Organic Manifesto

Hal and I attended the Mills River Community meeting today. We live out in a beautiful mountainous town sandwiched between Asheville, Brevard, and Hendersonville. Many of the people have been here for generations, and hold a strong mountain spirituality and offered us some good southern hospitaity. Local, organic food is a big part of the new push for farmer's markets...
One of the local organic farmers made a presentation about organic food and the importance of eating organic. An older woman in the group asked him, why should we eat organic? Why is it so much more expensive then the other stuff at Ingles? It’s interesting, because I’m a bit of a “die hard” organic; I try to eat everything local and organic. We believe in gardening and CSAs… and I think our daughter Emilia is helathier for it, growing up primarily vegetarian.
So… why organic? There’s so many reasons, but one thing to think about, is that buying organic, and spending your money within your local economy is one way of voting everyday. Organic and sustainable food is a hot topic now, and what we eat is turning into a bold political statement.
Food is vital as we rethink our way of life. Many of the dilemmas we face—how to reconcile city and country, man and nature, prosperity and sustainability—can be addressed through food. Food is the common denominator: the one thing without which we can’t survive. Carolyn Steel, the author of “Hungry City” introduces a new word, “sitopia,” from the Greek terms sitos (“food”) and topos (“place”) to introduce a new model. What follows is some excerpts from an extremely inspiring radio talk she gave a few months ago. “We already live in a sitopia of sorts, since the cities, landscapes and ecosystems we inhabit have been profoundly shaped by food. The problem is, our blindness to food’s influence has created a bad sitopia; one so bad, in fact, that it threatens to destroy itself—and us—if we don’t change it. So we must create a good sitopia, one that restores balance to our lives, to society and to our relationship with the natural world.
How might that work? First, we need to understand that sitopia is not utopia. We’re not trying to create an ideal world, but a way of thinking that allows us to create many different places, connections and relationships, using food as our tool.
Much of the mess we’re in is due to lack of respect for food. To create a good sitopia, then, we must restore to food its true value. This isn’t just a question of how much we pay for food, although that matters, but of what we understand it to represent. Ask a starving man what food means to him, and he’ll give you a frank answer. Food remains the most important shared element in all our lives.
The moment we restore food’s proper value, we begin to see where it belongs—not at the periphery of society, but at its heart. For example, “cheap food”—the apparent triumph of modern agribusiness—is an oxymoron, an illusion created by externalizing food’s true costs. Once you factor in all the fossil fuel consumption, rainforest destruction, soil erosion, pollution, water depletion, carbon emissions, loss of biodiversity, rural depopulation, animal suffering and obesity that result from cheap food, it doesn’t look quite so cheap. In fact, we pay a very high price.
When such externalities are taken into account, the debate about how to feed the world shifts.

Let's bring reverance for food and plants back into our lives…

The pursuit of ever more “efficient” food systems is revealed as profoundly uneconomic. The false choices of industrial versus organic, high tech versus traditional, also disappear, replaced by an open debate about the farming practices and food systems that best match our aspirations for the future of the planet. Such thinking represents a reversal of the current trend, which treats food as a necessary yet somehow separate problem. In the ongoing food debate, the most vital question of all—What is a good life?—is rarely asked.
Of course, that question has no single answer; instead, it generates a spectrum of further questions. Being open to asking these questions, and realizing that there will be many different answers, is key to creating sitopia. Even if we can’t say for sure what a good life might be, we can describe some of its attributes. Most of us, for instance, would agree a good life is one in which people are generally happy, healthy, industrious, generous and loving; societies are tolerant, peaceable and sustainable; physical surroundings are diverse, bountiful and beautiful.
We know such a place can’t exist; that would be utopia. But that’s where sitopia comes in. Sitopia is contingent, partial, practical. It can be big or small, shared or personal. It can take many shapes and forms. It can be created by anybody, right here, right now. It can exist anywhere. Indeed, it already does.
To see sitopia in action, go to a place where food is highly valued—such as India. Food is everywhere in India.

Food is everywhere in India…

The countryside is densely populated with more than half a million small farms. Close networks of villages trade with one another at busy food markets. In the cities, people cook and eat on the sidewalks; vendors sell snacks from carts and stands; and traders carry baskets of vegetables on their heads. Cows, goats and chickens wander freely, and even the temples are brimming with sweets, left as gifts for the gods.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the tiffin box culture of Mumbai. Thousands of Mumbai housewives cook hot lunches for their husbands. The lunches are packed into stacked metal containers (tiffin boxes) and collected by some 5,000 couriers, or dabbawalas, who use bicycles and trains to deliver up to 200,000 meals a day all over the city. The service is one of the most reliable in the world; a recent survey found that just one in every 6 million deliveries goes astray.

Shared meals are a major part of our sitopia…

In India, food is powerfully embedded in the broader culture. But some aspects of Indian food are more difficult to swallow. Poor infrastructure means that food worth an estimated $10 billion is lost each year, while nearly half of young children are underweight.
Yet how much better are things in the U.S.? More Americans live on food stamps than do people anywhere else in the world, while 50 percent of all food—worth $136 billion—is thrown away each year. In India, meals remain at the heart of family life; 19 percent of American meals are eaten in cars. Agriculture employs half of the Indian population; in America, that figure is less than 1 percent. In India, one in 20 is obese; in America, one in three.
Such comparisons merely demonstrate the effects of two contrasting food cultures in two very different nations, one developed, the other developing. But that’s precisely the point. When you consider the social benefits and drawbacks of food systems worldwide, you’re forced to conclude that the former belong mostly to traditional food cultures and the latter chiefly to industrial ones. A country like India could certainly benefit from some modern technological and infrastructural improvements, but not at the expense of its traditional food culture. Food in India is still about sociability, connectivity, identity, seasonality, family, craftsmanship, love. The developed world could do with a dash of those ingredients, too.
High-tech industrial farming isn’t the only way to feed the world. Comparative studies of alternative approaches, such as organic or permaculture, tend to focus on short-term metrics, like crop yields. But the number of tons of grain produced per acre per year is much easier to measure than happiness, the feeling of the wind on your skin or the satisfaction of following in your grandfather’s and father’s footsteps. The tacit assumption that nobody in his or her right mind could possibly choose farming over a desk job is clearly false, too, as hundreds of highly educated farmers in America and Europe can testify.

Let's put food first!

So the essential task of sitopia is to put food first. The quickest and easiest way to become a sitopian is to change the way you eat. Perhaps you’re already a self-sufficient vegan who cooks everything from scratch and composts all your leftovers. In spite of your good intentions, such an approach would not necessarily create a society in which most of us would want to live. Growing your own food might bring a sense of personal achievement, but if we all did it, we’d have to abandon cities altogether, so we’d lose all our sociability. Coming together to exchange food and other goods was, after all, what created cities in the first place.
Understanding food’s influence, and using it positively and collectively to guide our actions, is the key to sitopia. This can take many forms, including cooking more for our kids, eating less industrially produced meat, buying from local markets, joining Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects, composting our food waste, refusing to buy unsustainably sourced fish or joining movements such as Slow Food and Transition Towns.
Whatever form you choose, remember that what you’re doing isn’t just about food. It’s about deciding, together, what sort of world we want to live in—and using food to get us closer to it.”

For the whole speech,


About the Author

yurtmanI live in a little sustainable minded yurt village in western NC near AshevilleView all posts by yurtman →