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.