Sitopia

Rebuilding our lives through food after COVID

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What will life be like after COVID? Whatever the answers to that question may be, one thing is for sure: it will not go back to the status quo. The greatest social disruptor since WWII, the virus has raised health concerns and fundamental questions about how we live, most of which were urgent before the virus struck, yet which now appear in even starker relief.

Paramount among them is the question of our relationship with nature. As the origins of the virus in a Chinese wet market suggests, that relationship is dangerously out of kilter. Industrial food production has critically weakened biodiversity, while our inexorable encroachment on wilderness has exposed us to new disease. Experts have long warned of such dangers, yet, for many in the West it was only when supermarket shelves were stripped bare at the onset of lockdown that the threat became real. In that moment, the illusion of effortless plenty was shattered—and with it, came a new realisation of the fragility of our food system, and thus our place on earth.

One irony of the pandemic is that it has achieved what years of political posturing has failed to do: make us fundamentally question our way of life and health concerns. Like all crises, it has taught us many things: the supreme power of nature and our utter dependence on it, our local and global connectedness, the importance of good leadership, cooperation and truth-telling, the true value of the “key workers” (the clue was always in the name) who sustain our lives.

Food is the at centre of health concerns.
Growing food in cities, Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm, New York. Photo © Ben Flanner

Perhaps most importantly, it has given us the breathing space to ask what really matters in life and what really makes us happy. As the Stoics realised centuries ago, nothing reveals more clearly what is most precious to us than the imminent threat of its loss. The most valuable thing that could come out of this pandemic is that we should learn these lessons, and rebuild our lives around them.

As I argue in my recent book Sitopia: How Food Can Save The World, there is no better way of doing this than through food. As COVID has reminded us all too clearly, we live in a world shaped by food: our bodies, habits, homes, cities, landscapes, economics and politics have all been moulded by it. We live in a sitopia, (food-place, from the Greek sitos, food + topos, place), but it’s one built on complacency. We’ve based our lives around the premise of cheap food; yet when you stop to think that food consists of living things that we nurture and kill in order to live, it soon becomes clear, what this equates to is cheap values. To cheapen food, in short, is to cheapen life. Climate change, mass extinction, deforestation, soil depletion, pollution, zoonotic pandemics and diet-related disease (the latter of which represent most of the “underlying health conditions” that make us so vulnerable to COVID) are just some of the externalities that result from the way we feed ourselves. If we are to rebuild our lives better, it follows that we’re going to need a very different relationship with food.

Here too, the pandemic is showing us the way. The closure of cafes, restaurants and takeaways under lockdown has led to an unlikely food renaissance in the UK, with numerous people discovering the joy of taking time over food, baking bread and growing their own fruit and vegetables, cooking more with their families and sharing food with neighbours. In the professional food world, chefs have been cooking for schools and charities, and local producers have created new supply chains selling directly to customers.

Urban agriculture could be a new way of producing healthy food and facing environmental health concerns.
MVRDV, Masterplan for Almere Oosterwald, a site that encourages free design and construction with at least 59% of land reserved for urban agriculture. Image courtesy of MVRDV Architects

While the food renaissance has by no means been universal—many have suffered economically and the use of foodbanks has risen sharply—there is evidence that, given the opportunity, many would embrace a very different, more locally-based lifestyle, with more time spent at home and less spent commuting. In one survey by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, 42% of those interviewed said that they valued food more since lockdown and just 9% said they wanted life to back to the way it was before. Estate agents, meanwhile, report a surge of interest in properties in the countryside.

Whatever happens in the future, this cultural shift provides a generational opportunity to rebalance our lives. With the right political vision, we can build on this moment to rethink our relationship with nature and recalibrate the urban/rural relationship at its core. Rather than dash about like hamsters in the consumerist wheel of doom, we can create a new landscape for human and nonhuman flourishing, based on regenerative farming, more regional, seasonal food systems, closer ties between city and country and more flexible and adaptable buildings in which to live, work, grow and play. Social resurgence has always revolved around food; the shared problem of how to eat, after all, was how we evolved as a species. It is only in times of scarcity that we remember what food really is. As both the stuff of life and its readiest metaphor; food is the most powerful tool for reshaping the world that we never knew we had.

Main image: The industrial food systems that weaken biodiversity. Photo Reinhold Mölller/CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

 

Ted Talk Carolyne Steel. How Food shapes our cities.

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