Friday, 14 May 2010

Big Mouths

Henry’s last post gave me lots of ideas but I’m only going to focus on one. The importance placed on government control of the scheme he outlined was crucial. The role of government versus society is something I've been thinking about a lot recently. What follows is a brief outline of some of my thoughts about community groups and food policy, with reference to the Conservative ‘Big Society’ vision.

In the past week we’ve had an election and a new Con-Lib government. David Cameron’s first address as Prime Minister gave us some clues about the direction of this coalition.

“I want to try and help build a more responsible society, here in Britain, where we don’t just ask ‘What are my entitlements?’ but ‘What are my responsibilities?’ and don’t just ask ‘What am I owed?’ but more ‘What can I give?’"

This reflects not only Kennedy’s famous speech of 1961, but also the pre-election Conservative plan for a “big society”. This vision is of a society where every adult is a member of a community group or civic organisation, allowing the government to devolve power to “the lowest possible level” for local issues. One issue that these groups could tackle is food access. In fact, many of these projects already exist and are becoming increasingly popular. Local food projects are a way for civil society to engage with food issues, whether its people growing their own food, learning how to cook it, or ordering it in a cooperative.

At face value this appears attractive. Lofty statements such as “empowering local people” and “using valuable local knowledge” are hard to argue against for those wanting a more responsive food sector. However, there are valid criticisms of food projects that also apply to the vision behind Conservative plans. So let’s use food to dissect the “big society”.

Academics see the danger of local food projects becoming quick fixes. The lack of long term funding and no real network linking their efforts makes them hard to sustain. Their reliance on volunteers means that without the necessary resources, networks or background it is hard to become a part of these groups. There’s been interesting work done on the alternative food movement in California, showing how the language and practices of local food groups can exclude ethnic minorities. Many of the aspirations of these groups are not shared by the majority of the population. Even if they are, those who could benefit the most from them (low income households) have other more pressing priorities. Those with the least opportunity to act cannot be expected to solve their own problems.

The factors that create injustice locally are often about structural factors (e.g. wages, trade laws, transport policy) that citizens can do little to affect. We may see our political system as lacking accountability, but placing our hopes of better food security on unelected and unrepresentative community groups is little better.

It’s important to be cautious about going too far in this criticism. There are some things community groups can achieve and there are examples where inclusive and effective projects have emerged. However, I still believe their role in delivering policy is small. These groups should be less about doing government’s work and more about arguing for what they want from politicians. After all, it is government that has the reach to affect more than just the local picture. Perhaps it’s time for big mouths instead of a big society.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

food in non-fiction #1

The following post is the product of a few things I have been thinking about. These things are: The last few pages of chapter 36 of Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (pages 222 and 223 in the Penguin Modern Classics edition); Eating Animals by Jonathan SafranFoer; Food 2030; and a fairly recent Panorama, dealing with the subject of child labour in cocoa farming.

In the aforementioned pages of Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell is addressing the issue of homelessness as it was in the UK in the 1930s. His main issue is that while people remained homeless and hungry, the law prevented them from doing anything productive, as they were forced to keep moving by laws on vagrancy. They were, therefore, homeless, hungry, and idle by law. This, Orwell asserted, broke their spirits, wasting their lives away. His suggestion was allowing homeless people to grow their own food in allotments in shelters. 'For the question is, what to do with men who are underfed and idle; and the answer - to make them grow their own food - imposes itself automatically.'

This made me think about unemployment in general, as well as current forecasts, which suggest that agriculture will need to become vastly more efficient in order to feed the growing population. Agriculture is, surprisingly, an industry that suffers from industrialization (surprisingly because we now rely in the west almost entirely upon factory farmed food). Safran Foer's Eating Animals highlights the enormous wastefulness of factory farming of animals and industrial slaughterhouses; the huge percentage of animals killed in transit; the unimaginable cross contamination and spread of diseases, including the 'Spanish Flu', 'Avian' Flu and 'Swine' Flu. The only way that this method can feed so many is that such a huge volume is produced. Efficiency in farming can only come from farming on a small scale, by individuals who will eat what they grow. I can intellectualise a lot of terrible things, but one thing that makes me truly sick is seeing human beings growing food that they will never eat. By this, I mean poor adults and children, who the western world employ to produce vast amounts of food, but who are, themselves starving. This includes children, who are forced, for their low labour costs to work on cocoa farms. These children will probably never taste a piece of chocolate.

The solution is simple, and yet difficult to implement. Food production could be enormously efficient. It requires food to be grown locally, communally, and carefully, making use of all available land. The drawbacks are as follows: seed production is monopolized; land rights are monopolised; all nations would have to comply with this idea, or the poorer countries would lose trade and starve; industrial agriculture would have to be
dismantled ; nomadic lifestyles must be taken into account; the initiative would have to be government controlled, regulated and inspected, rather than being locally regulated, to prevent regionalism and social exclusion (In a way, that makes this an argument against transition towns). Jobs all over the world would be lost. They would, theoretically, be made up for by the creation of possibly twice the number of jobs. Practically everyone could be employed. The only problem is, who is willing to take the risk? Attainment of anything, even just survival, comes at the cost of great discomfort. Those with money are able to trade off this discomfort to those without money. It is unlikely that everyone in a comfortable position would be willing to share in this discomfort, just in order to reduce the discomfort of others. I would like to add that I am willing, but I don't think that counts for much.

I really hope Olly will write some more on this subject because he knows way more about it than I do.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Ration yourself

“The best way you can help is by rationing yourselves”

In the UK, rationing began in earnest in 1940. It relied on Britons handing over a limited number of coupons from a ration book to regulate a dwindling wartime food supply. Occasionally, nostalgia for this time surfaces due to the perceived health benefits and notion of mucking in it encapsulates. This time isn’t as far away as it appears.

I think what’s fascinating about this video is that it contains two major thrusts of current food policy discourse. I’m not saying we’re being asked to use ration coupons, but that an emphasis on consumers and waste are fundamental to what people tell us about food.

Despite a vastly different context, our approach to food security hasn’t changed that much. Faced with potential food shortages due to rising oil prices, biodiversity loss and climate change, eating better is the dish of the day. Buying healthier and more ethical food is the rationing of today. The belief that ethical consumers can change food systems to be more sustainable is prevalent in government policy documents and in supermarket rhetoric.

Reducing waste is another responsibility shoppers are charged with. The phrase from this video “find a box and put them in, it’ll only take a min”, wouldn’t be out of place in the recycling campaigns of today. The love food, hate waste campaign is an example of how we need to not only buy better but waste less.

Strategies such as these are useful. They help people feel part of the solution and will have some impact. However, focusing heavily on consumers and waste misses crucial factors. Being able to act ‘ethically’ relies on having money and time. The decisions that food retailers and caterers make are often behind the scene and out of our control.Consumer power is qualified.

Although many other options must be taken, this video still has a message for us today. Taking “no more than our fair share” is crucial for all in the food chain. Whether that means me buying less or supermarkets engaging in better supply chain management, we do need to ration ourselves. This rationing must be approached with care, focusing on those that can afford to ration themselves.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010


Sauturn Devours His Son by Goya

It has been a while since we’ve posted on here. Sorry about that. I’ve been thinking of interesting subject matter for this blog and I think I’ve got something. I’m going to try and write an article concerning itself with cannibalism. It’s a bit of a deviation from the traditional subject matter of the food blog but I am usually more interested by the cultural weirdness that can surround eating and on those terms, cannibalism is ideal.

I think I’ll split this odd act into categories. First is cultural cannibalism, I.E. cultures, which practice (or would practice, if the law permitted) cannibalism. The word, cannibalism comes from the Spanish CanĂ­balis. This is a West Indian tribe, the Carib, or Kalinago. After these People, the Caribbean Ocean is named, and from them, the Pidgin Language came. This tribal past time of eating human flesh is gradually dying out in places like the Congo and Liberia, due to the exposure of these tribes to the outside worlds and the passing of laws and waging of wars to try and prevent it. Human sacrifice in this way is generally performed on rare occasions and considered to be either an act of appeasement to higher powers, or an act of victory. Cannibalistic tribes tended to believe that by consuming their enemies, they would gain their strength and knowledge.

Then there is cannibalism for survival. Here I am referring to lost explorers such as the John Franklin Expedition, where parties are stranded and starving. In such cases, when evidence of cannibalism is found in the remains of the parties when they are finally found, great dishonour is forever associated with them. There is something in the act of cannibalism closely associated, psychologically, with the act of incest. Humans dissociate themselves from animals on grounds such as discrimination in the choice of a mate just as in the discrimination of what they eat. A pig would gladly eat a piglet or mate with its own siblings. The consequences of both such acts are apparent in genetic stagnation and birth defects for incest and a more immediate degradation of brain functions in the case of prolonged cannibalism.

Finally there are the cases of cannibalism that take place in supposedly enlightened and safe communities. These are usually attributed to mental illness and are – perhaps obviously – the subject of plenty of popular culture, such as the Hannibal Lecter films and novels. Lecter’s character is based on a number of historical cannibalistic serial killers including Albert Fish, a figure of the early 20th Century who seems to have indulged in every human degradation going.

I suppose if I have a point, it is that in all of these aforementioned situations, a very high value is always set for human life. Human flesh is sacred in some cultures, the ultimate taboo in the minds of some. And to the poor old stranded mariner, human life is so precious, that they are willing to consume another to preserve at least their own. The consequences of acts of cannibalism are physiologically proven, not to mention that it is murder from the get go. To my mind it demonstrates the divide between those who eat for necessity and those who eat for pleasure and intellectual curiosity. The stranded mariner eats human flesh, comforted only by the thought that he might live another day, while the religious fanatic and the psychopath eat the same flesh in the smug knowledge that they will live forever in the kingdoms of heaven or of the media.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

food chain #1

food chain #1 is here! read and see more here.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

this is a nice poster

from here

Friday, 8 January 2010

Food and Utopia

Utopia is a dream. It is the place we cannot touch, but can imagine. It is often described as meaning a ‘nowhere’ place. This definition paints utopians as fantastical and unrealistic. In reality the word is a combination of the greek words ‘outopia’ (no place) and ‘eutopia’ (good place) and has many applications. Developing a better food system relies on thinking about the future. The government’s food strategy ‘Food 2030’ (published this week) works on envisioning a sustainable food system for the future. Sadly the lack of clarity and imagination in this report means that achieving a ‘food utopia’ still requires work.

Studying utopias of the past helps reveal values about food and shape ways of imagining a new food landscape. I’m going to look briefly at the role of food in utopia to flag up some questions and ideas.

The most common utopias people are presented with are likely to be those found in religious texts. Two ideas related to food in these texts are ‘feast’ and ‘the end of the dream’. These are themes that can be seen running through many subsequent utopias.

Food in utopia is often presented as a never ending feast. French socialist Fourier, for example envisioned ‘oceans of lemonade’ for his utopia. Indeed the idea of limitless supplies of food would probably be found in most people’s utopias. However, as Sears’ said in 1965, “there is no promise of a gourmet’s utopia for the majority of mankind”. Utopias of volume appear entrenched in productionist policies that do not recognise the limits of people and the planet. This feature of utopia therefore is not helpful for building a fairer food system. What is interesting about Morris’ News from Nowhere is that inhabitants limit themselves. One character says “we don’t want salmon every day of the year”. This begins to show that food can limit and facilitate utopia.

Food can also be a device for the end of utopia. The moment that the fruit from the tree of knowledge is consumed is the closing of Eden, the fall. Perhaps food in utopia becomes a stumbling block, something so real and practical that we find it hard to dream of. It is at feast that Morris’ protagonist leaves utopia, though he has eaten before in the story, I think it is interesting that eating provides his exit. The challenge of thinking about food in utopia is huge, but important.

I wish I had more time to research this properly and may do in the future. However, from the small investigations I’ve made, it seems that food needs utopia, and utopia needs food.