The end of food as we know it
1st March, 2008
It’s 2008, and feeding ourselves has never been easier. We take for granted a supply of every agricultural commodity on the planet, 365 days a year. Food is cheap. Never in living memory have we spent less on it as a proportion of our total expenditure. Even our poorest citizens can afford the luxury foods of yesteryear, like salmon and chicken.Where our great-grandparents, grandparents and parents fretted about not having enough to eat, that thought has never crossed our minds. We take a constant, reliable flow of food so much for granted that we squander it. Our forebears abhorred waste and revered what was known as ‘domestic economy’. We routinely bin uneaten a third of the food we buy, without giving it a second thought.
But roll the clock forward to 2018 and the picture is beginning to look dramatically different. The era of plenty is coming to an end. Two overarching imperatives are redrawing our food landscape: climate change and a chronic shortage of fuel. Soon we will need to wake up to the fact that the way we have been feeding ourselves for the last two decades is not sustainable and start re-skilling ourselves for a new food century. The writing is on the wall. Already there are food shortages, catalysed by climate changeinduced drought and flood, and exacerbated by the growing taste around the world for a more globalised, Western-style diet. So far, in affluent Northern countries like ours, the change manifests itself in the cost of food – everything from wheat to milk and meat is clocking up major price-hikes. As yet still a spectre in affluent countries, food insecurity looks sure to assume more corporeal form in the future. Riots have been sparked in poorer countries like India and Mexico as the staples on which people rely become unaffordable.
Now a barrel of oil has hit the $100 mark and we have or are about to pass the ‘peak’ of world oil output, after which production is on a downward trajectory. This means that the abundant fuel supply that kept our complex food chain going is about to hit the skids. Heated, indoor intensive sheds for livestock; hi-tech factories churning out cutting- edge convenience foods; supermarket juggernauts, 24-hour superstores and refrigerated distribution centres; flights carrying food cargo from exotic countries; farmed salmon that owe their flabby weight to fish-oil pellets – all these are going to be vulnerable because they guzzle energy profligately and so will become ruinously expensive.
What will life be like? Radically different, certainly. The whole business of how we go about feeding ourselves will have to change. But far from being a painful, gloomy reversal of food ‘progress’, it could see us eating, shopping and cooking better than we do now, and deriving much more pleasure from it.
At the core, in place of the centralised, highly concentrated food supply system we have at present, smaller, more localised food networks or ‘webs’ of mutually supporting food producers and consumers will come into their own. When fuel is scarce and expensive, being in close proximity to an independent baker, cheesemaker, farm-shop or farmers’ market, or on the circuit for a horticultural box scheme, is going to seem a lot more useful and promote more of a sense of food security, than relying on a car to drive miles to the nearest supermarket.
This will give a huge boost to native farmers and growers who, in our current globalised, oil-dependent food economy, find themselves undercut by cheaper, lowest common denominator imports. We could expect to see fewer pesticides sprayed on our land, too, because many of these depend on petrochemical byproducts. This would provide an incentive for food producers to jump off the chemical treadmill and adopt forward-thinking, environmentally sustainable farming methods that enshrine traditional farming knowledge like outdoor rearing, crop rotation and companion planting.
All the alternatives to supermarket monoculture currently sidelined by defenders of the food status quo as precious and highly marginal outlets for the neurotic rich, could become mainstream, unremarkable – just plain sensible. The greengrocer who has been buying from local growers will be in a much better position than the one who is totally reliant on deliveries from the wholesale market. The relocalisation of food production and distribution would dismantle the handicap currently faced by local, independent shops and small- or mediumsized producers who have effectively been annexed from the mainstream food supply.
Pubs and institutional catering,establishments that currently stud their menus with bought-in, factory meals to cut down on staff costs, will begin to find that it is cheaper, and more reliable, to source local unprocessed food and pay someone to cook it. Likewise, it could become more economic for schools to employ a proper dinner lady than to buy in a cold-store of Turkey Twizzlers.
The same economic rethink would apply to home-cooking. When it becomes harder – and exceptionally costly – to commute long distances to work because of crippling transport costs, more people will work at home, or clock off earlier and spend more time there. With this new centre of gravity in our lives, it could become more practical to make some soup from local vegetables than to get to a supermarket selling erratic supplies of expensive ready-made equivalent.
The workaholic lifestyle, which reduces the importance of food to fuel and cheap calories, and condemns us to rush to get everything to do with it over and done with as quickly as possible, faces a setback. Cooking is much more feasible at home, and there are many more time slots to fit it in throughout the day.
Self-reliance will never have been more attractive. Baking decent bread at home could become preferable to paying over the odds for industrial pap. The possibility of more leisurely, communal, homemade meals would provide an opportunity for us to discover some of the conviviality of dining that we find so attractive in countries like Italy and France.
All the old methods of stockpiling food and capturing seasonal gluts – salting, pickling, maturing, conserving, freezing – will be handy skills to have, offering a reassuring sense of self-reliance in uncertain times. As we turn down the central heating thermostat for fear of the next fuel bill, we may feel more inclined to revive the traditional cold pantry than run a massive fridge to house the contents of a once-a-week, non-stop shop.
By default, we will embrace the seasons again, letting local availability determine the bulk of what we eat. We will still want lemons, bananas and other imports we can’t grow, but cheaper English cider vinegar will make a lot more sense than pricey Italian balsamic, and parsnips flown from Australia in May will seem quite ludicrous. It should go without saying that by eating more home-cooked food made from fresh, seasonal ingredients at their nutritional peak, and by avoiding the battery of additives and profit-driven manipulations of processed food, we can expect a sharp, perceptible improvement in the nation’s health.
Out go the hard-landscaped gardens with rainforest decking and carbon-spewing patio heaters; in come green gardens, allotments and potagers, well known to promote physical fitness and mental wellbeing. When gaps start to appear on supermarket shelves where all those Israeli herbs and hothouse tomatoes used to be, it will be comforting to know that there is parsley and tomatoes in the garden. When we are less car-dependent and more actively involved in food production and preparation, night classes explaining how to keep your own chickens may appear a damn sight more pertinent than Keep Fit.
‘Buy local first, home-produced (British) second, Europe third and world fourth,’ could be the new pecking order informing shopping habits. As a result it would be infeasible for Britain to become a primarily vegetarian nation. There is no escaping the fact that globally, feeding grain to livestock is an extraordinarily inefficient and wasteful way to produce food, nor that methane from farm animals contributes considerably to global warming. But in the UK, we have whole swathes of grass and marginal land not suited to growing fruit, vegetables or grains. Our country is ideal for the outdoor rearing of livestock and a switch to vegetarianism necessarily ignores much of the fine produce on our doorstep in favour of unsustainable imported foods. Why drink Brazilian soya milk when you can buy high-welfare, British organic cow’s milk? We don’t have olive groves but we do have cows that can give us butter.
In a greener food world, while the bulk of what we eat would be plant food, we would still eat meat, dairy, eggs and poultry, savouring it in small amounts and wasting nothing. That means ditching the last 50 years’ worth of hybrid livestock designed to be protein-generating machines fattened on mountains of grain, and reviving our time-honoured, slowmaturing native breeds. Rising energy costs making industrialised, over-processed, over-packaged products less financially attractive could lead to a long-overdue simplification of the nation’s understanding of just what constitutes healthy eating.
We are currently stuck in a confusing and dispiriting minefield of ‘low this, high that, no this, no that’ claims where every product has more labels and traffic lights than a boy scout has badges. This has complicated our understanding of something that ought to be simple – feeding ourselves – and created fertile territory for the industries that created the problems to market their chameleon products as solutions to those problems.
In our newer, greener food world, caloriecounting, fat-avoidance and body mass index calculations give way to one blindingly simple and holistic public health message: avoid processed food and base your diet around home-cooked, fresh, local, seasonal, unprocessed food.
The looming environmental crisis is going to force a radical change in the unsustainable, crazy way we have been feeding ourselves. If we can respond to that challenge rather than sitting around waiting for some technological fix to bail us out at the eleventh hour, then our food future looks very much brighter.
Joanna Blythman is an investigative food journalist and author of Bad Food Britain (5th Estate)
This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2008
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