We know civilisation is in crisis when we can’t ensure everyone has access to sufficient, healthy, sustainable, affordable food.
When you next tuck into a sausage sandwich or a salad, pause for a minute. Think about everything that’s gone into getting that food to your plate – the ingredients, the many hands they have passed through, the energy and water used, the hard work, the kilometres travelled, whether any animals involved are likely to have lived a good life…
Food really does matter. The food sector is both responsible for, and deeply affected by, the multiple crises we face – from climate breakdown to biodiversity loss, from inequality and low pay to obesity, from hunger to the plight of billions of farmed animals. But food can be a source of joy and comfort, bringing together people and communities. It is commonly key in religious and cultural practices, and it can transcend cultures. As anthropologist Margaret Visser argued in ‘The Rituals of Dinner’, our eating habits express our sense of hierarchy, how we manage violence, and whether we prioritise the individual or the communal. And of course food provides sustenance.
One definition of ‘civil’ is ‘relating to ordinary citizens and their concerns’. Yet in industrial food and farming, we are too often treated only as consumers, not as ordinary (food) citizens. In this way, our own power is constrained or hidden, often at the end of long food chains. The flawed model of consumerism assumes that a finite planet can sustain infinite growth. Spoiler: it can’t and we can’t. We can’t just keep producing and selling more stuff. The existing consumer model has had devastating implications for people, animals and planet, and prevents radical positive change in our food systems.
In the consumer version of the story, our power is limited to what we buy, the shops we can get to and the size of our wallet, meaning those in poverty can’t participate. Those unable to buy food, lacking either funds or access, often have no choice but to cut back severely or rely on food charity, with limited, if any, choice in what they receive. As well as denying that person agency in what they and their family eat, this creates an ‘us and them’ dynamic between those providing charity and those needing it, leaving little room for dignity, choice and empowerment. It also usually leads to poor health, in the short and longer term, as it’s almost impossible to eat healthily with a donated food diet. In a consumerist society, we often feel helpless to address the big challenges of our time, leading to inaction or ill-thought-through actions.
Issues relating to food are complex and the solutions almost always not clear cut. Food ethics are the questions we should ask of our food and the systems which provide it. We encourage people to consider the question ‘what should we do, all things considered?’ If we think through potential consequences of key decisions about food – whether taken in the boardroom, in your village hall or on the farm – we’re more likely to make better ‘in the round’ decisions with fairer outcomes. And we’re likely to make better big decisions if we involve people, rather than impose on them.
The good news is that a forward-thinking path is emerging: that of food citizenship, which envisions and creates a way for everyone to truly participate in fairer food systems. At its core is the belief that people care about people, about animals and about the planet. To nourish that instinct, we need meaningful power that can bring about change. In addition, we need the support of a community to thrive. When we think of ourselves as food citizens, we do all have the power to make a positive change. What’s exciting is that the shift to food citizenship is already happening, in big and small ways and in lots of places, and is growing all the time.
At the Food Ethics Council, we want everyone to be involved with shaping food systems for the better, empowered as citizens who are important and valuable. It’s vital to ensure that those involved in setting the food agenda around the world include citizens in the Global South, particularly the smaller-scale food providers who still nourish 70% of the world’s population. It’s important too to ensure that their rights are recognised and fulfilled, while also making sure their efforts – and the biodiverse agroecosystems they manage – are protected and enhanced.
I find the term ‘civilised’ challenging, as who should decide what is more ‘advanced’ and what is more ‘civilised’? Nonetheless, I’d argue a civilised society is one where everyone can meaningfully participate in society and in shaping a better future. It is one where we accept the reality that we’re all different, respect others’ views and embrace and protect diversity. At the same time, we should recognise we all have lots in common. After all, we’re all citizens of the planet, with rights and responsibilities attached. We must address root causes of injustice, consumerism and unsustainability together.
A civilised society is one where we treat each other, the planet and animals with kindness, fairness and dignity. Our relationship with food holds the key.