The food and the methods and techniques we use to prepare and eat it all over the world are an expression and symbol of cultural identity, but also the result of economic, social, technological, and agronomic processes. In the course of history, except on rare occasions, changes in these sectors have always taken place very slowly. This has made it possible to preserve and consolidate gastronomic habits and customs.
Hunger as opposed to wealth, divisions between social classes, huge breakaway phenomena such as the French Revolution, the so-called Green Revolution, biotechnological research, industrialization and urbanization—these are all processes that have changed and continually redefine the concept of tradition. One factor more than others—the improvement and acceleration of transport—has been influential over the last hundred years. The fact is that it is now possible to transport large quantities of food, irrespective of season, climate and lie of the land, all features that used to characterize local produce. It has made food available where once it was in short supply, favoring the propagation of global fast food and franchised outlets.
If, on the one hand, the boosting of transport and communications has led to the standardization of ‘hyperproductive’ crops and hamburgers, on the other it has allowed exotic foodstuffs to cross borders and become fashionable (sushi and cuscus come to mind), influencing local cuisines and inventing new culinary customs ex novo— fusion’s one example.
Seeing the number of factors at stake, the moment has come to ask whether there’s any point in transporting so much food. The question is: should we accept amazing technological evolution and the changes they bring to our table passively? Or should we seriously think about redesigning a global agro-industrial system encompassing not only its own sectors of influence, but also decisive for others—environmental and economic sustainability, first and foremost. It is a question that comes up when lardo di Colonnata hits the headlines— everyone wants it and it gets sold over the Internet—but also when, more dramatically, the peasant farmers of Senegal, led by Mamadou Cissokó, ask what can be done to solve the serious food problems of the peoples of Africa. Rightly enough, the African leader points his finger at food aid from ‘wealthy’ countries, a mechanism that discourages local production and originates dependence: on non-African countries for non-traditional foodstuffs and towards non-African countries for crops such as coffee and cocoa, which suit the tastes of European and Americans, but not of Africans.
These peasants are keen to relaunch and rediscover their traditional food products, because, before the advent of this ‘dual colonialism’, Africa had ‘fed itself and fed the world for centuries’. There’s no need to impose technologies—computers and GMOs—or ‘non-African’ products such as sugar, rice and oil. If travel and transport are so easy nowadays, why don’t the people who spend so much cash to solve the problems of developing countries—through food aid, GMOs, technicians, and missionaries—why don’t they invest some of it to bring African youngsters and experts and eggheads over here?
Why doesn’t the ‘developed ‘world’ make structures available to create a new ruling class in these countries? Why, instead of giving away ourfood products, don’t we buy theirs? ‘Think global, eat local’ could be a new slogan for everyone—north and south, east and west. It’s not an archaeology of tradition that I have in mind, but rather a conscious attempt to contribute to the sustainability of a system that isn’t just ill—it’s at its life’s end. It’s far, far better for people to travel rather than goods, and for ideas to travel rather than ideological and commercial impositions.
First published in Agricoltura – La Stampa on 1/12/2002
Adapted by John Irving