22 May 2010
Once food was about personal choice: now it’s become social. A year ago I might not have noticed a newspaper article about children being locked in schools to stop them buying take-away 'junk food', or that within the new millionaire' cabinet, Caroline Spelman, whose career in agri-business began as a sugar beet commodity secretary for the National Farmers Union, is now in charge of DEFRA.
A year ago I would not have stood on the terrace of the Norwich Playhouse before a table covered with plants – tomatoes, beans, edible flowers - taking part in a seedling swap. Or gone to a Bungay garden, hammer in hand, to prepare a hive for the queen bee of England's first bee CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).
But these seemingly unrelated events demonstrate the pulls that are going invery different directions in our 'one nation' right now. Pulls we contend with every time we sit down to a meal.
A pernicious craving for sugar, fat and salt is one of the consequences of a globalised industrial food system. This is a system that relies on subsidised commodity crops, factory-farmed meat and a science that disguises its poor nutritional quality with addictive feel-good tastes. It relies on people being alienated and unaware.
The Transition events are part of a growing community culture: people coming together to grow vegetables and forge relationships between farmers, neighbours and local shops. This informal distribution network relies on people being intelligent, good-hearted and far-seeing. Who know, for example, that Spelman has for the last decade co-owned a food and biotechnology company (Spelman, Cormack & Associates), lobbying the very department she now heads.
When the East Anglia Food Link's Food Plan was publicised last month in the Eastern Daily Press, Richard Hirst of the National Farmers Union dismissed its vision of small-scale organic farming and local milling as "dangerous". However it is a 'business-as-usual' attitude towards our food supply that is dangerous. We live in unusual times. If we are prepared to invest in low-tech solutions and switch to a vegetable-based diet we could all become more self-sufficient and resilient.
While we demonise children for eating fast-food and ignore the unhealthy links between the bio-tech industry and government, we are not considering our future. We are not taking climate change into account, nor the damage our cheaply-produced food wreaks on nature. Nor are we considering the escalation in energy costs in the coming years. Our current food system is only efficient while energy costs remain low. What will happen when they rise? When the resources – water, nitrates, phosphates - on which monoculture relies become scarce? When the oil that fuels tractors, trucks and tankers becomes increasingly difficult to extract and costly?
It's widely believed that agriculture must double its output to feed a hungry world. Behind this 'truth' however lies multinational agri-business which stands to profit from the ownership of seed and increased pesticide production. Companies like Monsanto and BASF, who have pushed for GM production in Europe after a 12 year ban.
The real truth is our food system produces twice as much food as we actually eat and a good proportion of it is thrown away in the waste bins of supermarkets, restaurants and our houses.
"You like wheat, rice, corn?" asked a commercial beekeeper in the documentary film, Vanishing of the Bees. "Well, that's all you'll be eating." Last winter a third of America's honeybees died. For the growers of Californian oranges and Vermont cranberries that depend on pollination by bees, this is a serious concern. And it will be ours if we keep reaching for the OJ without thinking. Time to focus on neighbourhood apple trees and the small plants now growing on our windowsills in this late, very late, May sunshine.