A food manifesto: old thinking in new clothes
Carolyn Steel argues that we need to put food at the centre of our lives again. But one of the great developments of the past few decades is finally being liberated from the day-to-day problem of feeding ourselves.
In a recent issue of Ode magazine, the architect and Hungry City author Carolyn Steel put forward a food manifesto. Actually, it’s really more of a statement of attitude.
‘We need to understand how profoundly food affects every aspect of our lives, depending on the way it’s produced, transported, bought and sold, cooked, eaten and wasted’, she writes. ‘Food is much too important to be left in the hands of megacorporations. We must take back control of food, and start wielding that control positively and collectively as a tool to shape a better world.’ Steel worries that our current food system and city living ‘assumes that the means of supporting urban populations can be endlessly extracted from the natural world. But can it? With at least three billion people living in cities, and a further three billion expected to join them by 2050, the assumption looks shaky.’
Steel sees food as a potential focus for social change: ‘Food is the common denominator: the one thing without which we can’t survive. What better basis, then, around which to order our lives? Together, we can harness food as a social and physical tool, both to interpret the world and to shape it.’ In turn, she sees modern food production as destructive and unsustainable. ‘For example, “cheap food”—the apparent triumph of modern agribusiness—is an oxymoron, an illusion created by externalizing food’s true costs. Once you factor in all the fossil-fuel consumption, rainforest destruction, soil erosion, pollution, water depletion, carbon emissions, loss of biodiversity, rural depopulation, animal suffering and obesity that result from cheap food, it doesn’t look quite so cheap. In fact, we pay a very high price.’
But this just looks like a reaction against the modern world, something best epitomised by the organic movement. Take Steel’s dismissal of mere productivity: ‘High-tech industrial farming isn’t the only way to feed the world. Comparative studies of alternative approaches, such as organic or permaculture, tend to focus on short-term metrics, like crop yields. But the number of tons of grain produced per acre per year is much easier to measure than happiness, the feeling of the wind on your skin or the satisfaction of following in your grandfather’s and father’s footsteps. The tacit assumption that nobody in his or her right mind could possibly choose farming over a desk job is clearly false, too, as hundreds of highly educated farmers in America and Europe can testify.’
Our society does feel somewhat rootless; there appear to be few overarching values that we share in common or any sense of social progress. But we can’t tackle that rootlessness by literally planting roots.
Steel claims that we are unhappy and unhealthy. Yet we certainly live far longer than ever before and the reliability, range and low cost of food available to us is a major factor in that. In the 1930s, John Boyd Orr could report that half of UK households had insufficient money to feed themselves to a proper standard. That must be true for far fewer households today. As for happiness, why would I want to tie myself to land and risk my livelihood every time there’s bad weather or blight? That seems a recipe for stress and misery. Is it any wonder that rural populations are voting with their feet and trying to make a better life in the city? The disenchanted middle classes may want to jump off the global merry-go-round, but the world’s poor are only too desperate to jump on.
While I love food, I’m glad in comes in packets that I merely collect from the supermarket. I can be confident that I’ll never need to go hungry and I’m glad I don’t have to work long hours of physical toil to ensure I get it. Rising productivity equals freedom - to do other things besides subsist.
A central idea in Panic on a Plate is that the New Food Movement is really a bunch of middle-class concerns - with a particular anti-modern theme to them - that offer little new. While Steel and others, like Michael Pollan, can often make quite pertinent observations about the current food system, the solutions they offer seem entirely rooted in the past. Moreover, food becomes a substitute for any more useful and interesting basis for collective experience. I want the future to be about something more interesting and useful than simply what I eat.