Sunday, 13 September 2009

It's only food...

...what's the big deal?

You can ask this question from both sides. As far as I'm concerned, it's only food and what I eat has jack squat to do with anyone else, and why should it matter to them what I do and don't choose to consume anyway. As far as the naysayers are concerned, it's only food and no one person's choice is going to make any difference, so why waste your time being awkward?

But it's not just food. It's not just food in the literal sense that vegan choices extend to everything they use, including clothing, make-up, household products, etc. But also in the sense that food is the basis of life. The way we approach it, create it, market it and consume it makes up a huge portion of our culture - and that makes up a huge part of us. I could probably write a whole thesis on this, but I'll try to keep it to a reasonably concise blog entry.

There's a whole bundle of issues here - for example: need vs want, advertising and mass indoctrination, exploitation and suffering, malnutrition/obesity, the separation of modern life from reality, intensive consumerism, and extreme wastefulness. For me, the way that supermarkets have homogenised and monopolised everyday life is one of the biggest travesties of our culture - and yet so few people seem to have noticed, or at least care about, the impact they have had. Not only are local businesses undersold until they go out of business, but many people now think that things that don't come from a supermarket are automatically suspect. Several reasons I can think of include a) the fact that local grocers and food stores are often now run by immigrants, thereby being frightening and foreign - despite the fact that giving money to MNCs (multi-national corporations) and colossal chains does absolutely zero for local economy - and so the average xenophobe prefers their quid to stay British b) that fruit and vegetables exposed to the outside world is somehow dirty, and that because they go off quicker (due to lack of preservatives and non-selective cultivation) they are of inferior quality - never mind the toxic chemicals sprayed onto veg you find at the supermarket, followed by being injected with or polished with or stored in various other highly questionable substances, and then probably sneezed over by every employee who handles them and then every customer who walks past. Dust from the street you can just rinse off. And the mud on those potatoes and carrots? That's supposed to be there. They come out of the ground (hopefully - sometimes).

The final reason is, I think, pretty sinister - and it is this: comfort. Reason a is related to this as well, but that is more obviously identifiable. The intrinsic, insidious and pervasive nature of Brand Power is more frightening. Even if you're buying Asda or Sainsbury's or even Waitrose own version, you're still buying a brand, and in buying it you're buying a whole parcel of pseudo-values. Most people have loyalty to products and chains, to the point where if you move to the Canaries or Barbados, you can still buy a tin or Heinz beans or tomato ketchup - for about ten times the price, of course. Why would you go to an exotic country and marvel at the indigenous delights when, for a fraction of the price of a plane ticket home, you can continue to make sure everything tastes the same. Well, for my money you don't even have to go to an exotic country for that kind of experience - because that's what has happened here. Local and seasonal foods, growers, sellers, traditions and recipes have been lost to the swathe of sameness. And it's a swathe of sameness that destroys local economies, ecologies and communities, and promotes excess, gluttony and therefore waste. What's wrong with the world? Isn't that it?

Beyond that, beyond the shopfront and the deli counter of Marks & Spencer (wait - do they even have deli counters?), it gets worse. In our own country, we believe that both we and these companies are being governed by our government. In reality, the corporations are the ones with the money, and the government is supposedly separate from the economy, and so leaves 'the market' to organise itself (with the exception of bail outs, but let's not complicate things further right now) - but the government is tied to the corporations because it needs their cash. Amongst other things. So in reality, our society is controlled at pretty much every level by MNCs, but particularly by supermarkets. And what about the effect on other countries? It doesn't matter to most inhabitants of the 'free' world what happens to most inhabitants of the rest of the world (people will see a video of a starving child and get all bleary eyed, but really they don't want to change their lives to improve things for people that they can't see - if they did, we wouldn't have the MNC bollocks), but it does to me. And it will to everybody else, eventually, when the world's resources run out. The general pillaging of a country at the merest whiff of a natural resource, the enslavement and exploitation of anyone too poor to have a choice in the matter, the political inveiglement and shenanigans orchestrated to facilitate access to resources in politically unsound countries without appearing to have done so (the secret selling of weapons to Israel, for example, or the recent bunkum with Syria) - need I go on? And it's not even as though people don't know about most of these things.

Most vaguely aware people know that the oil industry is bad, that waste and food mountains and landfill are bad, that exploitation is bad. And yet, apparently, they keep on contributing to this melee of misery without much thought. And, again, I blame supermarkets. That clause I mentioned about reality - that's the one. Life has, for many, become polystyrene-cladded and hermetically sealed, in order that these things do not affect us. Supermarkets and the like are responsible for this. Kids don't know that vegetables grow in the ground. I know grown ups who won't eat meat unless it's been processed to resemble breadcrumbed dinosaurs and nuggets. Food comes from supermarkets. This is an illusion. Buying food from supermarkets is a necessity because otherwise we'd starve. This is an illusion. We are the top of the food chain. This is an illusion. We are groomed from birth into being good consumers, thereby enabling this way of life to continue, and society worldwide is the worse for it. I'd argue that we are pretty low down on the food chain - how many of us in the 'civilised' world, put back into a natural habitat, would be able to survive for longer than a few days? We are not superior to all other species - for the most part, we're total idiots. Of course I also don't think it would take long, given the capacity of the human brain, for us to relearn the requisite skills. I don't mean that we're idiots in the sense that we have limited powers, just that we're lazy and have become sucked into this quasi-reality.

So when people roll their eyes and sigh and try to make me feel like I'm being ridiculous for having thought about my behaviour and formed my own opinions, and seen them through to practical, everyday choices, I have to remember these things. It's not only food. And I do feel small and powerless and silly when people respond like that, which I shouldn't - perhaps in time I'll be able to summon a more appropriate response which enables me to do more than turn to either belligerence or inefficient vagueness. Food is the most fundamental part of our existence - I've barely scratched the surface with this not-so-concise post - and questioning the way we go about that is the first step to freedom and independence. Isn't it? I might be kidding myself, and doubtless the efforts of one make no difference at all - but I'm trying to swim towards the surface of the primordial ooze here, and it seems like a pretty good place to start.

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