Thought for food by Janet Surman

Dandelion Salad

by Janet Surman
Socialist Standard
Jan. 9 2008

What could the production of food be like in a society without the need for profit, without competition from big businesses, without promotional advertising, without any money changing hands?

Capitalism has been and continues to be, the cause of tens of thousands of people worldwide moving into towns and cities on a daily basis, seeking to find a replacement for income and livelihood lost in the countryside. Likewise economic decisions tempt millions into international migration in the hope of gaining access to the means of producing a livelihood in more prosperous regions. The vast majority of both internal and international émigrés, if assured of a comfortable, fulfilling life for themselves and their families in their “home” region would no doubt prefer to return to where the culture fits them like a glove. Capitalism denies or overrides local needs and wishes and is responsible for the devastation of farmers and farming communities worldwide, evidence the year on year increase in suicide by farmers in both developed and developing countries. In the present system many, many people living in cities are employed in work that is irrelevant to socialism, non-productive jobs entailing transactions with money. In socialism these will be people freed up, a huge labour resource free to live and work in a location of their choice unrestricted by commercial constraints. It is probable that demographics would change quite rapidly and dramatically, with the outflow of citizens making choices that will affect their lives positively.

One of the first tasks of socialism will be to rectify the worst effects of capitalism on populations, to ensure that local needs are satisfied in all locations. On the agricultural issue this may, at least initially, curtail the growing of (now-called) “cash” crops such as tea, coffee, tobacco or bananas whilst local populations stabilise their ability to feed all their own inhabitants. Emphasis would be placed on the quality, health and fertility of the soil, sustainability being paramount. Farmers in the developed world would be freed from the constraints of capital, quotas, restrictions and above all competition, enabling them to produce foods required by the local populace and, if need be, in other parts of the world.

The technology and infrastructure for moving food around is currently well established globally, although in capitalist hands. (Where it is not well established then it will be a priority to increase or establish it.) Processing plants, packing houses, transport vehicles from local to international, cold storage, warehousing facilities, stock keeping know-how, all the necessary components are already on hand with individuals well-versed in logistics adjusting supply to demand and ensuring sufficient supplies for each and every area, the main difference from now will be satisfying need not profit.

The local scene

Where capitalism hasn’t yet forced farmers to grow cash crops for sale on world markets, local food needs are still largely met locally. This could continue in socialism, though without markets and buying and selling. For instance, here in one small, typical rural area in Turkey some distance from any large towns, small farmers are not materially rich but large, extended families live comfortably, with daily work shared. Women mostly take care of the animals – cows, goats, sheep, chickens, whilst the men do the field work – ploughing, harrowing, sowing etc. The high intensity seasonal work brings everyone out en masse, often in the hottest weather. Their own dietary needs are taken care of to a large extent. The cow provides milk for home consumption and to be turned into yoghurt, butter and cheese with any surplus being sold daily to the milkman who collects it and sends it on to the processing plant. In return the cow is fed on home grown maize, barley and wheat and in springtime taken for a leisurely walk around the lush green edges of fields and lanes. The grain from the cereals will be milled locally for producing home made bread. The hens run free range anywhere and everywhere and produce abundant eggs and chicks several times a year.

There are fruit orchards – citrus, pomegranate and olive – and greenhouses for succession crops or vegetables and salad stuff for own use and for selling to the local wholesaler. Olives can be pressed for oil locally and many are stored in jars for yearlong eating. Beehives are all around and they say the pine honey is the best in the world. One free and abundant crop is “ot” – wild herbs, vegetables, leaves and berries from trees and bushes. No one goes walking without a knife and a bag or two in hand. Meat isn’t eaten daily. Rice, bulgur wheat, pasta and bread are the staples with seasonal vegetables, salads and always fresh dairy foods for the daily fare. The occasional chicken will have its neck slit and a larger animal will be sacrificed on high days and holidays. It’s a way of life.

Animals are generally tethered so it’s rare to find an enclosed field or orchard. Often the shortest distance between two points is across someone else’s land but it is not seen as trespassing, far from it. If spotted, visitors, neighbours and even strangers will be pressed into helping themselves to whatever produce is available and, if reluctant, the owner will no doubt produce a bag and fill it with whatever is going, saying words to the effect that “my garden is your garden.”

Local town markets are supplied by local and regional farmers. Very few imports are seen in this region, notably year-round bananas from Central America. What is available is an abundance of fruit and vegetables in season with cold stores to lengthen the season for fruit. These towns, populations up to 20,000, have markets once a week on different days as most of the stallholders travel the rounds between several of them, 4 or 5 days on, 2 or 3 days off. Some stalls are run by middlemen who buy from the wholesaler and sell on but the most interesting are the stalls manned by “village people” who bring their own produce which may include home produced bread, butter, cheese, yoghurt, milk, eggs, honey, dried beans, grain, peanuts, pumpkin slices, olives, oil and various items picked from the hedgerows and around the trees in the orchards. These attractive displays of produce give eating food in season a definite appeal.

After the summer heat, when choice dwindles to three or four varieties of peppers, aubergines, courgettes, umpteen varieties of beans, masses of salad greens, cucumbers, red, juicy tomatoes, peaches and melons, nectarines and grapes, it’s time to look forward to the autumn vegetables – new potatoes and onions from the yayla (high meadow areas), spinach, leafy greens and huge cabbages (if they’re too big then pickle some or give half to a neighbour), caulis, broccoli and radishes the size of turnips. Now the summer vegetables are offered as a course soup mix after being baked in a dough mixed with yoghurt, dried in the sun and ground into crumbs. And dried food of all kinds is available, legumes, fruits, aubergines, peppers, okra, nuts, figs, etc. The winter will be well supplied. When shopping the trick is not to go with a specific shopping list, just a loose idea of veg, fruit, salad, then wander around to see what looks good and plan menus after the event rather than before as you can’t guarantee you’ll find all your requirements every time. Buying local is almost an imperative. The best broccoli, figs and walnuts come from four hours north, bananas four hours east, potatoes and apples from the high land three hours away. Rice has possibly the longest journey – from the northeast. Meat is local, beef, goat and lamb except for factory chickens – fresh, live ones are available at a premium price.

The wider world

Out in the wider world, different hemispheres and different climates yield different crops and different staples and according to the United Nations Food Organisation (and other studies) all but the most hostile regions are capable of sustaining their populations. In areas where there are sometimes crises causing malnutrition for some and starvation for others the problem is not lack of food but lack of will to transport food into these areas because the customers have no money. In many areas there are food shortages because farmers have become trapped in the cash-crop market for economic reasons. Without the burden of having directly or indirectly to produce crops for bio-fuels, heroin, cocaine, flowers and unnecessary food crops for elite markets people would have ample land for meeting their own and others’ needs. Without coercion from state governments millions of people would continue to farm their land and feed their families rather than move to make way for mega-dams or building projects to house the newly rich or create vast new factory complexes.

Taking care of the environment is what farmers (not agri-businesses) are all about. Protecting the health of the soil to ensure sustainability and putting local needs first. Which is better for both human health and the environment – fresh food or processed? local foods or transported in food? Whilst it may be useful and even advisable to process certain types of foods to preserve them, fresh foods are generally more health giving and place less stress on the environment. Local foods will always be fresher and therefore healthier than transported food – and transportation is one of the biggest problems for the environment.

Consider the production of food in a society without the need for profit, without the competition from big businesses, without promotional advertising, without any money changing hands. How might eating habits change? Without sponsorship and freebies as at sports events, music festivals, even some educational establishments, how could tastes change? In some areas there is already a rejection of the fast-food syndrome with a renaissance of the appreciation of good food in the form of the ‘Slow Food Movement’, started in Italy a few years ago and now sprouting up in various other countries. Farmers markets are expanding in numbers in Europe and US, more people are demanding fresh, home produced, organic foods with a groundswell of opinion pushing the movement against genetically modified food, use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

People are deciding what they want to eat and feed to their children rather than be dictated to by big name manufacturers pushing their profitable lines. It is these same companies which are responsible for dreadful waste and rape of the planet with excessive packaging simply to catch the eye of the customer. Not to protect the item, simply to make it more appealing, more marketable. In fact packaging could be reduced enormously and will be when people decide it will be so. Certain foods, for instance rice, lentils, sugar, dried food of all kinds could simply be dispensed from huge, hygienic hoppers directly into one’s own reusable containers, standard sizes not necessary, just let the individual take what’s required for their particular situation.

With emphasis on quality of environment and quality of life rather than on the rat-race, with more opportunities and choices open for all in how to contribute to society rather than scramble for dead-end jobs or work that takes over life rather than enhances it, maybe food would have a different emphasis for vastly more people. No one would go without. There would be absolutely no reason to. More would see it as a necessary route to a healthy life. Cooking and eating as a social activity to be shared and enjoyed. You are what you eat after all. It’s food for thought.

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