Tucker. Grub. Eating like a bird or feasting on the spoils – the real consumption of the consumer lifestyle is… consumption. Food is the meat of it, the challenge of building a more sustainable future. If we have a taste for it.
Consumption and production are, of course, two sides of the same coin. But what is the value of that coin? Is it pennies a day, or whatever ridonculous value the Bitcoin is currently trading at in old money? And in old money, new money, funny money or any currency of value to us, what is the cost of keeping ourselves fed? A girl’s gotta eat, right? Unless you’re a robot.
In my personal exploration of the more hopeful human tomorrow, and how on Earth we might hope to encourage it, I am essentially simply wondering, as Captain What The Hell Do I know in my floating bubble pod of finely upholstered, fatheaded comfort – as someone of comparative historic privilege – what questions we should be asking about what’s happening around us? If we do indeed hope to shape a half decent future for ourselves out of all the changes coming to us, what will the component parts of that half decent at least half good for us, future need to be? And one of the most fundamental questions we can ask is: What am I putting into myself? Is it good for me?
In this episode of Unsee The Future, I’m going to consider the essential human food needs and challenges around the world looking forward. A snapshot of how we might feed ourselves as the future unfolds with all its interlocking problems. And before we answer the question: ‘how do we deliver what we need – is it Deliveroo?’ in a later episode on Production, I think we first need to ask: ‘what do we really need?’
Peckish? Let’s order starters. Put down the celery stick.
LISTEN TO UNSEE THE FUTURE – EP4: FOOD:
“By 2030, no one will go hungry anywhere in the world.” There it is on the UN’s Global Goal page – Zero Hunger. That’s a hopeful aim, isn’t it? And anyway, didn’t Bob Geldoff sort all this over thirty years ago with a terrible pop record?
You may or may not remember the reports from Ethiopia that inspired Band Aid and the subsequent bleeding pop heart, and remarkable cultural moment, of Live Aid, in 1985. But it felt like the British nation looking at Africa properly for the time. It was the first time I had, and it introduced a single, stark impression of the entire continent to younger me through the experiences of what was, of course, just one of its nations in one particular moment in time. And it looked like hell. A televisual horror show of malnourishment that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, shown us by Michael Buerk on primetime BBC news. I remember my father weeping at the dehumanised state of skeletal infants in dusty villages far away. It brought it home.
Three decades on, what’s changed, you might ask. With your thumbs. Over a KFC bucket. Smearing grease off your phone there.
Can we feed the world? And how many bubble-podders like me are still taking white saviour selfie snapshots of the African continent?
One reporter who was there, Mike Wooldridge, thinks the reporting of the 83-85 Ethiopian famine effectively sowed the seeds, as it were, for the humanitarian response network we have in place today. It’s bound to be true at least that an awful lot of people running aid agencies today will be a similar generation to me, watching the ‘hell on Earth’ of it through reports like Mike’s during their own formative years.
“I journeyed up the spine of Ethiopia, northwards from Addis Ababa, while covering the 1984 famine. My overwhelming memory is of parched countryside, bare hills – and weary and weakened men, women and children congregated in places they thought they might find food.” he said, on a trip back to the country in 2014. “Now you pass through bustling towns and villages, three-wheeler taxis plying their trade everywhere and people moving animals to and from market” with more irrigation and construction and general life.
Then, two years later in 2016, the highlands of Ethiopia were hit by severe drought and famine looked inevitable. World response, coupled with hefty financial government response, this time, averted the worst – but now the lowlands of the country are suffering. As Paul Schemm reports for the Washington Post, it’s happening near the border of troubled Somalia: “where a drought brought on by warming temperatures in the Indian Ocean has ravaged the flocks of the herders in the region and left people without food. With their sheep and goats mostly dead, the nomads are clustered in camps surviving on aid from the government and international agencies — but that food is about to run out.”
He goes on to site a report drawn up jointly by the Ethiopian government and aid agencies in the region putting a baldly helpful big fat round number on the help needed – $1Billion. More than half, they still haven’t got. Not least of which because the country itself spent almost half that last year on that drought. He describes the bustling, brandising and sometimes rainy streets of the capital Addis Ababa as seeming ‘a world away’ from the Somalian borderlands, but quotes WFP regional spokeswoman Challiss McDonough as descibing the Horn of Africa as having been particularly unlucky in meteorological terms in the last couple of years. That, while the warming of the seas causing last year’s drought was atributed to the El Niño weather pattern: ““The droughts are coming more frequently and more often and they are worse — and that’s climate change. That’s very, very clear. You talk to any farmer how are the rains now compared to 20-30 years ago, they see a difference in their lifetimes, particularly the older ones.”
So Ethiopia is in a state of emergency again, that will likely get worse. And at a time when there are many strains on donors to humanitarian relief efforts across the Africa-Gulf region.
But it’s not weather that’s really the problem. It’s… >cabaret drumroll< politics. Climate change is simply in the early process of complicating things.
As Alexander De Waal says in his book from just a few years after the events, Evil Days: Thirty years of war and famine in Ethiopia, the 83-85 famine struck ten years into the country’s bloody civil war. Government anti-insurgency tactics and ‘social transformation’ endeavours wrecked the normal running of the country before the bad weather joined in.
“Repeated military offensives destroyed the crops in surplus-producing areas, and with them much rural employment. The bombing of market places restricted rural trade and exchange, impeding the redistribution of the surplusses that existed locally…” with forced relocations and general restrictions on comings and going all over the country, alongside “systematic restriction of food supply” and “indiscriminate violence” and “fostering of divisions” all serving to: “prevent hungry people from utilising time-honoured strategies for obtaining food”.
He quotes Human Rights Watch as considering that of the 400,000 people alone who died in the direct causes of the famine, “more than half its mortality could be attributed to human rights abuses causing the famine to come earlier, strike harder and extend further than would otherwise have been the case”.
Politics. War. Duh.
Mengistu Haile Mariam – deposer of Haile Selassie himself in a 1974 revolution – was later supposedly sentenced to death for the crimes under his watch, but appears to be living in exile in Zimbabwe. Don’t imagine the old boys’ network is just a western thing.
Authoritarianism may be, in fact, a root cause of food security issues. Because, despite apparent democracy and willingness to spend to aleviate the effects, today’s crisis in Ethiopia is being made worse by Government disincentive to move faster on the issue, suggests Dawit Ayele Haylemariam in a Huffington Post article: “If there were a democratic system to keep the government accountable, the state’s response would have been much different. For instance, Botswana, like Ethiopia, is prone to drought but a democracy since its independence in 1966, Botswana never had a famine.”
Quite a claim. And he sites an Institute for Development Studies report that found of 30 major famines around the world in the last century: “all happened in countries led by autocratic rule or that were under armed conflict, four being in Ethiopia.”
Oxfam highlights how similar challenges of famine are shaping up at the moment. As Nigel Timmins from the aid agency puts it: “Famine does not arrive suddenly or unexpectedly, it comes after months of procrastination and ignored warnings. It is a slow agonizing process, driven by callous national politics and international indifference.” The organisation’s map of developing famines prompts it to suggest the converging problem is ‘unprecidented’.
Whatever the particulars of every food disaster, as Oxfam puts it, “there is always a fatal combination of various factors” and it always includes bad politics.
Power culture may, in the end, be the root of human food suffering – with climatic disaster the compounder. But where does this leave us today in more general terms? What is the state of the wider world’s bread basket as we head towards the second decade of the 21st century?
A la carte
The IDS report from Stephen Devereux says first simply: “More than 70million people died in famines during the 20th century.”
The interesting bit of his introduction is the simple headline that there are places that have learned how to deal with food insecurity. He sites the “success of some parts of the world – China, The Soviet Union and, more recently, India and Bangladesh – in apparently eradicating mass mortality food crises. This is contrasted iwth the eperience of sub-Saharan Africa, where famines precipitated b adverse synergies between natural triggers and political crises have become endemic since the late 1960s”
But if everywhere had more stable systems and accountable administrating governments for delivering regular, dependable food supply, would there still be a threat to global food security? And is part of it sheer volume of production needed?
How much are we eating – and what are we currently eating?
The straight-to-the-pointly named Food & Agriculture Organisation works in some 130 countries in pursuit of the UN’s Zero Hunger initiative and, as such, has access to as much data about the world’s food habits as anyone. And, with their FAOSTAT department, they helped National Geographic produce a little interactive graphic that’s a fascinating first glimpse at just who eats what around the world. It’s a great snapshot look at human food life on Earth, pausing our heightened sense of impending crisis for a curious moment. Don’t worry, the crises will be back.
If food’s primary aim is energy release – animal fuel – then it’s useful to have a measure of what’s being put in the tank. And for that, health bodies and fit physiques alike talk calories. The NHS general advice is that an average male-scaled human needs 2,500calories per day to function healthily and an average female-sized human needs a little less, at 2,000. So the world average from Nat Geo‘s graphic is a sort of just over healthy baseline at 2,870. We’re apparently all eating a bit more than enough. And we’re eating more grains than anything else, at 45% of our intake, which is good for the heart. Sugar and fat lumped together – as they inevitably do – fill a not brilliant but could be worse 20%. Meat, interestingly, is only 9% of our daily diet, less than green produce at 11%. And glorious Impossibility Of Vegan dairy is less still at 8%. And the rest is Haribo, I think. Or biscuits, prob’ly. Cake. It IS its own food group.
Now all this is interesting. But of course utterly useless. It’s the nations breakdown that’s where the first glimmers of truth emerge.
Newsflash: America eats a lot of crap. Sugar and fat is THIRTY SEVEN PER CENT OF IT’S DAILY INTAKE. Holy Lord of the farmyard, that’s unhealthy. >swigs a midweek glass of wine< The UK keeps its sugar and fat to a modest quarter of its diet. Meat is apparently only 13% of the daily US diet, which is surprising, given all those famously farting beaf units they farm, while dairy comes in at 14%. Americans eat just 8% green stuff. In total, their average daily calorie intake is an overly sturdy 3,641.
The greens champs, according to this outline, are the Cubans. And interestingly, it’s because of an economic collapse. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the country lost its primary trading partner. Y’know, that convenient Communist neighbour 10,000km away. It meant that the population simply dropped its calorie intake in the absence of as much food choice and the Castro and the boys were forced to diversify its agriculture, having to rely on “more sustainable farming”. 16% of the current daily intake of food is now produce, as a result. They also eat a lot of grains and not much meat. All which all sounds post-Commie utopian until you see the quarter of it’s intake is sugar and fat and their daily calorie hit is 3,200. Cuban music may be beautiful, but it’s at the more laid back end of the latin beats spectrum and not enough to burn that off, I’d wager.
China is a close second on the greens front, with the UK on a surprisingly un-KFCish 11%. Speaking of which, we apparently eat as much dairy as we did half a century ago, but we get rather less calorific intake from it, interestingly, because we’ve supposedly cleaned up our act with butter, ghee, cream and animal fats. Which together sounds like a fetish party I never want an invitation to. Our overall calorie intake is a terribly loaded 3,413. Ghee wizz.
True grains lords and possibly, on the face of it, the healthiest eaters, are the Indians. A predominantly vegetarian diet – ‘meat’ accounts for just 1% of their intake – has essentially changed little despite the more than doubling of the country’s population in fifty years. 57% of the daily intake is grains and this gives them a calorie count of a healthy sounding 2,458. Sugar and fat is a lot larger, however, than greenery dairy. I still puzzle over what ‘other’ might be here in the pie chart. ..Is it pie?
Overall, the developed nations eat handsomly. Calorie counts all around the 3,000 mark and often higher. But the countries struggling with crises and politics are unsurprisingly lower down the list of bloaters. North Korea’s average energy input per human day is just 2,103calories, with grains accounting for 63% of all their food – taking the brown crown. Somalia’s troubles are reflected in its calorie count, at just 1,695 per day.
Yes, I could click this thing all day. Try it. And as the FAO says: “It would appear that the world has made significant progress in raising food consumption per person.” But two headlines stand out for us generally – food is not evenly distributed throughout world regions at all, and many gains in nutrition are threatened.
So if the state of the world’s nutrition is currently better than it has been in a long time, and it’s still not working sufficently for everyone, what happens if we do begin to backslide into even less effective food distribution?
There are some dramatic topographies to the food map of the world. Life destablising ones.
Soup of the day
The One has a cute summation of interesting headlines about world food circumstances and its opener won’t surprise you.
“Poor people in developing countries often spend 60-80% of their income on food.”
As the World Food Programme puts it: “When food prices rise, almost everyone notices. But for a poor family struggling to make ends meet somewhere in the developing world, the effects can be crippling”. They point out that your average one-euro loaf of bread in a hypermarket is only materially worth about 14c, with the rest going on all the branding and transport, so if the price of wheat doubles, that’s just an extra 14c on their bill. Hardly breakfast-killing. But: “Poor people in the developing world tend not to buy loaves of bread. They buy a bag of flour. If the price of maize doubles, the price they pay for that flour also doubles. That’s hardly manageable if food already accounts for most of what you spend in a month.”
If this is you, your response will be to reduce the quality of what you eat. Less fresh fruit and veg, less meat. Then there is the choice to simply eat fewer times a day. The next stage might be selling any livestock assets your family has – a goat or poultry. Which might give you a desperate bung in the hand in the moment, but now that asset is gone. No more milk and eggs. Which over time has a nutritional knock-on that is essentially disasterous for infants.
One estimate puts some 165million children as malnourished.
As the UN puts it, in a range of headlines from it’s Global Goals, 1 in 4 children in the world are stunted in their physical development. It’s 43 million fewer than in 2000, it believes, but it’s still most of that 165 million estimate affected in their growth. Some three million children die unnecessarily every year from malnutrition, they estimate and while poverty and child mortality rates are down, hunger is on the rise – up almost 40million between 2015 and 2017, by their figures. And the WHO agrees – 815 million of us hungry, as at the end of 2017.
When you factor in population growth predicted across the planet in the next three decades, the UN estimates food production will need to go up by a staggering 60% in that time.
Where to start, today?
In 2016 I met Dr Barbara Wells, from the International Potato Centre. Yes, you better believe there is one. And it’s not a surprisingly low-octane sounding theme park, it’s a research body that’s been around almost as long as I have, working to develop canny ways to build in food security around the world. Based in Lima, Peru, and working in some 20 developing countries today, the CIP (as it’s known from its Spanish acronym) has numerous projects on the go, one of which is the Sweet Potato For Nutrition team, which Barbara was representing. And put simply, what they have proven is how transformative can one change in food practices be for a whole community.
The orange-fleshed sweet potato variety is especially rich in vitamin A. As well as contributing to vision and skin health, vitamin A helps a child’s general growth and the development of their immune system, which is all pretty very important. As UNICEF says: ” If children have insufficient vitamin A, their ability to resist diseases such as diarrhoea, measles and acute respiratory infections is greatly hampered.” But Vitamin A Deficiency – VAD – is a common element of what the CIP refers to as ‘micronutrient deficiency’ or hidden hunger, and they estimate this will affect children from across some 850million people they suggest are openly malnourished globally and the “pushing two billion” hidden hungry.
And, as they say: “The vast majority of the world’s poor live in rural areas; their nutritional security depends upon productivity of their land, crops, and available agricultural technologies”. Which means: “Smallholder farmers urgently need agricultural technologies that can help them produce nutritious and marketable food and take advantage of economic opportunities from growing demand for food among expanding and urbanizing populations”.
By helping to introduce a bio-fortified version of OFSP to local farmers, especially in sub-Saharan communites in Uganda, the CIP has helped create a hardy source of great nutrition to local, quicker-yield crops that doesn’t just tackle the immediate health needs of farming families but can become a way to help engender some new economics into their lives, with jobs developing at all stages of the vegetable’s life cycle. Which leads to new partnerships and possibilities. And culturally, this especially effects women positively, who tend to be the ones farming OFSP, putting money and control directly into their hands.
It’s a positive practical endeavour, built on sustainable thinking. There may still be outside help behind the initiative, but it’s effectiveness is in trying to help people in a undernourished regions get a bump start to turn the corner. CIP thinks they can have reached some 15million households in Africa, Asia and Haiti by the early 2020s, enabling them to “raise their nutrition value by 20% and income by 15%” just from this one new planting technique.
Which is brilliant. And hopeful.
So what about those going hungry who have no connection to the land, and to the pratical possibility of farming their own food and livelihood? Because there are plenty of them. What about those who live within walking distance of shops groaning with food?
It’s not simply developing countries far away that have to deal with this. It’s families in wealthy nations like my own, here in the UK, that have undernourished children, as the Child Poverty Action Group says. “There were 4 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2015-16. That’s 30 per cent of children, or 9 in a classroom of 30” they claim. And this affects health, with higher statistical likelihoods of childhood illnesses and disabilities. Even this year, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on hunger warned in a report of some 3 million children in the UK at risk of hunger in the school holidays, away from the regular meal breaks of the school canteen.
How is it possible that we need a charity in 2017’s Great Britain called Feeding Britain?
As MP Frank Field puts it in the introduction to the report, his APPG “aims to ignite an anger that will spread throughout the country and will not abate until hunger as we know it has been abolished.”
No kidding. It appears to be more than mere numbers of people on Earth causing us food problems today – it’s political economics. However famously hefty the state bill for welfare may be in the UK, it isn’t covering the basics for increasing numbers of people falling outside the system. And this leaves people hungry in plentiful countries.
But under-nutrition isn’t the only story, of course. The joint UNFAO, Unicef, World Food Programme and WHO report, The state of food security and nutrition in the world, 2017, makes it clear – it’s eating too much that’s also proving a strain on national health services. While some children are starving or malnourished, at the same time: “overweight among children under five is becoming more of a problem in most regions, and adult obesity continues to rise in all regions. Multiple forms of malnutrition therefore coexist, with countries experiencing simultaneously high rates of child undernutrition and adult obesity.” And the report claims that in 2016 some “41 million children under five years of age were overweight.”
The symbolic food bomb underlying our culture may be just one substance. Sugar. I weep for it, for sweeties and crisps keep this forty-seven year old happy in dark moments. It isn’t quite the place to go into it here, but if you’ve heard of the sugar conspiracy you may know of the revelation that the food industry in the 1960s hushed the science showing sugar to be the more likely cause of modern ill-healths, and that ‘saturated fat’ was supposedly villified in its stead. As referred to readably in a Guardian article by Ian Leslie. It’s worth a read.
As SG Damle says for the US National Library of Medicine, sugar addiction around the world is a terrible health companion. Beside the famous anti-wellness monsters of obesity and diabetes, he says: “there are an abundance of other illnesses and conditions that have lesser-known connections to sugar. The list is long: high blood pressure, hypoglycemia, depression, acne, headaches, hardening of the arteries, fatigue, violent behavior, hyperactivity, aching extremities, and of course, tooth decay. It seems we pay a heavy price for our sweet tooth. Not only do we eat a lot of sugar and make ourselves ill but also it has no nutritional value at all. No vitamins, no minerals, no enzymes, no fiber. Sugar tastes good. Humans crave sugar right down to their DNA.”
And he produces this gem of a quote:
“Sugar is as addictive as cocaine. Brain scans after sugar consumption are very similar to when we do blow. Dopamine floods the brain, and we feel good. And of course, it is a lot easier on the nostrils… unless you are snorting your sugar.”
And that’s without even mentioning the culture of alcohol in so many parts of the world. I mean… that is a wide road through the middle of this psychological story of our consuming times. That my wife’s mother swore to teetotalism in the 1960s not because of religious conviction or prudery but simply because she saw then what it brought into the hospitals she worked at – a generation before the hellmouth A&Es of today’s Britain – is just one tiny glinting reflection of the supernova of testimony humanity has about it’s love affair with booze.
Whatver our addictions and compulsions and habits, it is simply too tempting to resist saying from my middle class moral high ground that you could sum up the whole food economy story around us by saying that while McJobs are starving us, Big Macs are bloating us.
But this is hardly news. And the middle classes have always been simultaneously hanky-flappingly horrified by and worthily determined to help those less fortunate. The point today is simply that more and more of us are becoming less fortunate. Which gives all our anxieties something else fundamental to worry about.
And all while throwing away an estimated 1.3 billion tons of food globally per year.
As a handy little guide to food waste from The Guardian illustrates, that’s supposedly enough to build a mountain of moulding sludge two miles across 8,000 feet into the air. I’d love to watch them experiement with how to illustrate this. As they put it: “About 1.4bn hectares, or close to 30% of available agricultural land, is used to grow or farm food that is subsequently wasted.”
According to WRAP‘s report this year, that adds up to 7.3million tons of Household Food Waste, or HHFW as they put it, in the UK in their 2015 analysis. And that despite ‘significant efforts’ to reduce it.
Oh, crikey, you know this enough. It’s ghastly. It’s grossly indecent use of resources, human and other. There’s a technical difference between ‘food waste’ and ‘food loss’ you should know – one being the result of poor practical practices in developing nations and the other being Waitrose shoppers apparently throwing away almost all of every lettuce they ever feel they should buy to fig-leaf the booze haul in the shopping basket a bit – but the end result is what it is. People starving in huge numbers while food rots in massive heaps.
And that’s without really going into the threat to how much food we can even grow – and how it is diminishing.
As Live Science shares, a report from Navin Ramankutty from the University of British Columbia, Corey Lesk, of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and Pedram Rowhani from the University of Sussex found that: “cereal harvests — including rice, wheat and maize — decreased by an average of 9 to 10 percent during droughts and heat waves between 1964 and 2007.” Their report explains that the effect of this has increased in more recent years. As Lesk says to Live Science: “We found that the average impact of drought disasters on crops has gotten worse… The thinking is that, if crop responses to drought have gotten bigger, but there is no clear signal that the droughts have gotten worse, then that supports the alternative explanation that crops themselves have gotten more sensitive.
‘And if they have gotten more sensitive already, that bodes ill for future crop performance in a world of worse droughts.”
Climate change is speeding up the way crops are not giving us as much food as we’re used to getting for our farming efforts, essentially.
And as The Guardian reports, a study by the Met Office this summer found that: “Governments may be seriously underestimating the risks of crop disasters occurring in major farming regions around the world”. IE, that if a series of natural disasters struck in just the right coincidence of ways today, we would be suddenly up slops creek.
So, what do you know? The headline about food from Planet Now is the same as every other major headline of our joyous time: Sheeeite! We’re all going to die, it’s all so precarious.
Well, yes. But the very idea of life evolving to the complexly neurotic level of you is so blitheringly unlikely you may as well run with the madness and consider what else is possible. Because, as with all the news, when you consider how it’s all about how you edit together the story in your head, you can find new ways of seeing the hopeless future. Which is rather my whole point in this endeavour.
For yes, the problems of our food inequalities and insecurities, so bound up as they are in our politics and our economic culture, can be seen as symptoms of a connectedly unhealthy outlook. One that can be turned on its head.
Seeing the hopey-changey bit
Food is a complex issue at the heart of human society. Which takes all the joy out of it, put like that, though it might be a conversation starter around the dinner table, the symbolic heart of any home. But the future of food will involve addressing some key issues to make urgent progress on – including security, diet, ethics and packaging.
Food security will be a hefty political challenge. The G8 attempted to address this back in 2012 with the setting up of its New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which Action Aid describes as “a partnership between G8 governments and other donors, 10 African governments and the private sector with the objective to foster private investment in African agriculture to benefit smallholder farmers and reduce hunger and poverty”, adding simply: “The New Alliance is very contentious.”
In order to try to promote better food security, the NAFSN essentially pushed to not only have certain big agro approaches adopted, but certain big agro companies embedded in the process in its targeted developing countries. Something that does immediately sound like they are addressing a big problem by not getting it at all.
“It has been criticised since the very beginning by civil society organisations as serving the interest of large companies rather than small scale food producers” as Action Aid explains. But beyond politico-biz questions, they say: “What is at stake with the New Alliance is also the model of agriculture we want to support in Africa with EU public funding – climate resilient, biodiverse, inclusive of the poorest, gender-sensitive and labour intensive.”
You’d think any aid agency would have their hands full enough without going to the trouble of sounding quite so right-on, right? Unless there’s something practically truthful in the idea that all such social issues are connected to our food.
I wonder if we should be considering the idea of food justice.
As the post-99% movement activist group Global Justice Now says, corporate-lead initiatives like the NAFSN essentially leave small-scale food producers out of the loop, despite them representing the major investment group in any state food sovereignty in most African nations. Such approaches are, as they put it: “based on the simplistic assumption that corporate investment in agriculture will increase production and that this will automatically improve food and nutrition security and reduce poverty. This logic completely neglects that food and nutrition security means consistent access to a diverse and nutritious diet, which will not be achieved simply by increasing food production. Moreover, much of the production supported by the New Alliance is in crops with relatively low nutritional value as well as in crops which are destined for export and/or non-food production.”
As The Guardian reported in 2016, many MEPs agree with the criticism of this approach. German Green MEP Mara Heubuch put it like this: “We have already made the mistake of intensive agriculture in Europe. We should not replicate it in Africa because this model destroys family farming and reduces biodiversity”.
Interesting to consider that nutrition delivery, food security and food sovereignty should be considered so essentially linked. Which illustrates the kind of thinking I believe will lie behind a more equitable and dependable global food future.
The ethics inevitably implied by the view that everything in the human food sphere is indeed connected.
A modern wine tippler’s term that feels like it’s growing out into a more general food production buzz-mot is terroir. Something the American wine critic Matt Kramer supposedly rather splendidly described as “somewhereness” – a distinctive character to the taste, woven evocatively and mysteriously from unique locational varients in the life of the vineyards. Coined as a name itself by one Ontario vin collective, so nicely does somewhereness suggest a more nuanced, sustainably local sense of care in production. And on my own local high street, the name Terroir has appeared as a new alternative tapas bar that attempts to weave in some sustainable practices to its food choices and preparation, appealing to a quality market. Which I clearly now have a duty to investigate properly, you’re right.
But it’s another interesting little emergence on the doorstep testifying to a larger theme.
The Future Laboratory‘s predictions for the immediate year or so at the end of 2017 is for consumers to add some new pressures on the food market to display fairer and more ‘connected’ credentials in its practices. Just humanly, they site the Sanctuary Restaurants movement, for example – “a place at the table for everyone” – in helping to drive protection for migrant workers in the US food industry. And how Sombra Mezcal is developing a ‘closed-loop’ initiative in its production, vowing to plant one agave plant for every one harvested for the steadily growing tequila market. Publically investing in its distillery in, as TFL puts it: “not only by practicing restraint but also by ensuring that its work enriches it community overall.”
It’s tequila. It’s doing a fine job of ‘enriching’ its community already, you might say. But interesting that even the booze market is begining to think about its customers’ connection to the natural world. Beyond seeing the sun come up behind the mountains when they wake up under a giant saguaro inexplicably far from the desert road the cantina they were last in was on. But TFL’s pullquote from Sombra’s founder Richard Betts is a very interesting one for the whole debate about the exploration of more sustainable practices in our food:
“Rather than taking the notion of tradition at face value, we have opted to dissect it further. We’ve evaluated tradition for its environmental impact, its sustainability and its ethical considerations.”
Just because we’ve always done something a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s really a ‘heritage’ asset. Some traditional methods can unlock forgotten wisdom, some can just get you so drunk you forget your trousers.
Then there is the luxury market’s like of taking things one step further. In getting more connected with nature, Norwegian restaurant Under – is… literally underwater. And a marinelife conservation research lab. ..You see? You instantly wanna go, right? Because it sounds bonkers and cool. And bonkers and cool can unlock spending habits in anything. Ask an Apple Watch #1 owner.
And technology is definitely going to be in play in future food. From packaging developments to the food itself, the future wouldn’t be the future without some innovation to indulge in, would it? The best kind being the simplest sort thinking, I rather feel – like Swedish supermarket corporate ICA joining others in experimenting with the ‘natural branding’ of lazer marking its fruit and veg, to cut back on remarkably less carbon-efficent sticky labels production.
Packaging and plastics is a whole other episode to consider, of course. Our globalised food habits are choking the seas horrifically. But an interesting point here is that I’m beginning to overhear people on my own high street talking about the sheer volume of uncompostable crap all our food travels in.
This is itself not a simple story of mindless wreckage – the increase in packaging on food, that just didn’t seem to exist like today when I was a nipper in the local Richways, has improved levels of food waste. But it’s little theatrical exaggeration to suggest that the supermarket industry generally needs to light a fire of revolution under its ideas for how to develop compostable, bio-degradeable ways for its food to reach its customers safely and appetisingly. I would activistically pull my avocados out of their plastic trays at the Co-Op till and flounce off righteously, but I spend so much time in there I have to face these hard working people every day. But still, we all should probably do this in alarming-to-supermarkets numbers.
The future of farming is likely to be smarter of course, not simply with the rise of autonomous farming bots supposedly taking even more human effort out of it, but with the march of the Internet Of Things stalking our fields and pastures as well as our kitchens. Because, as ever, data is helpful for targeting. ..WAKE UP! – this isn’t a marketing lecture. Tying together the tech on a farm, making a web of more accurate information about soil conditions and so on, means that sensors and tractors and irrigators and farmers can all get much more out for less. As the sensationally frat party animal sounding International Organisation for Standardisation puts it: “Linking so many technologies means that waste will be limited, productivity will be maximized and the environment will be affected as little as possible.” It’s a right-on sounding aim. Done right, it’s an effective attitude already, as Dutch farmers have been exploring for a while.
National Geographic suggests that “The global average yield of potatoes per acre is about nine tons” but that drone-monitoring, spaceship-tractor-driving Netherlands farmer Jacob Van den Borne’s fields “reliably produce more than 20.”
The Dutch, living as they do in an especially densely-populated and flat little corner of Europe, initiated a new campaign to increase both efficiency and yeild from their farms a couple of decades back. NG reports that: “Since 2000, van den Borne and many of his fellow farmers have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90 percent. They’ve almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60 percent.”
How? A lot of very clever greenhouses is how. Built in a rather holistic way, combining academic and business perspectives, and some smart monitoring tech.
“Seen from the air, the Netherlands resembles no other major food producer” says this article “—a fragmented patchwork of intensely cultivated fields, most of them tiny by agribusiness standards, punctuated by bustling cities and suburbs. In the country’s principal farming regions, there’s almost no potato patch, no greenhouse, no hog barn that’s out of sight of skyscrapers, manufacturing plants, or urban sprawl. More than half the nation’s land area is used for agriculture and horticulture.”
They report that Wageningen University and Research has spawned a Food Valley of cool start-ups, making a very good practice out of combining research with successful business with regular sharing of information across the community. It sounds a lot like the excitement of a shared vision going on. The shared sense of a two-sided coin – imminent new food catastrophes and unfolding possibilities for new food successes. “The wherewithal to stave off catastrophic famine is within reach” they quote the institute’s Plant Sciences Group MD Ernst van den Ende as saying, with his optimism: “resting on feedback from more than a thousand WUR projects in more than 140 countries and on its formal pacts with governments and universities on six continents to share advances and implement them.”
And as the eminently quoteable article – do read it all – also says: “At every turn in the Netherlands, the future of sustainable agriculture is taking shape—not in the boardrooms of big corporations but on thousands of modest family farms.”
Something more than a little symbolic in such experience, I might venture to suggest. Because, as ever, the thing that will save us is not technology itself, but an outlook.
Much as there is the fettling with the tech of food itself – from projects such Finless Foods development of bio-engineering fish to all manner of GM crop research – the need to produce better yeilds doesn’t just make frankenfood research impossible to discount. The future front is biological for many food researchers, with breakthroughs such as the more precise editing possible with the genomic programming of CRISPRs to attack unwanted bacteria, and the worldwide C4 Rice Project – a collaboration to try to genetically supercharge the photosynthesis of rice.
Then there is the heartfelt, and undoubtedly purse-felt, hope to produce lab-cultured meat. Instead of ‘barbarically’ raising animals to slaughter for food, we can grow ‘meat’ from base substances and keep us chewing on protein like we like to. Which, while this does sound like the principle of vaping to me, could cause a gigantic shift in food production if it caught on.
Bio and digital tech development is all simply, I would suggest, not enough of an answer alone – because it doesn’t address the causes of food use problems. As The Conversation reports, the climate crisis will demand we develop a combination of new practices and more ‘resiliant’ crops to cope with environmental changes, yes: “Resilient crops will require significant research and action on multiple fronts – to create adaptation to drought and waterlogging, and tolerance to cold, heat and salinity. Whatever we do, we also need to factor in that agriculture contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions… Scientists are meeting this challenge by creating a framework for adapting to climate change. We are identifying favourable combinations of crop varieties (genotypes) and management practices (agronomy) to work together in a complex system.” Well, super.
But a truly connected outlook is, unsurprisingly, what a truly sustainable new agronomy will have to embrace. IOT tech efficiencies will tinker positively with farming practices, for those farmers able to invest, smart rethinking of land use such as vertical farming could build even more on digitally controlled greenhouse urban growing, while regional crop tolerance development research may help rural farmers in different parts of the world find ways to fend off climate challenges a little. All this together is something.
But let’s remember why we farm. To eat. And what we like to eat drives what we can afford to plant, harvest, process and deliver into my porch or the local Co-Op. What we like to eat, however, also affects our health – bodies and minds alike. And unhealthy eating tends to be as sickly for the land and the planet as it is for our wastelines, arteries and anxieties.
If the UN’s Global Goal for food – of ending hunger, ending malnutrition, doubling agro productivity, protecting diversity of seed stocks, rolling out wider sustainable agro practices, and encouraging better food community and flow – is to succeed, we need to build in a sense of connectedness to our every bite, burp and bake-off.
To reduce land use, carbon spend and heart bipass operations on our current planet-shuddering level, collectively we could really do with all eating rather less meat. If everyone went meat-free just one day a week, it is said, we might change the direction of farming’s carbon weathervane. One day! Crikey – just how much cow are we chowing on? But such a worthy sounding, burger-empire-threatening idea isn’t a single right-on solution. It’s best seen as one healthy symptom or product of a whole different outlook on how we farm the natural world. A view of planetary resources that changes them from potentially dwindling vital assets to vital assets we can potentially keep drawing on indefinitely. Something abundant, even. Something rather more permanent for us to bank on. Partly because we see the whole human as part of the natural equation.
A view best summed up by the word Permaculture.
A methodology of design, a way of seeing, a lifestyle. Some undoubtedly say a farming fairytale. Well, whatever it involves, the very title ‘permanent culture’ seems to state its cost right up front – to secure food or any other permanence will take an entire culture. The admition that everything is connected and there are no shortcuts. No hidden parts of our living.
You’re bored already.
And that’s the problem.
It’s been said by some lofty green evangelists that ‘westerners’ will never get permaculture because they don’t have the attention span. But that patently isn’t entirely true. Because steadily more of us seem to be craving such mindful timespans. And in such bullet-time waking enlightenment we get to do something that will get your Hippydipsh** Dectector blowing a gasket. We can listen to the land.
Right, pop the kettle on. And endulge me a little further. For I too am only just beginning to explore this, but it’s fascinating.
What actually is permaculture, then?
The Permaculture Association describes it as three things at once: An ethical framework, understandings of how nature works and a design approach. As they put it: “This unique combination provides an ethical framework that is used to design regenerative systems at all scales – from home and garden to community, farm and bioregions.”
In their introduction film, Rosmary Morrow says simply: “I find it very difficult, like everyone else, to define permaculture because it covers all of human living… it covers everything we do.”
It starts, say the array of people from around the world on screen with her, with designing pieces of land; “Designing human habitats – places for people to be – that work with nature” as Dave Boehnlein puts it. But this is just the beginning. In fact, it sounds like approaching permaculture is like taking the red pill. As Tamara Rufulo from Argentina says in one breath: “You start with food, but then you want to build your own house, and then you want to teach your children, and then you want to do it with society, and then you want to take more care of yourself and your spirit, and then you start knowing yourself better – so it’s such a chain.” The rabbit hole appears to go deep.
In essence, you might say, it’s designing ways of doing everything that consciously goes with the grain of nature. Something that can’t help but have knock-on implications into every part of your life, once you pull at its thread. Though a product of the 1970s eco dawn, there’s something rather 21st century about it, in that it does the opposite of our classic idea of 20th century big industry thinking. Instead of finding ways to apply predetermined systems for farming, bulldozing standardisation of practices with sheer determination, its starting point is to read the specifics of any environment and build a unique plan around that bit of land. It starts by, well, listening. To the land. Feel free to hug yourself.
Patterns feature significantly in the idea of permaculture. Looking for them. The observation that nature likes to organise itself into them. Every level of the universe’s resources naturally arranges energy into recogniseable patterns. Spookily and mystifyingly it seems. I’d say something diffidently clever about the Fibbonache sequence and spirals and helixes and maths or something here if I could, but you get the point. And the point is, that by working out the grain of pattern really going on in the mix of elements in play on a plot, a permaculture designer can plan planting that will like it there and thrive.
It grew out of a desire to create a more positive reaction to climate crises than a purely protesting one. As Geoff Lawton puts it: “People talk about being carbon neutral, but in permaculture we talk about being carbon positive. Because all systems of life on earth are built on carbon as a base element, as a stored energy from the sun. Permaculture provides for all the needs of humanity in a way that is beneficial to the environment.”
He sites one of the two founders of Permaculture, the late Bill Mollison, as wanting to develop an idea of the positive alternative to an environmentally degredational human-planet system and going on to develop a whole system of how to do it, with David Holmgren – Permaculture One. Which became Mollison’s hefty Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Which, yes, looks more systematic than using your Haynes to finally put your Landrover back together.
It was a quiet revolution. Because, as Mollison’s Guardian obit article puts it: “Nobody had put together the architecture for a regenerative design approach that drew on knowledge of traditional cultures while adapting to the opportunities of new technologies and systems thinking. It simply did not exist.”
Lawton shares a personal memory of studying Mollison’s course in its early years, leaving the course initially as a sceptic before going on, he says, to test the system’s theories and find they all worked. But when he was first talking to him about doing the course at all, Geoff says Bill asked him a question: “Are you bored of being scared?”. Permaculture, he supposedly said, is a way of responding full tilt – of losing your fear by charging headlong at the enemy.
Interesting language from a hippy treehuggers hanging around to watch the flowers bloom, huh? But permaculture does seem to imply questions beyond the practical challenges of what grows well where. It does seem to have you eventually asking dumb-founding things like: What do I value? What is strength? What even is ‘yeild’? Why am I here on Earth? And you only popped in for a jar of organic honey from the farm shop.
You might suggest that the very limitation of permaculture is its language. Some folk are more wired to get it’s holistic view than others. If something key to understanding permaculture is Geoff Lawton’s memory of Bill Mollison saying to him: “Geoff, I’m not just giving you permission to slip into a distracted, daydreaming state when you come to assess a piece of land – I’m telling you it’s essential” then how will we ever cultivate enough land whisperers from and indeed for the massed ranks of us robot KFC eaters? This is fringe, surely?
Horticulturist and garden designer Sharon Gadellaa and his partner, my art mate, Hazel Evans may have a comfortable openness to a more holistic view of life and work on Earth, but for him the study of permaculture was still an eye-opener, he says.
“Permaculture has made me see life differently, literally. Since I did the course I have started to observe life from all the incredible functions it has and how to combine these functions into practical advantages. Basically if you follow and implement what nature has to offer back into daily life, you can find that all is effortless” he says. “The only thing we have to do is intervene significantly once, and than let nature take its course.”
There’s an interesting principle in his words there, while you inacurately picture him asleep on the ride-on mower – minimal intervention. That when you tap into what nature is already doing, or wanting to do somewhere, you get the wind behind you, so to speak, and have to do a lot less rowing. Less work, fewer materials. More relationship, you might say. Which surely taps into any farmer’s testimony of working with her or his land, knowing the animals, planning for the capricious moods of weather. The difference appears to me – as someone who’s hands only get dirty when accidentally brushing against the log burner door – the starting point. I can imagine that, once a family farm has a professional momentum, the reason to go to work is to meet certain market obligations to the business commitments. Producing enough wheat, milk, carrots. It’s keeping up quota. And from there, I wonder how a farmer even contemplates listening to the land he or she’s worked and shaped for generations to see what it tells him or her it would rather yeild.
Because, of course, this isn’t about non-intervention. It’s not about some vegan prime directive of watching the natives on another planet eat pigs from behind cloaked hides, marveling at how savage and beneath us they are. It’s built on the principle that humans are supposed to intervene – shape the environment. But that, if we’re savvy, we’ll let nature guide our hand more fundamentally.
It isn’t about creating a greentopia of the humourlessly worthy. Thank God. I already suspect many permaculture explorers would say it’s primarily about feeling more alive. And that might appeal to any of us. Espcially if the food tastes better.
Another friend of mine took an interesting life turn a couple of years ago or more. Independently of me as I began to unexpectedly find myself exploring the future issues taking shape around us today, Jonathan Hallewell found the landscape of his adopted country Canada beginning to have an odd effect on him, I think. An evangelical pastor with a bent for politics, IT and design, Jon is not exactly a hippy by background. But, back when we found ourselves living over the road from one another, he and I would wax late into many nights about the nature of life the universe and everything and found ourselves wondering if the nature of the culture around us was as constructive and certain and helpful as we’d assumed it at least passably was. If there were patterns to be found in life, by design or random organisation of energy, were we missing them?
Ten years since he and Lyn and the kids found the door opening to follow their lifelong instinct to go to Canada, I now can’t know what it must feel like to be shaped by time in such a different landscape to the south of England. But somewhere in the ups and downs of community and professional life out there, Jon found himself feeling more and more inspired to bunk bible study to go outside.
“I stumbled across permaculture in a season of re-evaluation” he says. And he is honest about the emotional place he was in, when he found it.
“We ran into some hard times and I discovered that I felt mercilessly at the hands of a system that doesn’t really value me as a person. Shifts in the regional, national or even global economic climate can leave most people in a very vulnerable position. A five-day power outage in our area left us entirely dependent on others and led to me looking at affordable and reasonable ways of staying warm. In the midst of my research I discovered more and more about sustainability and systems of living.”
What he began to see was an interesting psychology in our food, he says.
“Food production is very much integrated into our economic systems. The further removed we are from the food production systems, the more vulnerable we are. It may also be that the added ingredients to preserve and mass produce our food as well as all the genetic modification we are seeing is messing with the overall health of individuals and populations. As I have leaned into studying permaculture I have also discovered that a lot of local government actively discourages people moving towards more sustainable life through things like planning orders.”
It’s hardly news that it can be little daily effects of systemic administration that puts barriers in the way of good intent. The complex machinery of modern society doesn’t exactly make it easy to live The Good Life. Tom and Barbara’s pigs didn’t just upset Jerry and Margot next door, today you’d best gen up on the permitted development rights of your property before converting the summerhouse into an extended sty and chicken run. But Jon descibes an economic-emotional axis in attempting a more sustainable lifestyle.
“If you can be self sustaining in your food production and have limited debt through modest housing, you move towards a freedom and an abundance to be able to literally sow into community, explore collaborative creativity for life and to address the needs in our world. The simple act of collaboration itself goes a long way towards addressing a lot of issues for those involved. Knowing what you are eating, and being involved in the production are two very tangible steps towards a more sustainable and healthy life.“
And this from a mate who’s hands weren’t any more hardily caloused and grubby than mine. A philospher and a challenger, yes, but I’ve observed it’s something we all find ourselves sounding more like in times of emotional hunger.
Which is all very touchy feely this side of your breakdown, I realise. Meanwhile the world still needs feeding. Can a permaculture view of the planet deliver the big numbers?
It’s typically annoying of your Buddhist guru to answer your question with a question, but I suspect permaculture’s collective voice would answer by saying: What are we feeding the world? Changing the answer to this might change the answer to your original good enquiry. Because many believe permaculture can do it, but in order to fill our stomachs, it might have to save our souls first. As Pandora Thomas says in the Permaculture Association’s intro film from The Edge Effect: “Permaculture helps us think about and ask the right questions.”
Malvikaa Solanki is founder of Swayyam, a not-for-profit organisation in Bandipur, Karnataka. When DownToEarth.org asked her: “Can permaculture feed the world – is there data to support this?” she said: “Without a doubt, yes. Hunger has as much to do with quality of food as the quantity. Today, the nutritive value is highly compromised in food. The issue is not production, but distribution of food.”
Siting the sheer volume of food wasted globably, she goes on: “Soil salinity, due to intense chemical use, demands at least four times more water. Chemical runoffs destroy not just marine ecosystems but life forms in the soil, which make soil sterile. In permaculture, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Apart from food security, it also ensures diversity, seed security, it nurtures ecosystem and more importantly healthy communities. In lieu of climate change and erratic weather patterns, we need diverse ways of working with and understanding our food systems and permaculture provides us those ways.
“The monopoly of large scale commercial farming is clearly a failure” she concludes. “A system that works against nature is bound to fail.”
She sites the Decan Development Society and Narsanna Koppula of Aranya in India, as well as the Chikukwa project in Zimbabwe as good examples of how communities working with sustainable practices brought about not just food security but social change – a crucial component.
And indeed, our friends at the International Potato Centre in Peru can add to this chorus of experience, can’t they.
Guy Watson founded Riverford Farms. They’ve been delivering a regular veg box to our home for a good ten years now. And one of the key things about each delivery is the connection they bother to give us to the food in the box, thanks to Guy’s News. A farm and produce delivery business that prides itself on rich, intentional, ongoing organic credentials, Riverford’s boss himself tells a story with our food each week, about the growing or the problems harvesting or the sourcing of certain items. And in a late November edition, he recalled the challenge he felt after some years organic farming to go look at how it might work overseas, under some looming doubts about how well sustainable techniques might really fare in developing countries. So, at the time, now eighteen years ago he says, he took a sabatical to sub-Saharan Africa, to go spend time with a former student of the farm in southern Uganda.
“My heart lifted as he showed me the most inspiring farming I had ever seen; all small scale and always diverse with mixtures of livestock, bananas, coffee, cocoa, trees, vegetables, keyhole gardens and more – all in an intimate mixture that seemed chaotic but was anything but” he explained.
“What seemed disordered was actually shaped by levels of ecological knowledge unknown to farmers in the developed world – and yet these smallholdings were many times more productive than neighbouring monocultures.” The whole little account is worth a read.
Patrick Whitefield’s article Can Permaculture Feed The World illustrates a key tenet of the approach – mixing planting knowingly in the same field. As he says, while British farming has a helpful tradition of crop rotation – changing fields’ uses every year to keep them more fertile – and organic farming pursues the deliberate rotation of cereals with mixed grass and nitorgenising clover, the crop output of this set up is rather less than more intensive monster robot farming.
“Permaculture goes a step beyond this by growing a mix of clover and cereals in the same field at the same time. This is known as bicropping. It enables a cereal, or some other crop for direct human consumption, to be grown every year” says Whitefield. The yield is still a little less, he suggests, than non-rotational farming, but not by as much as straight organic rotation – and there are big compensations.
“The clover is present as a permanent understorey, so there’s never any bare soil and thus erosion is eliminated. The permanent ground cover and lack of ploughing also makes ideal habitat for certain fungi, which, in a symbiotic trade-off for organic food, provide the crop plants with phosphorous. Meanwhile the clover provides the nitrogen right where and when it’s needed. There are also positive effects on weeds, pests, diseases and fuel use.”
A clever principle that illustrates permaculture’s knowingness is that of stacking. The clover and the cereals grow at very different heights, allowing harvesting to be callibrated to the one without bothering the other.
“The most striking form of stacking is agroforestry, in which tree crops are mixed with herbaceous crops, which can include cereals, vegetables or grassland” he says. “A traditional orchard of apple trees and pasture is an example. The difference in height between the two elements means that there’s minimal competition between them.”
Polyculture. It’s the principle that the right mixing of things growing together can yield more from each of them than growing them separately. You can feel the smug parables writing themselves, can’t you?
It’s grown from Mollison and Holmgren’s observations that the edges of places are the most fertile – where different plant systems meet. A crucial discovery. But one that finds its magic balance most at more modest scales. Scales that – wouldn’t you know – are more human, socially manageable, family-involving, person-empowering scales.
“Diversity is much easier to achieve on a small scale than a large one” Whitefield says. “You can have a much more intimate and diverse polyculture in a home garden than you ever can on a thousand hectare farm. Many of the principles of permaculture are much more applicable at a small scale than a larger one. And producing food at a smaller scale will actually help us to feed the world.”
Intricate polycultures. Details. Time. Listening. Watching. Understanding. Land whispering.
..You really want a KFC family chicken bucket now, don’t you? I would despair at you, if I didn’t find you so interesting.
And to think, my exploration of all this started with me wanting to write a few daft tunes about the future. And then I made the mistake of reading.
What all that reading and pondering and talking and sharing has lead to, is the beginnings of a few actual life changes. Little ones. And where food is concerned, for me and the lovely first lady of Momo, this has looked like an uncharacteristically definite public decision to go vegetarian. Not because we think this is a switch to flick for all mankind tomorrow. I’ll admit that the idea of eating fellow creatures does get weird once you’ve not done it for a few weeks, but I was not much of a meatosaur in the first place, so it’s more of an admission for me, than a noble cost. Even bacon smells kind of… fatty… now. But I won’t lie – salami on pizza is going to be a regular knuckle-biter for me, and I will miss beaf hotpot cooked on gas mark one for three days until it falls apart in an ache of taste. But in an urban culture like mine, I think it important to demonstrate that we don’t need meat to live well. In fact, most of us need less of it.
For us, it’s a finally dawning animal wellfare thing. Which – yes, bingo – makes us hypocrits of the first water, because we are abjectly not going vegan. Life without cheese is basically death, for one thing. And we’ve not noticed dialing out our meat protein because we’re eating lots more eggs and splendid amounts of beans. There is a growing consensus that veganism may hold dietary superpowers for the human body, and frankly I believe it; natural restoration for heart disease symptoms and goodness knows what. But for our generation, it’ll be a hit and miss affair attempting to implement such a food culture, I think; it’s just too hard in every day life for the uncultured. And my suspicion too is that some folks just won’t be able to rebalance healthily to benefit from it in unadulterated form.
There is also the consideration that veganism is not a pure alternative anyway. “You can either be sustainable OR vegan – not both” as someone said to me. Because everyone suddenly jumping to high fibre and beans meals three times a day would be a whole different set of food miles and land use.
The point is that helpful phrase I use often – crossfade. There is no magic switch to flick and thank goodness. We need to journey towards a more sustainable global human food culture wholesomly, experientially. To work it into our lives naturally. Yes, this is still an imperitive of conscious effort on all our parts – but it starts with changing outlook, putting it all together, taking proper note of what we’re putting in our mouths, so we can point honestly towards future practices. And help each other get there. As ever, an important word in building this part of the future will be grace.
The question for us personally has become basically twofold: Do fellow creatures in our web of live on earth need to be factory produced and die for our food? And do animals need to otherwise suffer for our food?
Putting farmers out of business overnight is no kind of aim. Farmers are the ones still making the land a partner in our industrialised, disconnected, urban living. They know the cost of getting food out of the ground. They make decisions managing life and death like it’s just part of the deal of being human. But they also bear the brunt of our big supermarket thinking – the pressure on commodity prices to farm animals horribly. To work them and themselves to the bone for too-often diminishing costs. And yeilds. So ‘shareholders’ get payouts. This doesn’t sound like sustainable investment to me.
But plenty of farms here in the UK are well aware of all the issues. And, as ever, it’s when economic imperative combines with personal conviction or curiosity that you begin to get change. Diversifying of business is finding more of a natural place in the farming community it seems, spoken of often on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today, and it’s green energy that has become a natural bedfellow in this mix. Exemplified by Somerset family cheese makers Wyke Farms who proudly declare they are “100% Green” with a rounded approach to conserving energy, generating their own and keeping the farm biodiverse. Rumour is, investing in a biogas plant running on thier own cows’ poo has saved the country’s largest independent cheese maker literally millions in energy costs and now outstrips their income from their core product.
Back in the consumer aisles, organic produce is a start. We try to buy it. Try to find a farm shop or a supplier that can tell us the name of the cow – that’s the aim. It is a material difference in what we are parting with our money for. For me personally, cutting back on bread and dairy has helped me feel trimmer and a little brighter over the last couple of years. Habitualising tasty salads – yes, you roll your eyes, but I find it normal now, ME! – has helped this. That and, yes >sobs< trying to significantly cut back on sugar.
Ask me nothing about alcohol. Not here. It’s too much. But you know the score – that stuff is calorifornicatingly bad for your health. Even as it surely fortifies the soul from time to time. Alas for being called to maturity to manage ourselves and this island Earth.
Eating less, eating better – it is the privileged choice of those with just enough pennies and time to choose. But it shouldn’t be. Food that is nutritious, that gets the best out of the ground to put into our bodies and feed our minds, should be the easy norm. Easy because we all help – we are all more directly connected to the value of it all, and how fundamental it is to our wellbeing. Which means the whole ecosystem of life on Earth’s wellbeing. For we are such an agent component of it. And I think nature kinda wants us to be.
The future of food? It does boil down to this fundamental switch, the same as just about everything at our door today: Diseminating the privilege and work of a few massive influencers into the shared responsibility and opportunity of many micro influencers. Turning our hierarchies into networks. And so naturally working through some justice in our consumption.
And, like so many other aspects of the future challenges we face, it won’t be some velvet revolution pipedream. It’ll begin to happen because of a dawning series of food crises leading to spreading awarenesses, coinciding with an honest dawning consciousness in more ordinary saps like us. You and me getting more connected to the Earth in the most essentially visceral way we can – dirt under the fingers. At the very least in our minds. Our awareness. Our appreciation.
Food may turn out to be the way we finally emotionally re-connect to the Earth and the challenges of climate and economic culture; how we begin to write the more hopeful story of us on this planet. Because it’s something you and I can literally taste the results of.
Our relationship with food is complex, however. It enriches our lives as colourfully and fundamentally as any core part of our being alive. And yet, we struggle to make it a healthy relationship – as we do in so many areas of our lives. If you personally have spent years feeling food is an adversary, an internal battle every time you simply sit at the dinner table, I don’t know how you share the depths of this war between plate, mind and body with others. But I am tempted to say this: You are living something symbolic for all of us.
As we consider the future, while we prospect the ground for new food fortunes, if someone offers us a shiny gold coin, we would do well to test its quality with a good bite down on it. You might hope it’ll be chocolate money, but the future of farming, eating and being well will demand we start sowing seeds of real value in the Earth.
HOW CLOSE ARE WE TO ZERO HUNGER? >
The UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation tries to answer the question.
THE STATE OF FOOD SECURITY AND NUTRITION IN THE WORLD 2017 >
Have a look through the joint agency report.
THIS TINY COUNTRY FEEDS THE WORLD >
National Geographic looks at the revolution in farming that the Dutch have been developing.
WHAT IS VERTICAL FARMING? >
The BBC have a little look at one idea of differently organised growing.
FOR A GREAT TRIP AROUND ALL MANNER OF TECHY FARMING DEVELOPMENTS, WATCH THIS DAILY CONVERSATION FILM:
FOR A MORE HOLISTIC VIEW OF GROWING AND LIVING, WATCH THIS FRIENDLY INTRODUCTION TO PERMACULTURE:
FOR A PERSONAL INTRODUCTION TO THE PERMACULTURE WORLDVIEW, WATCH THIS INTRODUCTION FROM GEOFF LAWTON:
FOR A TYPICAL EXAMPLE OF LOCAL HUMAN INTERVENTION IN FOOD NEEDS, WATCH AN INTRODUCTION TO SARAH CHOWDRY’S NEW HOMELESS INITIATIVE, LET’S FEED BOURNEMOUTH: