55 billion farmed animals were killed last year. That's ten times the amount of people that inhabit the earth. It's one of the shocking statistics that haunts the global food industry and asks us how far from nature will we go before we realise the real value of our earthly lives, our exchange with the creatures and plants and each other.
Food lies at the basis of our relationships with the natural world. To eat our highly processed Western diet however means you can't think about what you are eating. If you do you keep bumping up against those difficult statistics about factory farming. In the 21st century to eat a plant-based diet is an effective way to reduce carbon emissions. You are what you eat, once a sign of how fashionable or socially acceptable you were has now become political. A demonstration of solidarity with the planet and its peoples.
It also indicates how far you value your own life. You are what you eat now means we consume not only the terror and imprisonment of birds and animals, but the unholy cocktail of bleach, preservatives and enzymes contained in bread, and over 50 kinds of chemicals sprayed on vegetables and fruit. As a result our once-vibrant bodies have become inflamed and full of unnatural cravings. We blow up like balloons, get diabetes and allergies, our capacity to pay attention dwindles. The food that once sustained our hearts and imaginations, as well as our bodies, is not only losing its tastes and variety, but its ability to transfer life-force into our physical forms.
There is a way however to reverse this process. One day I stopped going to supermarkets. I started to eat plants grown in season, mostly from my local area. The positive benefits of sustainable food are usually measured in food miles, but the real shifts happen when you decide you don’t want blood on your hands every time you go shopping: forests torn down to grow palm oil and soya, rivers polluted by giant pig factories, the lands of "lesser" nations seized by multinational companies and their populations indentured.
It's hard to see these vast consequences of our small daily actions because the global food industry operates within such secrecy. The distributor hubs are kept out of sight. Farmers and producers are intimidated by corporations and supermarkets to keep quiet. The workforce (often migrant labour) is pressured by similar threats. Laws protect genetically-modified and cloned foods from being recognised. But the greatest block lies in our own minds.
We don’t like to think our habits have an impact, but the fact is they do. Eating industrialised food helps a handful of conpanies control the earth's seedstores (the most chilling scenes in the agri-business documentary, Food, Inc. were of American soya farmers being investigated by Monsanto for "illegally" saving GM seed). Some of this is played out in our contempt for "fat people". We project our guilt onto the poor and the malnourished, instead of looking at the part we all play in this shadowy business.
The fact is the more stressful and fractured our lives become the more we desire to escape. "Voting with your fork" takes perseverance because our bodies have become addicted to the comforts and treats of convenience foods. The industrial food machine tries to make us forget the things that really matter, the plants that alchemise life, the creatures who are our kin, the springs of fresh water we once held sacred. It runs on 24/7 time, in the fast lane, where human beings are interchangeable. Under its spell we have forgotten who we are, what we are doing. But some of us are waking up, stirring the pot that sits on the stove, sowing seeds, remembering that today is the first day of spring.
Charlotte Du Cann was once the food editor of Elle magazine and is now a member of Transition Norwich. Food, Inc. is showing at Cinema City, Norwich, followed by a Q&A with Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association and Norfolk organic farmer on March 29 at 8.30pm.