How Food Can Save the World
By Carolyn Steel
Sitopia is the sequel to Hungry City. It explores the idea, first developed in Hungry City, that food shapes our lives, and asks what we can do with this knowledge in order to lead better ones. In essence, it is a practical, food-based philosophy.
Food is the most powerful medium available to us for thinking in a connected way about the numerous dilemmas we face today. For countless millennia, food has shaped our bodies, lives, societies and world. Its effects are so widespread and profound that most of us can’t even see them; yet it is as familiar to us as our own face. Food is the great connector – the staff of life and its readiest metaphor. It is this capacity to span worlds and ideas that gives food its unparalleled power. Food, you might say, is the most powerful tool for transforming our lives and world that we never knew we had.
While Hungry City explored how the journey of food through the city has shaped civilisations over time, Sitopia starts with a plate of food and travels out to the universe. Its structure thus consists of a series of overlapping scales, in which food is always central. Food animates our bodies, homes and societies, city and country, nature and time – seven scales that form the chapters in the book. This idea came from a drawing I did in 2011, in order to understand food’s place in our world. The drawing showed me how food’s effects at various scales interact in myriad interconnected ways. From the cultural norms into which we are born spring personal tastes and preferences that affect our individual health and pleasure, but also the vibrancy of local economies, global geopolitics and ecology. This interconnectivity made the book tricky to write, since every chapter overlapped with every other. As I wrote, however, a hidden structure began to reveal itself: as well as radiating out from food like ripples from a pond, the chapters, I realised, were mirrors of one another, so that Chapter 1 (Food) was mirrored by Chapter 7 (Time), in the sense that the former dealt primarily with life, while the latter was concerned with mortality. Similarly, Chapter 2 (Body) explores how out of synch with our world we have become, while Chapter 6 (Nature) offers a solution: to re-engage with the natural world. Chapter 3 (Home) examines our relative lack of a sense of belonging, while Chapter 5 (City and Country) shows how by rethinking the ways we inhabit land, we can regain our sense of home. It is not insignificant that this mirroring effect should have revolved around the central Chapter 4 (Society), which I came to realise was indeed pivotal, since the manner in which we share is key to all the rest.
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Sitopia by Carolyn Steel review – a utopian vision that begins with food
By Christopher Kissane
We are out of step with our planet, so how should we live? Cheap food is an oxymoron and anarchism’s time may have come, argues this wide-ranging, stimulating book
“Civilisation is in crisis,” warned the EAT-Lancet international commission of food scientists last year. “We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources. For the first time in 200,000 years of human history, we are severely out of synchronisation with the planet and nature.” We face climate crisis, ecological destruction, record obesity rates and rising hunger: food is threatening our future.
Carolyn Steel recognises these challenges, but she also sees food as “by far the most powerful medium available to us for thinking and acting together to change the world for the better”. By reconfiguring our relationship with food, she argues, we can find new and better ways of living that will arrest the damage we are doing to ourselves and the Earth.
Our world, Steel writes, is a “Sitopia”, a “food place” – from the Greek words sitos and topos – where everything from our environment to our societies to our bodies has been affected by our relationship with food, which “preceded us, anticipates us, sustains us”. It shapes our lives, but since its influence is so pervasive, we often fail to notice it. Thinking about its realities can also make us uncomfortable. We don’t want to know about the vast cruelty of industrialised meat and dairy production, the exploitation of migrant labourers, the deforestation and drought that are eating into the landscape of the global south, or how our addiction to processed foods is making us fat and ill.
The toxic core of our current conundrum is the lack of value we place on food. “Cheap food is an oxymoron,” Steel argues – low supermarket prices hide the costs of pollution, ecological destruction, poverty and obesity. She calls for a revelation of the true cost of food that will make industrial agriculture unaffordable and invigorate ecologically produced organic food, creating a “virtuous cycle” in which “the market would favour foods that nurtured nature, animals and people”.