Hungry City, by Carolyn Steel

How the plough laid the pavement

By Paul Kingsnorth
Wednesday 05 October 2011 21:16

"Most of us", writes Carolyn Steel in this intriguing study of the relationship between the food we eat and the cities we live in, "live in ignorance of the effort it takes to feed us." Without a reliable food supply, a city will collapse surprisingly quickly. The development of all cities, from Uruk in 3500BC until the early 19th century, depended on their farming hinterland. In Victorian London, animals were herded through the streets and milk came from urban dairies. Food production, in an age of slow or non-existent transport, needed to be close to the metropolis, which limited a city's size and location.

All this changed with the coming of the railways. Suddenly, long-distance food transport was possible. Suddenly, cities didn't need their nearby farms (which often became suburbs). From this, and industrialisation, all else sprang. Cities became "freed from the constraints of geography", and of nature. In time, a desert city like Dubai would become possible, its people fed at a continent's remove by factory farms and pesticide-soaked fields.

Our exodus from the land has created a new situation. Most people eat food of whose provenance they are unaware. Steel runs through the consequences, from supermarket dominance to the pre-eminence of ready meals to the evils of factory farms.

Sometimes, she attempts to take on too much. This book is perhaps at its best exploring not the dominance of Tesco, but the fascinating history of the co-dependence of city and country. It was news to me that fast-food joints appeared to be common in ancient Ur, or that its famous ziggurat was more a monument to food than faith.

Hungry City is a smorgasbord of a book: dip into it and you will emerge with something fascinating. In a world in which each of us "eats" the equivalent of the four barrels of oil it takes to produce our year's food, it is well worth getting up to speed on just how vulnerable our cities are.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments