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Thoughts on Food Security: Ancient Roman Concepts of Virtue

Wheat harvest
Mihály Köles for Unsplash

Three days ago, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control) published its latest report on climate change. The scientific data the panel presents are alarming. Due to human activity, the environmental changes are developing more rapidly than originally predicted. This is evident through a greater frequency of extreme weather conditions: floods, hurricanes, fires, and droughts as well as warming seas and melting icecaps. As agricultural studies are showing, these conditions are also impacting our global food security, a basic need for survival. Crop yields are becoming lower and world hunger is rising. There are movements amongst farmers to develop sustainable agricultural practices, but the reality is that on an individual and local level we will all have to change our thoughts and habits to be prepared for further changes.

Some of the main issues associated with environmental impacts on food shortages are succinctly described in the article “Climate Change is Affecting Crop Yields and Reducing Global Food Supplies” in The Conversation. The author of this, Deepak Ray, concludes that “[i]n the long run, wealthy and developing countries alike will have to find ways to produce food in a changing climate. I hope this will lead to a rethinking of the entire food system, from diets to food waste, and to more sustainable techniques for feeding the world.”

Deepak Ray calls on us to rethink our food systems. This is a “tall order” for an individual, but a change of mindset can help us form new habits that will assist in sustaining our environment and food sources. Ancient Roman conceptions of personal and civic virtues can help us reconsider our thoughts about food supply and production. The Romans believed that agricultural production and gardening supported a virtuous lifestyle. So, what were these Roman virtues and how can they be adapted to help us reevaluate our relationship to the environment, food supply, and ultimately the wellbeing of ourselves and others?

Rustic Lifestyles: Roman Virtues

The Roman dictator, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (fifth century BC) was seen by the Romans as a paragon of personal and civic virtue. Aside from being a fair leader, he was also described in ancient sources as being a modest farmer (Livy 3.26). His rural existence contributed to the view that he led a virtuous life. There are a number of qualities tied into Roman conceptions of personal virtue, but frugality, modesty, industriousness, and discipline are a few that are linked to agricultural work.

When someone else is harvesting food for us we do not have to think about it aside from buying it at a market.

These ideas persisted throughout Roman history. We find the same sentiments mentioned in the late Roman writer, Vegetius’ (4th AD) work on military matters and life in the army. In his treatise, he said that the best recruits were those who had grown up on farms and in the countryside because they were familiar with hard work and discipline (1. 2-3).

Aside from the personal virtues, the Romans also encouraged civic virtues that contributed to the good of their society. That of abundantia (abundance) was consistent with farming because on a practical level it helped to assure there was enough food for the Romans to eat and keep them healthy. On another level, this placed the wellbeing of the society over that of the individual.

Although it was upper-class Roman male writers who espoused the rustic ideal, on a personal level, I think the virtues inherent in this concept can help us to rethink our relationship to food supply and the health of the environment. Could we see food production as a virtue like the Romans and how might we adapt these for modern times?

How Picking Fruit Made Me Think About Taking Food for Granted

Before I discuss modern agricultural virtues, I would like to explain what led me to thinking about them. In June, we visited my brother’s family in California. While there, we helped them pick fruit from their plum and apricot trees. I rarely have the opportunity to pick fruit, but aside from enjoying it, it made me contemplate how I take food production for granted. Being detached from the hard-work of agricultural production has, in part, deprived me of a healthier lifestyle that is more in-tune with the natural rhythms of the seasons and the pleasure of eating fresh fruit and vegetables picked on the day they are eaten.

It also became apparent to me that farmers do the necessary work involved in food production that allow many of us more time to focus on our jobs. When someone else is harvesting food for us we do not have to think about it aside from buying it at a market. Yet, this has led to another problem. Simply focusing on our work has created a highly stressed and burnt-out proportion of the workforce. It has also taken time away from important things in our lives. Scholars, employers, and employees are now questioning our long working hours. There are calls to cut hours so that we have time to appreciate things that enrich our experiences on earth, such as our hobbies, sports, significant relationships, and nature. We, like the environment, have become imbalanced. I may seem to be digressing here, but the environment and our work-life balance are interconnected. I think we need to consider both aspects when thinking about how to live a virtuous life concerned with the production of food for the good of life on this planet.

I am not proposing unrealistic expectations of becoming totally self-sufficient. However, I think that a small amount of gardening, with time away from the office, can alleviate some aspects of the environmental problems and the food shortages we are starting to face.

Modern Rural Virtues

Aside from the virtues of hard-work, discipline, modesty, and abundance, mentioned above, I propose that two other concepts could be tied into modern conceptions of agricultural virtue: 1) making a contribution to environmental wellness and 2) a healthier work-life balance that contributes to food production for the benefit of a healthier society.

Some of the following aspects and practices can help to build the first virtue of environmental wellness.

  • Less transportation equals fewer carbon emissions. Today food is transported from afar via trucks, ships, and planes, all of which add to air pollution and global warming. Growing and buying locally produced foods will help to alleviate some of these problems.

  • Less packaging and emissions that derive from the manufacture and transportation of packing materials. Growing our own food means that we will likely reuse objects to collect and store what we grow; thus, there will be less need for packaging, particularly plastics, which will eliminate some pollution.

  • Possibly fewer pesticides. Cultivating produce on a smaller scale than on large farms means that there might be fewer pesticides used in food production. One can understand that large-scale farms need to rely on pesticides and fertilizers to ensure their crops grow and we have food to eat. However, on a small scale, it might be possible to use more environmentally friendly and/or natural fertilizers and pest controls. Thus, our soil and water might be less polluted than they are at the moment, given the problems of chemical runoffs into watersheds.

  • Eating seasonally. Although it is not always possible to eat foods seasonally, I think if we become more appreciative of eating a diet that is grown locally, we will adapt to eating seasonally. This, too, can cut pollution levels. Drying, freezing, and preserving any excess food that we grow will also allow us to eat foods out of season.

The second virtue is seeing farming/gardening as part of a more balanced lifestyle where we contribute food to our local communities. Some aspects of this second virtue are:

  • We have an appreciation of nature. Working in nature and with seasonal growing schedules can assist us in appreciating the changing seasons and how they affect the natural world.

  • We give to our communities and ourselves. The fresh food we produce will help cut down our food costs, and we can give or swap the excess food we grow with family, friends, and neighbors, thereby contributing to the wellbeing of the community in terms of both diet and economy.

  • We may be healthier and more relaxed by gardening. The physical activity is known to enhance our happiness and lower our stress levels, which improves our lives and the lives of those around us.

  • Fewer working hours. Making food production a virtue can also contribute to the argument for fewer working hours. We would still be industrious, but some of this work would be for the good of our families and our communities.

Annie Spraett for Unspalsh

How Do We Change Our Mindset?

For these new values to be instilled in us we have to find ways to promote and encourage the activities associated with them. Fortunately, with a little coordination this is easy and is already happening on a small scale. We can place gardens in local communities, schools, and workplaces.

For example, small amounts of funding from local governments and communities could be allocated for the development of community gardens for those who might not have the land to cultivate their own food. These gardens can not only be used for the production of food for individual families, but food can be shared amongst the group. These community gardens can also be a place for public education about the environment and gardening methods.

Schools and universities can also have gardens where students, teachers, and staff have the opportunity to work in them. They, too, make wonderful spaces to teach and learn about the natural world, agriculture, and gardening methods. The food produced could be used in the dining halls and given or sold to the employees, students, their families, and local communities.

If possible, gardens could also be added to the grounds of certain workspaces. This could contribute to the argument for lowering working hours. Perhaps it would be possible for employees and employers to be allotted hours to work in the garden. Aside from learning about the environment and sharing produce, this would also add to a sense of wellness and greater appreciation for the working environment. Happy employees, make better employees.

I know that this is not going to resolve the significant issues we face today. However, changing our thoughts and practices, even on a small scale, can help to instill conceptions and ideas for the benefit of ourselves and future generations. Thus, a virtuous person would be industrious and contribute to the wellbeing of the environment and their community.

Picking fruit in my brother’s yard gave me time to think about what I take for granted and how I can change my attitudes and practices so that I am more aware of the environmental challenges we face. How might you take up Ray’s call for environmentally friendly food production?


Dr. Patty Baker is affiliated with the Department of History at Virginia Tech and founder of Pax in Natura, an online teaching forum that uses crafts and history to think about solutions to environmental problems and wellbeing issues today. Her area of research is ancient medicine and salubrious spaces, the history of gardens, and the history of floral arranging. She is also a floral designer.



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