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To expect food to be cheap is to cheapen life itself – Carolyn Steel

  • Written by  Carolyn Steel
  • Published in Opinions
To expect food to be cheap is to cheapen life itself – Carolyn Steel
11 Feb
2020
By revaluing food we can revalue nature to build more liveable, resilient societies 

How will we eat in the future? Will we cultivate meat in labs and vegetables in vertical farms, or will we see a resurgence of regenerative, organic farming? Whatever the answers, one thing is clear: our choices will be pivotal to our chances of thriving on a hot, overcrowded planet.

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Living in a modern city, it can be hard to grasp quite how profoundly food shapes our world. Industrialisation has obscured the vital connections between city and country that are fundamental to urban civilisation. Yet the food on our plates is more than mere nourishment: it is an emissary from distant lands that have often been plundered to the point of exhaustion to provide us with that essential foundation of modern industrial society, cheap food.

Our way of life is predicated on the stuff, yet a moment’s reflection should tell us that no such thing could exist. Food consists of living things that we kill in order to live. This paradox lies at the heart of our modern dilemma: our way of life is based on the assumption (posited by Adam Smith and others) that although nature is the source of all our wealth, it comes for free – something we now know to be false. Indeed, the various externalities of ‘cheap’ food – climate change, deforestation, mass extinction, pollution, water scarcity, soil degradation, obesity and diet-related disease – suggest that, were we to internalise such costs, industrial food would become instantly unaffordable. Which begs the question: what would happen if we were to do precisely that?

The short answer is that there would be a revolution, not just in the way we eat, but in how we live. Our habits, values, politics and economics – indeed, our very idea of a good life – all depend on the fallacy that we’ve solved the problem of how to eat. Any attempt to revalue food will thus be met with stiff resistance, not least among politicians. Yet such a move is arguably the single most powerful thing we could do in order to transition from our inequitable, unhealthy, unsustainable societies towards far fairer, healthier, more resilient ones. Whether or not we realise it, we live in a world shaped by food: a place I call sitopia (from Greek sitos, food + topos, place). By revaluing food and harnessing its power for good, we can create a better world.

Food’s power wasn’t lost on our ancestors; on the contrary, it dominated their lives. Feeding cities in the pre-industrial era was hard, not least due to the difficulties of transporting food over long distances to arrive in an edible state. Although grain (the staple of all cities) had a reasonable shelf-life, it was heavy and bulky in relation to its value. For this reason, most cities remained small. The exceptions were maritime capitals such as Rome and London, whose ability to import food from overseas allowed them to grow to an inordinate size. Whatever their scale, all pre-industrial cities were highly productive: households kept pigs, chickens or goats and human and animal manure was used to fertilise surrounding market gardens, orchards and vineyards.

For Plato and Aristotle, such self-sufficiency was the ideal for the polis (city-state). Both men preached the principles of oikonomia (household management): the idea that each urban citizen should feed his family from his own farm. Scaled up, such an arrangement would render the polis self-reliant and politically independent. The ideal polis should thus remain relatively small; an idea echoed by both Thomas More in his Utopia of 1516 and by Ebenezer Howard in his 1902 Garden Cities
of To-Morrow

Conceived at a time when the need to conserve resources and recycle nutrients was obvious, such utopian models are once again highly relevant, describing the more localised, steady-state economies we shall need in order to thrive in coming decades. By revaluing food – putting the oikonomia back into economics – we can revalue nature to build more liveable, resilient societies based, not on consumption, but the joys of community, productivity and contact with the natural world. Domestic life would once again revolve around kitchens, gardens and shared meals, markets and high streets would flourish, gardens and balconies would burst with produce and networks of producers and suppliers would reconnect cities with their hinterlands. Instead of battling nature, farmers could work with it, replacing industrial feedlots and ‘Big Ag’ monocultures with a variety of mixed-use, agro-ecological farms and rewilded land.

Such a vision may sound utopian, yet across the world it is already happening. As millions in the global Food Movement recognise, the era of cheap food must end. The good news is that it is not too late: by putting food back at the heart of our vision, we can build a flourishing sitopian future.

Carolyn Steel is an architect, lecturer and author. Her work focuses on what it takes to feed a city and how food has shaped the areas in which we live

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