Fear of Farming, Foraging, Forgetting and Food

Reaction to “Is Farming the Only Way of Providing Food?”

By Professor Richard Oram, Stirling University

We have been presented with three intriguing, thought-provoking and – hopefully – discussion-stimulating papers.  If we take a relatively superficial view of the arguments presented, then there is clearly much that is controversial.  To use that now hackneyed question, how sustainable as a means of food-production is hunter-gathering for most modern urban populations?  How soon would exploitation of the resource lead to its tipping over that ecological threshold into unsustainability?  But total abandonment of agriculture is not what is being advocated here; it is a question of balance and a (re-)recognition of opportunities that have been forgotten over the last six thousand years.  As Ruth, who organised this panel, stressed there is the ecological knowledge to permit the farmed and the foraged to become joint dimensions of modern diets.

Caroline has taken us back to the beginning of one of – if not the most – fundamental shifts in the whole basis of human life on most of this planet; a move from a dietary regime based primarily on foraging to one based primarily on the produce of cultivation.  The transition involved a profound reordering of human socio-economic conditions and required a yet more profound reordering of the environment to sustain the increasing population levels which were one of the most direct consequences of the move from forage to farming.  In her paper, Caroline has highlighted several negative dimensions of this transition, and has urged for a cultural reconsideration of our whole attitude and approach to modern food-production, pointing to some beneficial aspects of foraging and suggesting their general re-adoption, and further suggesting an alternative future path in the provision of our food.

Ruth has then sought to address the obvious central criticism to be directed at any advocate of even a partial return to a forage-based dietary regime; the inadequacy of available non-farming-derived food resources for the sustaining of contemporary population levels or modern, urban-based societies.  She has taken an ecologist’s approach to provide a response to that criticism, looking at ecology’s general relevance to understanding of global food-production, existing alternative methods of meeting food needs, and ecology’s ability to ensure the sustainability of these alternative food sources.

Finally Jennifer has raised the issue of the fundamental need to re-examine our whole cultural relationship with what she has termed ‘the landscape of our food’.  Here we have been confronted with Andrew Dalby’s view of the Neolithic social revolution as a still-unfolding ‘process of forgetting’ which has – and continues to – push forward the industrialisation of agriculture and widen the gap between the majority of the population and the direct production of the food which they consume.   Social and cultural factors, she observes, were key drivers in the transition from hunter-gathering to farming, and she then poses the question for us: is it not possible to use those same drivers to effect a fresh reorientation?

It is the issue of cultural responses to provision or production of food that runs through all three papers, for any reorientation towards a greater emphasis on foraged foods would require not only a behavioural shift in how we gather our foodstuffs but also an attitudinal shift in what we eat and where we obtain it.  And here is where we begin to run into the obstacles that modern western society has constructed for itself.  It is those obstacles, I suggest, and the social and cultural attitudes which underpin them that perhaps we should home in on first.

Cultural attitudes towards food are particularly deeply ingrained in many societies, not just in Britain, but many segments of the modern British population seem especially disinclined even to sample non-processed foods or items which are outside a narrow repertoire of products.  You could say a ‘meat-and-two-veg’ culture if it were actually true that as many as two vegetables were included in most manifestations of it!  This is a marked contrast not just to the dietary range of the hunter-gatherer society that Caroline discussed but also to even our more recent ancestors and is perhaps one of the clearest indicators of the widespread disconnection between food production and consumption that Jennifer referred to.  Let’s take the consumption of game meats.  The population in the UK of animals classed as game has risen hugely yet there is little significant increase in popular demand for game produce except amongst fairly niche segments of the population.  Much of this arises from perceptions and misconceptions: consumption of rabbit collapsed after myxomatosis (not helped by the Disneyfication of rabbits and the generation brought up after Watership Down was published).

Clearly education is a key enabler in the potential reconnection of the modern population with its sources of food and with the potential for foraged foods as a supplementary component in their diets.  If we bear in mind that for some school children being confronted with an unpeeled raw onion is as close to natural foodstuffs as they have ever come, education will have to start at a very basic level.  But tied directly to this need for education is there not also a need for a new ‘process of forgetting’, this time of the risk-aversion-mania that has seen adults hammer into the last few generations of children a fear of any foods that either do not come from a shop or from their own garden?  A few well-meaning, mainly white, affluent middle-class and in this case mainly female practitioners is not going to carry through this revolution: how many food-fad bibles now hold up charity shop book-shelves – Atkin’s Diet, Raw Energy etc – sales of foraging handbooks is no real measure of how many people actually go out and live the life described in the pages.  For every Ray Mears there is a million Frank Gallaghers.  At present, does our socio-cultural framework not render a foraging lifestyle elite escapism available only to those who can afford to take a ‘time out’?  If we can simply tell our children that MOST wild fruits are edible – and actually show them by example – it would be a start to a more general awareness raising achievement than any number of Miles Irving’s books can deliver.

There is also the issue of future landscapes which needs to be considered here.  Ruth raised a whole series of important ecological issues for us to ponder, several of which highlight different implications for land-use and landscape visualisation – tidy = good, untidy = bad – dependent upon choices that we make in respect of how we exploit – or choose not to exploit – the food resources sustained in and on that land.  The question of ‘extincted’ top predators raises the question of reintroduction – and the attendant need then to manage those species where the topmost predators – us – have otherwise ceased to predate!  Here significant levels of foraging will have an impact that some will see as positive and others as negative.  An increase in predation of particular species does not simply have a consequence for those targeted species: new niches are created or old ones are reduced; grazing impacts change and not always with what might be perceived as beneficial consequences.  And the question of increasing predation of currently under- or unexploited species also runs counter to the modern trend towards conservation – a question which also crosses into biomass management generally in a countryside where so many of the more favourable hunter-gatherer environments have some degree of national or international significance, designation and consequent protection.  It collides, too, with notions of large-scale ecosystems restoration – US policy in this regard makes Wicken Fen appear like mere tinkering with a puddle – for why and for whom is the restoration occurring; to what condition is it being restored; and if it is to become a potential forager’s paradise, how does its exploitation get regulated to ensure that it simply does not quickly degenerate once more into the over-exploited ecologically degraded desert that it had effectively become?

But what about numbers?  In extolling the virtues and advantages of a hunter-gather society there is a danger of losing sight of that critical question of how a modern level of population could even be sustained in part on a forage element in food production.  What is the carrying capacity of the land in terms of a hunter-gatherer population?  What is the carrying capacity of the land in terms of a population that mixed modern agriculture with foraging?  And this is not just an ecological question or another manifestation of the questions at the heart of Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ for it also crosses into those absolutely fundamental dimensions of the human cultural condition; property and individual and collective moral responsibilities for the welfare and rights of others.  But we will have to confront these fundamental issues, or the future may be green and not in the eco-friendly sense but in the ecological horror-story sense of Harry Harrison’s Soylent Green, where the foodstuff of the future is the most abundant life-form, processed human…

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