Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
An anthropologist might say that people fight before they starve. A political scientist might say that citizens expect from their governments the provision of “bread and circuses”. A peacebuilder might say that sustainable peace enables sustainable food production and visa versa. The links between food and peace are clear for those living and working in conflict-prone and food insecure environments. But what about for the many living in peaceful, stable countries with either abundant food or amicable trade links, or in built up cities where the availability of food is taken for granted? What has food really got to do with peace? And are some foods more conflict sensitive than others?
To begin to think about this, it is intriguing to go back to World War II and consider how chemical corporations profiting greatly from war found a new home for their excess chemicals in industrial agricultural pesticides. Instead of being used deliberately to kill the enemy in conflict, these chemicals were used to kill insects, weeds, soils and other living matter – with the upside being an increase in crop yields as the agronomists and economists decreed. Then in the 1970s, Swiss food mega corporation Nestlé began heavily marketing its infant baby milk formula to mothers around the world, including in developing countries where local water sources were contaminated. The company was blamed for unnecessary death and disease of vulnerable infants who could otherwise have depended on much safer breast milk. This precipitated a vehement boycott of the company’s myriad products that continues today.
It is fascinating how in most South East Asian countries, you see and taste virtually the same sweet Chilli, fish and soy sauce cluttering the plastic tables of roadside and market stalls, even if the labels differ. One wonders what people used to do before the age of factory food, plastic packaging and added MSG. Of course the sauce reference is only emblematic of a broader trend of more imported industrially-produced food replacing uniquely local products that used to help sustain people’s livelihoods. Travelling across the world we can see how we’re connected together through unhealthy soft drinks and chilli sauces, but often not through genuine peace.
A key issue here is that food that is better for us, farmers and the environment, is often more expensive. Fresh is best, but not cheapest. The hyper-industrialisation and monoculturalisation of food is something informed humans intuitively recognise to be completely unsustainable. Industrial food is habitually under-priced because the “externalities” of its production – greenhouse gas emissions, soil and water pollution, costs to the health system and the social and mental impacts on the exploited workers – are not included in the sale price. At the risk of sounding like an economist, which I’m not, this is an apparent example of market failure. Yet we buy into this system regularly at the supermarket checkout as our back pocket seeks greater nourishment than our stomachs. The so-called “market” is now the ultimate power and we all worship at its temple, even if we say we don’t really want to. The “invisible hand” is linked to the “invisible producer” and “invisible environmental damage”. The consequences of increasing economics of scale at the global level also include farmers displaced by the phenomenon of land grabs and the hidden animal prisons. Is there anything less peaceful than thousands of inhumanely confined, drugged-up beasts ready for the slaughter?
A second, related factor is our unquenchable desire for convenience. We simply don’t have time in our busy lives to go poking around the supermarket reading labels about what is organic, locally sourced, not to mention GM-free, before rushing home to cook for the better half and/or the kids. As the pendulum of modern capitalisms swings further towards leveraging capital and away from protecting labour, we’re going to naturally have less time and mental energy to reflect on what we consume. And so we just don’t. It’s even harder to be mindful of these things when many of us are on the road as our jobs increasingly require; unhealthy eating on the run from the convenience store or in the car. It’s a vicious cycle. Nowadays the very foods that combined can help minimise the stresses entrenched by the system (herbs, roots, pulses, nuts, berries etc) can be prohibitively expensive for many. The entrenched distance between producer and consumer – see, hear, do and eat no evil – tells us much about our modern disconnection from nature, even if we can instantly instagram our latest “foodgasm” to friends on the other side of the world. In an alternative, perhaps utopian universe where we could be connected to the keepers of our food culture (farmers, fishers, fermenters), surely we might be less likely to devour foods that are bad for our own health and that of the planet.
Recipe for a conflict-sensitive diet
When one teaches (and admittedly preaches) about these things, the question is often posed back, quite reasonably, what should we do? Here in the presence of provocative minds, I want to begin to explore the idea of a “conflict-sensitive diet”. Here are some guiding principles I’ve thought of on the run as an entrée to what I hope becomes a main course conversation.
1. Food Food – this might seem like a peculiar criterion but I put it here because most of what lines supermarket shelves has either been sugar coated, frozen, deep fried thrice, sauced or just plain adulterated to the point of being unrecognisable as food. Eating “close to the ground” is a sure fire way of getting closer to inner and outer peace.
2. Local Food – it’s harder to ignore the wanton destruction of pristine rainforest when it’s happening on your doorstep. The shorter value chains of increasingly popular farmers markets give people a chance to look into the eyes of those who grow their food.
3. Organic Food – not just a buzzword but a value system that respects the parts of nature we cannot see below the surface (soil microbes, micro-organisms, the water table etc).
4. Seasonal Food – one of the ultimate expressions of interconnectedness between humans and nature is how certain fruits and vegetables appear at the time of year when our bodies crave them most. Besides, have you ever tasted a delicious tomato in winter?
5. Fair Trade Food – people that produce our food have the right to be paid fairly as much as you or I do. The fair trade system is complicated and imperfect but it’s the start of a process to ensure we pay the real price for our chocolate, coffee and beyond.
6. Social Food – gardening, cooking and eating together can be powerful expressions of love for each other and nature. Studies have identified “social structure” as an important component for ensuring we live healthier, more peaceful lives.
Be absolutely aware that any recipe for a conflict-sensitive diet will require nuancing and definite yes/no or can/can’t answers probably won’t lead people to make more conflict-sensitive food choices. It’s not a topic that can be covered in a single blog post or even a book since food cultures, production systems and trading regimes vary around the world. Besides, we can’t realistically know everything about everything we put in our mouths. The key is to be more mindful where and when you can, and encourage others to do by firstly doing it yourself.
If peace truly does come from within as many of my colleagues have so eloquently suggested, then surely what we put into our bodies has a bearing on how we achieve peace for ourselves, those who grow our food and the Earth we all depend upon. So vote with your fork, and for peace, where and when you can.
Peace to my fellow Fellows and beyond.
Mark Notaras, Australia
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2013 Session