It’s easy to misinterpret fermentation as some unremarkable practice, carried out by fuzzy old ladies in farmhouse kitchens in the back of beyond – and of course it is, but that’s not all of it. In fact, the potency of those few fizzing mason jars and cobwebbed crocks hanging out in your nan’s cupboard goes far beyond taste and an old wives remedy: they symbolise a kind of politics from below; a lively critique of the way we live our lives and how we understand our bodies and their place in nature.
It’s no secret that fermentation is making a comeback in the West or that knowledge(s) about the importance of the microbiome are resurfacing again (contrary to the arrogance and imperialism of biomedicine, this is not a new discovery or even particular to the West). Katz’s revivalist efforts are now complimented by a landslide of interest in the techniques of wild fermentation, of culturing and preserving. Every other week, peculiar and inventive little projects crop up in urban centres and beyond, preaching the lacto-gospel: fermentation on wheels, fermentation installations, fermentation festivals, blogs, podcasts and potlucks. In my home town of Brighton, fermented products now appear on swanky restaurant menus, with gourmet chef’s the world over crafting taste-experiences from this age old tradition. Sourdough bread, a novelty only years ago in the face of its cheap, white and easily processed rival, is (for the reasonably well heeled) becoming a staple once again.
An ‘archaic revival’ in food is occurring; less of us now blink uncritically at the waves of corporate propaganda of ‘tasty’ and ‘convenient’ food. A generation of medical refugees, sick and fatigued by denatured and contaminated food and the biased and mechanical prescriptions of their biomedical Doctors, are reaching into the past to reclaim life affirming knowledge and skills. Fermentation is one of those skills, with each dry-salt or brine having a cascade of effects beyond its container – they are ‘vessels of dissent’, the web of relations and effects extending from them into cultural, environmental and political realms.
Challenging contemporary food culture:
There are now endless texts rallying against our contemporary food culture, all with the same underpinning message, which is that the commodification of our food and the profit motive in food production has run amok and the system that prevails undermines the well being of our animals, the health of our people and communities and ultimately, the ecological balance of our planet too.
Every so often, (usually) independent media gives us a glimpse of the horrors of the industrialised method applied to food production: animals are treated like objects, workers no better and the food itself is engineered and adapted to predictable outcomes (usually lucrative ones) with no thought for the human, animal and environmental costs and consequences.
Curiously, just as globalisation encourages the spread of different cuisines and our experiential access of different cultures and their foodways, the homogenisation of our food: its taste, texture, appearance and content in Pollan’s words: rolls out like a ‘great undifferentiated lawn across the globe’.
Food has become a ‘private transnational commodity’, subjected to the whims and fancies of our market economy. The communities once built up around food have dissolved as ‘buyers’ interact with ‘producers’ and alienated ‘consumers’ attend brightly lit and sanitary halls, stocked with food-commodities – their origins, histories and stories of human / nature co-creation muffled and obscured by cellophane packaging and garish labeling; designed to say as little about the product as possible and everything about the dream of sunshine, clucking hens and the ‘good life’ that most of us rarely get to experience, never mind the food.
This violent separation of the urban consumer from food production and producers, means that (massively exploited) producers, no longer tied or responsible to their communities, shell out denatured food using all manner of toxic inputs and processes to please ever more stringent targets set by buyers. And consumers, distracted from the ‘non-economic attributes’ of food, approach it in the most objectifying way as to be almost apathetic about it beyond its superficial qualities.
Perhaps it is this disconnection from and appreciation of our food in its totality (as beyond just food; embodying a sacred web of relations and connections) that makes for such depression in our communities, such listlessness and dissatisfaction at what should be a simple joy. The commodification of our food has created an artificial scarcity and exclusive hierarchy, where only the privileged eat and eat well – ‘routine hunger, malnutrition, premature deaths, famine’ and noxious amounts of waste are the byproducts of this system.
Fermentation then, is an ‘eloquent protest’ in the face of these circumstances, a reconnection with food-as-nutrition, which in turn encourages a respect for the nature of food itself and the people, animals and land that make it possible. The complexity of any one ferment, its inherent ecology of bacteria and enzymes, their innumerable interactions and bubbling byproducts puts us in touch with the wonder of food again. There’s nothing plastic, artificial or detached about sourdough, kefir, miso or kimchi – they are literally frothing with life and overflowing with life-force; ecologies of such spectacular diversity that our previous food-programming perishes under a radical remembering of the life and magic of our food.
The experimentation and play that accompanies fermentation represents a rejection of the predictable, affected and meaningless products churned out by the market – it is a celebration of distinctiveness, the peculiar, of artisanship and taste. The communities that thrive around fermentation, mirroring the excitement of the ferment itself, branch out and swell – spreading knowledge, practices, skills and wisdom. Old food-economies are transformed by new energy and insights and new and alternative economies are born; where small producers and hobbyists deliver innovations and operate on different principles, such as the pioneers of the ‘sacred’ or ‘gift’ economies. Time and energy is reclaimed from the current ecocidal economy and trajectory to stage a revolution from our kitchens – ultimately, food is de-commodified and becomes meaningful again.
The biomedical monopoly and the mechanistic worldview.
Chronic disease have become a remarkably persistent feature of our contemporary medical landscape. Indeed, over 60% of deaths worldwide are now reported as resulting from a variety of chronic conditions. This phenomena goes someway to framing the explosion of interest in fermentation, as more and more people engage with the health benefits of these sour and whiffy creations.
Beyond their alleviation of various ailments and maladies, this popular engagement with fermentation as a healing modality shifts the way we relate to our bodies and how we perceive their place in nature, challenges the current biomedical orthodoxy on what illness is and how health can be attained and asks serious questions about what legitimate knowledge is when it comes to health and disease.
‘Biomedicine’ is another way, in anthropological parlance, of talking about the kind of clinical medicine, grounded in the scientific worldview, that has been the dominant mainstay of our medical landscape since the scientific revolution of the 19th century. Early on, biomedicine’s legitimacy was derived from its handle on bacteriology and the control of serious infections (no joke in the squalor of the sprawling and insanitary urbanism of the time). Its dominant position in the field of health the world over is in most cases underwritten by the State.
Biomedicine is founded on certain principles, which defines health by the absence of symptoms and which focuses chiefly on the biological and physiological causes of illness and disease – to the detriment of social / cultural / political and environmental factors which are themselves significant determinants of health and which, notably, are considered in the more holistic modalities that biomedicine has spent most of its career trying to repress, humiliate and appropriate. In many ways, medicine should be one of the most robust forms of social critique we have – after all, where inequality, oppression, deprivation, isolation or a lack of social cohesion or personal fulfillment fester, disease will too.
In essence, the biomedical worldview is reductive as opposed to expansive – medical problems are observed as stemming from some biological pathology and treatment is usually oriented at particular malfunctioning cells or systems in isolation, via surgery or pharmacology – and more holistic interpretations of illness and disease are discounted as ‘quackery’.
Popular dissatisfaction with biomedicine is not a new phenomenon, the wave of lay disillusionment with the discipline began in the 1970’s with the rise of a medical counter-culture in San Francisco that saw a surge of interest in new magical and holistic approaches to health, as well as in ancient systems of health care from the East such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda.
Apart from biomedicine’s obvious biological determinism, people were and are fatigued at the iatrogenic effects of its interventions and medicines, its excessive medicalisation of all areas of life, the invasive nature of its procedures, its bureaucratic and high tech nature and its complete failure in the realm of chronic disease. Nevertheless, its formidable material base, its legal / political protections and affinity with the capitalist outlook have allowed it to sweep any dissent under the carpet and appropriate any useful aspects of alternative medical models or systems.
The antibiotic has been one of the main modes of pharmaceutical intervention in the biomedical arsenal over the last 70 years. In 1940, antibiotics were heralded as a revolution in medicine and they have no doubt helped us to bring some very serious infections under control. But their abuse, both in human and in animals, has led to aggressive and drug resistant pathogens becoming a persistent feature of our microbial landscape. The consequence of this biomedical worldview is a cultural paranoia around microbes which equates to what Sandor Katz calls ‘the war on bacteria’; from ‘pseudo-medical’ practices like antibacterial hand washing to chlorine in our water supply, we have become almost neurotic about nuking these vital unseen ecologies.
Away from the proliferation of drug-resistant pathogens, no longer kept in check via the natural competitive environment of healthy microbial ecologies, there are even more sinister and pernicious consequences. The biodiversity and integrity of our internal microbiome (our resident ecologies of bacteria and microbes which ‘interact to form complex webs of mutual support’ and which promote optimum metabolic, immune and cognitive function) suffers irrevocably, with the consequences of this destabilisation only now becoming apparent. As Martin Blaser describes in his book “Missing Microbes’, the disappearance or extinction of a ‘keystone species’ of bacteria in the human microbiome means the overall ‘ecology suffers and can even collapse’.
This is the context to the ‘modern plagues’ that are now a common feature of everyday life – obesity, diabetes, asthma, oesophageal reflux, hayfever, eczema and other skin conditions; inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis and Chrohn’s as well as various types of cancer have all been linked in some way to disturbances in the microbiome. Heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, osteoporosis and chronic fatigue have too become persistent features of the modern medical landscape – many no doubt accompanied by conditions of the gut, usually denied or at least rarely investigated by biomedical doctors, such as ‘leaky gut syndrome’, ‘gut dysbiosis’ or ‘small intestinal bacterial overgrowth’. Not to mention the increased frequency of all kinds of cognitive ailments such as anxiety, depression, dyslexia and autism – the book Gut & Psychology Syndrome by Natasha McBride will be a revealing read for anyone interested in the gut/brain axis here. Finally, food allergies, almost undetectable in indigenous communities engaged in pre-modern lifestyles, are at epidemic levels. It’s clear that something has gone badly wrong.
The research on probiotic therapy is encouraging and many of the conditions above are indicated as improving and sometimes being wholly resolved by bolstering and enhancing our internal flora with particular focused strains. However, ideas about the appropriate composition of the human microbiome is yet more biomedical conjecture, with studies borne out in indigenous communities turning up strains of bacteria identified as potentially harmful in Western hosts. Reliance on commercial probiotics for healing, whilst definitely appropriate in some instances, also support the very same system and corporations that have a chequered history as regards to human health and the environment; Monsanto, Nestle, Pepsico and General Mills have all funded studies on the gut and the microbiome and the probiotic industry is set to become a $45BN market by 2018.
Fermentation and the new medical paradigm.
Fermentation then, comes into its own here too – of course, little official research has been done on nanna’s crocks in terms of their therapeutic application and effects: testing is a tightly controlled industry (with big pharma the usual benefactors) and no one is likely to earn money from age old techniques we can all have a bash at! But there is no reason why bacteria growing in home ferments cannot be as beneficial and resilient as commercially produced strains. Indeed, what is more important is ‘variety, diversity and incorporating the bacteria native to different raw ingredients’ and I would add, the local environment. In a world where the ‘randomised control trial’ has become the oracle of truth and legitimacy, through fermentation, subjective knowledge and experiences of healing becomes important once again. Nanna’s arthritic knee eased by her daily kombucha stays eased, irrespective of whether the result has been validated by a biased trial or not.
Fundamentally, dabbling in the fermentation arts is to challenge the biomedical monopoly. Whereas biomedicine prefers itself as the sole arbiter of medical knowledge, our fermentivist communities know differently – our lacto-adventures encourage new understandings of the body, of health and disease and ultimately our relation to nature.
When we consider that the reality of our bodies is that we are just 10% human (bacteria outweigh human cells in the body 10 to 1), it dawns on us that we are not so much mechanical, individuated and self-contained as ecological, expansive and interdependent. We begin to approach the body as an ecology in and of itself, a vibrant system where all parts are interdependent: an ecology situated within a larger ecology, which is our environment, the planet and its lifeforms. We begin to realise that our symptoms are not genetically dictated but are epigenetic phenomena, which mirrors to some extent a rupture or impropriety in the way we relate, biologically or consciously, to our environment at large.
To take a case in point: recently a bit of research was released that showed how social anxiety in adults was relieved through regular consumption of fermented foods. What are the consequences for understanding social anxiety here? Is social anxiety purely a relational phenomenon between humans, born of some personal and internal imbalance or neurosis? Or does social anxiety have a more holistic foundation – does it stem also from a disruption in our unseen connection to nature: dependent on our internal mirroring of the microbial biodiversity external to us?
Fermentation and replenishing the microbiome is of course not a panacea – health involves a truly holistic perspective (social, political, environmental, biological, emotional and spiritual), not a limited one. But its practice and enjoyment raise important questions about humanity, culture, ecology and healing. The revival of this ancient practice has significant consequences for the biomedical worldview, as it does for our economy and culture at large – lay interest in alternative approaches and systems of health creates a critical mass difficult to ignore by biomedicine, which in an attempt to diffuse the revolt is necessarily changed itself through its natural impulse to monitor, marginalize, control and appropriate. The emergence of the biopsychosocial approach to health from within biomedicine, or pyschoneuroimmunology is a product of this very same process.
The ‘gut as centre’ and beyond.
By now, I hope we’ve established that our fizzy concoctions are potent beyond their basic utility. Each forkful of our tangy treats is a kindly gesture of homage toward the unseen ecology and lifeforms with whom we live so interdependently. The recognition of this symbiosis does not just reverberate change into our food economy and conceptions of health, disease and approaches to healing – the circle expands to effect our politics, environment and communities too.
The art of fermentation is in many ways a way of placing the ‘gut as centre’ to our philosophy to life and healing – which may hold great transformational potential for our societies. The gut in eastern philosophy is understood as a store of great power and potential. Zen Monk’s will always motion at the gut if one asks, ‘from where do you think’? And this makes perfect sense, given that we know the gut, or ‘second brain’, boasts around 100 million neurons, uses more than 30 neurotransmitters (the same amount found in the brain), and harbours around 95% of the body’s serotonin (serotonin plays an important part in the regulation of learning, mood, sleep and other essential regulatory processes). It enjoys a unique communicative relationship with the brain and is a primary (and incredibly sensitive) interface with our external environment. It is also home to the largest colony of microbes in our bodies, totaling some 500-600 different species and weighing in at around 1.5-2KG – the harmonious balance and biodiversity of which is our best line of defence to the onset of the many ‘modern plagues’ that now ail us.
Looking after the gut as a source of vitality, health and well-being is paramount. Whether that’s limiting the amount of damaging foods you’re exposing yourself too, or attempting to support or re-establish a good flora via fermented foods. Indeed, nurturing your microbiome is a true recognition and practice of holism: it requires that we have a proper relationship with the external, with the ability to nourish our gut in particular ways – to bring that reality into alignment has ramifications beyond the individual, into wider social, political and environmental realms. A change in the way we relate to external structures, effectively impacts and transforms those structures in terms of what they do and are able to provide.
Ultimately then, along with other traditional forms of food prep and knowledge, fermentation is one of our key tools in honouring the gut as centre – and in this respect is a radical act: a form of activism on the margins, a DIY warfare of the unseen against the life-inimical forces of our ecocidal economy. Our cupboards don’t contain innocuous jars of mere pickled veg, they contain ‘vessels of dissent’, which symbolise a re-awakening to an ecological consciousness counter to the mechanical and toxic drudgery of the pharma-military-industrial complex.
Through the art of fermentation, the body is disassembled conceptually and we become infinitely complex and profoundly connected to nature; we rely less on biomedicine or biomedical knowledge, seeking to improve and nurture microbial ecologies rather than decimate them; pharmaceutical use declines; our individual relationship to food changes and so does the organisation of our communities around food, their connection to producers are changed and monopolies are shaken; alternative economies flourish and communities too; food waste declines and organic produce is sought; better land management occurs and biodiversity improves; soils enrich and carbon is captured; we enjoy better connection with each other and the land, more meaning and more truth; stress declines, happiness increases, cognition, immunity and health improve overall.
After an afternoon of scribbling out the web of relations that extend from the art of fermentation, I can say there seems hardly an area left untouched. If there’s ever been a more persuasive reason to get alchemical, surely this is it.