Get Your Hands Dirty
Seeds of Change: The Future of Food
Get Your Hands Dirty
by Sandor Katz
Cover: Light micrograph of part of a thinly sliced section through a strawberry. Photograph: Eye of Science/Science Photo Library.
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Sandor Katz teaching the art of good food. Photograph courtesy: Sandor Katz
We have relegated food production to a mostly remote economic sector. When we need food we simply go shopping.
Some futurists have imagined that the food of the future will be utilitarian little pills we can pop into our mouths to meet all our nutritional need. No fuss. No work. No decisions to make. No dirty dishes to wash. This is a fantasy of completely de-contextualised food.
One thing that is true of food is that it exists within a context. Food is a major part of what integrates every organism into the environment in which it exists. Bacteria, fungi, insects, plants, and animals interact with their ecological niches and the other organisms in their midst through this pursuit of nourishment. Human beings, through the construction of elaborate infrastructures and specialisation, have attempted to extricate ourselves from this equation. In much of the world, we relegate food production to a mostly remote economic sector, and when we need food we go shopping, to select among myriad globalised commodities.
That we don’t all need to be involved in the daily procurement of our food has frequently been touted as evidence of economic success and liberation. Right now in the United States, somewhere around one per cent of the population is involved in direct agricultural production. We have more people in prisons than we have on farms. The other ninety-nine per cent of the people have been freed to pursue “higher” callings. People work wage slave jobs (or don’t), watch television, work out, etc., but at least they don’t need to get their hands dirty in the soil.
We have severed this daily necessity of interaction with our environment at great cost, and at least partially as a result of that, we now find ourselves potentially on the brink of environmental collapse. The technology that has allowed one person to produce enough food to feed the other ninety-nine people is extremely destructive. The mass production of food is destroying the Earth. It is wiping out rainforests; compacting, eroding, polluting, and destroying the regenerative qualities of soil; polluting and depleting water resources; concentrating animal wastes; producing greenhouse gasses; and releasing human-engineered genetics with unknown repercussions.
Beyond destroying the Earth, the food produced by this mass-production is nutritionally diminished, and our health is suffering from it. Diet-related diseases such as diabetes have risen to unprecedented levels, as have cancer rates. The food this system of globalised mass production is providing to us is quite literally killing us.
We need to remember that the word culture has its roots in the word cultivation. Culture manifests in unique ways in every ecological niche because every ecological niche offers its own unique conditions and abundances. Food cultures evolved differently in different parts of the world because the different ecological niches offered different abundances. The model of globalised production and distribution ignores this fact, and it is ironic that at the same time as affluent people in different parts of the world have ever-greater food choices (if they go into large supermarkets), really we’re seeing greater cultural homogenisation because the process of globalisation is systematically eliminating the uniqueness of the foods that are produced and eaten in each different region of the world.
Beyond destroying our health and our Earth, this technological model of food production is destroying any foundations of economic security. Food production is the basis of wealth and the foundation of economic security. When we remove local food-producing capabilities, we destroy self-sufficiency and breed dependence. The economic crisis that we’re in is a crisis of the speculation in abstractions. It has not decreased our capacity to produce food. Yet, food security everywhere has been diminished by the specialisation, concentration, and globalisation of food production.
One other way in which this model of food production makes us all more vulnerable is food safety. The continually increasing concentration of every aspect of production and distribution of food increases the risk of accidental contamination. In recent years, we’ve seen huge contamination scares not only in beef, but also in spinach, tomatoes, almonds, peanut butter, and other raw foods. Ironically, the source of contamination generally is runoff from factory farms, which ends up contaminating foods and making people sick. Then, because the distribution chains are so long and it’s so impossible to trace, people get sick in many different states or nations, and it takes a very long time to figure out the source of contamination. So the concentration of food resources is inherently vulnerable. It’s vulnerable to accidental contamination and it’s no less vulnerable to intentional sabotage.
We can see that in many different ways, this increasing scale of production and intensifying technology makes us vulnerable. This growth hurts us and cannot continue. Even so, the promoters of big technology barrage us with propaganda to scare us into believing that we need it to survive. It is a lie that we can only feed the population of the Earth with continually intensifying biotechnology. That’s what Monsanto tells us, as do the others who produce and market biotechnology. They would have us believe that they exist as altruistic philanthropists. But we need to examine and deconstruct this claim. Does the mass-production of food really maximise our productive capacity?
What the mass production of food is maximising is the amount of food that one person’s labor can produce. But really we don’t have a shortage of people; the limiting factor is land. If you look at land efficiency, how to produce the most food on an acre of land, it is not through machine-driven, chemical monoculture. It is through polycultures, growing different plants together, some underground, some on the ground, some growing up high, with different crops ready at different times. This style of agriculture is far more labor intensive, but it enables more food to be grown on an acre of land. If our true objective is maximising food production per unit of land, we need to return to hand-cultivated polycultures. It is a complete lie that the only way to feed the increasing numbers of mouths on the earth is through intensifying biotechnology, and we must challenge this disinformation.
Each of us has to break out of the role of “consumer.” Consumer is an infantilising role, breeding dependency. We each must take action to reclaim our food, and there is no store, there is no whole foods, there is no supermarket, there is no Wal-Mart, where we can go to buy sustainability. Sustainability requires participation. So when we talk about good food, it’s not just about consumers making smart choices, it’s about people breaking out of the role of consumer and figuring out ways of producing better food choices for ourselves and our communities.
It is a radical community-building activity to get involved in food production. It doesn’t mean abandoning everything else you’re doing and becoming a farmer, but it means finding ways to become part of that web of relationships again: relationships with other people in your community; relationships with animals; relationships with plants; relationships with microorganisms. We are biological organisms existing in a context of other organisms, and if we want to be part of creating a better world, we have to become part of creating better food choices ourselves, each and every one of us.