Food, Health and Income

John Boyd Orr (1880-1971) was a Scottish nutritional scientist, farmer and campaigner. He is a food hero because he engaged with the political world and used his scientific knowledge to improve global nutrition, which is why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949.

Born in Ayrshire he trained as a doctor at Glasgow University where he won a gold medal for his thesis. In 1913 he was appointed to oversee the development of a new research institute at Aberdeen University. This project was interrupted by the First World War during which he served in the Army as a doctor and was at the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele. Returning to Aberdeen in 1919 he used his considerable financial and persuasive skills to develop the Rowett Institute which was carrying out research into animal nutrition.

He was asked by the British government to investigate the idea of a national food policy and the resulting report, Food, Health and Income, was published in 1937. It made uneasy reading for those in government. It mustered considerable research to demonstrate that many people in Britain were simply too poor to eat a nourishing diet. The report stated,
“… a diet completed adequate for health according to modern standards is reached only at an income level above that of 50% of the population.” John Boyd Orr, Food, Health and Income, MacMillian, p.44

During World War Two he advised Lord Woolton and helped shape the wartime diet for the better. In 1945 he retired as the Director of the Rowett Institute and began a new international career becoming as the first Director General of the Food and Agricultural Organisation. He proposed a World Food Board to distribute food to where it was needed. It was an ambitious plan and when it failed Orr resigned in disappointment. It may have been a Utopian plan but you have to love him for trying.

The Rochdale Pioneers

The Rochdale Pioneers

In 1844 a group of 28 men kick started the co-operative movement by setting up the Rochdale Pioneers Equitable Society.

This society bought key essentials in bulk and sold them to members at reasonably prices.   The group rented a room at 31 Toad Lane (in Rochdale, obviously), made a counter out of planks and barrels and  sold butter, oats, sugar and candles.  Only members of the co-op could buy from this shop but anyone could join as long as he or she paid a small subscription.

The rules of how the co-op would work were clearly set out.  These stated that;  all sales would be in cash, no credit would be given, the food sold would be pure, any profits would be shared amongst the members, that men and women would be equally entitled to participate and that members would have regular reports on how things were going.  These rules have evolved into the “Rochdale Principles of Co-operation” which underpin the modern co-operative movement.

The Rochdale Pioneers Museum , on the site of the original store, is due to re-open later this year and, if you can’t wait for that, the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester is a great source of information.

German Scientist Discovers Junk Food

Frederick (or Friedrich) Accum (1769-1838) was a German chemist who wrote about the adulteration of food.

Frederick trained as an apothecary in Germany before coming to London in 1793 and where threw himself into the scientific scene.   He established himself as freelance researcher, lecturer and purveyor of chemical equipment.   He worked on various projects, for example experiments with gas lighting, and, for a time, he was employed as Humphry Davy’s assistant.

In 1820 he published, A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons,  which explained that much of the food and drink being sold was not what it claimed to be.  The book sold out very quickly.  Some of the practices revealed were fraudulent, e.g. selling roasted peas and beans as coffee, while others were downright dangerous, e.g. the use of poisonous chemicals, such as lead, copper and mercury, to enhance the colour wine and sweets.  As well as describing the problem and explaining how to test for adulterants, the brave (of foolhardy) Frederick published the names and addresses of traders convicted of adulteration.  This made him some powerful enemies and, probably, lead to his public disgrace.

Shortly after the publication of his book Frederick was accused of vandalising books from Royal Institution’s library.  This might have been a set up but he was found guilty and in 1821 he fled to Germany where he worked as a teacher.

Sugar Engineer

Norbert Rillieux. Image from,

I am not entirely sure whether anyone associated with the American sugar plantations during the 19th century could be described as a hero but Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894) transformed the refining process and his story is surprising.

Norbert was born in New Orleans and, in the language of the time, he was a “quadroon”.  His father Vincent Rillieux, was a white plantation farmer and his mother, Constance Vivant, was of mixed race. Norbert, along with his siblings, was raised in some comfort thanks to his father’s wealth.  He attended private schools in Louisiana before being sent to Paris in the early 1820s to study engineering at the prestigious École Centrale. Norbert was evidently a rather good student and published papers on steam engines.  On returning to New Orleans and applied his engineering mind to sugar production.

In the early 19th century the way sugarcane juice was made into sugar involved a lot of boiling in large open pans.  It was labour intensive and dangerous. Norbert introduced a process that was cheaper, safer and produced a  whiter sugar crystal.  The Rillieux multiple-effect evaporating process was an important improvement in the way sugar was refined.

Norbert’s education and his family’s wealth allowed him to do things that would have been impossible for the vast majority of Black people living in Louisiana at the time (slavery was not abolished here until 1865)  but they did not insulate him entirely from racial prejudice.  During the 1850s race relations in Louisiana worsened. Norbert got fed up and moved to Paris, which is where he died at the age of 88.  He is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery alongside his wife, Emily.

Heroine of Organic Farming

Lady Eve Balfour (1899-1990) was an organic pioneer who had a variety of potatoes names after her.

She wrote ,“The greatest social service of all is, or should be, the provision of the people’s food…If fresh food is necessary to health in man and beast, then that food must be provided not only from our own soil but as near as possible to the sources of consumption.” [1].

Evelyn Barbara Balfour was born into a rich and influential family.  Her father was the second Earl of Balfour (hence Lady Balfour) and her uncle was Arthur Balfour, the Conservative Prime Minster.  She was determined to farm from an early age and studied agriculture at the University of Reading.  In 1920 she bought a farm in Haughley Green, Suffolk with her sister, Mary.

In the late 1930s her interest in organic farming lead to her to establish the Haughley Experiment.  This was the first serious comparison between organic and non-organic farming techniques.  It involved creating three mini-farms using different methods and recording the result over a number of years.  The first mini-farm grew crops but had no animals.  The second and third plots combined arable crops with a herd of dairy cows, a flock of poultry and a few sheep. One of these mixed plots used chemicals and the other organic methods.

Evidence from this experiment together with information she gathered from travelling around the world went into her book, The Living Soil, which has become a classic in the organic movement.  It was first published in 1943 and encapsulates her ideas about the relationships between soil fertility and human health.  She was a campaigner too and, in 1946, co-founded the Soil Association.

Eve Balfour is a food heroine because she recognised the link between good food and health, had the guts to argue for what she thought was right and the sense to realise that the organic movement needed evidence to prove its case.

[1] E.B. Balfour, 1948, The Living Soil, Faber and Faber, London, p.164.