We all know someone who seems to long for “the good old days” – when things were simpler, we consumed less, neighbours and friends worked together to get jobs done and we appreciated what we had. There is a romantic notion to it all, but is it realistic? Our ancestors certainly appreciated the food on their plates, but they were also closer to starvation and understood food scarcity in a way we simply do not.
They consumed less, but were often cold and uncomfortable. They were less hygienic. We may now have lived through a pandemic, but thanks to modern living and advances in medicine, deaths from things like typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis are a rarity in the global north.
Of course, in much of the world, food scarcity, starvation and all of the aforementioned diseases still exist and claim lives. Maybe instead of pining for “the good old days”, we should ask: is there a middle ground where we can still avail of modern technology while building strong, food secure communities?
In some respects, should we be going back to simpler notions of what a society could be? During the COVID-19 lockdown, some Irish communities took matters into their own hands to create social ties and combat rural isolation through accessible local food (read more in the case study below). Could this approach be a model for other communities to follow suit?
Degrowth is an economic ideology which counters capitalism. In the current climate, it is gaining traction.
The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports use the term on several occasions when discussing policies they consider key to mitigating the impacts of climate change.
It’s loosely based around the idea that consumption and overproduction need to end – that as long as things are “business as usual” we won’t progress as a society. The main principles of degrowth include social justice and ecological sustainability and these things are meant to replace the importance of GDP (gross domestic product) in our economy.
What about food?
Where does food enter into this model? Well, there are examples throughout the world where marginalised communities have increased their political autonomy and climate resilience by taking back their food sovereignty (their right to produce food in ways which will benefit them).
This is happening in certain regions in India as part of the eco-swaraj movement where communities, not the government, aim to make the decisions affecting them in kind of a “radical ecological democracy” (Asia Pacific Perspectives, 2018, San Francisco University).
Combined with a strong local food culture, could degrowth be the key to a prosperous future for rural communities and cities alike?
Closer to home, we see plenty of examples of community building through food. From chef-driven communal dinners (like Roots Dinners in Co Meath, whom we highlighted in Irish Country Living this past January) to the expansion of the Neighbourfood online farmers’ market system during the pandemic and the creation of social enterprises like FoodCloud, which redistributes surplus food.
While a true ideology, degrowth is also a voluntary thing. Presently, you either have to want to do it or you have to have no better alternative. But when combined with a strong local food culture, could degrowth be the key to a prosperous future for rural communities and cities alike?
London-based architect and author Carolyn Steel believes food can save the world – in fact, that’s the subtitle of her first book, Hungry City: How Food Can Save the World. As an architect, Carolyn looks at food security from a design and structural perspective, but also through the lens of history.
She specifically looks at how societies and cities naturally developed around food access and through symbiotic relationships with surrounding farmland and water access. We no longer enjoy these close relationships with the land and to Carolyn that is where we have gone wrong.
Needing a word to describe our food-driven society, Carolyn decided on the Greek-derived term sitopia – sitos meaning food, and topos meaning place. This term both ended Hungry City and became the title of her second book.
“In a way of summing up the last chapter of Hungry City, I was researching ‘utopia’ because it’s the tradition of asking: what is a good society?” She explains. “But the trouble with utopia is that it doesn’t exist. It can’t exist. It aims at perfection.
“We already live in a world shaped by food, so I thought: ‘Why don’t I call it Sitopia?’ We live in a sitopia – a ‘food place’ – but we [currently] live in a bad one because we don’t value food.”
During presentations, Carolyn often refers to the fall of Rome. Rome is the first example of a major city which outgrew its local food sources. By becoming dependent on imports from other regions within its empire, it became a vulnerable and largely food insecure society toward the end. Carolyn argues that devaluing food ultimately led to its demise. She says our current society has a lot in common with Ancient Rome.
“There were good and bad examples from the past and Rome is my favourite bad example,” she laughs. “How did a city of a million people feed itself in the first century AD? That’s 10 times bigger than the next biggest city had been up to that point.
“There are so many parallels with what Rome did and what we do now,” she adds. “We import our food from all over the world and nobody has a clue where it comes from and if we’re going to grow anything local it tends to be the very high-end stuff.”
Carolyn hopes for a revolutionary shift in society where we value local food and farmers once again.
Irish Country Living asks her if it’s helpful to look at the future of food and society from such a philosophical perspective. After all, when your house is on fire, you don’t have time to stop and think about how you can make your next house fire-proof – you just do your best to survive. We are living in times of unprecedented crises.
As a result, we now have perhaps the best opportunity we’ll ever have to rethink how we want to live
“I believe it’s important to take a philosophical approach to food and farming because, quite simply, food is life,” she says. “The pandemic has been very revealing in that it has highlighted what really matters to us in life, as well as revealing aspects of our lives that were not quite as we’d like them beforehand.
“As a result, we now have perhaps the best opportunity we’ll ever have to rethink how we want to live and to ask how we can build better, more equitable and sustainable societies – and I think food is the ideal medium through which to do that. This is partly because, as COVID has reminded us, what actually makes us happy are basic things like spending time with friends and family, being close to nature, having a safe home and a steady job and being part of a supportive community.
“We live in a very unequal society, so I think channelling a bit more of the love that we show one another when we break bread together needs to filter into our politics and economics,” she adds.
“To put it bluntly, in order to build a good sitopia, we need land and tax reform on a global scale. Of course I realise these are revolutionary ideas, but there are many people calling for them.”
Achonry is a small village in Co Sligo. Like many rural areas, there is a sizeable elderly population, isolation is a prevalent issue and, during the pandemic, it became clear to community members that something needed to be done to bring the community together. The answer? Food, of course.
You might think developing a farmers’ market in such a small place would be a bad business decision, but this market has done so much more for the community than generate income.
“Achonry Farmers Market was established in August 2020 as a lockdown idea,” explains committee member Ollie Lee. “The market was started by a group of community volunteers who established three main objectives: to support small, local, sustainable food and craft businesses; to create a community hub to socialise and combat rural isolation; and to generate income to develop community facilities.”
Food brings people from all walks of life together and Achonry is no exception to this rule. One of the main goals of the market was to provide a social hub for the community to help combat rural isolation.
“We have a market cafe each week and neighbours and friends meet for tea or coffee and a chat,” Ollie says. “It has become a real outlet for people and is now a regular, weekly Saturday visit to the community market for locals.”
The committee were not only able to avail of community volunteers to develop the market – they also received funding in the form of grants from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and raised an additional €5,000 in sponsorship from local businesses, which enabled them to create their own unique infrastructure.
“All traders have their own weatherproof trading chalets, which have been built by volunteers,” Ollie says. “Recent grant funding awarded in quarter one of 2022 will enable further investment to improve the market for all stakeholders.”
Irish Country Living asks Ollie how a rural, community-led market like Achonry plans to survive into the future.
“We feel our unique model as a community and volunteer-led market is what will sustain us,” he says. “We acknowledge that families in our community have their weekly routines – including the large weekly ‘shop’ at the supermarket. We appeal to our community to spend a small portion of their weekly shopping budget at Achonry Farmers Market, to do our bit to create a food-secure community with a lower carbon footprint and support great local businesses in the process.”