Ecosystems, Eating, Essential Joy

Mieze Schindler Strawberries

Mieze Schindler, an old variety of strawberries. Impossible to transport, but the aroma is equally impossible to describe.

From Roman times to the Renaissance, pepper used to be what rich people used to excess because only they could afford it. Baroque nobility had banquet food covered in sugar because it was the new ‘spice’ of the rich. Meat used to be a rare treat for the Sunday table in many a place; having enough food at all was often a luxury.

The land of milk and honey (in a German version)…

Paradise was food everywhere.

Now, pepper is cheap, sugar is ubiquitous, meat can easily be daily fare. All kinds of food are available to everyone, any time, much of it in (over-)abundance, much of it cheap, some perhaps expensive, but its availability not restricted other than by ability to pay.

As a result, more than two billion people globally, in developed as well as (and now predominantly) in developing countries, are now overweight or obese.

This, too, is a democratization of luxury.

With it, many countries have expanded the range of foods eaten as staples, diets have become richer (in calories, protein, fat), but it has come at the cost of worldwide crop diversity, minor local crops, and the diverse nutrition enabled by them.

With it, hunger and obesity co-exist in the same countries and may be considered two different expressions of the same malnutrition, with too little diversity, too few micronutrients, just in the one case combined with too many calories, in the other, with too few.

Even the farm-to-table eating of the foodie movement, as Dan Barber reminds us with The Third Plate (here on Amazon), wants only what it wants rather than what is – and perhaps, has to be – produced as well, in order to have a crop rotation that keeps fields fertile, for example.

“In celebrating the All-Stars of the farmers’ market — asparagus, heirloom tomatoes, emmer wheat — farm-to-table advocates are often guilty of ignoring a whole class of humbler crops that are required to produce the most delicious food.” – Dan Barber

Looking at foodways – traditional agroecological systems and practices and diets based on them – as well as avantgarde trends in luxury eating, however, we can glimpse a different approach to ecosystems and eating – and the joy of ecohappy richer living that can be founded on them.

So much is being said about the potential chance for developing countries to leapfrog technologies in order to grow their economies, but we overlook the chances for a leapfrogging over destructive easy promises of growth and abundance, on to better technique and richer living. Not just in “developing” countries.

When you can’t or don’t want to import your food from far away,  then you can mainly just have what will grow locally, given soil and climate conditions. Trade in spices and other luxuries and some necessities such as salt has just about always taken place, though, and creativity and inventiveness offer many more chances. The global trade in agricultural commodities has made it possible to grow and feed the world’s human population, but we will need to do more than go on like this.

Getting food from afar seems easy and cheap right now, but it only needs a little disruption in transport to become a risky proposition.

If you don’t have or don’t want to use the now-usual plethora of petrochemicals and petrol fuel, however, then you have to get creative with the use of different crops and animals to enhance and maintain soil fertility and overall productivity. This is, at once, harder to do because it requires more observation and knowledge and labor, but also easier because it means less dependence on inputs that have to be bought.

Such a localized and “alternative” way is how agriculture has been working, at least whenever and wherever it was not possible to just up and move on when fertility declined, for ages. Much of ecological anthropology is the study of how humans adapted to (and changed) the environments they inhabit(ed) in order to eke out a living – or, moving into the area of archaeology and historical-sociological studies, to create civilizations.

Longji Rice TerracesMesoamericans use(d) milpas; the Balinese created rice-cropping systems with a temple-based water allocation strategy similar to how the Spanish Muslims created irrigation systems in the country’s parched South that (would) still serve their purpose very well today; Southern Chinese grow rice in terraced fields which also produce carp, with vegetables on the side, in what has been described as a “minimax” system (minimal input for maximum output); different varieties are grown together to increase resilience; crops are rotated to maintain soil fertility and crop health…

There are lots of examples of traditional ecological knowledge with a great understanding of how to build functioning eco-agricultural systems that change landscapes, increase their usefulness to humans, all the while maintaining (if not increasing) their ecological functioning and diversity.

Now, such systems often sound antiquated because industrial agriculture makes it feasible to achieve high yields, using the same method of high-yield hybrid seed made to produce well through the use of fertilizer and pesticides, everywhere, with little need to consider most aspects of local conditions or evolutionary-ecological processes.

And we are losing that “TEK” (traditional ecological knowledge) in the drive to “develop” and modernize, with the loss of biodiversity and landscape diversity, along with the language and cultural diversity that has made humanity so rich, fascinating – and adapted.

We will need to “return forward” to agroecological practices and foodways fitting for the environments and conditions we are in – and new attitudes and approaches.

But, now that we can finally have food in abundance and have just about anything we want whenever we want it thanks to global supply chains – strawberries in winter, tropical fruits in temperate regions, the special treats of “developed” countries in “underdeveloped” ones, calories until we could roll rather better than we can walk – how should we even consider such a “poor” way of life?

This attitude shows the problematic an-ecological views we often suffer, where the focus is just on single measures and the simplest of ways: We need to feed the world, so we need the highest yields – never considering that the high yields we are now getting do not, predominantly, feed people but provide inputs for agribusiness, and they are based on (fossil resource) inputs, from petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers to the fuel used in their growing, to the fuel and infrastructure necessary for distribution. Disruptions would be rather easy; sustainability is not given. Even the nutrition gained, given that a calorie isn’t simply a calorie, is failing us.

Meanwhile, small-scale farming still feeds much of the world (some 75% of the world’s poor live in rural areas and depend, at least in large part, on it). Poor peasants may now want nothing more than to get out of the fields into paying jobs – but then, even migrant workers in China had an advantage when they could return to their fields when employment was not available or not satisfyingly paid.

Farming is a losing proposition, which is why so many people want to move into better (read: higher-paying) work, but it is also one of the best chances for home gardens to get by, “emergency entrepreneurship” to create an income, and newly connected entrepreneurial ‘ecosystems’ of agricultural production, local specialties, restaurants, and perhaps additional wares. (Clothing from natural fibers, anyone?)

Local eco-living and ideas for long-term space explorationMore steps than a further industrialization of agriculture are necessary and agro-ecological systems are seen as among our best future chances, anyways. (In fact, even space exploration, let alone colonization, will need ecological life-support systems.)

Simply in eating, suggest a predominant focus on the local alone, and suddenly everyone has become an expert who knows perfectly that local production alone could only be bland, boring, and insufficiently nutritious.

Well, globally produced and traded foods may make it possible to get more fruit, especially, at any time of the year, but in the dominance of ready-made convenience foods, it is actually bland, boring, and insufficiently nutritious except for all the tricks that food designers pull to make their products all but addictive and all the refined sugar or plant-derived oil (fat).

Local Market in Rural China
Local Market in Rural China

A reduction to foods which can be locally produced can make it easier, again, to get back to nutrition that is simply good – sufficiently diverse, fresh, nutritional – and that is what one cooks because it is what is there and gets cooked. Most of the time, we eat only what’s there, anyways, but when that’s the supposed diversity in the supermarket’s aisles, it’s not doing us any good. We’d complain about a restriction to the produce section and what we can make of it, but there are more kinds of vegetables alone than most people now know, more kinds of sweets that can be baked from few ingredients than we tend to be aware of anymore.

A local agro-ecological foodway, thus, can be richly diverse, made even richer by the introduction and breeding of further varieties, which is a necessity for making such a system work appropriately because it takes more different varieties and types of crops, as well as animals, to cycle nutrients, prepare soils, work against pests, etc. – and better still as these can be products that are more nutritious and tasty because they can be harvested riper and delivered shorter distances.

Mieze Schindler Strawberries
Mieze Schindler, an old variety of strawberries. Impossible to transport, but the aroma is equally impossible to describe.

Furthermore, the eating based on such a bounty of locally diverse production can be all the richer. It is a necessity for it to also have and use minor crops which don’t have the best reputation or aren’t even known anymore. But this also means that they stand to be re-discovered. What also stands to be re-discovered with its necessity are ways of preserving and preparing the bounties of fruits and vegetables that are only around during their harvest season but lacking at other times. But then, just look at old books on how to preserve and prepare, and there’s a lot of creativity and pleasure to be found.

Moreover, with all the knowledge we would now have access to, from all around the world, we could surely do things even better? That is exactly why the notion of local, superfood, farm-to-table, nose-to-tail “foodie” cuisine meeting localized agro-ecology on the “third plate” is so interesting.

As we can see in initiatives such as Cook It Raw or the MAD symposium and many a now-fancy restaurant, great chefs find fantastic uses for simple, often enough undervalued or even, by now, unknown foods in the upper echelons of modern cuisine.

Local and even wild ingredients and products gain new acclaim and turn out to not necessarily be the emergency food no one would want to eat but in the worst of conditions, but something interesting to try out, have, and enjoy. It presents a new appreciation for the local, wild, seasonal, regional that shows that all of that isn’t old and restricted so much as a constraint around which lots of creativity can work and riches of many a kind can be created. It is something “normal” cooks could just as well re-discover, experiment with, and enjoy.

Working with these constraints and in such creativity, and keeping places supplied with the necessary (and surplus) energy, has been the foundation of civilization; working ecologically is the best chance for our futures and for better living, not just when it comes to growing food and eating well, but in all of life. – And we have hardly begun to plumb into the depths of creativity and rich living that we may yet gain by growing, cooking, and eating – and living – in ways ‘fitted‘ for our ecosystems and ourselves, and playing with doing so in ways both old like field rotations and intercropping and new like permaculture and urban aquaponics.

It’s time to discover the possibilities we have and gain from doing things differently. Better.

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