10 days ago my interest was piqued by a tweet from Jay Rayner, proclaiming that people who think “ALL PROCESSED FOODS BAD” should read an article by food historian Rachel Laudan about ‘Culinary Luddism’. In this beautifully educational piece about the culinary history of local foods, Laudan explains at great length why processing, locality and freshness are not inherently good things, especially when viewed through a historic window. You can find the original article on the Jacobin website.
In the following discussion on Twitter, I suggested that prepending ‘processed foods’ with the word ‘highly’ gives you a term more likely to fit the ‘bad’ glove that Rayner was talking about. Rachel Laudan responded, stating that we should focus on the product, not the processing.
This response irritated me, partly because of my deep seated dislike of being told what to do, but also because I felt it oversimplified the issue (perhaps for the benefit of Twitter), because process and product both carry weight, both hold vital importance.
Furthermore, I felt her article came across as very anachronistic, using historic evidence to decry ‘natural’ or ‘local’ foods when their time has passed. By the end of the dressing down, I saw some mediation in her position appear which then made sense of her argument, that local or slow food movements are anachronisms, that’s why we need to look beyond them.
‘Culinary Luddism’ is the key term she coins, taking it’s cue from the Luddites, a group of farm workers who existed during the industrial revolution 200 years ago. Luddites saw the onslaught of modern farm equipment, such as threshing machines, as a critical threat to their livelihoods. Taking the only course of action they could see as effective, they violently destroyed the new mechanised equipment that would come to replace them, in a futile battle against the onslaught of technology.
Since then, Luddism has become a derogatory byword for any kind of anti-technological stance. Laudan’s Culinary Luddism takes that concept and applies it to the modern processed food industry. Culinary Luddites are those who blindly extol natural, local foods as being the answer, how we should return to the ways of our ancestors and stop consuming processed foods.
At the end of the article sits a conclusion which, despite the previous 5,000 words decrying the qualities of local food, states that it does in fact have it’s place.
Culinary Luddites are right, though, about two important things. We need to know how to prepare good food, and we need a culinary ethos. As far as good food goes, they’ve done us all a service by teaching us to how to use the bounty delivered to us (ironically) by the global economy.
Their culinary ethos, though, is another matter. 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. Nostalgia is not what we need.
What we need is an ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses it, an ethos that opens choices for everyone, not one that closes them for many so that a few may enjoy their labor, and an ethos that does not prejudge, but decides case by case when natural is preferable to processed, fresh to preserved, old to new, slow to fast, artisanal to industrial.
Such an ethos, and not a timorous Luddism, is what will impel us to create the matchless modern cuisines appropriate to our time.
Rachel Laudan on Jacobin.com
As ever, the whole food argument is fiendishly complicated, something which is accepted in this conclusion. There is space for both extremes and compromises when looking for a solution to food problems.
For instance, moving into simple, rural, agrarian ways does have it’s place in society. The work of La Via Campesina (The Peasant Way), demonstrates a group of people who are fighting the onslaught of corporate technology in food and agriculture, because it doesn’t work for them. These are small scale subsistence farmers, peasants and landless workers, people who rely on the land for their existence. They’ve faced the battle with corporate agriculture and processed foods and been left unsatisfied, so are fighting for an alternative.
To understand the term ‘peasant’, you need to realise that it’s not a demeaning or pejorative term, it historically means people who are ‘of the land’. These people are fighting for food sovereignty, which is the ability of a nation to produce it’s own, culturally appropriate food. They no longer want to be overwhelmed by the burden of producing culturally inappropriate foods for export, whilst importing their own staples. A system like that makes their ability to eat entirely dependent on corporate agribusiness and commodity prices around the world, when they could grow a healthy diet themselves.
This is a fiercely complicated area, but the foundation lays in the idea that many of the world’s poor should be able to live locally, naturally, from the land.
At the other end of the scale, we find people in our rapidly urbanising world, living in inner city ‘food deserts’, places which lack a decent supply of healthy food. This is the point of Laudan’s conclusion, we need culturally and geographically appropriate ways of feeding people, healthily.
Local food or slow food can’t answer all the questions. In fact, there’s a large group of people who, in sheer defiance of slow food, contest that the only way we can ever feed our burgeoning, urbanised society is through development of highly processed foods. These processed foods need to meet the nutritional tenets of a healthy diet, which is where many contemporary, highly processed foods fall down.
Brexit comes into all of this. Food prices in the UK will rise, because nearly 70% of the healthy food you find in the supermarket, such as fruits and vegetables, is imported. Our ability to feed ourselves has been declining over the last 25 years, reliant on more and more imports. This is despite the fact that 71% of our land is used for farming, yet only 1% of our land is used for horticulture – growing fruit and veg. At a time when we are all acutely aware of the need to consume more fruit and veg, there’s a non-sensical nature to this de-localisation of food. Why should a country such as the UK import the majority of it’s apples? (All statistics from DEFRA)
Importing food can make economic sense, but that doesn’t mean it makes social or environmental sense. We’re facing uncertainty and trouble in our food systems which questions this logic of importing and adds more weight to the idea of local production and food sovereignty. Then you find a case like the production of green beans, which are largely grown in Kenya.
This might seem completely ridiculous, flying beans all the way from Africa, however the cost of production is extremely low as their climate is perfectly suited to year-round production, plus labour and land costs are low. The UK is a society that wants to make a Niçoise salad with them in December, so it sates our contemporary tastes. Should our choices be edited as a result of local food, or do we have a right to import Papaya around the globe, as part of our advanced Western society?
In his book ‘The Sociology of Food and Agriculture’, Michael Carolan tackles the local food movement with some academic rigour and states defiantly:
‘The data is clear: there is nothing inherently good (or bad) about local food. Issues of social justice, sustainability, and the like depend on a lot more than whether or not the system is local.’
Quite damning, but also exactly what I believe Rachel Laudan was getting at.
Carolan continues onto the extremely valid idea of the local food trap, first put forward by Branden Born and Mark Purcell in 2006, stating that the blind following of local food above all else is pointless, because any food system is contextual. We need to understand all of the multiplous factors in deciding what to eat, and these factors will change from town to town, country to country and person to person.
It’s worth considering that buying and growing local food can ignore many real constraints, such as time, money and space. People such as Michael Pollan extol the idea of growing and cooking lots of food yourself, yet these ideals are not possible for many people and are idealistic statements, reminiscent of the ‘middle class bubble’ surrounding food issues. What Carolan puts forward is the idea of reflexivity, there’s no one size-fits-all solution and we need to take each case individually, there is never going to be a silver bullet for food questions.
Which, above all, is what I got from Rachel Laudan’s Jacobin article. Despite wanting to disagree with her because of the partisan tweet which maligned food processing, the fact is that she’s right about food systems. Her conclusion embraces the grey area which absolute food movements fail to address.
It’s not just the product. It’s the product, the process, the context and a whole lot more. This complexity makes the discussion a twisted labyrinth of fractious factions, however that’s the nature of food. It’s also why I find it so easy to write thousands of words about it, every single week.