How global food distribution networks shape our cities (TED)

This is a transcript from a TED talk by Carolyn Steel on the modern global food distribution networks and their evolvement. Architect and author of the book Hungry City, she addresses food’s journey from land to urban table and thence to sewer.

The following are direct quotes from the talk. If you’re not pressed for time, check it out in full on TED.

We take it for granted that if we go into a shop or restaurant, there is going to be food there waiting for us, having magically come from somewhere.

Every day in cities, enough food has to be produced, transported, bought and sold, cooked, eaten, and disposed of, otherwise they would collapse.

As more of us move into cities, more of natural world is being transformed into extraordinary landscapes in order to feed us.

A third of the annual grain crop globally now gets fed to animals rather than to us human animals.

It takes ten times as much grain to feed a human if it’s passed through an animal first – not a very efficient way of feeding us.

Meat and urbanism are rising hand in hand. Six billion hungry carnivores to feed, by 2050.

Nineteen million hectares of rainforest are lost every year to create new arable land.

It takes about 10 calories (fossil fuels) to produce every calorie of food that we consume in the West.

We are producing food at a great cost, but we don’t actually value it. Half of all the food produced in the USA is thrown away.

We are not even managing to feed the planet properly. A billion of us are obese, while a further billion starve.

80 percent of global trade in food now is controlled by just five multinational corporations.

The rest of the world is embracing a Western diet: an unsustainable diet.

About 10,000 years ago, two extraordinary inventions, agriculture and urbanism, happened roughly in the same place and at the same time.

The whole spiritual and physical life of these cities was dominated by the grain and the harvest that sustained them.

You could say that the expansion of the Roman Empire was really sort of one long, drawn out militarized shopping spree [discovering, seizing and importing crops and foodstuffs].

Once its roots into the city are established, they very rarely move.

If you look at the map of any city built before the industrial age, you can trace food coming in to it. You can actually see how it was physically shaped by food, both by reading the names of the streets, which give you a lot of clues.

Back then, London was an organic city, part of an organic cycle. And then 10 years later everything changed.

Cities used to be constrained by geography; they used to have to get their food through very difficult physical means. All of a sudden they are effectively emancipated from geography. It was possible for the first time to grow cities, really any size and shape, in any place.

With the onset of the industrial revolution and advances in transportation, the final emancipation of the city from any apparent relationship with nature at all began.

We don’t smell food to see if it’s okay to eat. We just read the back of a label on a packet.

By making it possible to build cities anywhere and any place, they’ve actually distanced us from our most important relationship, which is that of us and nature.

We live in a world shaped by food, and if we realize that, we can use food as a really powerful tool — a conceptual tool, design tool, to shape the world differently.

We need projects that are trying to reconnect us with nature and stop seeing cities as big, metropolitan, unproductive blobs, and instead, part of the productive, organic framework of which they are inevitably a part, symbiotically connected.

We need to be thinking more about permaculture, a re-conceptualization of the way food shapes our lives.

If the city looks after the country, the country will look after the city. We know we are what we eat. We need to realize that the world is also what we eat. But if we take that idea, we can use food as a really powerful tool to shape the world better.

4 thoughts on “How global food distribution networks shape our cities (TED)

  1. So educational! I am proud because of a small credit TOR got from her on the Kevin project.

  2. Really liked this one
    We don’t smell food to see if it’s okay to eat. We just read the back of a label on a packet.

  3. well done deja, thanks

    Might be interesting to engage in the following dialogue: I own a vast cattle ranch in Patagonia, with organic beef, goats and sheep roaming over the mountains and valleys which are absolutely unsuitable for any other form of food production other than the home gardens and orchards. We provide delicious food for our family and guests as well as work for the natives in the area, and we enjoy our work greatly, loving the lands tremendously and on a spiritual and heart level…

    Wondering what place we might be accorded since I hear you on all the statistics regarding normal meat production in much of the world. Recently we have begun to buy a few tons of grain to help the weanlings through the winter, but otherwise the entire livestock gang grazes year round…….

    I continue to love and appreciate your posts and the research that goes into them. They need further and farther dissemination…..


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s