SUSTAINABILITY

Confessions of a Supermarket Voyeur

Food sovereignty in an increasingly commodified world

There are probably a lot of things I could live without; a car for starters. My mobile phone could certainly go; in fact, it did once, right off the end of the Busselton Jetty in a short-lived attempt at getting off the grid. Ha! Like that was ever really going to last!

What about electricity? Forgive me, the eternal optimist, but I feel sure pedal-powered laptops and washing machines could be developed. As to the plethora of appliances that jam up our cupboards, counters, and living rooms, they can definitely go. Seriously, when did we start needing all these things?

At the end of the day, I’m quite sure that none of these material things are necessary for my survival. However, there is one thing we all depend upon entirely for life and it is something we increasingly take for granted based on its perceived abundance.

Food.

Food, according to the English Oxford Dictionary is “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth.” But I wonder…is this definition still relevant?

I began pondering the state of food production and distribution some years ago while engaging in one of my favourite pastimes, supermarket voyeurism. It’s a terrible habit of mine, checking out what other people put in their shopping trolleys. (Oh admit it, you do it too).

On this particular day there I was, the self-confessed sanctimonious supermarket voyeur, perusing the failings of other mere mortals while praising my own caged display of nutritional superiority (and yes, chocolate is a plant and I won’t hear you say otherwise).

I glanced (inconspicuously of course), at the trolley in the next queue, against which was leaning a rather, shall we say, robust woman, with an equally robust and completely unruly child. I noted her six bottles of full-strength coke, the mega box of nutritionally barren cornflakes, the fruit roll-ups, made with “real” fruit… oh if only she knew about those!

There were the frozen lasagnas, testament to our crazy-busy lifestyles that leave us precious little time to cook (I graciously forgave her that). And then, the six plastic-bagged loaves of white bread; 99c of bleached, sweetened, preservative soaked carbohydrates. Oh, the humanity!

I know, total food snob, right?

The truth is my voyeurism was less about denigrating others and more about giving myself a feeling of empowerment. Not over other women who, just like me, are faced every day with the challenges of feeding a family, on a tight budget, in a world in which the only food that is affordable is generally garbage.

No, my sense of empowerment was all about protesting against the mega-corporations that feed our brains and ultimately our bodies with food that is devoid of nutrition, all the while generating massive profits for themselves, and in so doing, scratching the backs of the mega pharmaceutical corporations, who in turn generate massive profits from our ever failing health.

Then suddenly the penny dropped, as it so often does while contemplating my navel in the slow-moving supermarket checkout queue. Who was I kidding? Is this stuff in my trolley that claims low fat, no fat, natural, and healthy really all those things? What exactly am I eating these days anyway? Do I really know what it is? Or where it came from? And who determines what foods I have access to and what I know about them anyway? Suddenly it occurred to me that where food was concerned, I may still be in the matrix, and I wanted my red pill.

Is real identifiable food becoming a thing of the past? How long before we start living on little wafers of Soylent Green?

Dr Alejandro Junger, author of Clean, made a profound statement in the documentary Hungry for Change. “The problem,” he says, “is that we are not eating food anymore. We are eating food-like substances.”

It was a light bulb moment.

I looked closer at my healthy cereal. It contained sweet little orange chewy things that purported to be apricots. My low-fat yoghurt was overloaded with man-made sweeteners while eliminating the natural fat that was meant to be there.

On closer inspection my wholegrain bread was actually chock full of preservatives, reminding me of a relatively new adage I picked up somewhere, “the longer the shelf life, the shorter yours.” And my high-end muesli bars? Apparently they contained fruits of the forest, perfectly spherical colourful little fruits which made me wonder what kind of forest they came from, a virtual one perhaps?

Is real identifiable food becoming a thing of the past? How long before we start living on little wafers of Soylent Green? (Google it).

Food today has become a commodity. Yet it is, without doubt, the most basic of human needs, and therefore access to it is a human right. There was a time when it was consumed by those who grew it, the excess exchanged for something of equal value, until capitalism, with its endless accumulation of ever-increasing profits, took our most essential requirement for life and turned it into one big fat commodity!

And the result? Malnutrition.

In the developing world, we see routine hunger and premature death from starvation, food rotting rather than be sold without profit. And here, in our western developed worlds of abundance, it seems we suffer from malnutrition of an entirely different kind where we are chronically overfed with food that is so nutritionally deficient that our cells are in fact starving. Is this why we’re so obese? Because our bodies are constantly crying out for the nutrition they lack?

But what I want to know is who gave some corporation somewhere the right to determine my access to real food?

Ecuador, that little poverty-stricken country in South America, was the first to constitutionally recognise the rights of nature, formally acknowledging in its constitution that ecosystems have the right to exist and flourish, and that nature cannot be owned. In 2010 Bolivia followed suit passing The Law of Mother Earth which recognises land as a living system with rights to be protected from exploitation.

India, another country that knows the meaning of extreme poverty, challenged the World Trade Organisation that allows corporations to place patents not only on life-saving pharmaceuticals but also seeds! Yes, seeds. And they won, phew… then lost on appeal, *smacks head*.

Agricultural and biochemical giant, Monsanto, together with two other such corporations currently controls 53% of the world’s commercial seed market. The days when a farmer would harvest his crop and save seeds for the following season are seriously under threat. As an urban agriculturalist, this truly frightens me.

So. Real food. Who owns it?

Should it not be me, and the robust woman, and her unruly child? Should it not be the farmer whose hard labour has brought forth the food in the first place? Yet, here we stand, all three of us, equals in that our right to choose has been taken away from us. Our very understanding about food, or should I say ‘food-like substances’, is controlled by those who seek to profit from our need to eat … something … anything, to live.

Do we stand here like hopeless beggars saying “Please sir, I want some more”?

In a world where the cost of living is skyrocketing at speeds our grandparents cannot even comprehend, how do we put down the 99c loaf of mass-produced nutritionally barren garbage and replace it with a $6 loaf of what we hope is real nutrition?

Does food security with its dependence on processed genetically modified and ultimately unhealthy products outweigh our basic right to own our own food supply? Are we moving towards an era where we no longer have the right to grow our own food, save our own seeds, and plant them again the following year? Why is it that third world countries are so far ahead of us in realising that the earth we live on, and the food it produces, is something that needs protecting so much so that they value it over and above the potential to exploit and capitalise on it despite their counties poverty?

Gandhi once said, in protest to the British salt tax in colonial India, “you can’t monopolise this which we need for life.” But they did. And until that monopoly is lifted our choices will never be our own.

Still, I guess we can live without real food, some seem to be doing okay with food-like substances. In the immortal words of Mick Crocodile Dundee “you can live on it, but it tastes like shit.”

So when we consider that even Soylent Green would ultimately do the job of keeping us alive, … perhaps the only change we are destined to see is the Oxford definition of food and the old fashioned concept that food is something we are all entitled to.

Now, what about water……

© Sarah J. Baker 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Written by

Navel Gazer | Feminist | Urban Agriculturalist | Sweating the little things. Follow me at https://www.facebook.com/thiswomxn/

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