Academic listening - social science - the core of food


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0:11How do you feed a city? It's one of the great questions of our time. Yet it's one that's rarely asked. We take it for granted that if we go into a shop or restaurant, or indeed into this theater's foyer in about an hour's time, there is going to be food there waiting for us, having magically come from somewhere.

0:31But when you think that every day for a city the size of London, enough food has to be produced, transported, bought and sold, cooked, eaten, disposed of, and that something similar has to happen every day for every city on earth, it's remarkable that cities get fed at all.

0:53We live in places like this as if they're the most natural things in the world, forgetting that because we're animals and that we need to eat, we're actually as dependent on the natural world as our ancient ancestors were. And as more of us move into cities, more of that natural world is being transformed into extraordinary landscapes like the one behind me — it's soybean fields in Mato Grosso in Brazil — in order to feed us. These are extraordinary landscapes, but few of us ever get to see them.

1:26And increasingly these landscapes are not just feeding us either. As more of us move into cities,more of us are eating meat, so that a third of the annual grain crop globally now gets fed to animals rather than to us human animals. And given that it takes three times as much grain —actually ten times as much grain — to feed a human if it's passed through an animal first, that's not a very efficient way of feeding us.

1:55And it's an escalating problem too. By 2050, it's estimated that twice the number of us are going to be living in cities. And it's also estimated that there is going to be twice as much meat and dairy consumed. So meat and urbanism are rising hand in hand. And that's going to pose an enormous problem. Six billion hungry carnivores to feed, by 2050. That's a big problem. And actually if we carry on as we are, it's a problem we're very unlikely to be able to solve.

2:25Nineteen million hectares of rainforest are lost every year to create new arable land. Although at the same time we're losing an equivalent amount of existing arables to salinization and erosion.We're very hungry for fossil fuels too. It takes about 10 calories to produce every calorie of food that we consume in the West. And even though there is food that we are producing at great cost, we don't actually value it. Half the food produced in the USA is currently thrown away.And to end all of this, at the end of this long process, we're not even managing to feed the planet properly. A billion of us are obese, while a further billion starve. None of it makes very much sense.

3:11And when you think that 80 percent of global trade in food now is controlled by just five multinational corporations, it's a grim picture. As we're moving into cities, the world is also embracing a Western diet. And if we look to the future, it's an unsustainable diet.

3:29So how did we get here? And more importantly, what are we going to do about it? Well, to answer the slightly easier question first, about 10,000 years ago, I would say, is the beginning of this process in the ancient Near East, known as the Fertile Crescent. Because, as you can see, it was crescent shaped. And it was also fertile. And it was here, about 10,000 years ago, that two extraordinary inventions, agriculture and urbanism, happened roughly in the same place and at the same time.

4:01This is no accident, because agriculture and cities are bound together. They need each other.Because it was discovery of grain by our ancient ancestors for the first time that produced a food source that was large enough and stable enough to support permanent settlements. And if we look at what those settlements were like, we see they were compact. They were surrounded by productive farm land and dominated by large temple complexes like this one at Ur, that were, in fact, effectively, spiritualized, central food distribution centers.

4:35Because it was the temples that organized the harvest, gathered in the grain, offered it to the gods, and then offered the grain that the gods didn't eat back to the people. So, if you like, the whole spiritual and physical life of these cities was dominated by the grain and the harvest that sustained them. And in fact, that's true of every ancient city. But of course not all of them were that small. Famously, Rome had about a million citizens by the first century A.D. So how did a city like this feed itself? The answer is what I call "ancient food miles."

5:11Basically, Rome had access to the sea, which made it possible for it to import food from a very long way away. This is the only way it was possible to do this in the ancient world, because it was very difficult to transport food over roads, which were rough. And the food obviously went off very quickly. So Rome effectively waged war on places like Carthage and Egypt just to get its paws on their grain reserves. And, in fact, you could say that the expansion of the Empirewas really sort of one long, drawn out militarized shopping spree, really. (Laughter) In fact — I love the fact, I just have to mention this: Rome in fact used to import oysters from London, at one stage. I think that's extraordinary.

5:51So Rome shaped its hinterland through its appetite. But the interesting thing is that the other thing also happened in the pre-industrial world. If we look at a map of London in the 17th century, we can see that its grain, which is coming in from the Thames, along the bottom of this map. So the grain markets were to the south of the city. And the roads leading up from them to Cheapside, which