As our plane TR804 took off towards Kansai International Airport, I stared out of the window at the wide, blue sea that sparkled in the sun; beautiful yet surrounded by our human mess – reclamation work, oil refineries flaring and scattered ships breaking the the continuous blue of the ocean. What a pity, I thought, what humans do to this beautiful planet. It’s also hypocritical that I said this as I rode on a plane running on fossil fuels.
As much as I’d hate to admit, I’m an urban, wasteful human integrated into the world’s globalised capitalist system. Riding on a plane to another country is already enough of a hint. Yet on this travel fellowship, we’re trying to explore a basic building block of life – food. Why do we have to travel so far and wide in search of something that should be commonplace?
But if I think about it, what do I even know about food? Coming from Singapore where all kinds of food are available 24/7, I see food everywhere. But in return, I know nothing about it; my food comes from all over the world and is grown in very different climates, but none of that is reflected in my daily meals. I don’t know when (or where) plum trees fruit, or how long it takes for a watermelon to grow, or how fish are hunted, or what the food on our plates even looks like before it reaches us (like tofu – did you know that it’s made from soymilk?). When have I actually learned about food, let alone how to put food on my plate?
These questions arose over dinner conversations (and post-dinner reflections) with the hosts of the first farm we are visiting and currently at – Ono Yuuji and Masako, who run a small-scale organic farm in Awa, Tokushima (Shikoku, Japan). They happily pointed out the plum trees, the watermelon and pumpkin seedlings in their small garden and greenhouse, but we quickly realised that we have no idea what we were even supposed to be expecting – what is common in May, and what is planted for summer.
I was embarrassed to admit that I know absolutely nothing about what I’ve been eating my entire life and how privileged I have been to be able to pick food up at markets and eateries to my convenience. I consume so many vegetables without even knowing what the seeds looked like as it was eased into the ground, how hard it is for it to grow, who pulled them out of the soil, when its harvest period is and how far it travelled to get to my plate. And I’m not the only one.
I realise that with exploring something that is so vital to us, food, we end up also questioning how human we really are. Have we lost our roots as human beings? The three essentials to a human life are: food, water and shelter. It is scary to think that I, and many humans like me, don’t have the ability to procure any of these with our bare hands.
Sure, you can argue that we aren’t meant to do these with our bare hands, that humans can communicate and delegate tasks for a reason. But if we do that to a point where none of us have a grasp of the process, do we feel the same connection to these essentials? Can I really understand, appreciate and love my food if someone I don’t even know from somewhere on the other side of the world made my food and isn’t even thanked for it (or worse, if it was industrially farmed with no human touch)? Perhaps there isn’t a need for this ‘human connection’ to whatever we consume, but when I have my mum’s homemade food, when I eat the food I painstakingly spent the entire morning harvesting in the fields, the love and appreciation I have for my food makes it taste a hundred times better (on top of the fact that organically grown food naturally tastes better). I feel so much more motivated to not waste any bit of what’s on my plate, because it has suddenly become so precious to me. We take all that we have in life for granted, because this human connection; this love that we can have for our food, water and shelter isn’t consciously there most of the time. And if we don’t treasure our resources, it can be so easy to waste our precious resources away. I find it really sad that society has come to this point, where our capitalist and globalised market has disconnected us from our surroundings.
On this travel fellowship, I want to find this love, connect with it, and explore what it truly means to live as a human (i.e. what and how we should eat). And on top of that, connect to the earth: the foundation that allows us to even have food and water. This is a personal, and perhaps slightly spiritual endeavour, and what I believe is a key to making our food sustainable; but who knows, perhaps I may be proven wrong. Perhaps it is fine to stay disconnected, to harness technology and innovation to the advantage of humankind, to the point where we can care for all humans with technology alone. That is what I hope to explore at least a little more of: what it means to be truly living (sustainably), and what we should learn as urban, wasteful humans.