When our oldest daughter was about five, she brought a pile of pictures home from school that she had to sort into ‘living’ and ‘non-living’ things. At first I thought it was a bit basic – surely every five-year-old knows that a cat and a car are fundamentally different, that one is alive and the other is not.
Then I remembered how my daughter would have long conversations with her toy trains, and how upset my friend had been when her young son pushed their cat down the stairs.
Perhaps the boundaries aren’t that obvious after all, at least not when you’re five.
For adults, though, it should be different, shouldn’t it? We would look away embarrassed if we saw a grown woman chatting to a toy, and we would be scandalised to learn of a man throwing a cat down the stairs.
And yet there have been some food-related stories recently that have made me wonder whether as adults we aren’t becoming increasingly confused about the fundamental difference between things that are alive and things that are not.
The uproar when it was disclosed thatsome burgers sold as ‘beef’ actually contained up to 29% horse was, for sure, partly about the fact that somewhere along the line the product had been dishonestly labelled. But there was something more visceral about it too. Because horse is not habitually eaten in the UK I think some of the shock and outrage had to do with the fact that people had to face the fact that burgers contain, um, dead animals.
We have largely managed to hide the connection between eating and death from ourselves. Especially in a supermarket, meat products are sanitised, neatly arranged on plastic trays and covered with cling film.
When I stopped buying supermarket meat and began to get it from the butcher instead, I was at first slightly revolted by the smell of raw meat and the fact that some of the butcher’s knives had blood on them.
Goodness knows how I would have reacted if I had seen a pig being slaughtered to provide me with bacon.
Actually I’m glad I don’t have to be present when animals are killed but I am increasingly worried about the profound effect on our lives that is the result of being so disconnected from the realities of food production.
Food is very big business indeed and it benefits the global corporations to foster this disconnect, to hypnotise adult consumers so that they become like kindergarten pupils, unsure whether what they eat belongs in the ‘living’ or ‘non-living’ pile.
Because if we remembered that food is life, we might get a bit uneasy about it being treated as a commodity.
We might think it was a bit weird to treat something that once had life in it – a hen or a tomato, say – as though it were just another widget on an assembly line.
The week before the burger scandal, people were shocked by a report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which highlighted the incredible waste in our modern food system. There was, rightly, a particular outrage over the fact that in the UK up to 30 per cent of vegetables are thrown away because they don’t meet supermarkets’ strict standards on physical appearance.
But this kind of waste is inevitable if we buy into the deception that apples are just another consumer product akin to shoes or cars, rather than something that has to die in order for us to carry on living.
The shiny, uniform displays in the supermarket give the strong impression that apples emerge ready-made from a factory. They encourage us to forget that apples are alive, that they once grew in an orchard, that they have been wonderfully transformed from seed to flower to fruit as a result of complex interactions between soil and insects and weather, combined with the expertise of farmers and growers.
If we think of food production as something linear, like a manufacturing process, then we start to lose touch with the reality that living things – including ourselves – are part of a complex web in which all the parts depend on one another to function properly.
This lack of connection impoverishes our lives in all kinds of ways and has alarming implications for the way we live together in the world.
The food giants like to lull us into a kind of dozy inattentiveness that stops us from asking too many questions about what we are eating. If anything good can come out of these recent scandals, it might be that they jolt us back to reality and encourage us to think more carefully about how our meals end up on our plates.