The quip is an affectionate lampoon of my step-father, who for as long as I’ve known him has never eyed a piece of meat on the Sunday lunch table without asking precisely that question.
The answer from my mother, reliably met with an approving nod, is invariably “Doug’s,” referring to the butcher in the village who supplies (and kills) locally farmed meat.
Whether retired Herefordshire farmer’s meal-time ritual or recent fashion among middle-class foodies, determining the provenance of our food carries a meaning and historic significance belied by family frivolity. Not only is the enquiry critical to ensuring the quality of our sustenance, it also harks back to a culture in which every community was shaped by and connected to the local ecology, climate and landscape through the food it consumed.
We might feel wistful that the forces of globalisation have eroded if not obliterated this relationship for most of us, but at least we can console ourselves that we don’t starve because of it.
Societies still living closer to nature are not so lucky.
A recent report castigating the world’s governments for failing to ensure that indigenous communities have legal rights to their land has triggered justifiably strong criticism. Not only have these communities often developed and held on to a deep understanding of how to live in mutually beneficial exchange with their land – from which we can learn a great deal – this direct connection is also, literally, all they have.
For those who live by small-scale farming, nomadic pastoralism or hunting, failing to enshrine land rights means they can be cut off from their means of survival at a whim, as indeed they are, often as a result of the greedy manœuvrings of government-backed corporate expansionism.
It is common in development circles to diagnose the precarious situation of such communities, and others who for various reasons cannot rely on their current or future food supply, by saying they lack “food security,” a phrase coined in the 1970s by the World Health Organisation. Its definition has subsequently evolved as a result of input from international bodies such as the United Nations and the Food and Agriculture Organisation; the most comprehensive appears to be that agreed at the World Food Summit, 1996 [PDF], which says that people are food secure when they have, at all times, “physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
Achieving food security, clearly an important moral imperative, depends on different factors depending on region and culture. For indigenous people not enmeshed in the money economy, entitlements to the land that provides their food are critical. Those of us in wealthy, modern societies need entitlements too but these tend to be defined in terms of economics. Having money gives us the leverage to buy food: a straightforward piece of logic.
It’s a strange sort of security, though, when the flow of food to our bellies depends on the continuation of a complex and fragile system of global capital exchange beyond our control, alongside an energy-intensive, just-in-time food delivery infrastructure and increasingly, cripplingly unjust national employment and welfare systems that are impoverishing growing numbers of people.
It’s a strange sort of security too that depends on a system that siphons off nutritional resources from some parts of the planet and delivers them to others, never replenishing the former, nor closing the circles or correcting the imbalances.
This one-way flow is illustrated clearly in a recent survey showing that the wealthier countries of the world use more ecological resource than is provided by their own land base, and the poorer use less.
Entitlements and indebtedness
Those of us fortunate to live in the richer countries must face up to a gross, collective ecological indebtedness: thanks to the ability of our region’s political, financial and corporate institutions to wield their collective economic power, our countries extract and deplete the biophysical resources of poorer regions of the planet, while pushing their land-based people out of the way.
Not only must we feel ashamed and embarrassed by this, we must also ask how long it can continue. Nature does not work linearly.
Those all-too-familiar culprits, the humanity-organising abstractions we call corporations (but that live and breathe anaerobically by profit alone) are not only responsible for myriad, well-documented environmental and social privations, but are also guilty of having exploited a convenient loophole in the idea of food security to wriggle right into the food web, take advantage of human needs and subvert the natural flows of energy and nutrition, like clots in the arteries of life.
This loophole derives from the fact that the definition of food security includes access to the economics but omits access to the source.
Thus transnational corporations can take control of the supply of seeds, agricultural chemicals, equipment, the food itself and even the soil, become bloated from top-skimming the profits, and consign the world’s population, including the well-off, to a level of dependency on precarious, coercive systems of extraction without being accused of threatening food security — thanks to the contention that as long as we too take part in the system of financial trickery, our food security is in the bag.
And so we are meant to feel both lucky and guilty, which keeps us under control, for there is no child so quiet as one who will get more than her fair share of chocolate — as long as she doesn’t mention it to anyone.
This system of abuse and pacification not only inflicts a brutal injustice on the poor; it is also an insult to those of us currently more comfortably off.
A counter awareness is growing, however, demonstrated by the steady growth of the movement for food sovereignty. Similar to, but significantly different from food security, food sovereignty is described as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”
Note, at the end of this phrase, the sound of a loophole snapping firmly shut, the accompanying sense of liberation and possibility, and the satisfying poke in the eye to the corporate clots.
Unsurprisingly, global power players are inclined to sideline or ignore calls for food sovereignty but its appeal is clear to the world’s small scale farmers, indigenous people, peasants and fisher folk. Since its inception around 20 years ago it has gained traction across the global south and spread to wealthier parts of the world too, as farmers in Europe and North America recognise its pertinence to their own vulnerabilities in the shadow of the global corporate system. The concept’s most prominent advocate, and the organisation that coined the term, is La Via Campesina — which translates from the Spanish as The Peasants’ Way — an international network of around 150 organisations representing small-scale food producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities.
UK-based member of La Via Campesina The Landworkers’ Alliance is currently caught up in the final planning stages for the 2nd National Food Sovereignty Gathering, which takes place at the end of this month in Yorkshire — and is already sold out, such is the interest from the country’s food producers.
At its most effective the food sovereignty movement harnesses grassroots momentum to wield political influence that can result in sweeping change.
To the predictable consternation of certain governments and corporations, some countries — such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Mali and Nepal — have incorporated food sovereignty into their national policies.
One of the most interesting examples is Venezuela, which in 1999 began a process of social and political transformation that, among other things, established a secure national food supply based on a programme of land reform, community projects and sustainable agriculture, and liberated its people from dependence on food imports from powerful transnational companies.
Here in the more economically developed world we would be wise to recognise that we are subject to the same depredations at the hands of corporate agribusiness as are people elsewhere and, rather than feeling guilty or lucky about our present situation, to join the push for change.
For as long as we buy our food from the global conveyor belt we are depending on lands beyond our reach for our sustenance; some distant, some closer to home. Either way we have no control over what is produced from those lands, nor how, nor over the associated impacts on ecology, our diets and our bodies.
International trade agreements, corporate land grabs (in Europe too), agricultural policies and subsidies that favour huge industrial farms and, especially in the UK, a long standing and deeply entrenched system of elite land ownership mean that our influence on the dominant food and agriculture system in our countries has to date been almost non-existent.
In the UK, in fact, we have long been dispossessed. The result, thanks to a messy and protracted divorce from the land, is that we are simultaneously spoon-fed and deprived, while recognising neither. Unknowingly, we miss the sense of security, connection, belonging and shared future that comes from intimate connections between our communities and the diverse living landscapes that grow them.
Messed up microbes
Our microbiomes, which evolve alongside and are geared to digest the foods in our region, are depleted and confused; our innards trying to navigate an incoherent ecology that’s ill-matched to that perceived on the outside. We have lost whole dimensions of the human experience; something visceral and vivid in the present, but also a sense of the past, the future, of being rooted, of belonging biologically.
Rather than wasting energy feeling guilty about our relative food fortunes, we can instead be proud and forthright.
And, for a minute, we can get angry. Angry that we’ve been tricked into playing the part of grateful gimp in the hunger games of an abusive feeder; angry at the buried pain that comes from living at the expense of our fellow humans and other beloved creatures around the other side of the world, or in the next village. Angry that we’ve been ripped from land to which we historically rightfully belong — and cut off from its pleasures, mysteries and finely-tuned seasonal sustenance. Angry that this land and its plants and creatures are being wrecked while we’re prevented from following our instincts to protect them.
The fact is that there can be no genuine food security, for any of us, without food sovereignty.
With that in mind, we can get creative about our shared liberation, and quietly or noisily rebel, in the kitchen, the garden, the hedgerows, the shops and in social gatherings.
The means to short-circuit the corporate food superhighways are well known — support local, organic farmers, join community food projects, grow our own, forage wild foods, conserve and ferment. But we might implement them with more discipline and determination when strengthened by the knowledge that these are not simply private choices but acts of intentional solidarity with land, nature, heritage and with everyone in the world fighting for food independence.
And with our newly opened eyes and mouths we might recognise and honour the contributions of those brave enough to go public with their own campaigns — and perhaps find a voice with which to support them.
They are many and courageous, these organisers of land and food movements, camps, conferences and projects. Often vilified by the establishment and press, they deserve proper recognition for doing some of the most deceptively important work on the planet: fighting to reclaim a place for humanity within its ecological diversity.