Leesfragment: Sitopia

06 april 2020 , door Carolyn Steel

Tomorrow in Pakhuis De Zwijger, Carolyn Steel would have discussed her new book Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World. Athenaeum would have sold her books - but the event is cancelled. The books are in stock, though, and here's an excerpt to satisfy your first hunger.

We live in a world shaped by food, a Sitopia (sitos – food; topos – place). Food, and how we search for and consume it, has defined our human journey.

From our foraging hunter-gatherer ancestors to the enormous appetites of modern cities, food has shaped our bodies and homes, our politics and trade, and our climate. Whether it’s the daily decision of what to eat, or the monopoly of industrial food production, food touches every part of our world. But by forgetting its value, we have drifted into a way of life that threatens our planet and ourselves.

Yet food remains central to addressing the predicaments and opportunities of our urban, digital age. Drawing on insights from philosophy, history, architecture, literature, politics and science, as well as stories of the farmers, designers and economists who are remaking our relationship with food, Sitopia is a provocative and exhilarating vision for change, and how to thrive on our crowded, overheating planet. In her inspiring and deeply thoughtful new book Carolyn Steel, points the way to a better future.

N.B. Previously, we reviewed Steel's Hungry City.


Koop Carolyn Steels Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World bij de Athenaeum Boekhandels. Of begin met een fragment te lezen op Athenaeum.nl.


Several years ago, I attended a TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh. On the last day, after nearly a week spent listening to dozens of thinkers, inventors, artists and activists all talking about their inspiring lives and work, I was slumped exhausted on a beanbag when a tall Dutchman approached me and introduced himself as a senior director of Shell. ‘I’m looking for answers,’ he said. ‘I’ve been here all week listening to people and have heard nothing important. We have vast problems to solve here! Have you got any good ideas? If you can give me one, I have millions to invest!’
After several days absorbing what had felt to me like a non-stop stream of good ideas, I was somewhat taken aback. Nevertheless, I reflected on what the man from Shell had said and eventually told him that what I thought we most lacked in the world was philosophy. ‘We’ve forgotten how to ask the big questions,’ I said, ‘such as what makes a good life.’ I’ll never forget the look on his face. It went from incomprehension and incredulity to impatience and, finally, anger. ‘We don’t have time for that!’ he almost spat at me. ‘We are seven billion people, living beyond our means, destroying the planet, and you say that what we need is philosophy?’
Although not the immediate inspiration for this book, this exchange did help to galvanise my reasons for writing it. As the highly stressed Dutchman pointed out, we twenty-first-century humans find ourselves facing multiple life-threatening challenges; ones that require big thinking, urgent action and global cooperation if we are to sort them out. On that, the oilman and I were heartily agreed; where we differed was in our approach to tackling the crisis. Whereas he sought technical solutions to our various problems, I wanted to address their underlying causes by examining the factors, assumptions and choices that had created them. While technology and philosophy are hardly mutually exclusive disciplines – clearly we need both – what our grumpy exchange on the beanbags demonstrated was the gulf that can exist between the two. It is this divide that I seek to bridge in this book through the medium of food.
Why food? Because it is by far the most powerful medium available to us for thinking and acting together to change the world for the better. Food has shaped our bodies, habits, societies and environments since long before our ancestors were human. Its effects are so widespread and profound that most of us can’t even see them, yet it is as familiar to us as our own face. Food is the great connector, the stuff of life and its readiest metaphor. It is this capacity to span worlds and ideas that gives food its unparalleled power. It is, you might say, the most potent tool for transforming our lives that we never knew we had.
In my first book Hungry City, I explored how the feeding of cities has shaped civilisations over time. The book followed food’s journey from land and sea via road and rail to market, kitchen, table and waste dump, showing how each stage of the journey had shaped people’s lives around the world. By the end of writing the book, I had come to realise quite how profoundly food shapes virtually every aspect of our existence. I decided to call the last chapter ‘Sitopia’ (from the Greek sitos, food + topos, place), in order to name the phenomenon that I’d discovered: the fact that we live in a world shaped by food. In some ways, food’s influence is obvious (when we’re hungry, for example, or when we can’t do up our trousers), yet in other ways its effects are deep and mysterious. How many of us stop to wonder, for example, about food’s influence over our minds, values, laws, economies, homes, cities and landscapes – even our attitudes towards life and death?
This book follows on from that earlier discovery. Food shapes our lives, yet since its influence is too big to see, most of us are unaware of the fact. We no longer value food in the industrialised world, paying as little for it as possible. As a result, we live in a bad sitopia, in which food’s effects are largely malign. Many of our greatest challenges – climate change, mass extinction, deforestation, soil erosion, water depletion, declining fish stocks, pollution, antibiotic resistance and diet-related disease – stem from our failure to value food. Yet, as this book will argue, by valuing food once again, we can use it as a positive force, not only to address such threats and reverse numerous ills, but to build fairer, more resilient societies and lead happier, healthier lives.
Like Hungry City, Sitopia is arranged in seven chapters representing a food-based journey, in this case starting with a plate of food and travelling out to the universe. The story begins with food itself, moving out to the body, the home, society, city and country, nature and time. At each stage – or scale – of this journey I use food as a lens to explore the origins and dilemmas of our current situation and to ask how we can improve it.
Food lies at the heart of sitopia, yet this book is not primarily about food; rather it explores how food can help us to address our many quandaries in a connected and positive way. We can’t live in utopia, but by thinking and acting through food – by joining forces to build a better sitopia – we can come surprisingly close.



Google Burger

Technology is the answer. But what was the question? — Cedric Price1

In August 2013, an audience gathered in London to witness a remarkable gastronomic event. Broadcast live from a TV studio and hosted by ITN news anchor Nina Hossain, it involved the cooking and tasting of the world’s first lab-grown beefburger. Crackling with tension, the occasion had the incongruous air of a Saturday-morning cookery show hijacked by some secretive research facility. Instead of the usual celebrity guests and breezy chat, there was the burger’s creator, Maastricht University Professor of Physiology Mark Post, perched uneasily on a stool, next to two anxious-looking ‘guinea pigs’ – Austrian nutritionist Hanni Rützler and US food writer Josh Schonwald – ready to try what might be the food of the future.
Revealed from beneath a silver cloche, the burger looked innocent enough, although on closer inspection its purplish hue and too-smooth texture (plus the fact that it sat in a Petri dish) betrayed its unique provenance. Created over the course of five years at a cost of €250,000, the burger consisted of 20,000 strands of what Post called ‘cultured beef ’ – in-vitro muscle tissue grown from bovine stem cells – mixed with some more familiar ingredients: egg and breadcrumbs for texture, plus saffron and beetroot juice for colour. Richard McGeown, the chef charged with cooking this precious puck of protein, scooped it up with the air of a man handling nuclear waste and lowered it gingerly into a pan of melted butter.
As the patty started to sizzle, a short film was shown explaining the science behind in-vitro meat. With cartoony graphics and a jazz-funk soundtrack straight out of the ‘Dino-DNA’ sequence in Jurassic Park, a velvety American baritone informed us that the muscle tissue for cultured beef is initially ‘harvested’ from a cow in a ‘small and harmless procedure’. The fat and muscle cells are then separated and the latter dissected, causing them to self-divide. ‘From one muscle cell, more than one trillion cells can be grown!’ purred the voice. The cells then merge to produce 0.3-millimetre-long chains that are placed around a central hub of gel, where their natural tendency to contract causes them to bulk up, producing more muscle. ‘From one small piece of tissue, one trillion strands can be produced!’ the voice enthused, seemingly unaware of the repetition. ‘When all these little pieces of muscle are layered together, we get exactly the same thing we started with: beef!’
Back in the studio, Chef McGeown pronounced the burger ready, serving it up on a white plate next to a desultory bun, slice of tomato and a lettuce leaf. ‘Ladies first!’ chirruped Hossain, pushing the plate towards Rützler, who tentatively cut off a small piece of patty, peered and sniffed at it and then put it into her mouth and began to chew. As this ‘one small bite’ moment of food history played out, Post explained how Winston Churchill had predicted all this back in 1931, in an essay in which he described how humans would one day ‘escape the absurdity’ of rearing whole chickens by growing the edible parts in a ‘suitable medium’. As Post warmed to his theme, it became clear to everyone else that the burger was burning Rützler’s mouth. Unwilling to spit out her €50,000 payload, she gamely swallowed and, in obvious pain, attempted to answer Hossein’s suitably burning question, ‘How did it taste?’
Rützler laughed nervously. ‘I was expecting the texture to be more soft,’ she said at last. ‘There is quite some flavour with the browning. I know there is no fat in it, so I didn’t know how juicy it would be, but it’s close to meat . . . Er, the consistency is perfect . . . but I miss salt and pepper!’ With this final outburst, Rützler passed the tasting baton to Schonwald, who soon brought his native burger-eating heritage to bear. ‘The bite feels like a conventional hamburger,’ he began, ‘but it’s a kind of unnatural experience, in that I can’t tell you how often over the past twenty years I’ve had a hamburger without ketchup, or any kind of onions or jalapeños or bacon; but I think fat is a big part of what is missing . . . what was conspicuously different was flavour.’
Despite these mixed reviews, Post remained upbeat when asked by Hossein how he felt the tasting had gone. ‘I think it’s a very good start,’ he said; ‘this was mostly to prove we can do it. I’m very happy with it. It’s a fair comment, that there is no fat in here yet, but we’re working on it.’ We, it emerged, included Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who now appeared in a short film to explain his hopes for the project. ‘Sometimes a new technology comes along that has the capability to transform how we view the world,’ he said. ‘I like to look at the opportunity and see when it’s on the cusp of viability.’ Brin’s speech might have been more uplifting had he not chosen to deliver it in his prototype Google smart glasses, which gave him the sinister appearance of a Bond villain. ‘Some people think this is science fiction,’ he went on. ‘I actually think that’s a good thing. If what you’re doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, it’s probably not transformative enough.’
Back in 2013, Brin was far from the only Silicon Valley CEO getting excited by lab food. That year was something of an annus mirabilis for the new tech trend, with Bill Gates announcing his support for no fewer than three start-ups: Nu-Tek Salt, which proposed to replace ed - ible sodium with potassium chloride, Hampton Creek Foods (now renamed JUST), pioneers of the use of plant proteins to mimic eggs, and Beyond Meat, which did the same for chicken and beef. Gates’ conversion had apparently come when he tried the latter’s ‘chicken-free strips’ and found that he couldn’t tell them from the real thing. ‘We’re just at the beginning of enormous innovation in this space,’ he wrote on his website that year. ‘For a world full of people who would benefit from getting a nutritious, protein-rich diet, this makes me very optimistic.’
As usual, Gates was right on the money.



Copyright © Carolyn Steel 2020

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