When, exactly, do you decide that a system isn’t working? At what point do you admit defeat? Our global food system is so dysfunctional and warped that we must surely be accelerating towards this point. Last week, a report published by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in the UK told the grim story of a world where up to two billion tonnes of the world’s food goes to waste every year, almost half of the total produced. Around 550bn tonnes of water is wasted on growing crops that will never be eaten. All this, of course, provides sits in stark contrast to the desolate background of famine and starvation: it is estimated that 950 million people regularly go hungry in the contemporary world, and ominously, forecasts predict that the global population – rather unromantically dismissed as more mouths to feed – is set to rise.
The fair distribution of food is one of those problems that seem so huge and timeless as to appear insurmountable. Perhaps, people speculate, there have always been, and always will be, haves and have-nots. But it’s not that there is a shortage of food, or even that food is unequally distributed (although this is true). With so many fears, frustrations and anxieties surrounding food, is it simply the case that our relationship with one of life’s fundamentals has become entirely dysfunctional?
Half the world goes without, while the other experiments with the edges of the most extreme over-indulgence. Precious rainforest is devastated to provide more cows to be slaughtered, so that we can eat more processed meat in fast-food restaurants and spend more of our lives battling avoidable but deadly diseases which pile pressure on our health systems. We have, on the whole, very little idea where much of our food comes from, or how artificial flavours and tastes are created, relying instead on slick branding as a substitute for knowledge.
Worst of all, bewildering stories circulate that highlight the absurdity of our consumption. Horse meat is secretly ground into beef to cheapen the product without consumers even realising. Millions of chickens spend their entire lives in captivity, producing eggs in an everlasting industrial darkness to save us a few pennies on our grocery bill (typical monthly iPhone charge is £35, by the way). Fish companies farm seafood in the North Sea, send it to south-east Asia to be de-shelled and packaged, and ship it back again for consumers in Europe, meaning that this pilgrimage of prawns sometimes extends for 12,000 miles before they reach our plates. Speculators hoard stockpiles of food to exploit weakened markets, pushing the prices up to heighten the value of their goods. Everything, from the sourcing of raw ingredients to the marketing of meals, seems to be verging on the unreal. Perhaps all these issues are symbolic of a deeper fact: that our ‘Western’, capitalist culture has simply gotten food wrong. We have misunderstood what food is, and how we should handle it, from farmer to fork.
As with anything so complex, it would be foolish to assume that there is a ready-made replacement waiting to be implemented. Dismantling the huge infrastructure of food conglomerates would perhaps make things worse – when most advanced industrialised societies are net importers of food, and have swept away traditions that kept knowledge of the land alive, shortages would not be far behind.
Awareness of what we’re doing would be enough. People are, understandably, only dimly conscious of the enormously complex chain of events that leads to them ordering a takeaway or grabbing a sandwich from a supermarket. No-one has the time to investigate. But what we can all do is exercise a sense of curiosity, that childlike quest for truth, which everyone is born with. Asking ourselves a few basic questions is the easiest, simplest and most natural way to allow awareness to trickle into our decisions. Like rainwater widening the cracks the boulders of rock, and eventually shattering them to pebbles and dust, the act of regular questioning is enough to create big changes.
Once, I was shopping with a friend once in a supermarket; he picked up a ready-meal from the refrigerator and asked, “I wonder when this food last saw a human being”. Good point, I thought – what if the food in there was all mechanically prepared and packaged? There’s something humiliating by being handed your ration in a plastic container, somehow. But asking that one question made me think along new lines relating to the humanity in food. Grow your own food and you’ll develop a bond with the produce; eat machine-prepared humanoid portions and you’ll grow distanced from it. It made me think twice about long-life food.
The beauty of awareness is that nothing actually has to be done. As soon as you become aware of the situation, you gradually stop participating in it. And, as people become more aware of what constitutes fast food, dietary choices are slowly being changed. The more understanding there is of the link between poor diet to obesity and to health problems, both physical and mental, the more concerted the drive is towards better choices. Awareness is the guiding light that doesn’t need intelligence, or wealth, or labour to make itself known – it’s always there, just behind the stream of thoughts, waiting to be experienced consciously. If we were truly aware of the impact of our dietary choices, as a society, we wouldn’t make them. It is certainly an easier place to start than the behemoth of the global food system: which is, after all, not one gigantic monolithic entity but countless spider-webs stretching across the world, and one in which many powerful groups have vested interests. But it is also a system reliant on our collective ignorance: and that is something that we can change.