Essay: The Story of our Food
Every time we eat a piece of food, we take a bite out of the world. All these small bites tell a dozen stories. A carton of eggs presents the story of contented hens, a bottle of olive oil the tale of Italian grandmothers. Yet these pastoral scenes barely hide the realities of a food system that leaves one billion people starving and another billion overweight. Moving beyond food-based fictions, how should we react to the truth?
By Maartje Somers
It happened in a trendy restaurant. A breadbasket and a small bowl of olives had just been brought to the table. Our hands reached out to take some, when the waitress stopped us. “Wait,” she interrupted, “I have to explain the bread.” Explain the bread? Yes, that one variety of bread had been baked with hard durum wheat from a village just south of Tuscany, the other one came from a bakery slightly north of Amsterdam. The olives were kalamata olives, imported from Thessaloniki, and olivas violadas (olives ‘raped’ by an almond) from Basque Country in Spain. It took the waitress about five minutes to finish her lecture. Then, finally we could dig in.
All our food comes with a story to tell, and usually it is the story we want to hear. In the supermarket the story is about the price of the food, in a restaurant it is about the taste and the origin.
These days all our food comes with a story to tell. Usually it is the story we want to hear. In the supermarket the story is about the price of food, in a restaurant or delicatessen it is about taste and origin. Very often stories about food focus on authenticity. That is the way food would like to be – authentic and natural – like in the old days when people harvested their own crops. And this is exactly what we want to believe. The jam in my fridge has ‘a natural taste’ and the milk is ‘pure and honest.’ Eat colour, it says on the posters in the street, displaying juicy red peppers. And these shiny vegetables almost jump from the page in the cookbooks by Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, bestsellers the world over. But at the same time we are buying more and more ready-made meals.
The stories about food mask reality. It is quite obvious that our food is not natural and hasn’t been so for a very long time. Deep down we all know this. And of course we know that the happy little lambs and fluffy little chicks we find in the supermarket around Easter time are in stark contrast to the reality of factory farming. Of course we know that Bertolli olive oil is not hand-pressed by those Italian grandmothers in the commercial, but that it is made in a factory owned by the multinational corporation Unilever. Very little is natural in modern food. More likely our food is a miracle of chemistry, logistics and technique. In 2007 artist Christien Meindertsma published her book PIG 05049, a thorough research of all the products made from one single pig with that specific number. The results are quite amazing. Pork chops and sausages, obviously. But also winegums and muffins and bread? Work gloves, porcelain, beer, wine, whipped cream, paper, fish food and bullets?
One might say that we have been alienated from our food. We don’t have a clue what is inside those bags and packages we buy, but at the same time we feed our imagination with an idealized image of how our food is grown and produced. That is the reason why there are so many stories to tell. The distance between the pastoral story on the surface and the industrial reality behind the scenes is greater than ever. How did this happen? It is because of the success of our global food system. It all started after the Second World War. ‘No more hunger,’ was the motto. Western governments focused on an increase in production, on cost-reduction and efficiency. With the invention and use of fertilizers things changed really fast. In the period between 1947 and 1979 the production levels of global agriculture doubled. The wave of liberalization in the 1980s and the accompanying improvements in infrastructure, technique and logistics, were followed by a steady rise in the number of trade transactions. The sky was the limit: apples from New Zealand, meat from Brazil, shrimps from the Pacific.
Food and the landscape
All over the world the landscape changed. In line with the postwar process of upscaling, small streams were straightened, wooded banks were torn down and fields were combined in land consolidation transactions. Rye and wheat were replaced with corn, corn and corn. Farmers turned from mixed farming to either agriculture or cattle breeding. Their livestock disappeared inside the stables. Intensive farming took the upper hand, due to the low price of concentrate food, and subsequently soy. These changes in agriculture contributed to the schism between the city and the countryside, one of the most defining aspects of our modern world. In former times the cultivation of food and the slaughtering of cattle all took place inside and around the city. But with the increased separation of these functions, first after the industrial revolution and next after the Second World War, the city became a world of stone; food disappeared from the view of the city dweller and was transported to the countryside. In our day and age the only green areas in the urban landscape are the city parks, intended for leisure exclusively. The few bramble bushes I could find in my home town were recently removed and replaced with ‘urban green.’
I must repeat: the global food system is a great success. According to the Czech demographer Vaclav Smil, two-fifth of the current world population would be dead if we didn’t have fertilizers. The biggest boom in world population happened in the 50s, 60s and 70s of the last century. There is no shortage of food; there is more than enough to feed everybody. The world produces some three thousand calories per head each day. In the western world the term food security has gone out of fashion. Food is always available, in great abundance and it is amazingly cheap – we spend very little of our income on food. For people in the western word the choice is staggering. This hit me in the face once again when I overheard a toddler in a supermarket saying: ‘Daddy, where can I find the carpaccio?’ The Netherlands is one of the world leaders in intensive farming. After Brazil we are the leading exporter of food, especially meat, dairy products and vegetables.
We have this little kid that asks for the carpaccio, whereas other children don’t even know what a carrot looks like, because all the food they know comes from a jar.
The agribusiness makes up 10 percent of Holland’s domestic product. But there is a dark side to our food system. Over the past ten years this has become more and more obvious. For example, the system is bad for our health. The huge concentrations of livestock are the cause of animal diseases that can also be dangerous to humans: mad cow disease, the swine flu, Q fever. Additionally, the complex, global mixture of our food carries a great risk. The poisonous powdered milk that killed babies in China was also found in lollipops in Europe. We are getting fatter and fatter. In Europe one in four people is overweight. In the United States diabetes has almost turned into a lifestyle. In emerging economies like China and Latin America, eating habits are starting to resemble those in the western world, resulting in a rapid rise of obesity. Fresh fruit and vegetables are expensive – bad food, made from cheap bulk ingredients like glucose (from corn), soy and palm oil and disguised in ever-changing colourful packages, is cheap. All over the world this creates a kind of food apartheid system: rich people who eat fresh and healthy food versus poor people who are simultaneously too fat and underfed because of a lack of nutritional value in the food they eat. In some countries we have this little kid that asks for the carpaccio, whereas other children don’t even know what a carrot looks like, because all the food they know comes from a jar.
From an ecological point of view our current agricultural industry is equally ill advised. Our food chain is completely dependent on our energy supply: oil is the raw material of fertilizers, insecticides and weed killers, and oil is the fuel needed to transport all this food all over the world. And in addition there is the problem of water consumption –the production of one kilo of beef requires approximately 15,000 to 20,000 litres of water.
Intensive meat production has a disastrous effect on the environment. Livestock, responsible for 18% of CO2 emission, uses up a disproportionate amount of our food and water supplies. Enormous amounts of antibiotics and chemicals find their way into the environment, not to speak of manure surplus and acidification. The cultivation of soy for chicken and cattle feed destroys the tropical rain forest. Shrimp farms are a threat to the mangrove forests that form a natural protection against flooding. Very soon our oceans will be empty of fish. From an economic point of view monoculture, the large-scale cultivation of a single variety of tomatoes or apples, might be highly efficient, but from an ecological perspective it is not a smart move. Virtually all bananas the world over belong to one specific variety, the Cavendish, which is threatened by a fungal disease. At the same time bananas form the basic source of nutrition for the African continent.
The system is weakened by a huge number of economic problems. Distribution is the major problem, because more than a billion people are still starving. It is rather ironic that an equal number of people are suffering from severe obesity. For a brief moment in time the obese people even outnumbered the starving ones, but ever since the food crisis of 2008 and the financial crisis of 2009 the number of hungry people has been growing at a steady pace. All over the world the people at the bottom of the food chain – the farmers – are experiencing a slew of problems. Farmers are bled dry until they finally give up and move to the city. Around the year 2030 more than half the world population will be living in big cities. It is a fact that it is virtually impossible for a farmer to earn a decent living anymore. With the support of government subsidies and protection mechanisms, the giant corporations of agribusiness produce an abundance of food the small farmer will never be able to compete with. Should there be even more liberalization of agriculture to give the farmers in the developing countries a chance? The opposition will say that an honest food system will not survive the fierce competition on the world food market, where three companies run the seed market and four players have a monopoly in the buying and selling of grain and oil seed crops, where the almighty supermarket conglomerates push the prices down through the food chain and where China is buying up farmland in Africa.
On the contrary, we need more protection, but of a different kind, in order to safeguard the ‘food sovereignty’ of the poor countries. Advocates of liberalization point out that ‘an unholy liaison’ of romanticists and nostalgists makes the development of a competitive African horticultural business virtually impossible, that this is the very reason there still is hunger in the world. For as long as it has been around, this large, anonymous food system has brought forth its very own countermovement in the western world, from the health food stores of the 1970s to the current organic food stores selling pesticide-free food. Next came Fair Trade, a protest against economic injustice aimed at giving the farmer at the bottom of the food chain a fairer share. Some ten years ago we saw the rise of the slow-food movement, which opposed the uniformity of industrial food and the accompanying lack of taste and diversity. In the Netherlands a smart marketing expert of the ecological foundation Biologica came up with a ‘adopt a chicken’ campaign, followed by ‘adopt an apple tree,’ in order to reconnect the city dweller with his food and with the countryside. More recently a renewed interest in locally or regionally grown food was imported from the United States, where ‘locavorism’ is a separate movement. Local food equals sustainability; it has not been transported over long distances, it is in season, and it favours small-scale farmers.
Each time you eat, you put a piece of the world into your mouth. From the moment man stopped being a nomad, the stuff we put in our mouths has shaped the landscape.
The great thing about sustainable food is that it is usually high quality. The American author Barbara Kingsolver gave us the following delicious observation: ‘Food is a rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is often the pleasurable choice.’ In the meantime a growing number of people have become aware of this fact, judging by the popularity of farmers markets and the increasing overlap between delicatessen and health food stores. Each time you eat, you put a piece of the world into your mouth. From the moment man stopped being a nomad, the stuff we put in our mouths has shaped the landscape. When you look around you, the incongruity and the evils of the food system are clearly visible. The romantic picture postcard image of the traditional mixed farm is first and foremost in our mind, thanks to the commercials and the pictures on packaging and labels. But in reality were are stuck with this green industrial landscape of agribusiness (cornfields, closed stables, empty pastures) and a recreational landscape that is only intended for cycling trips. The landscape reflects the separation of functions and the monoculture of modern food production. In the American state of Ohio one single farmer can manage hundreds of acres of cornfields. In the urban landscape there are so-called food deserts, poor areas where apples or cucumbers are not available, where the only food in the stores is processed food. It is an example of tragic irony. Our food system that first came into being in times of food shortage now causes new types of scarcity that are looming on the horizon: fuel shortage lack of biodiversity, shortage of water and nature. Judging by the food crisis, the debate on climate change, the food scandal in China and the successive outbreaks of animal disease, we have hit a wall.
In the year 2050 the world population is expected to reach nine billion, with the large majority of people living in cities. How will we be able to feed all these people with oil running out and the effects of climate change increasing? The debate between the technocrats and the countermovement is in full swing. Until recently, the positions were clear. The technocrats proclaim that we will never be able to feed the world with ‘nice’ sustainable food. What the world really needs is even more intensive farming, no holds barred – including genetic modification. It is completely wrong to want to halt economic growth by advocating a kind of self-sufficient utopia. The other camp, however, argues that much is yet to be gained by turning production lines into production circles, by saving water and by clever imitation of natural processes. Walmart, the American supermarket giant with aisles and aisles stocked with anonymous food, embodies the former point of view. The nostalgic pick-your-own farm, where you can stroll along the strawberry patches in spring, personifies the latter proposition.
One of the major problems of our current food system – driven as it is by growth, expansion and world trade – is that is totally contrary to the circular, local character of nature itself.
One of the major problems of our current food system – driven as it is by growth, expansion and world trade – is that is totally contrary to the circular, local character of nature itself. Should the production of food for the world population stay closer to nature, and what can we do to reach this goal? The most interesting solutions probably lie somewhere in between Waltmart and the pick-your-own farm. In an attempt to bring the technocratic and alternative opinions closer together, the American food writer Michael Pollan points out that progress does not necessarily equal technology, and that a back-to-nature attitude is not always driven by nostalgia.
One of those modern solutions with a retro feel is urban farming. Both the urban planners of the western world and the development experts of the world food organization FAO are experimenting with this concept. It will not be possible to transport all the food we need to the megacities of the future, so we will have to grow it inside the city limits. Food chains must be turned into food cycles, by returning to mixed farming and by recycling waste and water. Nature can be imitated by means of variable grazing, crop rotation, water purification and the re-use of surplus heat. We don’t know if food grown this way will be sufficient to feed the world population of the future. But it seems foolish to focus on one system exclusively, however large-scale it may be. People are gradually becoming more aware of this. All of a sudden, the supermarkets that until recently were locked in a dead-end price war, are in a competition over sustainability. There is a heated debate over meat in the newspapers. Before the food crisis of 2008 you were considered slightly deranged when you started a discussion among non-peers about factory farming and unlimited meat consumption. It would seem stranger still that the topic would fill the editorial pages of the newspaper. Concerns about climate change and the outbreak of yet another animal disease have caused a shift in public awareness. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that we are eating less meat.
Food shouldn’t have to be explained to you.
One might ask what the ideal 21st century production landscape should look like. First and foremost this landscape must be able to narrow the existing gap between pastoral and large-scale, between nostalgia and industry, between pick-your-own farms and Walmart. This landscape should be able to blend city and countryside, or at least bring the two entities closer together. This landscape should be transparent, showing us where the food is coming from and how much work was involved, but it should also produce more than just ‘nice’ food. It should be as energy efficient and as environmentally friendly as possible. Preferably this landscape should match the urban world of the 21st century, where origin is no longer a matter of uniformity, where almost every human and organism at one time or another have been transplanted and uprooted before growing back together again. There is another gap to bridge, the one between global and local.
In a landscape like this, everyone should have his or her feet firmly planted in the mud. In a landscape like this, city dwellers will inhabit their own pantries again. Food shouldn’t have to be explained to you – because you would know where it came from, and why.
This essay was translated for NextNature.net and published in the Next Nature book. It was originally written in Dutch for ‘Park Supermarkt’, a project realized by Van Bergen Kolpa Architecten, within the Foodprint manifestation by Stroom, The Hague.