In the intro to her absorbing book, Sitopia: How Food Can Change The World, author Carolyn Steel recounts the tale of meeting a Dutch Shell executive at a Ted conference. He was looking for ideas to save the world and was despairing at his perceived lack of investment opportunities. How he felt uninspired in the midst of a TED conference remains unknown, but instead of offering up some technology to change the world (carbon extractor fans or CO2-gobbling algae) Steel proposed that the world had a philosophy deficit. This particular Shell executive was not impressed with her suggestion, but perhaps instead of looking for technology to change the world, we really ought to be looking at the philosophy that underpins our society. For Carolyn Steel this begins with food.
Over the course of the last 100 years we have slowly lost our connection with where our food comes from and what it takes to fill our heaving supermarket shelves. By now you’re probably familiar with the problems present in factory farming and industrial farming, but you may not be aware of the consequences. Between 1941 and 1991 carrots in Britain lost 75 per cent of their copper and magnesium, 48 per cent of their calcium, and 46 per cent of their iron. Grain-fed cattle have a permanent case of indigestion, requiring that toxins be pumped into their bloodstream which are then repressed by antibiotics, inadvertently fuelling our antibiotic resistance. This diet also means that instead of being rich in Omega 3-packed muscle, the beef is packed with Omega 6 fats. The body needs both, but when it’s overwhelmed with Omega 6, the Omega 3 is not effectively absorbed. Omega 3 fats are crucial for brain function, vision, and anti-inflammatory action.
Donald Davis and a research team at the University of Texas (UT) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture studied the nutritional content of 43 different vegetables and fruits between 1950 and 1999. They found ‘reliable declines’ in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century which they attributed to:
‘Efforts to breed new varieties of crops that provide greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability [ … allowing] crops to grow bigger and more rapidly […] but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth’.
The quality of our food is becoming increasingly less nutritious, which should be a health issue of immense concern to us but for some reason is not. By degrading the quality of our food we are degrading our health and quality of life, and we are lowering the strength of our immune system — something that should be of primary importance to us at this particular moment.
Simple solutions in a post-Brexit Britain?
One of the most widely touted solutions to the problem of our food production and industrial-scale farming is the diversification of farms and the break-up of large farms into smaller, more environmentally beneficial ones. People Before Profit outlined the following in their Irish eco-socialist manifesto, discussing how they would break:
‘the monopoly control of the big agri-corporations and [incentivise] small and medium-sized farmers to diversify the sector through horticulture, organic products, beekeeping, widening hedgerows, hemp, agro-forestry, forestry, wetlands and any other forms of agriculture capable of absorbing carbon’.
But the opportunity for us in Britain is even greater. With Brexit deadlines looming at the end of the year, we will soon be freed from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). We will lose the CAP payments from the EU and we will have to replace them with something entirely new. This gives us the chance to decarbonise farming and agriculture and move towards a more diversified and localised form of food production. We will have free reign (so long as we don’t bind our own hands with restrictive trade agreements) to refocus the agriculture and farming industry into one that is more environmentally restorative, more cost-effective, and hopefully more humane.
One of the most challenging psychological parts of the pandemic has been the isolation and disconnection from normal day-to-day interaction with each other, especially with close friends and family. But humans are social animals. We have evolved over millions of years as social animal, and we have succeeded in populating the planet because of our propensity to work together. As Carolyn Steel pointed out, sharing a meal together is the oldest ritual that we all still take part in. Eating together also has demonstrable psychological benefits. It has been linked to stronger friendships and family relationships, a better diet, and even longevity. It’s also probably not a coincidence that cultures in which people live longest place great emphasis on family and sharing food around the table (as well as having a nutrient-rich diet). Eating well and sharing the experience together, along with living as part of a community — literally gives us life.
We are social creatures after all
Sitting around a table also makes you more likely to see people as equals and the conversation that takes place around a dinner table has untold psychological benefits for us. When our brain is not focused on a specific task it wanders and we daydream, taking ourselves on little tangents and trains of thought that seem to appear quite spontaneously. In his 2013 book, Social, Matthew Lieber reveals that whilst we are conversing with others the same parts of the brain are active. We have literally evolved to run the conversational setting of our brain any time we are not actively focusing on a task. By default, we’re wired for conversation and social interaction.
In 2020 we dehumanise our political opponents. We dehumanise immigrants fleeing across oceans in life rafts. And we dehumanise ourselves by locking up the sick and the healthy indiscriminately, and by wearing masks that prevent us from communicating naturally with our friends, family, neighbours and countrymen.
I believe that the array of problems referenced in this article might be solved by a little more humanity; a rediscovery of the most basic and primal pleasures in watching our food grow from a tiny seed to the final product on our table. It’s about sharing that food with friends and family, and about recognising that each of us is a natural biological creature. We have evolved over millions of years. But we have not surpassed our fundamental psychological and biological predispositions of ages past. We still crave acceptance from our group or community, social interaction, good food, and the pleasure of watching and tending to some form of life that springs from the earth.
We’d do well not to forget this.