The Covid-19 crisis has given us all food for thought, but for Carolyn Steel, that sense of reflection is more profound than for most.
The 60-year-old author and passionate advocate of a radically changed food system brought out her new book, Sitopia, exactly as the lockdown was being announced. A coincidence it might have been, but it gave a sharp relevance to her topic that she never could have imagined.
As a Cambridge-educated architect who has run her own design studios and worked on a range of major building projects, Steel is well placed to have a view on how to mould a modern city. The name Sitopia comes from the Greek – ‘sitos’, meaning food, and ‘topos’, meaning place – but it’s hard to avoid parallels with Thomas More’s Utopia, the 16th century socio-political satire based around an idealistic island society. Those parallels are only heightened by a sense that she longs for a simpler time, when food and family were the overriding concern and centrepiece of every citizen’s life.
Steel argues that the lockdown offers the opportunity for a reset, a chance to rebuild society around rediscovered pleasures such as a connection with local food, family dining, and home cooking. “In Sitopia, I argue that one of the things that’s making us unhappy in the late capitalist world is we’ve lost the ability to live in time; we are always running and nobody has got any time, and of course Covid has given us that back,” she explains.
“If I were in government, I would be saying we need to be coming out of this [Covid-19 crisis] on a totally different trajectory from the one we went in on,” she continues. “We were heading towards catastrophe. You don’t need Greta Thunberg to tell you if you’re 55 per cent down on insect species you’re in trouble. We were on this disastrous trajectory.
"We have to use this time to create a new vision for what a good life looks like, to incorporate all the things that people have accidentally had under lockdown – more time with their kids, new connections with local producers, local WhatsApp groups, people baking for each other. All that stuff is absolute gold dust. A visionary government would be saying we will try to build towards allowing many of those things to continue. This is quite close to designing Sitopia.”
Steel is passionate and engaging, perhaps unsurprising given her background is a lively mix of architecture, economics and blue-sky thinking. Her credentials extend to becoming the inaugural studio director of the London School of Economics Cities Programme in 1998 and working as a visiting lecturer and researcher at the Rural Sociology Department at the esteemed Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Her 2009 TED Talk in Oxford, looking at how food shapes our cities, has garnered over 1.2 million views.
Sitopia is Steel’s second book and comes with the lofty strapline of ‘How Food Can Save The World’. It takes the ideas of her debut, 2008’s Hungry City, forward and discusses in great detail what she calls ‘Sitopian economics’, which is to say pre-cost accounting, or internalising the true cost of food. Put more simply, she believes food is too cheap and needs to be valued again, and the food we eat must be nutritious, produced sensitively and at no damage to the environment. In her vision, the only good food is that which is artisanal, organic, local and seasonally produced, and she despises what she calls ‘big ag’, or the big agricultural companies that she argues are unsustainably destroying the planet.
“Everything else [other than organic] cannot be described as good because it has negative downsides that are killing us and are killing the planet,” she insists. “It also happens that that is the only food for which we already pay the true cost. I think everyone should eat that kind of food. It’s a long argument I make in the book. The aim has to be to eat only organically.”
Steel could hardly be a stronger advocate for organic, but that doesn’t mean she thinks the movement is getting everything right. She believes it needs a “new language” and to “start talking more in a big-bannerish way, and stress that soil is our future.” Organic associations should take the fight to the agricultural giants, she says, by adopting their catchphrase – that the big ag model is the only way of feeding the world – and flipping it on its head, claiming that organic production is in fact the only approach that can save humanity.
Big ambitions are all well and good, but what about the fact that not everybody can afford to buy organic? Steel responds that she believes society is the wrong way up: poor wages equal a need for cheap food and a race to the bottom on price. Instead, she wants higher levels of pay, proper taxation models that clamp down on the offshoring of wealth, a more equitable society. She admits that supermarkets are “extraordinary” but laments the power they wield and the industrial-sized supply chains they’ve created.
It all sounds unashamedly utopian – but then that’s the point. Steel believes that food should be the starting point around which all of society is constructed, an aspect that she explores in great detail from both a historical and modern perspective, lamenting the passing of days when markets were the centrepiece around which cities were built.
If Covid has brought one good thing, teaching people to re-learn this central appreciation for their food and families could well be it