The Geography of Food
Food, through its production to consumption, gives us multiple opportunities to contemplate on space. By this I refer to the geography of food; that is, where food is grown, reared or processed; how it gets to us; and finally the spaces within which we eat our food. There is also the issue of the spatial configuration of food itself. For example, understanding the molecular structure of food and why differences between organic and genetically-modified crops might matter. Whether it is at a micro- or macro-level, it cannot be denied that our daily sustenance has an interesting geography that we often take for granted.
Many of us urban dwellers are now used to eating foodstuff that is not grown in our cities, or even for that matter in our countries. The luxury of food choice means that we expect to be able to acquire groceries that are out of season or foreign to our locale, without much thought about how they are produced and transported to us. As we eat our favorite bar of chocolate, for example, little do we think of the cocoa farm that might employ child labor in order to yield bountiful harvests for our voracious global economy. We certainly do not consider whether the international demand for chocolate leads to the exclusive use of land for a cash crop such as cocoa, as opposed to farmers growing a variety of foodstuff for local consumption. We also do not wonder as to whether the farmers, who supply these raw produce (at prices they do not control), are able to maximize on profits by manufacturing refined products such as chocolate. If indeed these farmers do have small enterprises for turning cocoa into chocolate, are they then able to get fair trade prices for their products? Aside from the farmers, we also do not think of the labor that brings these products to our markets through the likes of harvesting, production, truck driving, packing, portering, and all other menial jobs linked to delivering food from farms to our tables.
When it comes to where food is eaten, this is something that is quite familiar to us. We have clear ideas of our restaurants of choice and why we eat in them, as opposed to anywhere else. We also have plainly designated rooms in our houses for the purpose of cooking and consuming foodstuff. Beyond this we devise various etiquettes around food and its consumption; be that the proper use of silver cutlery, an understanding of how best to eat out of a bowl with chopsticks, or the good manners of washing one’s hands before using them to eat sans utensils.
In contrast, the internal structure of food is less contemplated. Understanding food’s internal configuration is not only a science, it is also a culinary art called molecular gastronomy. More importantly, the structure of food and its manipulation through genetic modification is fast becoming a concern for those of us who care about what goes into our bodies. The production of food with long shelf lives is, unfortunately, linked to our desires for foods that are neither locally grown nor in season, as well as to concerns about producing disease-resistant, high yield, low-maintenance, profit-making produce. And over the passage of time, our bodies may well pay dearly, with their health, for our rather luxurious choices.
Being literate about the geography of our alimentation is especially crucial in a location like Doha, where the majority of food that we eat needs to be imported. The simple act of buying something to eat is linked to a particular geography of food that might not be to our liking in terms of the contravening of child labor laws, the monopoly of land use for cash crops, and/or the biological engineering of foodstuff for higher profits and choosy consumers. All of which is definitely serious food for thought, while you stop to have a bite to eat or to pick up some groceries.