Never has the act of eating had more global ripples and significance for our earth-human trajectory. We sit at a curious crossroads of humanity, where we have the choice of whether to save ourselves from the brink of collapse, ecological crisis and the socio-political unravelling of our collective story. The food we eat and its consequences for land, ecology and power, are at the heart of the global challenges we face and yet the solutions are rooted in the place-based, day-to-day return to simplicity and gratitude. This post explores how and why the food we grow & eat plays a core role in shaping the humanity (or non-humanity) of tomorrow. The food systems we collectively create and support will be key anchors for the regeneration and bridge building from the edge of the cliff edge. An edge we have been driven towards by a profit-centric economy, a corrupt food system and a monocultural global development trajectory. This exploration weaves together this unfortunate reality of today with the emerging story of hope and possibility for tomorrow. The debate of doom/gloom vs optimism is no longer useful, as each polarity is disempowering and lacks wholeness, when the truth lies in the pragmatic facing of today’s crises, armed with an active hope and truth-force for our collective renewal. A tricky bridge to build, but essential for collective flourishing within our beautiful ecological container.
I studied International Development with Economics for 4 years, and then/now Regenerative Food and Farming. The link between the two might not be obvious, but as time unfolds I am finding and living the synergies in these fields of inquiry, the global and the local looping back into each other like the dance of swallows. Food & land use remains the largest contributing sector to greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and water/land pollution (UN 2021). Global food systems link the world across boundaries with unequal power dynamics, offshored responsibility and multiple dependencies (Sachs 1992). Farmers don’t get paid enough to live whilst eaters do not get paid enough to eat well, a lose-lose situation for all but a few beneficiaries, who are probably not such happy beans either, swamped with shareholder pressure and corporate culture. These systems are incredibly intertwined with the biggest industries on earth; fossil fuels, big pharma and big Ag, so much so that a small number of corporations dominate all 3 spheres and currently have greater power than any nation, movement or democratic body (Shiva 2006). The global development trajectory has so far followed colonial models of ‘modernisation’ (Rostow 2005), that has led the ‘developed’, often Western, countries to drive the entire earth system to tipping point, exacerbate inequalities and extract from the Global South.
This ‘development’ path has had huge impact, and yet it is only in its infancy, as the majority world begins their own modernisation trends, often following Western models through their media popularisation and aided by mainstream development and investment bodies, not to mention corporations aiming to expand markets and sell more to the majority world. If the majority world choose (or are forced down) this development trajectory of the West, then we would need 7 or more planets to sustain Earth (Rockstrom 2009). So thank goodness we have the space exploration/colonisation and techno-optimist solutions from the Silicone Valley’s and Elon Musk’s of the world (!). The techno-optimists will not lead us to a beautiful world, and yet they are holding a lot of the power right now. Appropriate Technology can for sure be part of the solution, if used as a tool rather than a master, and subsidiary to the natural life forces that sustain and nourish us (Schumacher 1997). So, without a techno-miracle ‘solution’, the requirement of 7+ earth’s resources presents a super wicked problem, as the majority world will rightly say they can follow the West’s path to power and wealth if they choose. However, this path has not led many people in the Western world to happiness, nor equal wealth, and serves only to benefit a small minority of people with already bountiful power and wealth, whilst destroying future generations’ chance to live well. The mental health epidemics in the West and the cost of living crisis, fuel poverty, rampant inequality and technology addicted generation are just some indicators that this path might not be the wisest to follow, even if we could miraculously conjure up 7 additional planets to deplete.
The question remains, if not this model of ‘development’, what might we choose? There are clues in the past, in ancient history of cultures who have flourished through extreme times (e.g. see ‘Stories of Stone’ documentary, or Murray Bookchin’s work, 2002, 2018), and there are clues on the edges of society today; healthy, happy cultures of simplicity and reciprocity, communities of resistance and regeneration. It is not the responsibility of the majority world to trial and take the risk to explore these alternatives whilst the wealthy countries continue to extract from them (and from Earth). This responsibility lies in a fundamental obligation of all of us, equally caught up in unequal systems, to both challenge unjust power and to create new grassroots forms of power. The challenging and oppositional work is essential, to slow down the destruction, to withdraw the exploitation, to make reparations, to withdraw our support and implicitness within these systems – all difficult endeavours that require collective organisation and power rather than just individual shifts/choices (although we need both!). Challenging the global food system and its extractive power hierarchies are one way to carry out this work, as La Via Campesina, Landworkers Alliance and many other movements are doing (albeit without enough support or numbers).
The requirement of 7 planets to sustain a ‘developed’ population of 10-15 billion is modelled from today’s destructive food and energy systems, rather than regenerative, renewable and fair systems. Given that we waste one third of food and 1 billion suffer from overweight-related illnesses, whilst 1 billion are malnourished, and meanwhile food rots in siloes to increase stockmarket value of a commodity (Shiva 2016), it is clear that the food system is broken in the hands of a few corporations rather than the people and communities who eat. This is one reason why community supported agriculture flips the paradigm, and why local food resilience and autonomous regional food systems are so important, globally and locally. The magic in this is that we can think global and eat local, and the very acts of supporting/co-creating regional food webs has international ripples. We don’t need to do away with global trade or exchange entirely, but to re-write how it works, beyond increasingly empty labels of fair trade and free range, we need to support and build truly regenerative and reciprocal supply webs across borders whilst sourcing the majority of our food resilience regionally. This needs a fair transition, where reparations are made globally and land/power is returned to the hands of communities in those places that have become commodity production for the west. These can be sites for healing and regeneration, for greater food resilience for these regions, for creating new models of ‘development’ led by the communities inhabiting these lands to take this in whatever direction feels right to them, and to be supported in this through a true global solidarity movement.
There are many counter stories being woven, that take us away from the cliff edge of mainstream development theories, or rather build a bridge across the chasm into a more beautiful, abundant world. Stories of true human happiness, joy and connected quality of life emerging from simple, cross-cultural and universal acts of humanity: generosity, sharing food, community, growing, music and togetherness. Food is central to this. We have witnessed the power of food in cultural and psychological shifts in our bioregion already, with the rise of Community Supported Agriculture and the direct supply from farm to home (delivered by electric bike!). The reconnection to food of place, to seasons, to farmers/landworkers, to recipe sharing, to guilt-free food, to health and to abundance. All the while this can benefit the land, increase biodiversity, sequester carbon, provide meaningful livelihoods and regenerate life in many forms. These ‘emerging’ local models are often age-old threads, both ancestral to our place here in the once-wild isles of Britain, and rooted even deeper in older cultures in Asia and Africa. Local food cultures and communities of reciprocity were central pillars in so many places that the global development agenda has shattered (Sachs 1992). The tool for this shattering of culture has often been the global food system, by enforcing commodity crops, land grabs, deforestation and displacement (Escobar 2005). The drive to supply monoculture commodities of food via the ‘Green Revolution’ has originated in the global food economy’s model of profit first and people/planet last, framed within development and colonisation, its been an unstoppable force for too long. These are huge trends to reverse, and this can at first feel disempowering or out of our control. This illusion of disempowerment has arisen from the same economic forces as above, that situate us humans as consumers rather than citizens or custodians.
The empowering answer to this is to reclaim our custodianship in right relationship, re-write our food systems and come together as communities to build the new systems in the shell of the old. This comes in many forms, from energy to housing to community to lifestyle, and it transects almost every field of human actions, so all of our actions matter, as do our choices of where we put our energy and work. These actions take on real power when they enter the collective to confront the old dominant systems and/or create new models in these decaying shells. Thinking globally and eating locally is about restoring our identities as citizens of place, beings of this valley and custodians of her lands and waters. The more we can invite, spark and support regional food webs of resilience, produced with love and respect, the more likely we are to shift the trajectories of our species, as these collective actions ripple outwards and rootwards. We also need to build these systems with patience and understanding, for we are relearning so much, battling through systemic inertia and finding our way once again. So the developing of alternatives and new models will not be an easy, utopian or sunshine-rainbows walk in the park. And it won’t be perfect. But it will be whole, and rich with continual learning, inner growth, deep community building, joy, hope and renewed purpose in our day-to-day lives, with every seed sown and every delicious bite we eat.
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