The deep contradictions in our food system

| 18th May 2020
Green shoots
Pixabay
We must challenge the story we are told - that bigger farms, more machines, more chemicals and more air miles are the only way to feed ourselves.

I wonder about how food became commodified, fetishised, marketised, grown at great distance from the people who eat it. 

I can’t help but feel overwhelmed when I walk into a supermarket. Perhaps the coronavirus lockdown has made me see more clearly - it has exposed, among much else, deep contradictions in our food system.

As we glimpsed the possibility of empty shelves perhaps for the first time in our lives, we were forced to confront the reality that the great churning machine of global agro-industry is more vulnerable than it seems. At the same time, the lockdown has resulted in devastating amounts of food waste.

The hospitality industry closed down pretty much overnight and masses of small-scale, local producers – most of whose business is in supplying pubs and restaurants – were left with heart-breaking storehouses full of food with nowhere to go. Even worse, stories emerged of people recklessly stockpiling perishable foods, destined for the dump when they fail to be eaten in time.

Intensification 

Something is amiss in the relationship we have the food we put in our mouths. There is a bigger story here.

I wonder how 700 million people globally are going hungry as I walk through the superfluously stacked shelves that symbolise choice and diversity, prosperity and wellbeing, swamped by 43 varieties of breakfast cereal.

I wonder how hundreds of years of agricultural intensification, scientisation and mechanisation have left us inundated with glossy, plastic-wrapped, processed groceries whilst simultaneously severing our grasp with what food really is.

I wonder about the story of the food sat staring at me from the shelves, about the dirty supply chains rendered invisible by clever branding that attends to my desires.

I think of the small household farms long lost to large, capital-intensive estates as we sprinted toward consolidation. How machines replaced weathered hands. How chemical fertilisers replaced soil health and pesticides replaces prayer. How the banner of Bigger is Better! was marched through the centuries with great furore.

Waste

I think of the hundreds of ancient grains that I will never know the names of. I think of how, after a revolution in hybridisation, just three grains – maize, wheat and rice – came to account for nearly 90 percent of all cereal production worldwide; how a myopic dedication to maximising yields allowed crop uniformity to rule over crop diversity; how row after row after row of single, high-yielding variety, was frantically cultivated in bleak soil, stripped of its vitality.

And how, at the hands of industrialising agriculture, we lost 75 percent of genetic diversity in crops: local varieties, or ‘land races’, suited to their ecological niches, suited to local tastes and traditions, outstripped by one or two crops that we would become globally dependent on.

Great swathes of rainforest are being gutted to make room for an ever-expanding, irresponsible mission to produce food – with profit, and not hunger, in mind – destroying ecosystems and leaving grim scars on beautiful landscapes, engulfing habitats and perpetuating species loss, diverting vast quantities of water from local communities to quench thirsty crops ill-suited to their environment.

And this great, blind machine of reckless agro-industrial production is justified under the philanthropic notion that we must urgently 'Feed the Hungry!' I think of how has commercial agriculture exploited global poverty as a slogan whilst ignoring the piles of food that go to waste – a third of all food globally? 

This food is rejected from harvest, or spoilt – inevitably – during its 25,000 mile journey around the world, or supermarket surplus that is simply dumped.

Industry 

This friable narrative that industrial agriculture is the only way to stave off global famine, hides, of course, the plight brought to small farmers who have lost their land and market share to monopolistic commercial farms, by the very same industry that resolves to ‘save’ them.

Because, of course, technological innovation and imported hybridised seeds and laboratory science know more than local farmers whose ancestors have cultivated the land since the beginning of time.

I think of how food is processed by chucking out any lumps and bumps and idiosyncratic shapes that might let slip that it was once a growing, living thing. How could consumers possibly want a misshapen carrot? We want consistency! Uniformity!

Our food is plied with sucrose and E numbers because years of unfettered, targeted marketing moulded our gullible taste-buds to rule over our brains and our bodies. A single foodstuff has been processed into 14 versions of itself, offering us the illusion of diversity.

I wonder about how food became commodified, fetishised, marketised, grown at great distance from the people who eat it. 

Convenience 

Clever marketing with bucolic images of quaint, fictitious household farms desperately tried to make food familiar again. But still food stopped being food and became branded, desirable, whispering to your image, your insecurities, your class, your lust, your gluttony.

And after being transported thousands of miles to your nearest supermarket, it may fall victim to the premature Best Before date – essential labelling, apparently, now that we have lost our ability to know food, to judge food. Or perhaps it will become a victim to the whims of supermarket protocol, destined for the rogue trolleys that sit swollen at the end of aisles, crammed with desperately discounted foods.

Perhaps it will sit among the yellowing, slimy salad leaves sweating in plastic film, destined for the bins out the back, fortressed now by aggressive padlocks to fend off any hopeful, stinking, opportunist bin-diver who might dare to make use of our profligate habits.

And no wonder I feel overwhelmed and sick, meandering through the aisles, unable to unsee what I have seen. I feel like an alien traipsing through an intergalactic, digitally- stocked shop, utterly severed from the food that I’m plucking from the shelves, forgetting that it ever held roots in a piece of earth somewhere.

No wonder I feel dizzy and inundated by the incessant beeping barcode scanners and the million plastic-wrapped things demanding to be purchased. I am sleepwalking, numbed by the entitled illusion that everything is available, right here, flown halfway across the world purely for my convenience.

Fascination 

We have to open our eyes to the agendas behind the stories that we are told - that bigger farms and more machines and more chemicals and more air miles are the only way to feed the world.

And what are we being fed? Insipid, mass-produced, unhealthy foods, that are wrenching the soil of its nutrients and the Earth of its habitats and small-scale farmers of their livelihoods.

What is the solution to this long history of disconnection? Reconnection. I planted a courgette seed two days ago and almost cried as the seedling poked its head through the compost today.

I almost cried because for the first time in a long time I felt a sense of fascination for something I would soon eat. I understood the miracle that is growth and nutrition, un-complicated by mechanised production and overseas travel and branding and plastic wrap and piles of waste.

It often feels there is little we can do as consumers, however, when local, plastic-free, organic food is not always accessible or affordable. 

This week the Agricultural Bill is being debated in parliament and groups such as The Landworkers Alliance are pushing for amendments on both trade, to protect local farmers from being undercut by low standard trade imports, and on agroecology, to support a transition toward ecologically harmonious, sustainable farming. 

This Author 

Tesni Clare is an environmental journalist based in Bristol.

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