Feeding our sanity

Prince Charles explains why local food is healthy for our communities. “We no more want to eat anonymous junk food which can be bough anywhere.”

Prins Charles | May 2005 issue
I have always believed that agriculture is not only the oldest, but also the most important of humanity’s productive activities. It is the engine of rural employment and the foundation stone of culture, even of civilization itself. And this is not just some romantic vision of the past: today some 60 per cent of the four billion people living in developing countries are still working on the land.
So when I read “visions”, such as that for the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, for instance, which are based on transforming traditional, local agricultural economies into “powerhouses” of technological agriculture, based around monoculture, artificial fertilisers, pesticides and GM, my heart sinks. The missing ingredient in these great plans is always sustainable livelihoods. The one resource the developing world has in abundance is people, so why are we promoting systems of agriculture that negate this advantage and seem bound to contribute directly to further human misery and indignity?
It is a sobering thought that almost all of the next one billion of net global population growth (over the next twelve to fifteen years) will take place in urban slums. Even more sobering is the thought: what will these conditions breed for the future? Hopelessness, crime, extremism, terrorism?
Despite the best intentions of many, we have to face up to the fact that often the consequence of globalization is greater unsustainability. Left to its own devices, I fear that globalization will—ironically—sow seeds of ever-greater poverty, disease and hunger in the cities and the loss of viable, self-sufficient rural populations.
One of the arguments used by the “agricultural industrialists” is that it is only through intensification that we will be able to feed an expanded world population. But even without significant investment, and often in the face of official disapproval, improved organic practices have increased yields and outputs dramatically. A recent UN-FAO [United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization] study revealed that in Bolivia potato yields went up from four to fifteen tons per hectare. In Cuba, the vegetable yields of organic urban gardens almost doubled. In Ethiopia, which twenty years ago suffered appalling famine, sweet potato yields went up from six to thirty tons per hectare. In Kenya, maize (corn) yields increased from two-and-a-quarter to nine tons per hectare. And in Pakistan, mango yields have gone up from seven-and-a-half to twenty-two tons per hectare.
Imposing industrial farming systems on traditional agricultural economies is actively destroying both biological and social capital and eliminating the cultural identity which has its roots in working on the land. It is also fuelling the frightening acceleration of urbanization throughout the world and removing large parts of humanity from meaningful contact with Nature and the food that they eat.
So this “flight from the land” is happening in both developed and developing countries. Unfortunately, these trends towards urbanization are almost inevitable while societies throughout the world continue to put a low valuation on their food, denigrate food to the status of fuel and abandon any loyalty to their local and indigenous farmers.
But there is another consequence too. There is now a growing body of evidence that suggests that in the so-called developed world we are in the process of creating a nutritionally impoverished underclass—a generation which has grown up on highly processed fast food from intensive agriculture and for whom the future looks particularly bleak, both from a social and a health standpoint.
As Eric Schlosser has pointed out in his brilliant book Fast Food Nation, fast food is a recent phenomenon. The extraordinary centralization and industrialization of our food system has occurred over as little as twenty years. Fast food may appear to be cheap food, and in the literal sense it often is. But that is because huge social and environmental costs are being excluded from the calculations. Any analysis of the real costs would have to look at such things as the rise in food-borne illnesses, the advent of new pathogens such as E. coli 0157, antibiotic resistance from the overuse of drugs in animal feed, extensive water pollution from intensive agricultural systems and many other factors. These costs are not reflected in the price of fast food, but that doesn’t mean that our society isn’t paying them.
So perhaps, having said all this, you can begin to see why I am such an admirer of the Slow Food Movement. Slow food is traditional food. It is also local—and local cuisine is one of the most important ways we identify with the place and region where we live. It is the same with the buildings in our towns, cities and villages. Well-designed places and buildings that relate to locality and landscape and that put people before cars enhance a sense of community and rootedness. All these things are connected. We no more want to live in anonymous concrete blocks that are just like anywhere else in the world than we want to eat anonymous junk food which can be bought anywhere. At the end of the day, values such as sustainability, community, health and taste are more important than pure convenience. We need to have distinctive and varied places and distinctive and varied food in order to retain our sanity, if nothing else.
Adapted from an address given at the Terre Madre (literally Mother Earth) convention in Turin, Italy, last October that was attended by 4000 farmers from 130 nations. More information on Slow Food: www.slowfood.com.
 

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Feeding our sanity

Prince Charles explains why local food is healthy for our communities. “We no more want to eat anonymous junk food which can be bough anywhere.”

Prins Charles | May 2005 issue
I have always believed that agriculture is not only the oldest, but also the most important of humanity’s productive activities. It is the engine of rural employment and the foundation stone of culture, even of civilization itself. And this is not just some romantic vision of the past: today some 60 per cent of the four billion people living in developing countries are still working on the land.
So when I read “visions”, such as that for the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, for instance, which are based on transforming traditional, local agricultural economies into “powerhouses” of technological agriculture, based around monoculture, artificial fertilisers, pesticides and GM, my heart sinks. The missing ingredient in these great plans is always sustainable livelihoods. The one resource the developing world has in abundance is people, so why are we promoting systems of agriculture that negate this advantage and seem bound to contribute directly to further human misery and indignity?
It is a sobering thought that almost all of the next one billion of net global population growth (over the next twelve to fifteen years) will take place in urban slums. Even more sobering is the thought: what will these conditions breed for the future? Hopelessness, crime, extremism, terrorism?
Despite the best intentions of many, we have to face up to the fact that often the consequence of globalization is greater unsustainability. Left to its own devices, I fear that globalization will—ironically—sow seeds of ever-greater poverty, disease and hunger in the cities and the loss of viable, self-sufficient rural populations.
One of the arguments used by the “agricultural industrialists” is that it is only through intensification that we will be able to feed an expanded world population. But even without significant investment, and often in the face of official disapproval, improved organic practices have increased yields and outputs dramatically. A recent UN-FAO [United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization] study revealed that in Bolivia potato yields went up from four to fifteen tons per hectare. In Cuba, the vegetable yields of organic urban gardens almost doubled. In Ethiopia, which twenty years ago suffered appalling famine, sweet potato yields went up from six to thirty tons per hectare. In Kenya, maize (corn) yields increased from two-and-a-quarter to nine tons per hectare. And in Pakistan, mango yields have gone up from seven-and-a-half to twenty-two tons per hectare.
Imposing industrial farming systems on traditional agricultural economies is actively destroying both biological and social capital and eliminating the cultural identity which has its roots in working on the land. It is also fuelling the frightening acceleration of urbanization throughout the world and removing large parts of humanity from meaningful contact with Nature and the food that they eat.
So this “flight from the land” is happening in both developed and developing countries. Unfortunately, these trends towards urbanization are almost inevitable while societies throughout the world continue to put a low valuation on their food, denigrate food to the status of fuel and abandon any loyalty to their local and indigenous farmers.
But there is another consequence too. There is now a growing body of evidence that suggests that in the so-called developed world we are in the process of creating a nutritionally impoverished underclass—a generation which has grown up on highly processed fast food from intensive agriculture and for whom the future looks particularly bleak, both from a social and a health standpoint.
As Eric Schlosser has pointed out in his brilliant book Fast Food Nation, fast food is a recent phenomenon. The extraordinary centralization and industrialization of our food system has occurred over as little as twenty years. Fast food may appear to be cheap food, and in the literal sense it often is. But that is because huge social and environmental costs are being excluded from the calculations. Any analysis of the real costs would have to look at such things as the rise in food-borne illnesses, the advent of new pathogens such as E. coli 0157, antibiotic resistance from the overuse of drugs in animal feed, extensive water pollution from intensive agricultural systems and many other factors. These costs are not reflected in the price of fast food, but that doesn’t mean that our society isn’t paying them.
So perhaps, having said all this, you can begin to see why I am such an admirer of the Slow Food Movement. Slow food is traditional food. It is also local—and local cuisine is one of the most important ways we identify with the place and region where we live. It is the same with the buildings in our towns, cities and villages. Well-designed places and buildings that relate to locality and landscape and that put people before cars enhance a sense of community and rootedness. All these things are connected. We no more want to live in anonymous concrete blocks that are just like anywhere else in the world than we want to eat anonymous junk food which can be bought anywhere. At the end of the day, values such as sustainability, community, health and taste are more important than pure convenience. We need to have distinctive and varied places and distinctive and varied food in order to retain our sanity, if nothing else.
Adapted from an address given at the Terre Madre (literally Mother Earth) convention in Turin, Italy, last October that was attended by 4000 farmers from 130 nations. More information on Slow Food: www.slowfood.com.
 

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