photo: A traditional English breakfast plate, with Union Jack flag. Credit: Thinkstock)

Burnt  

From the golden crust on a perfectly-baked loaf, to a crispy, crunchy potato chip - do you ever wonder why food that's been browned or charred, can smell, taste and look so good? It's one of cooking's most important flavour secrets. But it's now at the centre of a battle between health campaigners and the European food industry. The BBC’s Mike Johnson follows the story of browned and burnt food from an unexpected discovery in Paris 100 years ago to a state-of-the-art food testing laboratory in the UK, picking up some tips at a London cookery school along the way. (Picture: Unhappy burnt toast Credit: Thinkstock)

In Search of Lost Foods  

What happens to a food when people stop eating it? Most of the food we eat today comes from a handful of crops, but before we became a globalised society, our diet reflected a variety of plants, proteins and foods that were cultivated as local specialties. Now, as our diets become less diverse, these foods face a critical point in their existence. In this programme the BBC's Dan Saladino explores several stories of foods that are dying out and talks to the farmers and producers who are working to save them. (Photo: Mexican Blue Corn Credit: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images)

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