Sunday, 18 October 2015

Food Security in Utopia

My daughter-in-law Ciara Dangerfield has just made an excellent podcast on the topic of food security, a term which seems to have recently grown beyond the question of national food supply to encompass far-reaching global issues of food production, including the appalling fact that, in a world of plenty, nearly 800 million people currently go to bed hungry each night. The podcast, the first in a planned series, is available at:; and it prompted me to reflect on issues of food security in the literary genre of utopia.

In the founding text of the genre, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), there is a good deal of concern about this matter, albeit in the narrower sense of the phrase. More’s utopia exists in a very hostile world and must therefore make sure it can feed its citizens securely; hence it is that everyone has to spend two years of their adult life practising agriculture, so that these crucial skills are well-embedded in the general population. The more precariously a particular utopia exists, the more it must attend to its food supplies. Aldous Huxley’s utopian island Pala, threatened as it is by powerful and oil-greedy neighbours, invests a lot of its social energy in its Agricultural Experimental Station, though a good deal of Dr MacPhail’s attention seems to be given to the science of mycology and the production of hallucinogenic drugs rather than food as such. In Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed food supply is always an issue on the bleak moon Anarres, and during the great drought that afflicts the Odonians there, it tests utopia almost to breaking point.

In utopias that occupy the world more comfortably, food security is more taken for granted: plentiful supplies and equitable distribution are givens from the start. H.G. Wells’s Modern - and global - Utopia doesn’t seem unduly interested in agricultural matters; and Morris’s News from Nowhere blithely assumes that all its eager craftspeople will happily knock off during harvest season and get out mowing in the fields instead (although, interestingly, there are a few Obstinate Refusers who won’t); it doesn’t feel any need to specify institutional mechanisms that would match up supply of volunteer labour to the areas of the country where it might be most needed. If we are looking for Morrisian thought about food security issues, we should turn rather to May Morris during the Great War, when she gives a considerable amount of thought to how food production around Kelmscott can be improved under war-time pressures. In our own dystopian times, I suspect that thought about food security, as the Greedy Planet podcasts open up the issues beyond science and technology, will eventually take one far into the grotesque economic inequalities under our globalised turbo-capitalism.


Steve said...

Some involved with food security say GM crops which are resistant to disease are important but others stress the potential negative health implications. It's hard to know what to make of GM crops

Tony Pinkney said...

Thanks, Steve, it is a tricky issue, yes. A good friend of mine who was 1/ a vigorous Friends of the Earth activist, 2/ highly purist in her own Green attitudes, and 3/ a formidably qualified biologist had - surprisingly to me - a very open-minded attitude to GM crops and food. She's the best qualified individual to have a view on this that I've personally known, so I've rather tended to go along with that line too. Let's hope that GM issues will be the topic of a future Green Planet podcast.

Anne said...

Regarding the health aspect of Gm crops, this can't be known in terms of any long term negative effects as we can only go on what is currently known. I tend to take a cautionary . This isn't directly relevant but i also worry about the long term effects of wi fi technology.

Owlfarmer said...

One of the great ironies of the modern world is the co-existence of food insecurity and a mounting problem of food waste. Addressing the latter could well help increase security for some regions. But even if we do nothing to help the insecure it seems morally necessity to stop wasting food. Just making people aware of the problem in the first place seems to be daunting here in the US where the entire culture promotes waste in general.

What's a utopian to do?