Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Why did food need cities at all?

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Cities may grow a few of their vegetables, but from where else can the cereal staples come if not the rural fields? Photo: Rahul Goswami, 2015

Cities may grow a few of their vegetables, but from where else can the cereal staples come if not the rural fields? Photo: Rahul Goswami, 2015

The industrialisation of the transfer of food produce from a food producing region to a net food consuming one is in my view the cause for what we have grown used to calling the rural-urban divide or difference. It is artificial and unfortunately this artifice is the basis for a number of untruths – such as ‘cities are the engines of growth / innovation / education’ and so on (arguments that have been spread vigorously by the globalisers, such as the World Economic Forum, most central banks, the commodity markets, and the international trading system).

From accounts about what we today call south and south-east Asia, the difference between a crop-producing region (managed by a group of villages) and a net food-consuming centre lay mainly in what that centre did for the villages. Markets for the sale and exchange of produce and livestock usually led to one village (with more political power than others) hosting the market, the associated food trading infrastructure, the finance needs (simple as they were, such as credit and insurance for the next season), the transport. These became the first urban centres – but it is important to recall that they existed as adjuncts to crop-growing regions, even when host to the apparatus of ruling regimes and (just as often) faith-based and spiritual enclaves.

In the Western Ghats, a termite mound next to a shrine is also venerated. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

In the Western Ghats, a termite mound next to a shrine is also venerated. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

There are examples that show how the balance of power was maintained – and corrected when necessary – between such centres on the one hand, and the needs of crop-growing communities supported by temple domains, on the other. Studies of the Hoysala period of southern India (1000-1350 CE) have explained how the ‘agraharas‘ – temple complexes to which belong villages and agricultural lands – were centres of crop collection, redistribution, storage and trade. Were these ‘agraharas‘ ‘urban’ in the sense we use the term today? To some extent, insofar as the priestly class and administrators did not actively cultivate crop staples. But there is another group which did not – the soldiery, and a standing army not only did not lend its labour for use in the fields, it also demanded a large amount of food. And so we have in our annals accounts of how the ‘agraharas‘ of southern India on occasion refused to continue feeding an enlarged standing army at the cost of what we today call the food security of the peasants. Naturally, the ruler had to comply.

I think this illustrates the ties between the cultivators of food staples and the consumers of produce. The trouble is that if in Hoysala times the adjustment was made by an ‘agrahara‘ (which embodied the religious aspect, devotional food, equitable distribution, and so on) in today’s scenario there is no such studied altruism. The market thinks short-term, uses financialisation as a means to yoke people to consumerism and has in many countries exploited the historical connection between food producer and consumer to boost, through the application of technology and the artifice of ‘retail’, GDP.

Written by makanaka

February 15, 2015 at 20:14

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