Dreaming of Sitopia in Britain
BBC Radio 4 has aired one of the more unusual – and inspiring – food programmes I’ve ever heard. ‘Sitopia – a land with food at its centre’ is set in 2030. It features a Prime Minister Carolyn Steel, who led her Sitopia Party to victory in the 2022 general election and proceeded to turn Britain into the land of the good food revolution. (Click here to listen. It’s a riveting 29 minutes, 30 seconds.)
What happens is as follows. After the 2020 pandemic, says the BBC journalist, there were food protests when the supply chains finally did show signs of breaking down. Ms Steel, a campaigner for Sitopia (sitos is Greek for food and topos means place) wins the election and institutes a programme under which the government buys up empty central London office space and gives grants to unemployed people to bake bread (of all sorts, including rotis and naan) and tend urban gardens. Whitehall has apple and plum trees, the familiar black railings of Downing Street are wreathed in hops, and vacant car parks have become food-producing gardens. Ms Steel also bans the Chorleywood bread process, which uses lower-protein wheat and reduces processing time to roughly three hours, thereby turning out insipid white loaves.
As her chancellor, Prime Minister Steel has a man who previously served as head of a sustainable food organisation. He uses the budget to reward the social good and health benefits – to people and the National Health Service – of good, healthful food.
The Prime Minister sets up a Food Office, just like the Foreign Office, but with a remit to assess the state of the nation’s food production, supplies, delivery and consumption.
And finally, Prime Minister Steel’s government turns the Department for International Development into the Department for International Learning. It taps into international expertise on niche areas of food production and storage.
If Sitopia sounds like Utopia, that’s because it is.
But for all that the programme is set in an imagined utopian future, here’s a surprising – and exhilarating – fact: all the people interviewed in the programme are real. And they are all engaged in the same sort of endeavour as described in the programme, even though they don’t occupy the lofty posts of prime minister and chancellor.
In fact, Carolyn Steel herself exists, an architect by training and author of ‘Sitopia’, a book published earlier this year. The book offers a vision of a society in which food’s intrinsic value is recognised, celebrated and safeguarded.
In Sitopia, the relationship between food, people and the world around them drives human endeavour and activity. Consumption is not a cold act of exchanging money but an appreciation of the bounty of the earth and the glorious tastes and flavours of what one grows.
Interestingly, the programme was conceived by Ms Steel.
What’s amazing about the programme is that Sitopia seems so attainable. The dream has been dreamt though making it real may take some doing.