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Looking the gift horse in the mouth

What and how we eat has a profound impact on our culture. However changes in recent decades have profoundly changed our relationship with food, and not for the better. What are the costs of these changes, and can they be reversed?

The recent uproar around the hanky-panky with horse meat reminds once more us that food is not a normal commodity. To most people eating beef or eating horse makes a world of difference – just as to others, eating any kind of meat is a serious issue. The reason for this is that nutrition is belongs to the essence of our culture. What and how we eat, with whom and where, when we eat and how much time we spend on buying, preparing and devouring food, make us who we are as individuals and as a society.

LOW PRICES, BUT AT A HIGH COST

As Carolyn Steel explains at length in her book The Hungry City, there have been profound changes in the way we relate to food. As in other sectors, an industrialisation process has taken place, hallmarked by monoculture, upscaling and globalisation. The small farmer in the nearby countryside and the greengrocer on the corner have been displaced by worldwide foodstuff distribution systems. So the food industry has exerted a strange influence on us. By permanently supplying us with cheap, abundant food at a seemingly low cost, the industry has satisfied our basic needs while simultaneously creating the impression that there are no negative consequences. The reality is the total opposite: food prices are now at rock bottom, and precisely for that reason the social and ecological costs are gigantic. Food is now assembled from raw materials that are produced anywhere in the world at the lowest possible production cost. Farmers worldwide have their backs against the wall because they have to produce more and more at ever lower prices. The Amazon rainforest is being felled to make way for soya and cattle, while the local population pays the real costs, in order to supply us with low-price meat.

Most of the food we now consume consists of products that often have traveled thousands of miles via airports, seaports, warehouses and processing factories. Do you know where the ingredients come from when you buy a microwave-ready meal from the supermarket? Do you really think that a bargain-price supermarket pizza is full of top quality ingredients which have been produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way? The truth is that we do no know the answers, and it is a question whether we want to know them — until the next food scandal breaks out. The huge distance between consumer and producer makes us powerless as citizens against the mass foodstuff distribution systems which are wholly in private hands. The overflowing supermarket shelves give us the illusion of having endless choice in our diet, but in fact we have no say in the options they hold out for us.

PROFIT AS THE ONLY MOTIVE

This is the contemporary reality: our food supply system functions solely by a capitalist logic in which profit is paramount. Wide-ranging though food safety systems may be, they can never monitor everything. As a newspaper expert put it, “The supermarkets want to force prices down excessively, with the result that lapses are inevitable.” The main question is whether it is a good thing, for our culture and for the world, that we regard food purely as a commodity which can be treated in the same way as, say, soap powder.
For we pay a high price for the current food supply system, and it is in any case unsustainable in the long term. Food provision is responsible for some thirty percent of the ecological footprint of our cities, and as we know that is something we must drastically reduce. The monocultures we encounter in our supermarkets correspond directly to the vanishing diversity of crops in the field. We can now enjoy strawberries in winter but no longer have a wide choice of strawberry varieties in summer.

RESTORING THE CONNECTION

The solution lies in becoming more aware of our food and better democratic governance of the entire food chain. Promoting a shorter chain between field and plate will sharply reduce the food miles squandered. And as long as we, the consumers, are prepared to pay the right price, food safety control bodies will no longer find it so hard to keep up with the swindlers. But the main thing is that we once again take the time to consciously enjoy quality on our plates. As Carolyn Steel writes, we must reexamine our whole food culture. We must restore our bond with the culture of food and develop a new awareness of what food is. In other words, we must be prepared to look that gift horse in the mouth. I think I will tell my children that a whole story lurks behind every tasty meal. And once we know what that story is, we can take control of our joint future once more.

 Published in the Green European Journal, In the debate, 08/03/13

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