I have just become a regular columnist for Building Design, which, for those of you who are not involved in the building trades, is a weekly magazine for those who are: chiefly architects, engineers, builders and designers. This is a great opportunity for me, since it allows me to further one of my main missions at the moment: to get those directly responsible for shaping our world to start seeing it – and doing it – more through food. It’s early days yet, but I am delighted that the editor, Amanda Baillieu, is keen for me to explore that topic in pretty much any way I like. As far as I am aware, it is the first time that there has been a regular column in an architectural journal devoted to food – which I must admit I find rather exciting.
Just back from Edinburgh, where I took part in my first ever literary festival – and very jolly it was too, apart from the fact that the deluge in which it took place rather dented the tented appeal of the site, which photographs reveal to be a laid-back place on more clement days, with people lazing about on the lawn reading, or chatting to one another in a casual literary manner, rather than dashing across slithery paths to shelter shivering in their yurts as we were forced to do.
Nevertheless, the howling gale provided a cosy atmosphere for my debate on the ‘Politics of Food’ in the Highland Spiegeltent, where I was slated to appear with Graham Harvey, the agricultural editor of the Archers, and Harriet Lamb, director of the Fairtrade Foundation. The Spiegeltent is an odd beast, circular in plan and internally styled like a Victorian boozer, replete with timbered alcoves, stained glass partitions and a deep wine-red decor. Whether it was a keenness to hear what we had to say or just the fact that the tent provided a handy place to shelter from the storm, the space was packed to the rafters (guide-ropes?) with beady-eyed pensioners and a few intense-looking young men and women, all highly attentive and articulate when it came to asking questions. One man in particular, an ex-sheep farmer, regaled us for ten minutes with his theories on life, farming, and why the country in general is going to the dogs. Harriet suggested, quite sincerely, that he might like to write his own book, which I thought was a splendid idea.
Afterwards we retired to the Authors’ Yurt – an extraordinary structure like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark (shaped like a canvas hobbit-hole) furnished with low sofas with patterned cushions to lounge on, exotic carpets and freely flowing food and drink. The fact that several paparazzi were shooting enthusiastically just outside the entrance suggested that there were probably rather a lot of famous authors there, but since I am about as good at recognising famous authors as I am at spotting architects, I didn’t have even 0.1 of a J.K.Rowling moment. And apparently Sean Connery pitched up the next day too. Oh well – maybe next time.
Whatever you think of Prince Charles, there is no denying his ability to stir up impassioned debate, and with his latest GM outburst, he has drawn the sort of response from the scientific community that inquisitive boys usually get when they stick their fingers into hornets’ nests. Which is a pity, because, as ever with Prince Charles, his ability to hack off the professionals is matched only by his knack of putting his finger on something rather important.
True, his apparent dismissal of GM as ‘the biggest disaster, environmentally, of all time’ has grabbed all the headlines, but if you look at what he is actually saying, it is not GM per se, but the idea that we can rely on what he calls ‘one form of clever genetic engineering after another’ to feed the world, that he is attacking. He has a point. If you put a hundred of the most eminent agronomists and scientists in a room today and asked them to vote on whether GM was the answer to the world’s future, they would be split down the middle. The point is that we simply don’t know yet. The only sensible route, therefore, is to keep all our options open.
Which brings us on to the Prince’s second point: that GM technologies tend to be ‘run by gigantic corporations’. As he rightly points out, it is ‘food security, not food production’ we should be talking about. Here, surely, is the nub of the matter. The GM debate is likely to run and run, for at least as long as the Darwinian one has – or the religious one. On matters of great import, it is rare for everyone to see eye to eye. Meanwhile, however, two things are clear:
– Plenty of food to feed the world is currently produced, yet 850 million still go hungry
– Whatever farming policy we adopt in the future, it must be based on stewardship, rather than exploitation, of natural resources.
Food is the biggest challenge we face today, yet its political, economic, social, environmental and cultural complexities tend to obscure its fundamental truths. But whatever our vision of the future, there is no doubt that the Prince’s dystopian vision of millions of small farmers being driven off the land to live in ‘unsustainable, unmanageable degraded and dysfunctional conurbations’ is already happening. Food, and and the way we produce and control it, is already shaping the world. What we need to find is a way of using food to shape a better one.