January 14, 2021

When a bare-chested Jacob Chansley was photographed storming the US Capitol last week, it seemed safe to assume that, with his heavy tattoos and furry, horned headdress, here was a man who didn’t care for the latest lifestyle fads. How surprising it was, then, to discover yesterday that, at least when it comes to his palate, the “QAnon shaman” is rather picky. According to his mum — of course it was his mum — Chansley can only eat organic food, and, as a result, has been forced to go on an effective hunger strike since he was imprisoned on Saturday. (A judge has since ordered US Marshals to accommodate his rather particular dietary requirements.)

But for anyone who has studied the history of organic and local food movements (as I did while writing my book, Ending Hunger), their apparent endorsement by a far-Right conspiracy theorist might actually seem rather appropriate. For when you start to explore how they came about, things soon get surprisingly dark.

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Let’s start with today’s fashion for “eating local”, which conjures up images of idyllic farmers’ markets stacked high with beautifully fresh seasonal produce. The pervasive idea that food should be grown locally can be traced back to the Reverend Thomas Malthus. Perhaps better known for his false predictions of Victorian population catastrophe, Malthus was also instrumental in implementing the Corn Laws in 1815, protecting the price of grain by the imposition of strict tariffs on imported produce.

Like many at the time, Malthus believed that if foreign grain — particularly that being grown in the vast new farms across the Atlantic — came to the UK without restriction, British farmers would soon go out of business. And so Malthus believed that British agriculture must be protected. But the Corn Laws were also designed to protect the status quo for wealthy landowners: they artificially raised the price of basic foods, keeping rural workers in poverty while landowners counted their cash. By 1846, the devastating results were clear — food prices had risen and famine was tearing through Ireland — and the laws were repealed.

Yet in many ways, our desire for self-sufficiency has an even more unpalatable history, one rooted in the nationalism and fascism of the 1930s. It started with Mussolini’s infamous “Battle for Grain”, which was a drive to remove dependence on foreign imports. But it was really under the Nazis that buying local gained its firmest roots. For his part, Hitler had an almost visceral aversion to relying on imports, strongly believing that losing the home front in the First World War — thereby destroying Germany’s trade routes — was ultimately the reason his country lost.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler outlined how foreign policy should centre on obtaining more land to grow food for the German people. Particularly in his sights were the extensive wheat-producing areas of Russia’s “bread basket”, the Ukraine. The Nazi ideal of “Blood and Soil’ was most explicitly teased out in a book by Richard Walther Darré, a Nazi physician who would later become Hitler’s minister of agriculture. As well as being a staunch eugenicist, Dr Darré was a local food enthusiast, arguing that only produce specifically grown on German soil was suitable for the German people. He claimed that the supposedly superior Aryan race had a deep connection with the landscape and produce of its homeland, and must be fed from there alone.

Key in Darré’s writing was an idolisation of German agricultural workers as the country’s backbone, something that tapped into a pervasive early 20th-century distrust of urban living. This is classic retrograde, appeal-to-nature bullshit, a theme that sadly persists in much environmental and food writing today. In Nazi Germany, the hatred of cities was often a coded reference for hatred of Jews, who throughout Europe had been prevented from buying land and so largely lived in urban areas. A mystical connection between the German people and their soil ran directly counter to the lives of nomadic Jewish and Romany populations.

And as we’ve seen in recent years, much of this rhetoric resonates in the far-Right today. In 2017, for example, at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Neo-Nazi groups were heard chanting “blood and soil”. It resurfaced again later the same year during the “White Lives Matter” march at Shelbyville. Then, in 2019, after the horrific Christchurch shooting in New Zealand, the perpetrator was found to have described himself as an ‘”ecofascist” in his manifesto.

Of course, many local food movements have emerged without poisonous political associations. But it is always worth questioning why we assign such fads a unity of virtues. A love of a country’s food, nature or produce can be a profound and beautiful thing. But it can also be the acceptable face of insular nationalism, leading otherwise reasonable people to sit on common ground with ideologies they despise.

The truth is that we should produce the best food that we can within a given region, and trade with the rest of the world to ensure the optimum diet for all. Although many will consider this an affront to our national identity, the UK simply is not well suited for agriculture, with a shortage of high-quality land, unpredictable rainfall and a lack of sunlight. We have not been self-sufficient in food for the past two hundred years, and currently import around 40% of all the calories we consume.

Evidence that eating local produce is better for the planet is also surprisingly thin. Even at its highest, in countries such as the US and UK, transport generally only represents around 11% of the greenhouse emissions of food production. The energy required to heat local hothouses often vastly exceeds the energy required to ship produce from warmer countries, and minimising transport often does not minimise environmental impact.

A wider selection of foods from a more diverse area has also benefited people’s health. In many areas, deficiencies in the soil can lead to deficiencies in the diet if people are restricted to local produce. In Derbyshire, just a few miles from where I am writing, alkaline soils strongly bind iodine, stopping it from getting into plants. For hundreds of years, goitre, an enlarged thyroid gland caused by iodine deficiency, was known as ‘Derbyshire Neck’, such was its prevalence in the county.

But if the virtue assigned to eating locally is misplaced, surely Chansley — who calls himself Jake Angeli – is right to favour organic produce instead? Not quite. For this movement also has troubling associations with fascism. It dates back to the 1920s, when biodynamic farming — an early offshoot of the burgeoning organic movement — was pioneered by Rudolf Steiner. An Austrian anti-Semite who created a pseudoscientific theory of “root races” to justify ideas about Aryan superiority, Steiner also believed that the persecution of Jews was part of their “inner destiny”.

Towards the end of his life, in 1925, Steiner developed his theories of agricultural practice, still known today as “biodynamic”. Much of this was entirely sensible and ahead of its time, focusing on the importance of continued soil fertility rather than crop yields, and viewing the farm as an ecosystem rather than a food-growing medium.

Rudolf Hess was a particularly ardent fan, and many of the Third Reich leaders were strong advocates of biodynamic agriculture. Steiner’s thinking strongly influenced the so-called Green Wing of the Nazi Party, and a biodynamic plantation was set up at Dachau to produce materials for SS doctors carrying out ‘experiments’. Much of this early development information fails to make the websites of the various biodynamic associations around the world.

But of course, if organic production actually reduces the environmental impact of food, most of us would probably forgive its disturbing past. From an environmental perspective, the evidence in favour doesn’t look great. Many studies have been conducted, and the balance seems to show that per unit of food, organic farming produces more greenhouse gases, uses more land, has higher rates of nutrient run-off and is worse for acidification of soil.

Yet there’s much about organic agriculture that is entirely sensible. As Chansley will no doubt tell you, it recognises the importance of soil health and looks at the farm as a system, rather than a hydroponic medium for plant growth. It also often finds new ways to control pests and weeds, many of which may help combat the increasing threat of pesticide resistance.

Too often, however, organic practice — just like the trend for buying local — is not based on the best available evidence, but on a toxic mix of cultural privilege, mysticism and a rejection of modernity. If there really are some benefits to these movements, they should resist the desire to return to an imagined past. After all, that past really isn’t something in which we should take pride.