The biocultural significance of providential food growing
In the modern convenience society that we live in, the relationship to food (and thus land) is transactional, shallow and largely unconscious – dominated by selfish desire and exploitation economics. In a reciprocal earth-centred society, the relationship to food and land is transformative, deep and conscious – driven by connection and spiralling gift economies of abundance and sharing. The former locks us into a vicious downward cycle, whereby the dishonouring of the food we eat leads to unhealthy land practices of cultivation, using poisons and heavy machinery to grow food in far-off places, eroding ecology whilst distributing the food in a way where a billion go hungry and a billion over eat, meanwhile the majority tend not to feel nourished due to the low quality and destructive energy imbued in the ‘food’, underpinned by a complete disconnection from place its grown. The remedy to this is to put the sacred back into the food we eat, to acknowledge the subtler energies in the very fuel that nourishes our earthly journey, and to reconnect to what Rudolf Steiner called ‘food of place’. It was not long ago that many regions in the UK and Europe had distinct local food cultures, thriving rural economies of production and unique relationships between land and people in symbiosis. These still exist in communities that have resisted courageously the forces of global production, economies of scale and intentional displacement of people from the land so that they can become cogs in the factories of capitalism.
There are robust economic and rational arguments that make abundantly clear the need for localised resilient food systems if humanity is going to live through this century. We are already facing severe food shocks and industrial methods of farming have contributed to the the biodiversity crisis, species extinction, rocketing carbon emissions (IPCC 2018, 2021) and only 50 harvests left at current rates of topsoil loss (UN 2015). Localised food systems can be more productive and more resilient whilst regenerating the land, ecology and water/carbon/nutrient cycles that we all depend upon. Whilst the rational arguments can go further into the economic, social and practical reasons why we need to transform our food systems, they are not complete if lacking an engagement with the cultural and spiritual significance of providential food grown in relationship with the land and its communities. Beyond and encompassing the pragmatic considerations, there are lived questions of real nourishment, land connection, subtle energy and the cultural-spiritual underpinnings of food which must be revived if we are to get to the root of the solutions. Else we risk repeating mistakes in a frenzy of blind activity masqueraded as solutions. We may end up improving the ‘carbon neutrality’ of food whilst ultimately continuing to produce empty, soulless food that is not connected to place, people, livelihood or culture. We might miss the point, and thus miss the opportunity to truly transform our food systems (and ourselves). Julia Wright makes the point that agroecology, known for its worthy focus on food sovereignty and ecological growing, is not a whole solution unless it embraces some of the original biodynamic principles of sacred agriculture, or any epistemology that links meaning to food. Thus the call for subtle agroecologies (Wright 2021) which marry the intrinsic spiritual connection to food and land with the pragmatic and urgent need to redesign our food systems for human and planetary flourishing.
This invites a deeper challenge to growers, producers, consumers and essentially all food eaters – to transform our relationship to food, self and place together. We are not only suffering from climate change, ecological crises and social struggles, but underpinning this all is the lostness of the human soul, and the disconnection crisis that is both causing so much destruction whilst holding back so much potential for human thriving with nature. If we tackle the surface challenges of climate, society and ecology without an active engagement and rediscovered relationship to place and meaning, we are essentially avoiding the real problem. This is not to say we should withdraw from the very real and practical issues at hand, but rather these issues must be tackled holistically underpinned by a spiritual adventure of reconnection and re-rooting in the bio-cultural significance of every mouthful of our food. Every item of food we grow, buy or trade casts an active vote for the world which we want to co-create. Once a tipping point of people, growers and communities make these choices, the ripple effects will be unstoppable and a momentous energy will be gathered behind the new food movement, rooted in place and reciprocity. The pace of change and shifts to industrial farming have been unprecedented and dislodged food sovereignty away from the people and away from indigenous land practices in a matter of a few short decades. This spiral effect can be initiated in multiple directions, and the food systems transformation we need now can be similarly catalysed in the direction of convivial food cultures in harmony with land.
The invitation to providential food cultures is not one of scarcity, sacrifice or loss – it is instead a doorway to a better quality of life, greater nourishment, more meaning, healthier relationships, fewer chronic diseases, seasonal living, higher energy and a feeling of spiritual abundance that comes with this new way of being with earth and each other. Many environmental narratives are so caught up in separation and shaming, guilt and blaming, but the gentle call back to place and belonging is one of empowerment, abundance, joy and celebration. The notion of belonging is inseparable from each mouthful of food we eat. Food and place have been falsely separated by globalised forces and supermarket foods empty of meaning and lacking in nourishment. The medicine to this is providential food that is alive and imbued with aliveness, connection and positive impact. It is not just the flavour, freshness and nutrition of local food, but the story behind it, the cultivation of relationships and the building of convivial community.