A more flavorful, meaningful life

Mongolian farm workers.

Mongolians work new potato fields, and are learning to grow vegetables because changing weather patterns are rendering ancient grazing patterns obsolete. Photo: TheGreenBackpacker via Flickr.

Food security has been defined as “access by all people at all times to sufficient food for an active and healthy life. Food security includes at a minimum: the ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, and an assured ability to acquire food in socially acceptable ways (without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing and other coping strategies for example).”

Food Culture refers to how we experience our food – from field to plate – and how it impacts our health, happiness, and sense of community.

Perhaps the best way to explain the impact of food culture upon our wellness is to think of the way you feel, hear, smell, taste, and see another culture when you experience it through their food preparation and cooking. So much of our cultural values are expressed in the way we grow, prepare, and share food. And universally, most major holidays, festivals and celebrations are centered around the experience of sharing a meal.

Food culture and food security are closely linked. Threats to one affect, and are affected by the other.

It’s all linked

A society which marginalizes the importance of celebrating and enjoying its food, also marginalizes the importance and richness of the living systems which support and create food.

The prevalence of the fast food culture in modern industrial society has distanced most of us from the richness of food experiences, with sobering results.

The slow food movement, on the other hand, was spawned out of a response to the globalisation of food production, and promotes sustainable food production by small local businesses to preserve and celebrate local and traditional food cultures.

A society which celebrates the importance and richness of its food culture, creates resilient, happy communities. Certain data suggests that average reported happiness is consistently lower in countries with a pervasive fast food culture (such as the US) than in countries such as Cuba, which embrace and celebrate a locally produced, organic food system.

When a community is unable to provide for its own food needs, people are disempowered, despair sets in and food aid must be imported. The community must be rebuilt with the knowledge and practical skills to produce enough of their own food to meet their needs, or a cycle of dependence can develop.

Can slow food feed the world?

Agricultural yields are arguably at higher levels than ever in recorded history. Yet in our world today, one out of seven people will fall sleep tonight without access to enough food to lead an active and healthy life.

A solid understanding of food culture and food security issues are important to wellness practitioners everywhere because it equips them with a foundation to act on a local scale. Knowing that you are improving the wellness of humanity on a global scale with your local contribution adds an additionally satisfying dimension to the work.

“Stupidity is an attempt to iron out all differences, and not to use them or value them creatively.” Bill Mollison

The long-term impacts of the modern conventional food system, which has only been in existence for the last 40 years or so, are only now starting to become more apparent.

Obesity levels and diet-related disease are at epidemic levels in the developed world. Regional economies are being drained of their livelihoods by big agribusiness. And the social and environmental impacts of Big Ag are being reported on by filmmakers, journalists, bloggers and other activists all over the world.

Once we understand the limitations and challenges created by the conventional food system, we can begin to identify opportunities to flourish within, while also operating from outside the system. If it’s possible where you live, you can begin by producing enough of your own food to meet your survival needs. Then, you can generate sufficient surplus to share in your local community.

And if it first it seems you have no where to produce food, research many of the community gardening initiatives springing up all over the place these days.

It’s here than we can access markets most efficiently, here that we can develop our most loyal customers, and here that the economic activities of our enterprise will make the most difference. Growing surplus to sell or share allows money to be cycled around local suppliers, distributors and sellers, enhancing and strengthening communities.

When a permaculturalist identifies a “market’, it doesn’t mean “places where we can sell crap” goods.  Instead, we view markets as a vibrant community of people (think of your local farmer’s market), who share common needs that we can help meet.

When we can identify and meet these needs responsibly, ethically, and sustainably then we are rewarded with surplus cash flows to reinvest into our people, our enterprises, and our community.

Slow food agility

For example, we can look for local heritage varieties of crops that have adapted to growing conditions in the area, and develop a niche demand for varieties that are unavailable on supermarket shelves because they may not be suitable for long-term transportation or storage.  Or, we can look for high-value crops that can be integrated into our polycultures, increasing the biodiversity and resilience of our system, while increasing the diversity and resilience of our economic yield.

Only when when our enterprise is able to competently serve the needs of our local community, should we look to developing our system to generate further surplus. We expand our operations and systems organically, by careful observation, continuous improvement, and constant adaptation to changing long-term trends. And we always conduct ourselves with respect to the ethics of permaculture, which underpin all of our work.

It is vitally important that we look at what our land offers us, rather than impose our will upon the land.  For example, deciding arbitrarily that you want to grow chamomile because there may be a market for it would not be in alignment with the permaculture ethic of Earth Care. Similarly paying our employees less than a living wage would violate our ethical principle of People Care.

Finally, hoarding all of our profits and not re-investing surplus back into our local communities not only serves to isolate ourselves from our basic need to connect meaningfully with other human beings around us, it would not honor the third ethical principal of permaculture: Resource Share.

–Matty Lynch

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  1. Mark Nicholson says

    Hey Matt- nice article, I certainly think permaculture is a big step in the right direction. If we do not get back in balance with nature, nature will put us in balance, and it won’t be pleasant. I was wondering if you have ever written about Cuba’s agricultural response to being cut off from oil. It is really starting to seem pertinent.

    Thanks, Mark

  2. says

    Thank you for your comment Mark,

    We continue to study Cuba’s community, government, and agricultural response to their peak oil crisis, as there are many lessons which can be learned from their experience. The documentary entitled ‘The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil’ explores the role of permaculture in Cuba’s response, and should be required viewing for everyone concerned about our own communities’ response to Peak Oil.

    I’ve not written directly about Cuba (yet!), though I have used them as a positive example of possiblity that we can learn from in my Food Security work with impoverished rural communities in Outer Mongolia. You may be interested in another piece I wrote for the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, entitled ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Working in Sustainable Aid & Overseas Development’. Many of the principles discussed in that piece have application in the Transition Movement.

    Regeneratively, -ML-

  3. says

    Great article, Matt. And to put it in practical terms, here are 5 things most of you can start doing today:

    1. Find a local farm stand, farmers market, or food producer and buy some of your food from them. Buy more and more from local producers every week. If you’re in the country, find someone with hens to buy your eggs from. If you’re in the city, find someone locally making tortillas, baking bread, making something from scratch and support them and their families by buying food from them.

    2. Look for the “locally produced,” “locally grown” signs in grocery stores and buy from local growers.

    3. Grow some of your own food. If all you have is a window sill, plant a few cooking herbs in some small pots, or a plastic container. Or grow sprouts on a damp paper towel. If you have a little space where you can put a few larger pots, plant some lettuce, or a tomato or a pepper plant. Plant what you like to eat.

    4. Cook simple meals at home: whole empires were built on rice and beans and a little meat and greens.

    5. Eat communally, with your family, with your partner, with your friend. Break bread with someone.

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