Past tense or present perfect? Diverging accounts of endangerment, conservation and ‘heritage’ vegetables in the media.

During the BSUFN Symposium 2015: The Diversity of Food Research last month, Abigail Wincott (College of Arts and Humanities, University of Brighton) presented her research on ‘heritage’ vegetables and the media. This post outlines her discussion. You can read more about Abigail’s research interests here.

Past tense or present perfect? Diverging accounts of endangerment, conservation and ‘heritage’ vegetables in the media.

This post is based on cultural studies research into the discourse of ‘heritage’ as it extends from monumental heritage conservation to the domain of food and lifestyle. It takes a discourse theoretical approach, so involves not only an analysis of words and images in texts, such as TV series, newspaper articles and tweets, but also sees objects, spaces and activities as part of discourse. The aim of the research is to get at how those symbolic and physical resources are used in the discourse of food heritage, to negotiate positions or roles for particular interest groups, such as heritage bodies, lifestyle journalists and consumers.

They are colourful and tasty. They are discarded by agri-business and free to swap and share. For this and many other reasons, the idea of ‘heritage’ vegetables has been mobilised by diverse groups in recent years, from lifestyle journalists to anti-poverty campaign groups, to critique and re-imagine contemporary food production systems. In its extension to the domain of grow-your-own vegetables we can see heritage being drawn away from a public ‘duty to the past’ (Smith 2006: 19) to the apparently individualising arena of consumption. The repositioning is not unchallenged though, and in this paper I would like to offer one illustration of that symbolic struggle: a comparison of two different models of organising the story of heritage vegetables in a range of publications. Public bodies such as NGOs and political lobbying groups organise the narrative in a linear fashion, where the best is in the past and trouble lies ahead. In contrast, the consumerist account found in the lifestyle media barely touches on the past, fuses present and future, and appears to put forward a problem for which the solution is already in hand. These two models suggest rather different ideas about the future of these crops, and who might be fit guardians of our food heritage.

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