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Romanticising the present

August 12, 2010

This article makes a good point about the dangers of romanticising the hard work of agricultural production and that of processing (in the broadest sense) and preparing food – also that a lot of ‘traditional’ foods are comparatively recent inventions. But there is also a risk of romanticising the way things are now.

The author talks of ‘culinary Luddites’ who hark back to an agrarian past where lithe, healthy people grew fresh, local produce in abundance, which was all shared out equitably thanks to pre-capitalist social relations, and argues that, instead, virtually the whole of human history consisted of unrelenting servitude and grinding poverty, from which malnourished, oppressed people were only too happy to be rescued by canned tomatoes and sliced white bread. I’d take issue with much of this, but more so with the idea that the global food system has somehow solved all the problems of poverty, malnutrition and oppression.

“Were we able to turn back the clock, as they urge, most of us would be toiling all day in the fields or the kitchen; many of us would be starving.”

Erm, and none of these things happen now?

Many of us are still toiling in the fields, perhaps not in the North, but globally. FAOSTAT puts the agricultural population at 39% of the global total in 2008. (How you define ‘toil’ is up to you.) Just a couple of weeks ago, War on Want reported that workers on tea plantations earn as little as 7p an hour. Or read The Death of Ramon Gonzales for a horrifying account of life for plantation workers in Mexico, the health risks from exposure to pesticides, made worse by poor living conditions, a lack of safety equipment and training, poor regulation, and illiteracy – workers often simply can’t read safety instructions. Or Felicity Lawrence’s Not on the Label on the prevalence of often illegal and frequently exploitative migrant labour in the UK producing chicken breasts and bagged salad for supermarkets.

As for kitchens, women still do the vast majority of food preparation. Sure, it is less drudgery than it used to be, but women are still the ones responsible for feeding their families. My friend wrote a most excellent essay on how industrial food makes this unpaid work invisible, but the inequity is still there.

Oh, and the last point?

Many of us are starving. About 1 billion of us.

Pre-industrial food production might have been grim, but convenience foods have only shifted the problems somewhere else. Farming is still hard work, women are still predominantly lumped with domestic work, and plenty of people still don’t have enough food.

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