rom the Greek sitos and topos, the word literally translates to a “food place”. In her book, Carolyn Steel says that this place is very real and already being lived in—but unfortunately is not a very good one.
In the book’s fourth chapter “Society”, Steel argues that “cheap food” is an oxymoron. “You might think that we already value food—an organic chicken, after all, costs at least double the price of its industrial cousin,” she writes. “Yet the price disparity reflects far more than just the different ways in which the birds were raised.
When we buy hand-reared organic produce, it seems expensive because it reflects the true cost of producing food that is good in every sense: nutritious and tasty as well as ethically and ecologically produced.
The trouble is that this is the only sort of food that reflects its true cost. The other sort—the industrial food that supplies more than 95 percent of our diet—is artificially cheap due to the systematic externalisation (often through government subsidy) of the true cost of producing it.”
The low prices that are seen for products at the supermarket disguise the hidden external costs that industrial food inflicts upon bodies and environments. Referencing the founder of the Slow Food movement Carlo Petrini, Steel brings to attention his notion that eating well can and should be accessible, and affordable for everyone—if it can be restructured and reframed in the ways in what is considered “good food”. But for the world to feed itself in this way requires the preservation of traditional food cultures and prioritizing sustainable, time-honoured methods of growing, distributing, and preparing food. The author reinforces this with Petrini’s point of buying food as a virtuous cycle where the market would favour foods that nurtured nature, animals and people.
Sitopia certainly exposes the deep-rooted systemic problems that threaten food systems, and in turn, society. But Steel is not what economist Thomas Malthus would call a “doom-mongering pessimist” and asserts that common hardship causes people to naturally pull together for the greater good. Though the book was published at the cusp of when the world changed in 2019, her message about how crisis brings an appreciation for what has always been present is both eerily pertinent and deeply comforting in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sitopia challenges readers to transform their current patterns of consumption; it reminds them that the seeds that are sown today will sprout or shrivel depending on how they are tended to now.
It is a testament to the potential of collaboration and community to nurture people and the planet—and also serves as a reminder of what is at stake. Steel states that the world is shaped by food, and writes about how it permeates every aspect of human lives—it is the past, present, and future. Divided into seven chapters that take the reader on a journey that begins with a plate of food and expands to the universe and time itself, the author uses food as “a lens to explore the origins and dilemmas of our current situation and to ask how we can improve it”. The profound power of food as “the great connector” is reflected in the vast scope of Sitopia; from the beginnings of life on Earth, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Industrial Revolution, lab-grown meat, and beyond, Steel weaves a narrative that is both impossibly intimate and far-reaching.