by Kevin Anderson - guardian.co.uk
Modern cities are disconnected from food prodution, making them unsustainable and vulnerable. Carolyn Steel says that food needs to return to the centre of our lives and cities.
Sometime in the last two years, the world crossed a threshold. For the first time in history, more people lived in cities than in rural areas.
For Carolyn Steel, it begs one of the great questions: How do you feed a city? We take food for granted, she says. We assume that it will magically always be there in our restaurants and supermarkets, but "it's remarkable that cities get fed at all."
We are as dependent on the natural world as our ancient ancestors were.
The modern world has become one of mega-cities and mega-farms. Modern cities and their residents have become far removed from the agriculture they depend on. She showed a huge soya field in Brazil with more than a dozen combine harvesters.
It takes 10 times the grain to feed a human being through meat than through eating the grain directly, but meat consumption and urbanism are rising hand in hand. The world loses 19m hectares of rain forest each year at the same time that 20m hectares of arable land are degraded. For every calorie we eat, it takes 10 calories to produce, and yet half of the food produced in the US is wasted
The great contradiction of our time is that a billion people are obese while at the same time a billion people are starving, she said.
"None of it makes much sense. Eighty percent of the trade of food is produced by five multinational corporations."
Ten thousand years ago, the fertile crescent gave rise to two inventions: Agriculture and urbanism. And those two innovations happened at roughly the same time. Cities need agriculture because it allows permanent settlements. Temples in cities were like centralised sacred food distribution centres, Steel said.
The city of Rome grew to one million people by the 1st Century AD because it had access to the sea and could transport food easily. She showed the network of what she called ancient food miles. Transporting food over roads was difficult and the food would have rotted by the time it went from areas of production to Rome. The Romans waged war on Carthage to get its hands on their grain.
It was one long drawn out militarised shopping spree.
Looking at London throughout the centuries, the city initially grew and developed based on its network of grain, fish and meat markets. Meat came from the northwest, Scotland and Wales so the markets are in that part of the city. Fish markets like Billingsgate were close to the river. Poultry came from east Anglia. You can still hear the echoes in the streets names like Lams Conduit or Friday Street where you bought fish on Friday.
This pattern of growth changed in 1840 with the construction of the Great Western railway. Many of its earliest passengers were animals, Steel said. It changed everything, allowing cities to grow to any shape or size; they were no longer constrained by geography."The industrial revolution took a city from food sustainability to what it is today, and disconnected cities from their core," she said. In 1840, London was easy to feed, but not by 1929. Then came cars.
Cars were the final emancipation of a city from any relationship to nature at all.
And it's changed our relationship to food. "We used to cook. Now we just add water." We fear food, and we are now dependent on systems that only large corporations can deliver.
She argued that we need to return food to the centre of life, the centre of family life and to the centre of our urban planning.
"We need to stop seeing cities as big metropolitan unproductive places. We need to think more about permaculture," she said. We can use food as a really powerful tool to make the world better.
If food was more central to our lives and our cities, how would cities look different? Do you grow your own food? Why did you start? Do you make your own meals? If so, why do you take the time?