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Utopia, Dystopia, Sitopia

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What did you have for breakfast this morning? To play up a New York stereotype, let's say you picked up a bagel with eggs and bacon from your local store on the way to work. As you were thirsty, you also bought some freshly squeezed juice. A pretty standard breakfast; nothing too exciting. At any point, did you ever stop to think of where the food came from before it ended up in the store you just raided?

If we answer honestly for ourselves, the answer is no. Outside the dwindling community of farmers, the truth is that people generally don't think about how their food gets to where they first cross paths with it. Whether we live in a village, a small town or a big city, we take for granted that we will have access to fresh food in our local store. As a result, people don't realize the true cost of the food they consume. As more than half of the world's population now lives in cities -- and with 1.3 million people moving into urban areas every week -- this becomes a greater issue as time passes.

The mass-migration of people into cities puts serious strains on the food chain. "Each calorie of food we consume in the West takes an average of ten to produce, yet we still think of food as cheap," Carolyn Steel, noted author and architect, writes in an article for SACC New York's newsletter In New York. "19 million hectares of rainforest are lost each year to farming, while a similar quantity of arable land is lost to salinization and erosion. Seventy percent of the world's freshwater is used for farming and eighty per cent of global fish stocks are overfished or exhausted." From these statistics, it is clear that food is far from cheap -- we just don't realize its actual costs since it is happening somewhere else. Metaphorically speaking, if a tree falls in the forest, does it still make a sound? It does, but the sounds of trees falling in the countryside and in the rainforest are drowned out by city life.

Another indicator that society's relationship with food is less than ideal is the -- as discussed in the previous post -- massive amount of food wasted. People in Western countries waste up to half of food produced; the value of food has been forgotten.

Before industrialization, Steel notes, food was a top priority for urban areas as it was, and still is, the most important resource needed to sustain a city. This is hardly surprising as people need sustenance to survive. Thanks to industrialization and improved transportation, feeding a city has never seemed so easy. However, as you can tell from the discussion above, this is a false impression and a change in how we lead our lives is necessary. Carolyn Steel coined the concept of sitopia, a term derived from the Greek words sitos, meaning food, and topos, meaning place. With this concept of food place, her aim is to create a balance between our needs and those of nature. In Steel's words, "food is the sine qua non of life; treating it as such would fundamentally change the way we live. Food belongs at the heart of society, not at its periphery." We need food to survive, so why not recognize its importance in our lives and build our cities around the food place?

In her latest book, Hungry City -- How Food Changes Our Lives, Carolyn Steel describes how we can bring food production into our cities using new, innovative ideas. For instance, how about a horizontal skyscraper/greenhouse with fields of grain on every floor? Or how about turning your windowsill, rooftop, or backyard into a vegetable garden? There are lots of creative ways to bring food production on a small scale into the city without drastically changing it. Urban farming is becoming increasingly popular and human imagination is the only limitation when we are reconnecting the food and the city to make cities better food places.

Carolyn Steel joins The Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce in October for the Annual Green Summit, From Farm to Fork. For more information, check out our website, follow us on Twitter at @SACCNewYork and #Farm2Fork and sign on to Facebook. Until then, give this some thought next time you eat your next bagel.

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