NNo subject is more important and none is so shrouded in myth and wishful thinking. The way we eat is the key to surviving this century, as no other sector is as harmful. Yet, thanks to the power of comforting illusions, we can hardly begin to discuss it objectively.
Food has the extraordinary ability to turn even the most progressive of people into reactionaries. People who would accept any amount of social and political change can react with anger when you suggest that our diet should change. Stranger still, there is a chasm between ultra-conservative beliefs about what we should eat and the behavior of people who hold such beliefs. I’ve heard that people on a diet (Thai one day, Mexican the next, Mediterranean the day after) whose variety of ingredients wouldn’t recognize anyone’s great, great, great grandmother, and an all the better life for it.
Something is blocking us, a deep repression that stands in the way of an honest conversation. It urges food writers, celebrity chefs, and some environmentalists to propose answers to the planetary crisis that are even more damaging than the problems they claim to be tackling. Their solutions, such as pasture meat with its enormous land requirements, cannot be scaled up without destroying the remaining wild ecosystems: there simply aren’t enough planets. What is this inhibition and how does it arise?
It’s been a year since I published Regenesis, a book that caused shocking fury even to me. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what makes people so angry. I think that’s because the book challenges what cognitive historian Jeremy Lent calls a “root metaphor”: an idea so ingrained in our minds that it influences our preferences without us consciously knowing it .
The basic metaphor in this case is the love affair of King Charles III. illustrated with Transylvania, recently examined in the New Statesman. What he found there “was a perfectly bottled model of life before modernity”. “It is the timelessness that is so important,” the king is said to have said. “The landscape almost resembles the stories you read as a child.”
Agriculture in Transylvania looks (or until recently looked like it) as it “should” look like: tiny villages where cows with their calves, ducks with their chicks and cats with their kittens share the dirt road with rosy-cheeked farmers , riding horses and carts; Alpine pastures where sheep graze and people mow the grass and build cone-shaped haystacks. In other words, as the king remarked, it looks like a children’s book.
A notable number of books for preschool children deal with livestock farming. The farms they envision do not resemble the industries that produce the meat, dairy, and eggs we eat, which are generally places of horror. The stories they tell are a version of an ancient pastoral idyll with its animals, built up over millennia in pastoral poetry and religious traditions. Keeping livestock in this idyll is a place of safety, harmony and security that we subconsciously delve into in times of uneasiness.
Much of the discussion of food and agriculture in public life seems to be an attempt to recreate that happy place. Indeed, many of the proposed solutions to the global food crisis are aimed at reviving medieval production systems – to feed a 21st-century population. It can’t end well.
For example, there is now a passion among foodies for free-range chicken farming. Chickens, the new romantics suggest, should follow the grazing cattle and eat the insects that feed on their dung. As in the children’s books, farm animals of different species interact. But the chicken is a non-native, omnivorous bird of the pheasant family. Just as we’re beginning to see the damage done to the land by the release of pheasants—they’re impacted by young snakes, frogs, caterpillars, spiders, and saplings—the nostalgic seek to do the same with chickens. To the extent that chickens are self-feeding in such systems, they feed on wild animals. In reality, they cannot survive that way, so they continue to subsist on soy, which is often grown in Brazil’s former rainforest and cerrado savannah.
That’s what happens when people see the pictures and not the numbers. A scene that reminds us of our safe place at the dawn of consciousness serves as a model for how we should be nourished, whether or not it is scalable. Bucolic romance may seem harmless. But if implemented, it will result in widespread starvation, ecological destruction, or both. Our Arcadian fantasies devour the planet.
Fairytale farming never worked the way the romantics claim. Widespread meat consumption in the 19th century was only made possible by the colonization and evacuation of Australia and America and the creation of a global system that sucked meat into wealthy nations, largely through the British Empire. The cattle and sheep farming that provided our supposedly traditional diet led to the dispossession of tribal peoples and the destruction of ecosystems on a large scale, a process that continues to this day. Questioning the history that hides these grim realities is perceived as an assault on our identity.
Real solutions to our global food crises are neither pretty nor comforting. They inevitably involve factories, and we all hate factories, don’t we? In reality, almost everything we eat has passed through at least one factory (probably several) on the way to our plates. We categorically deny this, which is why in the US, where 95% of the population eats meat, a survey found that 47% wanted a ban on slaughterhouses.
The answer is not: more fields, which means more wild ecosystems will be destroyed. Some of these are better, more compact, cruelty-free and pollution-free factories. Among the best options, horror upon horror, is the shift from breeding multicellular organisms (plants and animals) to breeding single-celled creatures (microbes), which allows us to do much more with much less.
King Charles would no doubt hate that. But there are 8 billion people to feed and a planet to restore, and neither is achievable with restrained imaginations. I have questioned a cruel, polluting, and self-destructive mainstream agricultural model on the one hand, and an idyllic daydream that would lead us to the twin catastrophes of agricultural sprawl and world hunger on the other. It’s hard to decide which is worse.
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