Understanding Food Production and Sustainability | What To Read

In the new order of staying at home it can be difficult to navigate what to do. Some of us are furloughed, unable to work on the career we have chosen; some of us no longer have work available to us; and others are frantically trying to work from home despite a lack of what is needed to make it possible, whether that be childcare, or a working printer! And of course, some of us are sick.

It’s often hard to weigh up what we should be concerned about or frustrated at, and what we can let wash over us – not to mention how we occupy our time without our old routines? Focusing the mind on cooking tasks has been a constant for a lot of people – the physicality of it, the practicality and the joy of eating all provide a soothing routine. With this constant focus on food we have time to think more closely about what food means to us.

This pandemic has brought into focus many aspects of the food world that we may not have thought too much about before – from restaurants to supply chains and those that service us at stores. The inequality of these systems has come into sharp relief as we see who is able to work safely and who no longer has work. The talk of sustainability has been a hot trend for everyone in the food world, with packaging and provenance being the language most traded in; “single use plastic” was surely the most used phrase of 2019. What seems to get left behind is the people. I have said often: for sustainability to be truly addressed, people need to be at the heart of the topic.

A sustainable business is one that, well, can be sustained! We are currently seeing many businesses that are not able to adjust and will not survive. This does not mean that some of those businesses are not important or shouldn’t exist – it is ok to have a model that isn’t malleable to a global health crisis – but it does raise the issue of what people mean by sustainable and how we can find ways to support the full food chain. We’re only as weak as our weakest link.

Anna Sulan Masing's Bookshelf

In terms of the key questions to ask and how we would like to see the future of restaurants and bars I recommend reading the following; two are US pieces but they ask the right questions, and both sides of the pond are experiencing similar issues:

Alicia Kennedy – What can a post-pandemic world look like for restaurant workers?

Layla Schlack – Tipped wages supreme court cases: a labour history of US bartenders

Jonathan Nunn – Restaurants will never be the same after coronavirus – but that may be a good thing.

In the last year I have interviewed, and written about, farmers from California to Borneo and everything in between, including NASA – I am very interested in how we understand the world of creating produce and the people that do it. Understanding where we need to go is also about understanding where we have come from; this means literally the soil that grew a carrot, but also the history of how those farms came to be.

Anna Sulan Masing's Book Recommendations

The images in this piece are the food books that I come back to time and time again, many for research but also a few for pleasure. Valentine Warner’s The Consolation of Food is the only cookbook, and to be honest it’s much more of a story book – a friend gave me her review copy and I read it in bed like a novel!

Here are five books that I think are particularly worth reading, for different reasons:

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, by Mark Pendergrast

Coffee is a personification of the idea of shallow sustainability. We all drink it; we all know about a thing called ‘speciality coffee’ but if asked to describe what that means or what we really know about the trade of coffee, few would be able to answer.

Coffee comes with a history that is routed in colonialism and slavery. It is a trade that is older than western colonialism and yet the global north ramped it up and made it a commodity. As well as shocking details, such as slavery in Brazil until 1888 driven by the coffee market, this book also looks at the marketing and advertising of this bitter bean.

Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, by Lizzie Collingham

This book is a story in which Collingham weaves history and facts into a comprehensive and engaging tale. It takes the structure of known dishes and traces their history, undoing any ideas of authenticity and origin. As it traces the movement of people across and through a continent it shows how food is not a static thing, and demonstrates that global trade routes have huge impact on cuisines.

This book does cover British colonial history on the Indian sub-continent, and my only critique would be that at times, it’s a little too light of a touch. But I recommend this book as an entry point – read it, become engaged, then find out more!

Stuffed And Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System, by Raj Patel

Written in 2007 this book is still highly relevant. It surprises me how little has changed. It does what it says on the tin, tracing global food systems, including the media and societal pressures such as body image, and how these fit into our food systems. This is a book I read and re-read many times.

In fact, I recommend anything by Patel; I love his chapter in Letters to a Young Farmer.

You and I Eat the Same: On the Countless Ways Food and Cooking Connect Us to One Another, edited by Chris Ying

I am not keen on the title of this book; I think we are not yet at a point where we can truly talk about how food connects us. We are still using that idea in a romanticised way; it’s a fallacy, and until we address inequalities in the system we will not be able to meaningfully focus on connectivity. However, it’s still a very good read. It focuses on the positive, without shying away from the complexities of difference and food

In terms of format, this is more like a magazine, albeit with more essays and interviews than a usual magazine. Beautiful imagery and design.

Politics of Food, edited by Dani Burrows and Aaron Cezar

This compilation is by the Delfina Foundation, a creative space in London that explores a range of important topics. Across six years they have been looking at the politics of food, and have “hosted over 90 residences with artists and thinkers exploring food production, consumption and distribution”. It’s also published by Stenberg Press, a publishing house I am newly in love with.

The content is academic in nuance, but most of the pieces aren’t long and a number are art / image driven. It is divided into four sections – Food Journeys, Food Futures, Food Identity, and Food and Hospitality.

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3 Comments to "Understanding Food Production and Sustainability | What To Read"

  1. Katie Hughes

    Ooh this is an interesting and thought provoking piece. We have an opportunity post pandemic to make changes that will benefit sustainability, I hope this is taken.

  2. Fiona Maclean

    I do think a certain amount of positive rebalancing will take place post-pandemic. How it will play out though, is really complex. I wonder if perhaps we’ll return to ‘eating out as a treat’ for instance. And, more conscious travel. Let’s see!

  3. Emma

    This situation has raised some really interesting questions – I’m intrigued to read a few of these, and Uncommon Grounds has been on my Kindle unread for all too long!


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