The choice of what you eat is perhaps globally as influential – or more – as your vote in national elections.
It always has been. Think about the history of food.
In the beginning there was selfishness. A hunter-gatherer lifestyle promoted competition over cooperation, in line with the logic of – literally – first come, first served.
The transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a structured agriculture with management and cultivation of crops and animals had massive political implications.
But the dark side of humans – in the form of competition or even fierce, existential rivalry in the pre-settlement era – was still there. The rise of societal structure gave birth to the concept of political elites, which would normally be formed of those most qualified or most in the position to manage the food surplus. Back then, what we would call today a national treasury, was directly linked to agriculture.
With the rise of political elites, the inevitable happened. Whilst the pre-settlement model was based on the tribal logic of us-against-them, it also curbed any individual ambitions which put the benefit of the group first. The new arrangement, however, allowed for the rise of internal divisions, including inequalities and class systems.
Years later, the erosion and soil depletion around Rome triggered another revolution of a political nature, when the empire was forced to establish trade relations with North Africa, particularly Egypt, in order to meet its fundamental promise of feeding its people.
Since then, the management of crops surplus and trade pacts served for many centuries as a driving force of alliances, wars, political debates, and engines of growth for many parts of Europe and indeed the world.
Fast-forward. Think about the more recent times, the start of the twentieth century and the innovation of ammonia fertiliser – “the bread from air” – by the German chemist, Fritz Haber. His rather innocent set of scientific achievements, designed to answer the problem of food shortages following rapid population growth, sent Europe into some of its darkest moments in history. His ammonia fertiliser is believed to have at the same time fed millions, if not billions, of people, but also to have extended the first world war by at least a year, being effectively used as an explosive and claiming many human lives.
One thing that connects all these examples is that every single decision we make about food, every single step changing the way we produce it, has political – understood as societal – consequences.
When today you choose cheaper, lower quality products over those perhaps a bit more expensive, but produced in a controlled, sustainable environment – it is an essentially political decision. If you go for simplified, standardised, and mechanically-produced goods over those from local sources – it is an equivalent of a political vote for your vision of the future.
As we enter the new age of uncertainty and global challenges, when even Haber’s magic formula increasingly seems to be not enough to meet the demand for the 21st Century with 10 billion people expected by 2050, we may be on the brink of another historic turn. Where do we go from here?
I, for one, believe in the spirit of the famous saying of the former Czechoslovak leader, Vaclav Havel, who hugely influenced the Central European understanding of politics. “The salvation of this human world,” he said, “lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.”
Appreciating the progress my country, Poland, has made since the collapse of communism in 1989, effectively joining the most developed countries in the world, I feel morally obliged to support others in meeting their aspirations of a prosperous and peaceful life.
If there is a way forward – to the world of no hunger, limited inequalities, little problems with nutrition – I believe it to be strictly connected to our ability to cooperate with each other in the spirit of solidarity and inclusion. The recently adopted set of UN Sustainable Development Goals – including much welcomed actions connected to food security, food safety, responsible production and consumption – offers the real prospect of a better world, but requires a paradigm shift for the change to take place.
Every single purchase of every single food product needs to be considered a political decision. As consumers, we indeed are co-responsible for making informed choices, even if it takes an extra 30 seconds to use our smartphone and check if the product we are about to buy meets the environmental, quality and social standards for the future world we want to live in.
Climate change, poverty, hunger, rising inequalities. It is all one, interconnected fight we are a part of.
This World Food Day, as business and government leaders across the globe reaffirm their political commitment to fight hunger, make no mistake: you are one of them. You are perhaps the most influential of them all, as you are in a position to reaffirm this pledge every time you go shopping.
Spread the word among your friends, and encourage them to make responsible decisions.
The next time you buy groceries, remember: it’s decision time. What you eat is what you vote for.
Author: Paweł Jarczewski, CEO, Grupa Azoty. Chairman of the Technical and SHE Committee of the International Fertilizer Industry Association.
Image: A woman checks vegetables at the Biocompany organic supermarket in Berlin, January 31, 2013. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch