I have already reviewed several books offering quite disturbing accounts of the ways in which modern agriculture and food supply systems operate. I have listened to quite a few lectures and talks on the same subject. Pretty much the same issues are repeatedly mentioned as the most pressing problems our food environment is flawed with – social and environmental degradation, labour exploitation, antibiotics, pesticides, food insecurity – the list of severe and at times irreversible consequences of intensive agriculture and industrialized food production for human and ecological health can no longer be ignored. And these consequences are indeed attracting growing attention – the global food movement is rising to which the increasing visibility and significance of such activist groups as Via Campesina or Slow Food is a testimony. Universities are designing and leading courses on food issues – the Edible Education project at the University of California, Berkeley is a striking example of the growing recognition of the importance to teach young generation to understand and deal with the problems that is an undesired legacy of the several decades of human misconduct towards nature and earth. Scientific evidence of this legacy is building up and a large number of academics as well as writers and journalists are ceaselessly trying to attract public and government attention to it. On a policy level, the action is lagging behind (just as has always been) but the recognition of the challenges our food system is faced with is growing. And these problems are universal. They concern all and they matter to all as we are all eaters and we are all consumers of food and hence we are all actors in the food system. So isn’t it or shouldn’t it be each and everyone’s responsibility to contribute to fixing the system we are all so dependent upon? So what can you do if you are not quite in a position to develop a better food policy, lead a social movement or write a book on how to mend our food system?
Even if you are not a policy maker, an activist or a scientist, you are still a consumer. And this does give you power. Have you ever thought about where your food is coming from (supermarket is the wrong answer) or where and how it has been grown or how long has been its journey to the supermarket shelf where you picked it up from? Have you ever been interested in the biography of the food that ends up on your plate? Honestly, I have never invested much thought into all of this before I started to explore our global foodscape from different angles – first as part of my MA research, then through my involvement in the allotments (and later the Everyday Growing Cultures) project and now navigating the field on a doctoral level. But what I have come to know does not require any educational degrees or credentials; the subject of food is so down-to-earth, so mundane that it concerns all of us collectively as a society and each of us individually as consumers of food. Now if you start thinking how our food systems have changed during the industrial era and what effects this has had on our relationships with food, you’ll probably begin to understand the routes of many of the most pressing health, societal, environmental and ecological problems we are currently facing. Whereas during pre-industrial times food was grown and consumed pretty much within the same geographical space and often by the very same people, the rise of industrialized agriculture and mass food production led to such a wide gap between production and consumption of food that many of us are no longer able to imagine any connection between food on the one hand and land and nature on the other. Not only are we geographically divorced from food production, we are mentally equally far from it since we have less and less understanding of how our food is produced, processed and distributed. You have probably heard the evil word “transfats” but do you actually know what it means? Have you ever heard of hydrogenation? Do you know what food nanotechnology is about? What genetic modification involves? Food production has become so scientific, that you have to be a Frankenstein to figure out what your dinner consists of. French sociologist Claude Fischler calls industrial foods “unidentified edible objects” and that is what most of them probably are. I admire Wendell Berry’s essay “The Pleasures of Eating” which highlights how modern consumers have become “industrial eaters” suffering from cultural amnesia that makes them ignorant of and indifferent to the history and origins of the food they eat.
But not only don’t we know where our food comes from, the practices of cooking is practically vanishing from our daily lives. Not willing to spend much time on preparing our own meal, we are happy to delegate this responsibility to the food industry which has a lot to offer to an “industrial eater” – the variety of pre-cooked meals, pre-washed vegetables and pre-sliced fruits is astonishing. But the most serious implication of this is that we have become blind to the social, ethical and moral values and meanings embedded in food products. Our food has become so de-contextualized, we are spatially and mentally so far away from the conditions of food production- from that poor banana grower in a distanced Dominica island, from the factory farms where hens are kept in battery cages and cows are fed growth hormone and antibiotics, from hundreds of thousands of fish killed by agricultural water pollution – that it is easy for us to abide to neo-liberal logics of profit seeking and only base our food choices on such rational considerations as price, taste or value for money. Might it be that we as consumers are responsible for the degradation of our physical and environmental health, that it is our blindness to and ignorance of societal and natural processes through which our food reaches us that allowed modern food production system to have such destructive consequences for the society and the planet?
Counter-movements are emerging in response and we as consumers are increasingly motivated to be more conscious about what we choose to eat – local, organic, fair trade, animal welfare assured products, etc. – all offer a way to responsible consumerism through more ethical food choices. This way is not free of its own dilemmas and I will address the controversies of ethical consumerism in future posts, but what I think is important to begin with is to try and re-embed ourselves as consumers and as eaters into a universe where everything is interconnected and every food decision we make has an impact on our society and environment. Easier said than done, but can I suggest you to begin with a game called “Tell your food’s story” – just go to the kitchen and pick up a jar of coffee or a bottle of milk, anything that’s got a label on it and can tell something about this particular product– where it came from, how it was grown – and by beginning to learn your food’s story you can begin to relate yourself to the food environment and the food system you help to build and maintain.
P.S. If you feel you need more inspiration, this talk by Peter Sellar from the Edible Education lecture series will get right into your heart, so deep that you will feel almost compelled to re-consider some things you have come to take for granted.