Thinking About Food Consumption and Its Impact

In today’s blog post, Michelle Mart previews the forthcoming issue of Global Environment, ‘Consuming the World: Eating and Drinking in Culture, History, and the Environment’ (March 2018) co-edited by her and Dan Philippon.

The special issue of Global Environment, ‘Consuming the World: Eating and Drinking in Culture, History, and the Environment’, began with what Dan Philippon and I thought was a simple and self-evident contention: food consumption, history, and global environmental change are – and have always been – connected. We quickly realised, though, that what might be obvious to us was less so to others. Moreover, in an age of environmental crisis, discussion of consumption choices and cultural values might seem to be less urgent, if not frivolous.

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Cover of the forthcoming issue of Global Environment

As we wrestled with how to explain the intersections of these topics, we were drawn back to the varied contributions to a 2016 workshop at the Rachel Carson Center which had inspired our interest in the topic in the first place. The sixteen scholars who presented their research at the workshop each brought a different perspective to the question of how to understand the connections among the seemingly distinct fields of food consumption, history, and the environment. The workshop was deliberately – but inescapably – multidisciplinary and international, given the topics.

The Rachel Carson Center workshop featured stimulating papers and fine cheese

In selecting contributions for this volume of Global Environment and organising the discussion, it became clear that ‘modernity’ – creating, adapting to, or rebelling against – was fundamental to any understanding to of the relationship among food, culture, and the environment. Thus, the discussion in the journal issue falls into two clusters: ‘Inventing Modernity: Food Safety and Nutrition’ and ‘Challenging Modernity: Industrial Food and Its Discontents’.

‘Inventing Modernity’ explores how the global food system as we know it came to be, especially through the ideas of food safety and nutrition.  This discussion spans centuries and continents, as well as different categories of food.  Matthew Booker finds that concern about the relationship between food and disease created in the 19th century increasing pressure for government oversight of food safety based on international scientific research. He highlights the international trade in oysters as a prominent example of these debates.

The other articles in this cluster also wrestle with how governments deployed political power to regulate food and shape consumption. They shift focus, though, from government regulation for safety to government regulation based on nutritional frameworks and measures. Graham Cornwell finds that colonial authorities in French Morocco became convinced that providing adequate calories by encouraging the consumption of a sweetened green tea drink (atay) would help to prevent malnutrition and thereby stave off native unrest. Michelle Mart finds that government manipulation of nutritional information may have been more benign in mid twentieth century America, aimed at improved public health rather than colonial occupation, but it nevertheless had unintended cultural and environmental consequences. Federal government nutritional guidelines – including those incorporated into school lunch programmes – were based on two key assumptions: food was best understood as a collection of nutrients rather than as an organic whole, and the industrial food system would continue to produce predictable surpluses which could be used in a national array of processed foods.

Ernest Langthaler shows how one particular ingredient – soy – has had a paradoxical effect on the Western diet and the industrial food system. As a whole food, soy symbolised the possibilities of creating alternatives to mainstream food, but as one component of processed human foods and animal feeds, it has helped to accelerate the global industrialisation of food as well as the nutritional decline of the food substances created.

The second cluster of articles, ‘Challenging Modernity’, looks at short-lived and enduring alternatives to the cultural and health effects of the modern food system. Sookyeong Hong finds an early challenge to modern, western food in the dietary reform movement of late Meiji Japan, shokuyō or ‘eating right’. Although shokuyō was justified by a scientific explanation of nutrition, its most important thrust was in resisting Western incursions to Japan, including pervasive meat eating. Activists in pre-World War II Britain, as described by Laura Sayre, also proposed an alternative to the modern food system, bypassing industrial production methods to embrace organic food. The 1939 Medical Testament detailed the health effects of eating organic food and went on to become an important reference for the mid-century organic movement.

Laura Sayre presenting her paper at the RCC workshop

While Hong and Sayre highlight the health challenges to the modern food system, Stefano Magagnoli finds another challenge in the cultural desire to resurrect a cherished so-called traditional food which pre-dated industrial food. Yet, Magagnoli finds that ‘typical’ products created from a particular environment and pre-industrial culture, could also be recreated by a modern system, to yield – very profitably – a faux, typical product, an ‘avatar’.

Stefano Magnanoli presenting his paper at the RCC workshop

The varied discussion on challenges to modernity led us back to the power of the industrial food system, especially supported by entrenched, global economic forces. Dan Philippon’s interview with Raj Patel revealed that the battle for the world food system was far from won, and that the environment and cultures around the world were often overwhelmed by seemingly more powerful economic systems.

As Patel put it, approaching our food consumption as only a matter of individual choice ‘becomes much harder to believe when you understand the history’. Instead, as Patel argues – and this special issue demonstrates – studying the history of food consumption and global environmental change means studying ‘where it is that people actually made choices about the food system, and who it is that got to make those choices’. It means, in other words, thinking carefully about the intersection of politics, power, and justice.

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