Carolyn Steel argues that there is no better way of rebuilding than through the lens of food. Her latest book ‘Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World’ hit the bookshops right before the world got hit by a pandemic, yet it might be more relevant than ever.

‘The Covid-19 pandemic represents the most radical disruption of our everyday existence since the Second World War. Whatever our world looks like afterwards, one thing is for sure: it will not be a return to business as usual. Although a tragic catastrophe, the pandemic is also a timely opportunity to rethink how we live; a task that was already urgent before the virus struck.

Nature vs Nurture

The fact that the outbreak began in a Chinese wildlife wet market tells its own story: our relationship with nature is dangerously out of kilter. Industrial food production has critically weakened biodiversity, while our encroachment on wilderness exposes us to new disease. Experts have long warned of such dangers, yet it was only when supermarkets were stripped bare of food that the threat became real for many Westerners. The sight of empty shelves came as a shock to many. In that moment, the illusion of plenty was shattered. Thanks to Covid, we’ve realised how fragile our food system really is, and similarly our place on earth.

One of the ironies of the pandemic is that it has achieved what years of political posturing in the face of global threats has failed to do: question our idea of a good life. Like all crises, it has given us vision, allowing us to distinguish good from bad, essential from frivolous, virtue from folly. Nowhere has this new vision been clearer than in the presence of death. As the Stoics knew centuries ago, nothing reveals the preciousness of life more acutely than the threat of its loss.

Covid has already highlighted the power of nature, local and global interdependency, and the true value of the ‘key workers’ who sustain our lives (the clue was always there in the title). The most valuable thing that could come out of this crisis is that we learn these lessons for good and rebuild our lives based on their principles.  

Food is where the heart is

As I argue in my new book Sitopia (‘food-place’, from the Greek sitos, food + topos, place), there is no better way of rebuilding than through the lens of food. As Covid has reminded us all too clearly, food is the greatest force shaping our lives; binding us to nature and to each other. We live in a world shaped by food – a sitopia – yet since we don’t value the stuff from which it is made, we live in a bad sitopia. We’ve based our lives on the premise that food is cheap, yet no such thing as cheap food ever existed. Climate change, mass extinction, deforestation, soil depletion, pollution, pandemics and diet-related disease (the latter of which represent most of the ‘underlying health conditions’ that make us so vulnerable to Covid) are just some of the externalities of the way we eat. If we are to rebuild our lives after Covid in a way that addresses all the existential threats we face, our most direct path will be to revalue food and restructure our lives around it. 

By reminding us of food’s true value, Covid has already shown how we might do this. Stories abound of families cooking together, people sharing food with neighbours, celebrity chefs cooking in schools, and small-scale producers and retailers creating new supply networks in a matter of days. Such responses aren’t new: they also happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck, where self-organised food networks sprang up overnight and remain to this day. In contrast to Naomi Klein’s concept of ‘disaster capitalism’, I call this ‘disaster democracy’, the discovery, in adversity, of what really matters in life: health, safety, love, neighbourliness – and sustenance.

A new culture of agriculture

We need a new social contract based not on consumerism, profit and exploitation, but on resilience, collaboration and fair trade

There is, however, much further to go. Many small producers, retailers and restaurants may not survive the lockdown, leaving the field open to domination by large chains. To prevent this, governments must step in to keep such businesses going. Indeed, British leaders have already promised to do ‘whatever it takes’. In Europe, governments are also acting to help form a ‘Land Army’ to pick crops that, without migrant labour, will rot in the ground. Calls are also growing not just for aid to help developing nations through the crisis, but for a new accommodation between North and South in the post-pandemic future. Whatever happens, politicians will struggle in future to avoid their inherent responsibility to make sure their people are well fed. The necessity for strengthened global governance and cooperation has never been clearer. We need a new social contract based not on consumerism, profit and exploitation, but on resilience, collaboration and fair trade.

The virus that is killing us has also done us a favour, by reminding us of what really matters in life. In order to thrive in years to come, we require a new idea of a good life, based around what we really need, much of which also makes us happy: decent work, a good home, time spent with family and friends, cooking and gardening, walking the dog, shared passions, contact with nature, a sense of love and belonging, being present in the here and now. By embracing life’s necessities and deriving joy from them, we can grasp what capitalism has long obscured: that good lives don’t have to cost the earth. 

FEED the future

Food is life. If we treat it as cheap, we cheapen life itself.

While food isn’t the only thing in life, it remains at its core. It thus makes sense to design our future lives around it, planning more regional, seasonal food systems, closer ties between city and country, and more flexible and adaptable buildings in which to live, work, grow and socialise. Social resurgence has always revolved around food. The shared problem of how to eat, after all, was how we evolved as a species. It is only in times of scarcity that we remember what food really is. Food is life. If we treat it as cheap, we cheapen life itself.’

 


Carolyn Steel is a leading thinker on food and cities. Based in London, she is the author of Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives (2008) and Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World (2020). 

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