It’s time to take back control of what and how we eat. Here’s why.
From 100-mile diets to vertical farming, from green markets to organics, from obesity to genetically modified organisms, food is always in the news. The issues are political, social, emotional, psychological, ecological and economic. Take the current popularity of urban farming, for example. A renewed interest in what and how we eat combined with the aftershocks of the Great Recession have inspired city dwellers to cultivate whatever little plots of land they might have. The last time people were this keen on growing their own vegetables was during World War II. So what’s going on?
The short answer is: another war. The new food movement is an act of popular resistance against a system hardly less harmful to life and limb than military conflict. Food isn’t just something we need to shovel down our gullets each day to survive. It’s far more potent: the means, more than any other, by which we humans shape our planet and ourselves. Recognition of food’s true power demands we treat it in a completely different way. Rather than think of it as cheap fuel, we need to embrace food as a cultural force. We need to understand food in the way our ancestors did, before fossil fuel blurred our sense of its importance.
We need a new food manifesto—one that enables us to start thinking not just about food but through it. 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. 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.
For millennia, food has borne multiple meanings. Food is love, health and a gift from the gods. Food is friendship, identity, belonging and community. Food is desire, sharing and pleasure. Food is sex and sacrifice, reward and punishment. Food is the body of Christ. Food is fattening. The things food has been, or has represented, are as broad as life itself. Why, then, has food for so many become just a meaningless, tasteless commodity?
Before industrialization, food was the dominant priority of cities. No settlement was built without considering its sources of sustenance. Perishable food, such as fruit and vegetables, were grown as locally as possible, often on the fringes of the city itself. Meat and fish were consumed seasonally, with the excess preserved through salting, drying or pickling. Nothing was wasted. Leftover scraps were fed to pigs and chickens; human and animal waste was collected and spread as fertilizer.
With the arrival of the railway, all that changed. Once it became possible to transport fresh food quickly across large distances, cities were emancipated from geography, able to grow to any size and shape in any place. Cities began to sprawl, and as they did so, food systems became industrialized to supply them.
Our very concept of a city—inherited from a distant, predominantly rural past—assumes that the means of supporting urban populations can be endlessly extracted from the natural world. But can it? With at least 3 billion people living in cities, and a further 3 billion expected to join them by 2050, the assumption looks shaky.
Industrialization created the illusion that cities are independent, immaculate and unstoppable. Now, the illusion is wearing off. We urgently need a new dwelling model, one that recognizes the dominant role cities play in the global ecology.
Food is vital as we rethink our way of life. Many of the dilemmas we face—how to reconcile city and country, man and nature, prosperity and sustainability—can be addressed through food. 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.
My word for this approach is “sitopia,” from the Greek terms sitos (“food”) and topos (“place”). We already live in a sitopia of sorts, since the cities, landscapes and ecosystems we inhabit have been profoundly shaped by food. The problem is, our blindness to food’s influence has created a bad sitopia; one so bad, in fact, that it threatens to destroy itself—and us—if we don’t change it. So we must create a good sitopia, one that restores balance to our lives, to society and to our relationship with the natural world.
How might that work? First, we need to understand that sitopia is not utopia. We’re not trying to create an ideal world, but a way of thinking that allows us to create many different places, connections and relationships, using food as our tool.
Much of the mess we’re in is due to lack of respect for food. To create a good sitopia, then, we must restore to food its true value. This isn’t just a question of how much we pay for food, although that matters, but of what we understand it to represent. Ask a starving man what food means to him, and he’ll give you a frank answer. Food remains the most important shared element in all our lives.
The moment we restore food’s proper value, we begin to see where it belongs—not at the periphery of society, but at its heart. 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.
When such externalities are taken into account, the debate about how to feed the world shifts. The pursuit of ever more “efficient” food systems is revealed as profoundly uneconomic. The false choices of industrial versus organic, high tech versus traditional, also disappear, replaced by an open debate about the farming practices and food systems that best match our aspirations for the future of the planet. Such thinking represents a reversal of the current trend, which treats food as a necessary yet somehow separate problem. In the ongoing food debate, the most vital question of all—What is a good life?—is rarely asked.
Of course, that question has no single answer; instead, it generates a spectrum of further questions. Being open to asking these questions, and realizing that there will be many different answers, is key to creating sitopia. Even if we can’t say for sure what a good life might be, we can describe some of its attributes. Most of us, for instance, would agree a good life is one in which people are generally happy, healthy, industrious, generous and loving; societies are tolerant, peaceable and sustainable; physical surroundings are diverse, bountiful and beautiful.
We know such a place can’t exist; that would be utopia. But that’s where sitopia comes in. Sitopia is contingent, partial, practical. It can be big or small, shared or personal. It can take many shapes and forms. It can be created by anybody, right here, right now. It can exist anywhere. Indeed, it already does.
To see sitopia in action, go to a place where food is highly valued—such as India. Food is everywhere in India. The countryside is densely populated with more than half a million small farms. Close networks of villages trade with one another at busy food markets. In the cities, people cook and eat on the sidewalks; vendors sell snacks from carts and stands; and traders carry baskets of vegetables on their heads. Cows, goats and chickens wander freely, and even the temples are brimming with sweets, left as gifts for the gods.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the tiffin box culture of Mumbai. Thousands of Mumbai housewives cook hot lunches for their husbands. The lunches are packed into stacked metal containers (tiffin boxes) and collected by some 5,000 couriers, or dabbawalas, who use bicycles and trains to deliver up to 200,000 meals a day all over the city. The service is one of the most reliable in the world; a recent survey found that just one in every 6 million deliveries goes astray.
In India, food is powerfully embedded in the broader culture. But some aspects of Indian food are more difficult to swallow. Poor infrastructure means that food worth an estimated $10 billion is lost each year, while nearly half of young children are underweight.
Yet how much better are things in the U.S.? More Americans live on food stamps than do people anywhere else in the world, while 50 percent of all food—worth $136 billion—is thrown away each year. In India, meals remain at the heart of family life; 19 percent of American meals are eaten in cars. Agriculture employs half of the Indian population; in America, that figure is less than 1 percent. In India, one in 20 is obese; in America, one in three.
Such comparisons merely demonstrate the effects of two contrasting food cultures in two very different nations, one developed, the other developing. But that’s precisely the point. When you consider the social benefits and drawbacks of food systems worldwide, you’re forced to conclude that the former belong mostly to traditional food cultures and the latter chiefly to industrial ones. A country like India could certainly benefit from some modern technological and infrastructural improvements, but not at the expense of its traditional food culture. Food in India is still about sociability, connectivity, identity, seasonality, family, craftsmanship, love. The developed world could do with a dash of those ingredients, too.
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.
The fact that 1.3 million rural migrants worldwide abandon their farms every week to seek new lives in the city is often seen as a sign of progress. What few admit is that it’s the transformation of the countryside to feed cities that’s making traditional ways of rural life untenable in the first place. A life of crushing poverty as a peasant isn’t a good life. But neither is a life of crushing poverty spent in a factory. Rather than thinking in such dead-end polarities, we need to make rural life more tenable.
Mobile phones, for instance, are transforming life for Masai cattle ranchers in Kenya, who use them to get the latest information on market prices.
In our rush to produce ever more “efficient” food systems in the West, we’ve neglected the advantages of slower, smaller-scale systems. On the voyage of life, food is our rudder, the one invariable—and pleasurable—necessity that binds us all. If we want to lead a good life, food must be at its heart.
So the essential task of sitopia is to put food first. This isn’t a clarion call to gourmandism. On the contrary, it’s a call to recognize the many ways in which food expresses our commonality. Examples of how to reconcile food and place abound. All we need to do is join in.
The quickest and easiest way to become a sitopian is to change the way you eat. Perhaps you’re already a self-sufficient vegan who cooks everything from scratch and composts all your leftovers. In spite of your good intentions, such an approach would not necessarily create a society in which most of us would want to live. Growing your own food might bring a sense of personal achievement, but if we all did it, we’d have to abandon cities altogether, so we’d lose all our sociability. Coming together to exchange food and other goods was, after all, what created cities in the first place.
Then there’s the question of diet. Although veganism is often portrayed as the least ecologically demanding alternative, it precludes the vital role played by animals in the human food chain. Pigs and chickens are our timeless companions for a reason. Omnivores like us, they can share our living quarters, consume our leftovers and be eaten in their turn, completing the most resource-efficient food cycle known to man. Recent studies have also shown that large herds of roaming herbivores, such as American bison, contribute critically to soil fertility, thus improving water retention, biodiversity and carbon sequestration.
As with all things sitopian, the key word is balance. The daily plate of food recommended by nutritionists—roughly one-third fruit and vegetables, one-third carbohydrates and one-third protein, dairy and fat—neatly corresponds, when traditionally produced, to the sorts of vibrant, varied rural landscapes to which most of us are naturally disposed. We know we are what we eat. It follows that the world we inhabit is also shaped by what we eat—and we, in turn, are shaped by that world.
Campaigns such as “Eat the View,” set up by the British Countryside Agency in 2002, tell us that we can create the landscapes we desire through our food choices. Small- and medium-scale farming created much of the distinctive countryside we love; if we want to preserve both, we must eat accordingly.
America and Britain may just be the world’s worst food dystopias; however, they’re also beacons of the sitopian renaissance. Food apostles such as poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry and author and journalist Michael Pollan in the U.S., as well as food policy expert Tim Lang, inventor of food miles, and TV chef Jamie Oliver in Britain, testify to the power of the emerging food movement. Add to this the nascent discipline of food planning—which puts food back at the core of regional and urban design—and you have a powerful mix of people and organizations ready to think and act through food.
But the nation most actively taking up the sitopian challenge is the Netherlands, where much of my current work is based. The first nation on Earth to urbanize, and one of the most land-starved, the Netherlands knows a thing or two about intensive farming. In the 1800s, the Dutch pioneered many of the techniques that made the English agricultural revolution (thus modern farming) possible. The Netherlands is second only to the U.S. in agricultural exports by value. Yet, the drive for efficiency has taken a toll on the Dutch landscape. People are keen to find a Plan B.
I’m currently working with the city of Groningen to create a “regional food vision,” a sitopian strategy that people in northern Holland can use to rethink themselves through food. The work involves creating new networks, partnerships and synergies among individuals and organizations, adding new dimensions to existing plans and policies. Together with colleagues from Wageningen University’s Rural Sociology Unit and Business School, I’m also developing a “sitopia matrix,” a tool to help planners and policymakers address complex issues through food.
Understanding food’s influence, and using it positively and collectively to guide our actions, is the key to sitopia. This can take many forms, including cooking more for our kids, eating less industrially produced meat, buying from local markets, joining Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects, composting our food waste, refusing to buy unsustainably sourced fish or joining movements such as Slow Food and Transition Towns.
Whatever form you choose, remember that what you’re doing isn’t just about food. It’s about deciding, together, what sort of world we want to live in—and using food to get us closer to it.
Carolyn Steel is an architect and the author of Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives.