In the intro to her 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 dispairing 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) Carolyn 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 do need to be looking at the philosophy that underpins our society. For Steel that 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’ve probably heard about the problems with factory farming and industrial farming, but they are real dangers. Between 1941 and 1991 carrots in Britain lost 75% of their copper and magnesium, 48% of their calcium, and 46% of their iron. Grain fed cattle have a permanent case of indigestion, pumping toxins in their bloodstream which are repressed by anti-biotics, inadvertently fuelling our anti-biotic 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 the body is overwhelmed with Omega 6, the Omega 3 is not effectively absorbed. Omega 3 is crucial to brain function, vision, and anti-inflammatory action.
Donald Davis and a research team at the University of Texas (UT) studied nutritional from the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits. 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 have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly,” reported Davis, “but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth.”
The quality of our food is growing increasingly less nutritious and that should be of immense concern as a public health issue. 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 dire importance to us now more than ever before.
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 benefical (and ultimately less damaging to the earth). People Before Profit outlined in their Irish eco-socialist manifesto how they would break “the monopoly control of the big agri-corporations and incentivising 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 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 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 more human.
One of the most challenging psychological parts of the pandemic has been the isolation and disconnection for normal day-to-day interaction with each other, even with close friends and family. Humans are social animals and it is key to remember that now more than ever, we have evolved over millions of years as social animal, we have succeeded in spanning 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 has demonstrable psychological benefits as well; it’s been linked to stronger friendships and family relationships, a better diet, and even living longer. It’s probably not a coincidence that cultures in which people live longest place great emphasis on family and eating together (as well as a nutrient rich diet). Eating well and together and living as part of a community literally gives us life.
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, we daydream, we take ourselves on little tangents and trains of thought when we can never remember how we ended up thinking about whether anyone still plays with Beyblades. In his 2013 book, Social, Matthew Lieber revealed that whilst we are conversing with others, the same parts of the brain are active. We are literally evolved to run the conversational setting of our brain any time we are not actively focusing on a task. We’re wired for conversation and social interaction as default.
In 2020, we dehumanise our political opponents, we dehumanise immigrations fleeing across oceans in life-rafts, and we are dehumanising ourselves by locking up the sick and healthy indiscriminately and wearing masks that prevent us from communicating naturally with our friends, family, neighbours, and countrymen. I believe that the solution to all of the issues that I have referenced in this article might be solved by a little more humanity; a rediscovery of the most basic and primal pleasures of watching our food grow from a tiny seed to the final product on our table, of sharing that food with friends and family, and to recognise that each of us is a natural biological creature. We have evolved over millions of years, but not beyond the psychological and biological relics of ages past – we still crave acceptance from our group or community, social interaction, good food, and the pleasure of watching and tending some form of life that springs from the earth. We’d do well not to forget that.