Rethinking Food

Food is a basic need, but too often its availability is impacted by economic factors outside the control of normal people. How can we ensure reliable access to food in a new ism? It’s a straightforward question that raises extremely complex issues!

Alex Matthews: We’re living in difficult times at the moment, with political and economic upheaval combined with terrible news from Ukraine and elsewhere. But one of the issues that impact people most directly is the cost of living. In the UK we’re seeing inflation of 9% I believe, and that really affects how people live and look after their families. It’s made me think a lot about food – because of the global nature of the world, it’s affected by inflation and prices are spiralling ever higher. But it’s such a basic necessity – right at the bottom of the pyramid of needs, and it seems to me that something as ‘manmade’ as economic factors should have no bearing on a person’s ability to sustain themselves. We need to rethink our relationship with food, and by extension agriculture, as a society. I think the answer must lie in having a closer relationship with nature, understanding how good food is grown, and finding ways to cut out the many, many middlemen in our supply chains by eating more locally and seasonally. It’s not easy but it feels like we’ve reached crunch time now.

Mel Young: You raise a number of interesting points. As we have said before, the global economic system isn’t sustainable and we need to create a new one. Basically what we have now is a system failure. An intricate and inter-connected global system has been created which is based on management concepts like “just in time” amongst others. When those are disrupted the system quickly falls apart. Right now we have a war in a food-producing country coming on the back of a pandemic and the system can’t cope with the shock so it is starting to fall apart. Those who believe in market economics think that the system will simply right itself. Even if they are right, the cost in terms of human misery could be great.

And that’s just one issue. What are we eating and how much? There is a huge amount of food waste. Some people eat too much while others can’t eat at all. It is just a mess. So, we think about going back to basics – growing our own and so on, but how successful you might be depends on the climate. It is easy to grow food in some countries compared with others which is where the whole basis of trade comes from. If we can’t grow our own food, where do we get it from? And the questions keep coming. We all should be able to eat and drink to be able to live – a basic right – how do we make that happen?

AM: You’re absolutely right and it’s a good point. It’s more difficult to grow food in some countries than others – but I think there are very few countries where it’s difficult to grow any food at all – such as those with very cold or very hot, dry climates. So of course those countries will need to import food. But the rest of us – those with more temperate climates and the ability to grow food – we need to explore what we can grow sustainably at home and base our diets on that. Furthermore, if we are not all exporting huge amounts of wheat, for example, we will not be degenerating our soil, which is a huge concern both environmentally and for future food security. It’s super complicated and I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I for one should definitely start questioning whether I ‘need’ to eat bananas and avocados. 

MY: Hmm, are you suggesting that in a new system, local areas should each be sustainable for food in their own right and we should stop global food trade?

AM: If I’m honest, I don’t know what I’m suggesting! All I know (at least, I think I know!) is that a) the globalisation of the food trade makes the food supply chain more vulnerable to the whims of global economics (and therefore more precarious for the poorest in our societies) and b) it’s not sustainable to ship bananas and avocados just because Alex Matthews in London likes having avocado on toast for lunch. Something needs to change, but I don’t know what or how. What do you think?

MY: It is a real challenge. We keep getting told to eat good food like bananas. I eat loads of them but they don’t grow in this country because of the climate. So, we either develop a system where each local area produces its own good food – I replace bananas with something else which is good for me from the local area – or admit that to have a proper balanced diet for each of us across the world we need to create a global system of food trade which is equitable, fair and sustainable. Which way do we go?

AM: I guess the second suggestion is preferable because it does allow for a more balanced diet – which is an important part of a long and healthy life – and it’s probably why most humans are living longer than we ever have before. It will just be really hard to create that equitable, fair and sustainable food trade. A few years ago we spoke to Paul Rice from Fair Trade USA on the podcast – there will be some valuable lessons in what they do – but it’s also expensive at the moment, so we need to find ways to make that much more normal and therefore cheaper – because otherwise we come back to the original issue that food is much too expensive for so many people.

MY: Maybe we are looking at this from the wrong angle. Food shouldn’t be cheap. To create a sustainable global food chain we need to invest in it properly and that means food will be more expensive than it is now. This in turn means that people need to have a great disposable income which they can spend on good food. We should also tackle waste in the system as part of a new approach. Perhaps that’s the way to go and we need to stop thinking about how to make everything cheaper all the time?

AM: Very interesting and wise, as always Mel! One for the next blog maybe?! 

MY: Indeed, we could write a book!

Photo by Nina Luong on Unsplash

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