Letters from Lockdown: Food is life – if we treat it as cheap, we cheapen life itself, writes Carolyn Steel
Whatever our world looks like post-COVID-19, one thing is for sure: it won’t be a return to business as usual. Although a global catastrophe, the pandemic represents a timely opportunity to reconsider how we live; a task that threats such as climate change and mass extinction made urgent even before the virus struck.
As I argue in my recent book Sitopia (food-place), there is no better way to do this than through the lens of food. The greatest force shaping our lives, food binds us to one another and to the natural world. The fact that the current pandemic started in a Chinese wildlife wet market tells its own story: our relationship with nature is dangerously out of kilter.
Monocultural industrial food production has dangerously weakened biodiversity, while our encroachment on wilderness exposes us to new disease. In the West, we have also seen how fragile our food systems really are, with empty supermarket shelves and warnings from farmers that, without migrant labour, crops will rot in the ground.
“The fact that the current pandemic started in a Chinese wildlife wet market tells its own story: our relationship with nature is dangerously out of kilter”
Yet positive stories have come out of the crisis too, in the shape of people sharing food with neighbours, celebrity chefs cooking for schools and producers collaborating to create new supply networks virtually overnight. Such rapid responses aren’t new: they also happened after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where food-based social networks sprang up that still exist today. I call this ‘disaster democracy’: the discovery, in adversity, of what really matters in life: health, safety, love, neighbourliness – and food.
The virus that is killing us has also done us a favour, by reminding us of what a good life really means. If we are to thrive in the future, we shall need more resilient, localised, seasonal food systems; more flexible local supply networks and stronger links between city and country.
Social resurgence almost always revolves 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. Food is life: if we treat it as cheap, we cheapen life itself.
Carolyn Steel, April 2020
Carolyn Steel is a leading thinker on food and cities. Based in London, she is the author of Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives (2008) and Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World (2020)