By Ashley Kosiak
Continuing our series of interviews with featured speakers and panelists at this year's JBF Food Conference, we got in touch with Carolyn Steel, author of Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives. Steel's concept of "sitopia" (food-place) has gained wide recognition in the emergent field of food urbanism. A London-based architect, lecturer and writer, Steel has been a visiting lecturer and design tutor at Cambridge, London Metropolitan and Wageningen Universities, as well as at the London School of Economics. Steel writes and broadcasts regularly on food, architecture and urbanism, and is in international demand as a speaker. In a few weeks, Carolyn will be taking the JBF Food Conference stage for a talk entitled, "The Hardscape of Appetite."
JBF: Tell us about your participation in this year's conference and how you plan to interpret the theme of appetite.
CS: For me, food is about life, so appetite for food is simultaneously appetite for life. Jean Anthelme Brillat Savarin wrote that in order to enjoy food, one must have appetite, and there is a great truth in his apparently simple statement. In order to relish food, one must have a degree of hunger, which implies that, in a well-ordered life, one has managed to find a balance between the pleasures of eating and the necessary and opposite discipline of abstinence. Epicurus was perhaps the most famous advocate of this principle, although, ironically, his name is often associated with the opposite view. He lived mostly on bread and water, arguing that over-indulgence in exotic foods, although pleasurable at the time, would only lead to unhappiness later.
JBF: What do you believe to be the pitfalls of appetite?
CS: Going for several hours without food, while exerting oneself sufficiently to create appetite, was normal just a generation ago; now it is close to impossible for many of us, given our sedentary, calorifically overstuffed world, to create a healthy appetite. Often we feel full, even before we begin to eat! The consequences of this lack of balance in our gastronomic landscape are well known, obesity being just the most visible of a number of ills that result in our failure to understand the nature of our own appetites. The USA, UK, and increasingly other nations are 'obesogenic' societies -- merely living in such countries is liable to make you fat!
JBF: What do you believe might be the opportunities of better understanding the complexities of appetite?
CS: There is perhaps no single aspect of medical science that could make a bigger difference to our future wellbeing. Much work is now being done to better understand the human brain and its powerful responses to the pleasures of eating. To put it simply, our brains have not evolved since Paleolithic times, when food was scarce and our ancestors had to eat as much as they could when food was plentiful in order to survive. We have Paleolithic appetites in a land awash with fat and sugar -- this is a recipe for disaster, unless we act to redress the balance.
JBF: What do you think our food system will look like in 10 years?
CS: I think we shall see increased polarization between the good and the bad: more large-scale mechanization, drives for efficiency, mergers and takeovers, inequality and ecological destruction on the one hand. On the other, the counter-revolution: a stronger Food Movement, greater consumer awareness, more local buying networks, demand for local, ethical, seasonal, traceable food, farmers coops and so on. I think we shall see greater price volatility, price rises, and food steadily traveling up the political agenda as a result.
JBF: What role does hunger play in your work and research?
CS: I am concerned with food as an ethical and philosophical basis for understanding life; therefore the fact that one billion people go to bed hungry every night is a stark basis for my belief that we need a radical, indeed revolutionary, review of the current food system. Hunger is the equal and opposite phenomenon to the global obesity crisis -- both are now linked together as dual symptoms of a way of feeding ourselves is dangerously out of touch with its physical impact or social values.
JBF: What projects have you been working on that really excite you?
CS: I have just begun writing a follow-up to my book Hungry City: How Food Shapes our Lives -- it's called The Idea of Food. In it I shall explore my concept of "sitopia," and what (a good) life looks like when people learn to see, think, and act through the lens of food.
JBF: What changes in the food system would you most like to see?
CS: Put simply: more democracy! More transparency and accountability; broader ownership of food systems, far greater public awareness and engagement through better education; tougher government regulation and limits to mergers and monopolies in big agri-food; more investment to support medium and small scale enterprises. Perhaps the single most effective thing would be an end to subsidies of big-scale agribusiness and a redirection of those funds towards small and medium scale enterprises, as farming subsidies were initially intended to be. This would go some way to equalizing an economic field, which is currently hugely distorted in favor of large-scale companies.
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