Food as a common good

Always a hot and popular topic, we all consume food yet give it so little thought at the same time. What kind of food do you most commonly consume, where do you get it from, how was it procured, what were the lives of the animals/vegetables/people who grew your food like?

I attended a Green Drinks session on mapping the food sharing landscape by Monika Rut on 29 June 2017, a researcher based at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland who is working on a project about food sharing in cities (SHARECITY), with Singapore as her case study. The project is still in its preliminary research stages, and I felt the session served mainly as a platform for talking about food-related issues. As the organiser remarked, food is a great way to bring people together, not just because everyone eats and most Singaporeans consider eating to be their past time, but because you get the whole gamut of people interested in growing food (urban farms), making food (chefs), and sharing food/cutting food waste (sustainability). Personally, food is an easy entrance for me to talk about sustainability (and link to environmental conservation) to the average individual, who may not otherwise care about wildlife, or plastic in the oceans, or other natural resource exploitation. When I was doing my master’s at Imperial College London last year, we had to organise a symposium as part of our course requirements, and we chose the topic of sustainable food for the same reason.

A comment made by one of the audience, a chef who has had many years experience working in hotels, was that food should be perceived as a common good. And that was a novel thought to me, to frame food as a common good. Classic examples of common good would be freshwater and air, at least according to Wikipedia (my economics is slightly rusty). In our society, surrounded by commercialisation and capitalism, it is easy to see how common goods can be exploited by private firms and become non-sustainable — and we as consumers and citizens fail to consider the links between our actions and the inevitable end result. Why do so many Singaporeans waste food (average of 179 kg per person in 2014), or consume food unsustainably?

Part of the problem is a result of the culture we’re surrounded by. For all that we’re a ‘foodie nation’, eating out is a huge part of it. Compared to other nations well-known for their relationship with their food like Italy and Japan, where their people take pride in their knowledge of producing and cooking their food, we just want to know which restaurant/hawker stall sells the best *. While paying for food makes people realise the value/cost of producing it, on the flip side it also results in a sense of entitlement that they have the right to waste it. When that really shouldn’t be the case.

Constantly buying food also results in a disengagement with how the food was produced, or where it was procured from. I never thought about how fortunate I am, or how different it is to the way most others in Singapore might live. We’ve always had home-cooked meals, if not lunch then at the very least dinner. Especially since my younger brother started his baking and culinary science diploma, and my mom became semi-retired, we’ve increasingly prepared more (and more elaborate) meals at home, rather than eating out. Just today, three out of the five people living in my household spent hours/the whole day preparing food: baking bread, preparing tarts/pies, making traditional tapioca kuehs, and cooking shakshuka for lunch. What is perhaps usually a once/twice a year affair for most families is an almost daily occurrence for us.

How can we get more Singaporeans to care more about the food they’re consuming, the way they’re obtained and the sustainability of them? Ground-up movements like Love Food Cut Waste are a great start, but Singapore being Singapore, where government public education campaigns have proved time and again to be fairly effective, I am inclined to think that food waste numbers will only go down when our government agencies are fully on board.

Preaching for the environment

How can we reach out to more people about the need for a more environmentally-friendly way of living? The UN designated 5 June to be World Environment Day, a day to Celebrate Nature, a reminder to go outside and be #withnature. For some organisations, the day can be a huge and important event – but for most of us, even those who work on environmental issues, it’s mostly just like any another day. Nothing like the hype of Christmas, or Chinese New Year, which of course have the power of commercialisation and capitalism behind them. Without excessive banners and advertisements telling us to not shop for nature, to spend less on unnecessary goods and resources, or to go out and enjoy nature for free, how else can we reach out to the larger, unconverted population?

While I was in the UK, belonging to a religious faith seemed to be rather niche. It does make you think that trying to spread the environmental message through religious communities would be rather futile, since they themselves seem to be facing difficulties trying to sell their message to the masses. However globally, according to a Pew Research Centre study in 2012, 8 out of 10 people declare themselves affiliated to a religious organisation. That’s quite a lot of people who look to someone else for guidance on how to live.

While there are many examples of religious communities protecting nature, from Cambodian Buddhist monks and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Churches protecting community forests, to Tibetan Buddhist monks protecting snow leopards from poaching and Malaysian mosques promoting sea turtle conservation, there are fewer examples of religious communities preaching general environmental messages. Active conservation efforts for habitat or species protection are to be lauded and publicised as great examples, but the problem we face in this day and age is a bigger one, that of general excessive consumption of resources at every level, the promotion of unfettered consumption, and the lack of understanding of the interdependence of every living (and non-living) entity on this earth.

That is not to say that it doesn’t exist; most famously, the Roman Catholic church’s Pope Francis published his papal encyclical (Laudato Si) in 2015 on caring for the environment, which he gave to US President Donald Trump recently. But I doubt Trump would read it, as would most Catholics; I’ll confess I’ve barely read it, but the first chapter at least provides a very good and general basis of all the environmental and social injustices in our world today.  Unless the message is constantly reinforced through weekly sermons, I’m not sure how much actually gets through to the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world. I was listening to one of the priests talking about baptism and the river Jordan one Sunday, but he never made mention of the fact that the same river barely exists now. And yet, if he were to mention it, how can he draw the link from that to how we live comfortably here in Singapore? Priests aren’t ecology teachers.

When there are no specific problems, like the poaching of wild animals or the cutting down of local forests, how does one preach the need to take care of the environment, to reduce mindless consumption and waste of resources and energy, and be heard and understood and followed? In an urban setting, which drives most of these problems, how does one reach out to the masses and get everyone to live a more thoughtful, environmentally (and socially) friendly life?

Organised religion has its critics, and it may or may not benefit the environmental cause, but I feel like with its reach, surely it would be a start. Like this solar-powered mosque in Morocco. I do think though, that for conservation and the larger environmental movement to succeed, any wonton destruction has to be as taboo as murder.

A question often asked is, why protect wildlife? Development can improve lives so why forgo it in place of killing off a few species? One can go through all the different arguments – its economic worth, its value importance for future generations or simply its beauty. But the powerful answer must be because it is part of our culture and therefore part of our beliefs and even our own identify. Once it’s second nature and part of a value system, no one will ever again ask the question why protect it.

-Bradnee Chambers, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals