What is luxury food?

Food is a necessity, yet it can also be a luxury–it depends. How we interact with and think about the idea of luxury is a central component of any conversation about sustainable food whether we address it explicitly or not.

In the United States, while our culture is quite far from its Puritan roots, we retain a degree of Puritan extremism. My personal understanding of luxury is that it is not desirable; it’s not necessary, and therefore it is too much. You do not want to slip into hedonism. And there are many, many names I’d rather be called before being called a–heaven forbid–hedonist.

Yet in France, hedonism is not nearly so poorly regarded; in fact, it’s something you could aspire to. From that perspective, it makes sense to want the best things in life–especially when it comes to food and wine. This idea of hedonism does not condone hurting others (in any way) to get the best things; it’s more about appreciating the finer things in life.

Beyond broad cultural conceptions of whether luxury is positive or negative, there is the much more fundamental question of what falls in “luxury” category to begin with. In conversations about our food system (and this is true both in the U.S. and France, though more so in the U.S.), one of the biggest questions is whether sustainable agriculture can adequately feed the world.

The crux of the matter is that organic food is now perceived as a luxury good. 

By contrast, many foods that once were considered luxurious are now commonplace. I remember reading about oranges in The Little House on the Prairie books–and how an orange was a big treat at Christmas. Now, I can eat an orange whenever I want, even in January, even though I don’t live anywhere near a climate that can easily deliver fresh oranges in January. It’s no longer a luxury item. The value of the orange is not intrinsic.

Something we need to consider as we work to shift the food system to one that is more sustainable is our definition of luxury. Right now, it seems like safe, healthy food is considered a luxury.

From Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed:

Within the first world, on a day-to-day basis, there is barely a struggle to obtain food. But obtaining clean food is a struggle.

One issue is that figuring out what is clean food is also a struggle. In the U.S., especially, with little or no American food culture to use as an anchor, we are easy prey for fads and highly idiosyncratic notions of quality or health. Yet what is clear is that a lot of food we see as commonplace is borderline (if not outright) toxic to our personal health. Furthermore, industrial agriculture creates numerous serious issues–not only environmental, but social and economic as well.

The irony is that, actually, for most of human history, we have eaten local, seasonal diets–and guess what? That wasn’t a luxury, that was normal life. Now, it is considered normal to have oranges year round even in Minnesota, yet food truly free of pesticides, preservatives, and packaging is nearly impossible to find where we now find food–supermarkets–and so it is a luxury.

Instead of asking how we can make more calories–because we already produce more calories than we need to feed the world–we need to ask how we can make more of those calories safe to eat. The fact that our system has degraded that much is pathetic, but it has.

Our current production methods are destroying the very materials needed to produce food (soil, water), contributing to climate change (which will make it more difficult to produce food, especially using monoculture techniques), and processing nutrition out of foods with the result of fueling one of the weirdest public health issues in human history: obesity.

Additionally, the entire system rests on a delicate scaffolding of transportation chains and complex systems of packaging and distribution. These are not only harmful in a material sense, but are a cause for concern about national security and the long-term sustainability of our current production methods as we run out of non-renewable energy sources.

Yet this is all considered normal. It is considered weird to kill the animals you will then eat or to can enough veggies to last through winter. But the tide is changing, which we can again see through examining our ideas of luxury.

As backyard flocks become more and more something people do as a “luxury,” because they want the luxury of fresh eggs (with low risk of salmonella and the knowledge that the birds who laid them have actually–shockingly!–seen the light of day), we see the idea catching on. No longer the domain of the truly impoverished, backyard flocks are becoming a “thing” in certain circles.

Where once it was considered a luxury to buy eggs, it is now considered a luxury to be able to collect them yourself, from your own backyard. But what we really need to do is figure out how to make clean food normal again, not a luxury.

We can do without a lot–we can own fewer articles of clothing, drive less fancy cars (or bike! walk! take public transit! work at home!), build smaller houses–but we cannot do without food. As we currently stand, we are at a critical moment in history. Clean food requires not only public support (in the form of people buying it, mostly), but knowledge, land, time, and clean growing conditions.

Fewer and fewer people know how to grow food using pre-industrial methods. Fewer are skilled hunters, fewer still are skilled gatherers. Meanwhile, we are losing diverse species of plants already adapted to micro-climates. We are losing arable land. We are losing the ability for young people to buy land and do the labor-intensive farming that typically requires youth. Finally, we’re polluting some of our most valuable, fundamental, and irreplaceable resources as we blow up more of the planet for fuels.

If we see clean food as a luxury, then it is not something that needs protection. If there were no more Rolex watches in the world, no one would suffer greatly. But no more clean food? That’s not only a recipe for public health disaster, but an environmental and human tragedy. Yet that is the path we’re taking.

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