Monday 18th September
Where our Food Comes From: The Notion of Place
Do you know where your food comes from?
OK, maybe you know that peach you snacked on earlier was from Spain. Or that rice you ate last night was from India. Or that chicken you had at the weekend was British. But does this really tell you where your food came from? Where in the country was it grown, reared or caught? Was it from a family plot of land or a large-scale industrial farm? Were the methods used to produce it ethical? And if you don’t know, then maybe you don’t really know where your food has come from.
There is huge interest at the moment in buying ‘local’ food. In the past, a housewife knowing the place of origin of the provisions she was buying told her about the quality and qualities of the food. In buying ‘local’ now, we might feel as if we are re-connecting with the past and bringing back a sense of nostalgia. However, since the Industrial Revolution changed the way goods were transported, we have become increasingly disconnected from the sources of our food. Even if we can see on the label in the supermarket that the berries we are buying were grown within a few miles of our home, this still doesn’t give us an idea of the methods used to produce that item, or whether it is even native to the local environment. We touched a little on recipe culture and how many of us go out and buy exactly what is on an ingredients list, with little or no consideration of whether it is ‘local’ or ‘seasonal’.
We also spoke about the Commons and the Enclosures Act, looking at how this division of land has affected food production. On the whole, farmland is now organised into fields growing just one crop, where previously there would have been crop rotation and a greater diversity of produce within one area. This also has a huge impact on the foods available to us in the supermarkets, with an abundance of one particular product but very little variation available.
In the afternoon, we spoke about the notion of place in relation to food culture. We had been asked to think of a food that is linked to ‘place’. Examples in the class varied from foods made in a particular location to others linked to childhood holiday destinations, leading us to think about whether the ‘place’ we link food with is purely geographical or whether often it can be linked to memory. Have a look at the photos below. You may have an idea where I was geographically when I ate these dishes, and you may have been to the same places or eaten the same plates of food. However, your experience of the dish would have been totally different to mine, creating a very personal connection to the place where you had this experience.
We considered our possible re-connection with ‘authentic’ foodstuffs with the rise of geographical indications on products, such as PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) and TSG (Traditional Speciality Guaranteed). These began in the late 1800s with AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) in France as a marker of quality, telling us where the product comes from and protecting the recipe. Although often these labels can increase demand for the product, they can also create pressure to increase production, which sometimes leads to larger companies buying up smaller family-run business to keep up with demand, which somehow renders the product less ‘authentic’. For example, we tasted some ‘rebel cheese’, which is being produced in Lombardy in protest against the restrictions of the PDO. And if you have ever eaten Stichelton cheese, this is the most ‘authentic’ Stilton around, but has had to be re-named as the PDO Stilton must be made with pasteurised milk, unlike traditional recipes, used in making Stichelton, which use raw milk. It is hard to know exactly what these examples mean for our understanding of where our food comes from, but for me, I will certainly approach all products with a little more cynicism and be cautious of what the labels really signify.
Food writer, Catherine Brown, spoke to us in the afternoon about Scottish foods, in particular those dishes found in the Highlands, such as fish liver pudding and hairy tatties. She explained that in many rural areas, the super-rich are moving in and wanting to see an empty landscape, not one taken over by sheep and crofters. Some locals have overcome this issue by taking back their own common land, such as in Eigg, an island in the Hebrides that was bought from the landlord by the inhabitants so that they had control over their own land. This story was a fitting example to tie together our study of the Commons and of local, authentic foods.
Tuesday 19th September
How are we going to feed the world in 2050? After looking into the state of the world’s soil last week, we could be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t a lot of hope. Or for taking the Malthusian view that the population of the world needs to be lowered considerably through famine, war or disease in order for there to be enough food available to feed the rest of us. We were ensured this module would become more positive, so we were looking forward to investigating some possible solutions.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, we will need to produce 70% more food by 2050 for the additional 2.3 billion people that will inhabit the Earth. 70% of these people will live in cities, disconnected from the countryside and the source of their food. During the Green Revolution in the 1960s, the population rose dramatically due to an increase in food production caused by the introduction of new agricultural technologies, such as chemical fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and monocropping. More food was grown, but the sharp rise in population meant that increasingly more and more food was required. In addition to this, crop diversity decreased, the nutritional content of the food was reduced and the utilisation of fossil fuels contributed to climate change.
What then is the answer to this unsustainable system of food production? We presented, in groups, on six different agricultural systems: organic, biodynamic, industrial, no-till, agroecology and permaculture. My group looked into biodynamics, which builds on the principles of organic farming, but in fact pre-dates organics, founded in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner, most famous for his educational principles taught in Steiner schools. Biodynamic farming takes into account a full understanding of the land and the cosmos, with harvests being governed by the lunar cycle and homeopathic and natural remedies being used instead of antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides.
We also discussed the controversial use of GMOs, which feels like a never-ending debate creating more questions than answers. Is the use of GMOs moral or ethical? Does it harm us and the environment? What are the long-term effects of creating GMOs? Is that money better spent elsewhere? Does the reliance on GMOs distract us from tackling food waste, or trying to distribute around the world what food we do have? Who owns these crops? These questions can go on and on, and it still doesn’t seem as if there are any definite answers to any of them. The fact that the majority of the global seed market is owned by just a handful of large corporations is pretty terrifying. Just the idea that crops can be owned at all seems wrong to me. Especially when you get examples, such as in India, where farmers are forced to buy new seeds each year, as those sold to them by large corporations don’t produce offspring seeds with the same traits, leading to debt and suicide (it is said that over 250,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide in the last 20 years). On the other hand, crops resistant to droughts and floods might help to feed the world’s poorest people.
It’s hard to make a judgement on GMOs without much reliable evidence, and maybe in some circumstances they are acceptable and not in others, but it seems to me that investment in sustainable farming practices and more effort to share out what we already have, in particular by tackling food waste, are options that are much more appealing than “Frankenfoods”.