What activity involves every human being on the planet?
The answer is eating. No other activity includes absolutely everybody in the way that the food system does. As Wendell Berry has written, “eating is an agricultural act” and the well being of the food system affects everybody.
I am no expert. There are farmers, agricultural scientists and nutrition experts who know far more than I do. But as someone who eats (and cooks), I believe I have a right to participate in discussion about our food system. Something that affects everyone at so many levels from health to celebration, from taste to religious tradition is not a matter to be left solely to experts. A successful food chain, all the way from plough to plate, is the foundation of human civilisation. You could say as some have done, that civilisation is an agricultural phenomenon.
Farming constitutes only 2% of the total economy of the UK and employs fewer and fewer people, so it often barely features on people’s radar when they look at the economy as a whole. But I think the food system is worth taking very seriously indeed. Andrew Simms of the New Economics Forum believes that we are “nine meals from anarchy”.
80% of our food is supplied by supermarkets. If their supply chains were disrupted by, for example, a lack of fuel oil for their trucks or a massive computer failure that caused supply systems and cash registers to fail, we would start to run out of food very quickly indeed.
Many people have attributed the decline of civilisations in the past to a failure to take the food system seriously. When the Romans instituted land reform that, in effect, abolished the peasantry, slaves replaced the peasant “stakeholders” in the land. The land was not cared for in the way it had been and agricultural shortages ensued. A successful food system depends on there being people to nurture the land and keep it healthy and productive.
If a society sees farming as an exploitative industry and growing crops as a form of extraction just like mining for minerals, then pretty soon, in a matter of generations, the land will be exhausted and ruined. Those who grow our food should be encouraged to embrace the idea of husbandry not the principle of exploitation.
Our global food security depends on this and so does human civilisation.