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  • How do you feed a city?

  • It's one of the great questions of our time.

  • Yet it's one that's rarely asked.

  • We take it for granted that if we go into a shop

  • or restaurant, or indeed into this theater's foyer in about an hour's time,

  • there is going to be food there waiting for us,

  • having magically come from somewhere.

  • But when you think that every day for a city the size of London,

  • enough food has to be produced,

  • transported, bought and sold,

  • cooked, eaten, disposed of,

  • and that something similar has to happen every day

  • for every city on earth,

  • it's remarkable that cities get fed at all.

  • We live in places like this as if

  • they're the most natural things in the world,

  • forgetting that because we're animals

  • and that we need to eat,

  • we're actually as dependent on the natural world

  • as our ancient ancestors were.

  • And as more of us move into cities,

  • more of that natural world is being

  • transformed into extraordinary landscapes like the one behind me --

  • it's soybean fields in Mato Grosso in Brazil --

  • in order to feed us.

  • These are extraordinary landscapes,

  • but few of us ever get to see them.

  • And increasingly these landscapes

  • are not just feeding us either.

  • As more of us move into cities,

  • more of us are eating meat,

  • so that a third of the annual grain crop globally

  • now gets fed to animals

  • rather than to us human animals.

  • And given that it takes three times as much grain --

  • actually ten times as much grain --

  • to feed a human if it's passed through an animal first,

  • that's not a very efficient way of feeding us.

  • And it's an escalating problem too.

  • By 2050, it's estimated that twice the number

  • of us are going to be living in cities.

  • And it's also estimated that there is going to be twice as much

  • meat and dairy consumed.

  • So meat and urbanism are rising hand in hand.

  • And that's going to pose an enormous problem.

  • Six billion hungry carnivores to feed,

  • by 2050.

  • That's a big problem. And actually if we carry on as we are,

  • it's a problem we're very unlikely to be able to solve.

  • Nineteen million hectares of rainforest are lost every year

  • to create new arable land.

  • Although at the same time we're losing an equivalent amount

  • of existing arables to salinization and erosion.

  • We're very hungry for fossil fuels too.

  • It takes about 10 calories to produce every calorie

  • of food that we consume in the West.

  • And even though there is food that we are producing at great cost,

  • we don't actually value it.

  • Half the food produced in the USA is currently thrown away.

  • And to end all of this, at the end of this long process,

  • we're not even managing to feed the planet properly.

  • A billion of us are obese, while a further billion starve.

  • None of it makes very much sense.

  • And when you think that 80 percent of global trade in food now

  • is controlled by just five multinational corporations,

  • it's a grim picture.

  • As we're moving into cities, the world is also embracing a Western diet.

  • And if we look to the future,

  • it's an unsustainable diet.

  • So how did we get here?

  • And more importantly, what are we going to do about it?

  • Well, to answer the slightly easier question first,

  • about 10,000 years ago, I would say,

  • is the beginning of this process

  • in the ancient Near East,

  • known as the Fertile Crescent.

  • Because, as you can see, it was crescent shaped.

  • And it was also fertile.

  • And it was here, about 10,000 years ago,

  • that two extraordinary inventions,

  • agriculture and urbanism, happened

  • roughly in the same place and at the same time.

  • This is no accident,

  • because agriculture and cities are bound together. They need each other.

  • Because it was discovery of grain

  • by our ancient ancestors for the first time

  • that produced a food source that was large enough

  • and stable enough to support permanent settlements.

  • And if we look at what those settlements were like,

  • we see they were compact.

  • They were surrounded by productive farm land

  • and dominated by large temple complexes

  • like this one at Ur,

  • that were, in fact, effectively,

  • spiritualized, central food distribution centers.

  • Because it was the temples that organized the harvest,

  • gathered in the grain, offered it to the gods,

  • and then offered the grain that the gods didn't eat back to the people.

  • So, if you like,

  • the whole spiritual and physical life of these cities

  • was dominated by the grain and the harvest

  • that sustained them.

  • And in fact, that's true of every ancient city.

  • But of course not all of them were that small.

  • Famously, Rome had about a million citizens

  • by the first century A.D.

  • So how did a city like this feed itself?

  • The answer is what I call "ancient food miles."

  • Basically, Rome had access to the sea,

  • which made it possible for it to import food from a very long way away.

  • This is the only way it was possible to do this in the ancient world,

  • because it was very difficult to transport food over roads,

  • which were rough.

  • And the food obviously went off very quickly.

  • So Rome effectively waged war

  • on places like Carthage and Egypt

  • just to get its paws on their grain reserves.

  • And, in fact, you could say that the expansion of the Empire

  • was really sort of one long, drawn out

  • militarized shopping spree, really.

  • (Laughter)

  • In fact -- I love the fact, I just have to mention this:

  • Rome in fact used to import oysters from London,

  • at one stage. I think that's extraordinary.

  • So Rome shaped its hinterland

  • through its appetite.

  • But the interesting thing is that the other thing also

  • happened in the pre-industrial world.

  • If we look at a map of London in the 17th century,

  • we can see that its grain, which is coming in from the Thames,

  • along the bottom of this map.

  • So the grain markets were to the south of the city.

  • And the roads leading up from them

  • to Cheapside, which was the main market,

  • were also grain markets.

  • And if you look at the name of one of those streets,

  • Bread Street, you can tell

  • what was going on there 300 years ago.

  • And the same of course was true for fish.

  • Fish was, of course, coming in by river as well. Same thing.

  • And of course Billingsgate, famously, was London's fish market,

  • operating on-site here until the mid-1980s.

  • Which is extraordinary, really, when you think about it.

  • Everybody else was wandering around

  • with mobile phones that looked like bricks

  • and sort of smelly fish happening down on the port.

  • This is another thing about food in cities:

  • Once its roots into the city are established,

  • they very rarely move.

  • Meat is a very different story

  • because, of course, animals could walk into the city.

  • So much of London's meat

  • was coming from the northwest,

  • from Scotland and Wales.

  • So it was coming in, and arriving at the city at the northwest,

  • which is why Smithfield,

  • London's very famous meat market, was located up there.

  • Poultry was coming in from East Anglia and so on, to the northeast.

  • I feel a bit like a weather woman doing this. Anyway,

  • and so the birds were coming in

  • with their feet protected with little canvas shoes.

  • And then when they hit the eastern end

  • of Cheapside, that's where they were sold,

  • which is why it's called Poultry.

  • And, in fact, if you look at the map of any city

  • built before the industrial age,

  • you can trace food coming in to it.

  • You can actually see how it was physically shaped by food,

  • both by reading the names of the streets, which give you a lot of clues.

  • Friday Street, in a previous life,

  • is where you went to buy your fish on a Friday.

  • But also you have to imagine it full of food.

  • Because the streets and the public spaces

  • were the only places where food was bought and sold.

  • And if we look at an image of Smithfield in 1830

  • you can see that it would have been very difficult to live in a city like this

  • and be unaware of where your food came from.

  • In fact, if you were having Sunday lunch,

  • the chances were it was mooing or bleating outside your window

  • about three days earlier.

  • So this was obviously an organic city,

  • part of an organic cycle.

  • And then 10 years later everything changed.

  • This is an image of the Great Western in 1840.

  • And as you can see, some of the earliest train passengers

  • were pigs and sheep.

  • So all of a sudden, these animals are no longer walking into market.

  • They're being slaughtered out of sight and mind,

  • somewhere in the countryside.

  • And they're coming into the city by rail.

  • And this changes everything.

  • To start off with, it makes it possible

  • for the first time to grow cities,

  • really any size and shape, in any place.

  • Cities used to be constrained by geography;

  • they used to have to get their food through very difficult physical means.

  • All of a sudden they are effectively emancipated from geography.

  • And as you can see from these maps of London,

  • in the 90 years after the trains came,

  • it goes from being a little blob that was quite easy to feed

  • by animals coming in on foot, and so on,

  • to a large splurge,

  • that would be very, very difficult to feed with anybody on foot,

  • either animals or people.

  • And of course that was just the beginning. After the trains came cars,

  • and really this marks the end of this process.

  • It's the final emancipation of the city

  • from any apparent relationship with nature at all.

  • And this is the kind of city that's devoid of smell,

  • devoid of mess, certainly devoid of people,

  • because nobody would have dreamed of walking in such a landscape.

  • In fact, what they did to get food was they got in their cars,

  • drove to a box somewhere on the outskirts,

  • came back with a week's worth of shopping,

  • and wondered what on earth to do with it.

  • And this really is the moment when our relationship,

  • both with food and cities, changes completely.

  • Here we have food -- that used to be the center,

  • the social core of the city -- at the periphery.

  • It used to be a social event, buying and selling food.

  • Now it's anonymous.

  • We used to cook; now we just add water,

  • or a little bit of an egg if you're making a cake or something.

  • We don't smell food to see if it's okay to eat.

  • We just read the back of a label on a packet.

  • And we don't value food. We don't trust it.

  • So instead of trusting it, we fear it.

  • And instead of valuing it, we throw it away.

  • One of the great ironies of modern food systems

  • is that they've made the very thing they promised

  • to make easier much harder.

  • By making it possible to build cities anywhere and any place,

  • they've actually distanced us from our most important relationship,

  • which is that of us and nature.

  • And also they've made us dependent on systems that only they can deliver,

  • that, as we've seen, are unsustainable.

  • So what are we going to do about that?

  • It's not a new question.

  • 500 years ago it's what Thomas More was asking himself.

  • This is the frontispiece of his book "Utopia."

  • And it was a series of semi-independent city-states,

  • if that sounds remotely familiar,

  • a day's walk from one another where everyone was basically farming-mad,

  • and grew vegetables in their back gardens,

  • and ate communal meals together, and so on.

  • And I think you could argue that

  • food is a fundamental ordering principle of Utopia,

  • even though More never framed it that way.

  • And here is another very famous "Utopian" vision,

  • that of Ebenezer Howard, "The Garden City."

  • Same idea: series of semi-independent city-states,

  • little blobs of metropolitan stuff with arable land around,