Putting food at the center

15 July 2022

Food has accompanied the evolution of humanity on Earth, shaping the geography of the land and the places where we live. Its social relevance isn’t limited to physical spaces, but includes its impact on cultures, economies and politics.

Over time, alongside industrialization and increased ease of access, food has become a marginal element in our lives, and its perceived importance has decreased.

However, the war in Ukraine and the consequent food crisis, much like the climate crisis, bring into focus the impact of our disregard for food. These crises force us to recognize the necessity of regenerating a healthy relationship with the primary source of energy which we all need to live. We’re alive because we eat and feed ourselves. The first relationship we should hold dear to our hearts is that with food. Yet all too often we don’t give it its proper value, or we take it for granted.

In light of this situation it’s more important than ever to bring food back to the center, defining it as an operational space and course of action, so we can then take decisions that put us on the right trajectory to confront the multiple crises at hand. These themes are particularly dear to you, as you’ve dedicated two decades and have illustrated in your book Sitopia.

Can food provide solutions to global problems?

Carolyn Steel I agree with you. There’s so many things to say, beginning with the fact that we don’t give value to food and ignore its history. The importance of Ukraine for grain production goes back centuries. The pandemic and the war expose the fact that we’ve taken vital things for granted. At the same time they shine a light on the profound relationships which connect us across the world. This can stimulate collective action, reminding us of our common destiny as humans.

In the face of these common threats we can create a new epoch of global governance, where food plays the role of landscape builder, unifying bond between peoples and provider of solutions to global problems. The pandemic, like the war, make already-existing crises more visible and tangible (the destruction of ecosystems, the loss of biodiversity, the inequality in our globalized food system). And although the crises are alarming, they’re not too great for us to do anything about them.

Carolyn Steel Sitopia

Carolyn Steel and the conference on regenerating our cities

Carolyn Steel, architect and author Sitopia: how food can save the world, speaks at the Terra Madre conference Changing cities and models of regeneration on Friday, September 23 at 3.30 p.m. CET

More info here.

Food to restore balance

I refer to the need to restore balance in two fundamental relationships: the relationship with life and our relationships among humans. To make this happen food must be at the center, helping us in our comprehension and definition of what it means to live a good life, given its unique potential to give us pleasure and make us feel better. Food gives shape to our lives, allows to build solid relationships with the world around us, and has shaped the evolution of civilization.

Think how difficult it was to feed cities in the pre-industrial era, above all for questions of transport and preservation. Cities were of a more contained size, and more productive. On the other hand, Plato and Aristotle themselves believed that food self-sufficiency was a primary objective of the polis, which guaranteed the balance between the urban and rural contexts. From this idea of the function of food in modelling and defining spaces, not just physically but socially, I formulated the concept of “sitopia”, from the Greek sitos (food) and topos (place).

In the face of these common threats we can create a new epoch of global governance, where food plays the role of landscape builder, unifying bond between peoples and provider of solutions to global problems. The pandemic, like the war, make already-existing crises more visible and tangible (the destruction of ecosystems, the loss of biodiversity, the inequality in our globalized food system). And although the crises are alarming, they’re not too great for us to do anything about them.

Carolyn Steel

Taking the path of food sovereignty

Carlo Petrini What you say makes me think that we need to return to the path of food sovereignty, which is not a call for autarky as many mistakenly denounce. Food sovereignty means restoring dignity to subsistence production. We must be aware of the need to strengthen the local economy because that is where the participation of all citizens is demonstrated, from the defense of soils and the landscape to the protection of our historical memory. This is not autarky, but rather a way of reconnecting stability to local areas by reducing dependency on the outside.

By this I am not denying some of the virtues of the global system, but neither can I accept that the field of action for the corporate food supply chain is the entire world, and that the yardstick to measure success by is low cost produce. We need to get back to valuing food that is healthy, nutritious and also culturally appropriate; emphasizing the beneficial transformative power this can have for lives, economies and spaces.

Food to form collaborative networks

Carolyn Steel I think first of all we should address an ethical and moral issue. The current Western model is based on the assumption that food should be cheap. This is because in most cases what we eat comes from far away, and because there is someone who pays for costs that we cannot even imagine. If governments stopped subsidizing industrial agrifood production, and indeed internalized its sunk costs (deforestation, climate change, soil erosion, declining fish stocks), prices would rise rapidly. Before long, industrial food would come to cost as much as ecologically-produced food, or perhaps even more. If we really valued food and its territorial dimension, we could create new jobs, and this would lift many people out of poverty.

Food is the most vital element we have; putting it at the center of our economy would allow us to establish a harmonious relationship with nature, mend the ties between city and country, and enhance human connections. Thanks to movements like Slow Food, which show how food can be our guide for change, everything I have said seems less utopian. Then again, none of us existed before food: it preceded us, sustains us and will live after us. Food is an emotional element that binds us to our loved ones, and it remains our greatest hope for a prosperous sitopian future.

Carolyn Steel

Indeed, the agribusiness sector is labor-intensive, which, if valued properly, could be extremely rewarding; it connects us with nature, and with life. For this to happen, however, we must develop a different relationship with technology. No longer against nature and as a substitute for people, but as an aid to work the land in a more natural and less strenuous way. I do not want to sound too optimistic. I do think, however, that this could end ecological destruction, monopoly and slavery and enshrine the right of every living being to eat well. Through food, collaborative networks could be created and a more democratic society could be fostered.

Action from below

Carlo Petrini I would add that if we don’t act, the risk is that these good ideas are not then translated into behavior. So we have to take action from the bottom up because democracy does not exist if we citizens first and foremost do not practice it. And food is a perfect field in which to exercise our active citizenship. Every food we decide to eat is the result of political, economic, cultural and social dynamics that we citizens, through our daily choices, can help change for the better.

I would like this to be the message of regeneration that comes through strongly at Terra Madre. Because it is true that it’s event where we eat and have fun, but more importantly it’s an opportunity to reflect. Indeed, central to this festive dimension is the recognition that food and agriculture are political elements through which we can and must implement an economy that focuses on common goods, relational goods, and the protection of the environment and diversity in all their possible manifestations.

Food is a vital element

Carolyn Steel For change to be truly profound I think we should start with two things. The first is to bring oikonomia (the ancient Greek term for household management, which includes food) back into the economy. The second is to favor land reform that facilitates access by breaking down the concept of ownership, and instead charging a tax on its use. We come from centuries of capitalism and industrialization that have made us believe that nature is free, resources are infinite, and that a market left free to act is self-regulating. All these assumptions have proven to be false.

Food is the most vital element we have; putting it at the center of our economy would allow us to establish a harmonious relationship with nature, mend the ties between city and country, and enhance human connections. Thanks to movements like Slow Food, which show how food can be our guide for change, everything I have said seems less utopian. Then again, none of us existed before food: it preceded us, sustains us and will live after us. Food is an emotional element that binds us to our loved ones, and it remains our greatest hope for a prosperous sitopian future.

This dialog between Carlo Petrini and  Carolyn Steel was published in La Stampa on July 8, 2022

Terra Madre Salone del Gusto is in Parco Dora, Turin, from September 22-26, 2022, with over 600 exhibitors and a series of workshops, conferences and tastings that show how we can regenerate our planet through food. #TerraMadre2022 is a Slow Food event.