First Food: New cultures

Topics food habits | Fresh Food | FunFoods

Good Food is First Food — not junk food — instead it is the food that connects nature and nutrition with livelihoods. This food is good for our health; it comes from the rich biodiversity of our regions; it gives employment to people; and, most importantly, its cooking and eating give us pleasure.

In 2013, the Centre for Science and Environment, the organisation I work for, published the first edition of First Food. I wrote then that food is about culture and, most importantly, about biodiversity. We often do not think that food diversity, indeed cultural diversity, is linked to diversity in the biological world. We argued then that we must celebrate the knowledge of plants and their properties and how best to cook them to bring out the flavours and smell. Only when we value the biodiversity on our plate shall we be able to protect the biodiversity of the wild.

In 2017, First Food: Culture of Taste was published. In this book, like the first, we sourced recipes of food that brought us the knowledge of plant diversity. We did this, because by then it was clear that the world was (and is) facing an obesity pandemic. It is clear that the food we are eating is bad for our health; it has no nutrition and no goodness.

More importantly, it is now clear that this change of our diet — moving away from home-cooked, nutrition food borne out of culinary tradition and age-old knowledge — is not incidental or accidental. We are children of the age of processed and factory-grown food, which has been trans-mutated through deliberate and subliminal marketing that has changed our habits, indeed, our culture of food.

But the question always is: How will we change this culture of bad food? Is it even possible? The power of the processed food industry is massive; its ability to reach people, particularly the young with their food propaganda, is pervasive; and it has perfected the art of seduction through colour, flavour, and smell. It knows how to get us to snacking temptation — even when we know it is bad for us. More importantly, the processed food industry has now found a niche of fitting into our busy lifestyles — it is convenient because it is there and it is easy to make. No muss. No fuss.

But most importantly, the processed industry’s world of food is about its business. It works because it needs the profit and so companies build the supply chain to get the food to us. The question then is: How can good food be supplied? Can this business of livelihoods be part of the mainstream food industry, or does it need a parallel market to survive? What will work?

So, this time, our 2019 edition of First Food brings you the knowledge of livelihoods that connect to First Food. It is about the business that is invisible and the business that is nascent. But it is all about the business that must grow and take over our lives. We know this is possible. Teff, a millet from Ethiopia with tiny seeds (much like sikiya that we have talked about in the book), is gluten-free and has cashed in on this attribute. In Ethiopia, teff is grown by an estimated 6.3 million farmers and is grown over 20 per cent all cultivated land. This seed is being called Ethiopia’s “second gift to the world”, after coffee. In London, 1 kg of teff flour is available for as much as £7. In Ethiopia, it is less than half a pound for the same weight.

There are examples within India too. Millets like ragi and brown top millet are showing up on our food market shelves. We are now consuming these because they are available. But this growth of good food has to be nurtured so that becomes the flavour of our life. We have also explored the business of this food — ways in which the tea industry is linking with small farmers to collect roselle flowers (Hibiscus sabdariffa); or how the jackfruit business is now growing so that it is available through the year. These stories are important. They may not be enough today to change the pernicious habits of bad food — but these tell us the ways of the future.   

The change-makers in this new business of food are chefs. They bring us delights and lead the way for society on what good food is. This is why they are the ones who must help to shape this new connect between food, nutrition, nature, and livelihood. It is for this reason, in this very special edition of First Food, we have invited these men and women of culinary fame to share their recipes with us. This fashion of food will be good for us.
The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment.
Twitter: @sunitanar

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