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Hungry City

Carolyn Steel's new book looks at the tense relationship between food and the city

The Independent, 18th July 2008

‘Most of us’, writes Carolyn Steel early on in this intriguing study of the relationship between the food we eat and the cities we live in, ‘live in ignorance of the effort it takes to feed us.’ There was a time when cities were inextricably linked to the farmed landscape around them. Indeed, it could hardly be any different: without a reliable food supply, a city will collapse surprisingly quickly. This has always been true. The difference is that today we like to pretend it isn’t.

The development of all cities in history, from the first, Uruk, in 3500BC up until the early nineteenth century, were inextricably linked to their farming hinterland. In Victorian London, animals were herded through the streets of London and milk came from urban dairies – often in conditions so bad that it was sour before it got to anyone’s tables. Food production, in an age of slow or non-existent transport, needed to be close to the metropolis, which limited both a city’s size and its location.

All this changed with the coming of the railways in the 1830s. Suddenly, long distance food transport was possible. Suddenly, cities didn’t need their nearby farms (which often became suburbs, creating in turn a greater demand for food). From this, and associated industrialisation, all else sprang. Cities became ‘freed from the constraints of geography’, and of nature. In time, a desert city like Dubai would become possible, its people fed at a continents’ remove by factory farms and pesticide-soaked fields.

Eighty percent of us worldwide are now city dwellers, and this exodus from the land has created an unprecedented situation: most people, in most places, at most times, eat food of whose provenance they are utterly unaware. They don’t know where it comes from, how it was made or reared, how it got to them or even what is in it. Industrial capitalism has allowed us to remove ourselves from any real awareness of our actions. But we haven’t, as we like to imagine, removed ourselves from the consequences.

Steel runs through those consequences, from supermarket dominance to the pre-eminence of ready meals to the unquestionable evils of modern factory farms. Sometimes it seems that she runs through them too briefly: or rather, she is attempting to take on too much. It’s hard to contain a history of western civilisation, seen through both plate and street, within 400 pages. Interestingly, this very contemporary book is perhaps at its best exploring not the dominance of Tesco – which has been done in greater detail elsewhere – but the fascinating history of the co-dependence of city and country over the millennia.

It was news to me, for example, that fast-food joints appeared to be common in the ancient city of Ur , or that its famous ziggurat was more a monument to food than faith. Stories which open up the reality of factory farming in nineteenth century America give a new perspective on current examples – bigger, faster, probably crueller – in today’s Poland . I hadn’t come across William Cobbett’s Pol Pot-like desire to ‘lance’ all the cities of England and turn their people back to the plough. And I had no idea just how unreal some of the Modernist projects for urban architecture (kitchens as ‘machines’ which, in most cases, didn’t work) could be.

Hungry City is a smorgasbord of a book: dip into it at any point and you will, in all likelihood, emerge with something fascinating. In a world in which our cities are more cut off than ever from the natural world which sustains them – a world in which each of us ‘eats’ the equivalent of the four barrels of oil it takes to produce our food every year – it is well worth getting up to speed on just how vulnerable they really are.