Category Archives: Food Cultures and Technologies

Can we love food and not worry about sugar?

“Sugar, sugar, sugar- who doesn’t love it right? It is everywhere and in everything and a long time ago, we thought that was a good thing, or at least not that bad of a thing…” writes Julie Montagu (2015).


Obesity is rising; experts are telling us to drastically reduce sugar consumption, while advertisers are telling us otherwise. Slow Food Sussex have convened the panel to examine the evidence, navigate the conflicting advice and help to bring about a very necessary change. Craig Sams, main speaker and co-founder of Green & Blacks chocolate says, “It’s about everything in moderation.’. “You get more pleasure out of the things that you don’t overdo.”

Conversations on Sugar

28th April 2017 – 18:30

One Church, Gloucester Place, Brighton , BN1 4AA


The conversation will cover various aspects of this issue. Why do we crave sugar? How does the food industry slip more sugar in to our food? What external factors drive our compulsion to eat sugar? Can the gut be re-trained to stop cravings? How can parents help their children to consume less? Can taxes and regulations have any impact?


Speakers include:

  • Craig Sams, Co-founder of Green and Black’s chocolate,
  • Jo Rallings, Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, and
  • Dan Parker, Sugar Smart Brighton.

The evening will begin with free canapes and drinks will also be available for purchase.


Tickets cost £6 and can be purchased here.


Conversations on Sugar is hosted by Slow Food Sussex in collaboration with BSUFN.


BSUFN Symposium 2017 – Provocation: The problem with the past

At this year’s symposium we decided not to have a keynote speaker, but to open up the floor to anyone attending to issue a provocation relating to food, it’s production, politics or study. There were four provocations.

This is the provocation given by Food Network member Abigail Wincott of the University of Brighton.

I study alternative food movements and politics of lifestyle and consumption. These lifestyle discourses are often very politicised. There is stuff relating to personal health, fashions and fads, like macarons or kale. But a lot of it is more or less overtly about a number of big issues that really are important.

There is a concern for social justice or fairness – an interest in the impact on workers and consumers of the quest for excessive profits, and of the dominance of corporations over the food system. A lot of attention is paid to the environmental damage caused by the same.

In addition, I’ve found there is a lot of concern expressed about a loss of diversity. This may be expressed as a blandness and homogeneity of food culture or of food itself and also characterises the experience of shopping for it. This is generally regarded as a negative byproduct of globalised capitalist food systems.

There is a concern about obesity, of course. This isn’t just a personal issue in lifestyle media, it is talked about as a social issue, one that the government or industry or society needs to take charge of.

Finally, there is a lot of talk about loss – loss of foods, loss of knowledge, a loss of pleasure. For example there are lots of references to the way people don’t know how to shop for the best, cheapest foods anymore, that they don’t sit and eat together anymore. In a sense this is an idea of a loss of pleasure in life. I guess this is also connected closely to the sense of homogeneity, and to the colonisation of life by corporations.

Now in these lifestyle stories about what is wrong with food and what puts it right, ‘the past’ keeps cropping up. The past takes various forms:

  • nostalgia for the way things used to be or taste
  • the past as a benchmark (a dinner plate used to be so big, people used to spend X amount on food, people used to know how to cook)
  • heritage – protect what is disappearing before it is lost forever
  • retro or historic themes or imagery: The ministry of food, bunting, wartime and austerity, for example.

I am partial to all of this myself, and of course I write about the uses of the past in lifestyle media. I’m not going to join in the dismissal of these uses of the past as automatically socially conservative, elitist or misinformed. People are using these ‘pasts’ to argue for different and better futures.

But I think we have to give some more thought to the way we use the past.

When we think about the future through the past, that affects what we think about, the solutions we come up with and how we feel about them. My problem with our uses of the past are that we tend to think in terms of individual solutions (lifestyle, individual consumer choice) and not to think about the modern state and complex social organisation, or modern technology.

Our ideas about the past are culturally produced: western, gendered, classed, colonial. They’re not a window onto reality.

Thinking through the past isn’t ubiquitous, people buy novel and high tech foods. People start co-ops and campaign for government regulation using a health science frame instead of a nostalgia frame, for example. But it’s pretty ubiquitous among alternative food types and that includes campaigners and academics. journalists, food writers…

It seems to me that these uses of the past are a heuristic. They have allowed us to boil down some very complex considerations in ways that allow us to ‘feel’ what is wrong or right, at a glance. Simple, traditional, like our grandparents cooked and ate, like other people’s grandparents cooked and ate – these things can come to ‘feel’ right. That helps us make fast judgements about what to eat, what to buy and what causes to support.

This heuristic has served its purpose and I think now it’s holding us back. We need to be more critical. We could cast our historical net wider for more unusual practices and ideas.

We need to ask more specific questions. The Green Revolution, mechanised production of food – are they just 100% intrinsically bad, or specifically bad for contingent reasons, like who profits from them or particular techniques that can be changed?

That would allow us to try some thought experiments. What if… we had factories making food, run by not-for-profit organisations? Might they be more energy efficient than home cooking, each of us heating our own ovens in our own home kitchens? That can’t be ‘felt’ to be right, within the dominant lifestyle discourse, which says, go back to the home, go back to traditional methods of production, go back to the small producer.

Industrialisation and high tech solutions to food problems are collective, public approaches to feeding the world. At the moment they are largely profit-making, but that doesn’t make them private in the sense of individual or small-scale. They are mass solutions to mass problems. This collective action on feeding the world has been developing over thousands of years. Social organisation is something people do really well. That mass organisation, planning and economies of scale are hidden in almost all the discourses of good food that look to the past.

The possible exception is the nostalgia for the post-war era – the idea of the Ministry of Food and the benevolent state, which Rebecca Bramall and others have written about. This is a time when people believed more wholeheartedly in progress and modernity. When the British had been hungry until they had been fed by state organised rations. They knew the past could be hungry and dirty and unregulated. People were a bit happier to embrace the new and the large-scale.

But generally,still our heuristic holds us back Some new ideas can’t be understood, don’t make sense if we look through the past in ways we do – tackling global social problems as individuals.

What injustices will become visible, if we stop assuming our ideas about the past are neutral and ‘true’? What kind of society-wide solutions could we find, that we have never found before, if we stop using the past as our benchmark? Who might we hold to account if we stop focusing on food as individual choice?

Would you like to post a provocation about food and its research? Let us know using the contact form and we’ll get back to you.

Register Now for Food Agendas in a Post-Brexit Future Symposium #BSUFN17

Food Agendas in a Post-Brexit Future: BSUFN Annual Symposium 2017
Monday 6th of February 2017
9:00 – 17:20
Auditorium, Brighthelm Centre, North Road, Brighton, BN1 1YD
You can now register to attend the BSUFN Annual Symposium on the 6th of February 2017. Tickets cost £11.21. Buy tickets to attend here.
Lunch and refreshments will be provided.
During the symposium we will be using the hashtag #BSUFN17 so please join the conversation if you are on Twitter.

There has been much talk of the ways in which the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, or ‘Brexit’, will impact British farmers due to changes to the Common Agricultural Policy. We believe that Brexit will have far reaching effects across the food systems in many ways, in the UK, Europe and beyond. From policy implications for food safety standards and nutrition labels, to international trade and markets, to controls on chemical pesticides and the regulation of genetically modified (GM) organisms, and to diet and public health, and more.

To reflect current discussions about Brexit and its implications, the BSUFN Annual Symposium 2017 will consider food agendas in a post-Brexit future. This will reflect anticipated impacts of Brexit on the UK food system as well as implications for food agendas in other countries and regions of the world. Topics will explore the future of food in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, likely to be 2019, and more distant horizons.

The provisional programme for the symposium is available here: Provisional programme

Time Session
9:00-9:20 Registration, tea/coffee
9:20-9:30 Welcome
9:30-10:15 Provocations

Brexit Implications for Food Agendas

Chair: Rachael Taylor

Speakers to include: Brighton & Hove Food Partnership, The Linseed Farm, University of Brighton, and the Institute of Development Studies

10:15-11:15 Session 1 – Policy Dynamics

Chair: Abigail Wincott

Prof. Erik Millstone

The future of UK food & agricultural policies post-Brexit

Peter Senker

Post-Truth Politics and Food Poverty in the UK  after Brexit

11:15-11:45 Tea/coffee break
11:45-13:15 Session 2 – Panel Discussion – Learning from Global Discourses

Chair: Rachael Durrant

Three 15-minute presentations followed by 45 minutes of open discussion

Dipak Sarker

Use, History and Promises, Both True and Untrue, of Genetically-Modified (GM) Crops: Reflections Post-Brexit

Jennifer Constantine

Prospects for the Sustainable Development Goals in post-Brexit Britain: learning from Brazil’s experience with food and nutrition governance

Rachael Taylor

Finding the Future in the Past: Agroecology and Remnants of Colonialism in Senegal

13:15-14:15 Lunch
14:15-15:00 Future Food Agendas

Synergies for Policy, Practice and Research

Chair: Jennifer Constantine

15:00-16:00 Session 3 – Sustaining Farming through Brexit

Chair: Dipak Sarker

Adrian Ely

Transforming Food Systems in Brighton and Hove – Local Opportunities within a Changing Global Context

Helena Howe

Farming through Brexit

16:00-16:20 Tea/coffee break
16:20-17:20 Session 4 – Ecological Knowledge and Policy

Chair: TBC

Elise Wach

What scope for food sovereignty in a post-Brexit Future?

Jeremy Evans

A radical Regionalisation of fisheries quota for LIFE: developing new mechanisms of emancipatory fisheries governance

17:20 Close – move to Earth and Stars, 46 Windsor Street, Brighton, BN1 1RJ for a social evening

Discovering Food in Brighton through Photography

Last week BSUFN facilitated a workshop hosted by the University of Brighton Student’s Union. During this workshop students explored food through photography and photography through food.

The workshop gave an opportunity to experiment with using photography to explore food issues, create narratives around food, initiate communication and engagement on food issues, and as a research method for food topics. During the workshop participants spent time with a camera in central Brighton capturing scenes related to food.

Workshop participants found that when looking for food-related things to photograph they noticed things in Brighton which they would not otherwise notice. The resulting photos paid attention to details which individually may seem insignificant but when seen together create narratives around food issues in central Brighton.

One of the narratives which emerged from the photographs was around food waste, including seagulls eating food from bins and even a discarded refrigerator with rotting milk inside.


Given the time of year, one theme which arose in photos was the use of Christmas in food retail.

Again considering the retailing of food, a third narrative which emerged through photos was the use of language on boards outside cafes. This identified humour, descriptive and romanticised language.

Discussion during the workshop also led to ideas for further exploration of food through photography so watch this space for more events and news on this method in food dialogues!

Other resources about the use of photography as a creative method in food research and dialogue are available here.

Farming in the UK: can we nourish ourselves from this land?

This post is written by Elise Wach and was originally posted on the Institute of Development Studies blog site on the 14th of October 2016.

The recent dispute over food prices between the UK’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, and the UK’s biggest food and grocery manufacturer, Unilever shines a light on a deeper problem in the global food system: our reliance on food that is grown elsewhere.

This is compounded by a drive for healthy eating in the UK which tends to heavily emphasise a tropical diet. From public messaging about your 5 a Day which almost always include pictures of bananas, to cookbooks such as The Happy Pear and I Quit Sugar which rely heavily on the use of coconut and avocados, there seem to be strong messages that that it is not possible to eat locally and ecologically-grown food while also being happy and well nourished.

Is this true?

Not in my experience.

Is all British food bland and stodgy?

When I tell people that I grow food as part of a community food project near Brighton, I often get this response, “ah so what do you grow? Potatoes and cabbages?”

Volunteers with the Food Project, Brighton

Well, yes we do, and they are really tasty by the way, but we also grow well over a hundred other foods, ranging from sweet juicy figs to exquisite mizuna salads and the best pumpkins I’ve ever tasted. We also grow grains (rye, spelt, oats) in small amounts and keep a dozen chickens who lay the most delicious, nourishing eggs I have ever eaten.

All this on one acre of otherwise windy and chalky hillside near the sea (we have great hedging which protects us), with about 4-6 people leisurely working two afternoons per week, approximately the equivalent of one person’s normal work week.

Is eating local only viable for the middle classes?

While many others have been demonstrating the potential to eat well and local in Britain – from the Great British Revival BBC programme (and cookbook) to those keen on foraging the free weeds on our doorsteps, it seems to be a pretty middle class preoccupation. People on low incomes are less likely to be able to afford a veg box or buy organic, much less spend time volunteering on a community food project.

Lack of policy support is a major factor keeping local and organic foods out of reach for the wider public. Part of the problem could also be that policymakers, like consumers, are unaware of the potential for and benefits of growing nourishing food to be consumed locally. Farming policies and reports in Scotland (PDF), for example, tend to be based on the idea that animal grazing is the only viable way to farm in the hills.

However, some people – crofters and the Tap o’ Noth Farm, for example – do continue to grow arable crops, including not just oats and barley but also vegetables such as purple sprouting broccoli, and even tea, in addition to keeping sheep and cows.

Such initiatives tend to be dismissed as anomalies but what if we were curious about what the outliers could show us?

Treating food and agriculture as separate entities contributes to the problem

Another problem is that many policies treat agriculture separately from food. Farming policies aim to boost exports, support farmers and, more recently, reduce environmental degradation (whether they effectively do this is another matter). They do not consider what foods are being produced or who is consuming them.

The largest container ship in the world - 18000 teu - departing Southampton Seen in the upper swinging ground. Credit: Graham and Dairne - Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Scotland is a bit ahead of the game in that it does have a National Food and Drink policy (in contrast to England). While it does include a focus on local production for local consumption, the emphasis is still strongly on exports and I cannot help but think that the two are contradictory. As a recent report by the Food Research Collaboration argues, we need to transform Agricultural Policy into Sustainable Food Policy.

Agriculture should not just be about economics with a bit of ‘greening’ thrown in – it needs to be about food (as well as livelihoods, ecology and community). And this is by no means just a British or European problem. Professor Henrietta Moore, Director of UCL Institute for Global Prosperity recently called for a revision of the mechanisms that “keep farmers trapped on the treadmill of producing for international markets at the expense of themselves and their families.”

Time, costs, and affordability perceptions

As for why people do not have the time and money to buy good quality local food, this seems to be a question that goes beyond the issue of farming to issues of housing, economy and lifestyles more broadly.

Value added at the farm represents only 5% of what UK consumers spend on UK food and drink, so increasing (or decreasing) costs there is not really going to make a huge difference. Looking at mark ups for processing and retailer margins would be more relevant. And with some of the highest costs of housing in the world, it is questionable whether the lack of access to quality food in the UK has to do with the cost of food itself or the cost of housing and other basic needs.

But there are also interesting questions about perception of cost, quality and affordability. I’ve experienced this dichotomy between cost perception and affordability at a personal level.

A friend of mine felt that she “could not afford” an organic cabbage (which can cost up to £1.60 in a high-end supermarket) and yet was happy to regularly pay for avocados which cost £1 each. This indicates that for some, consuming locally produced foods is largely related to price perception – whether prices are ‘too expensive’ or ‘too cheap’, rather than whether they are actually affordable. There are also issues about what is perceived as healthy – the rise of so-called ‘super foods’ might be coming at the expense of regular consumption of nourishing and affordable staples, as well as the expense of food security and ecological resilience in other countries.

Where do we draw the line(s) about what we consider to be local food?

So, if we were to consume more local foods, what would constitute being as ‘local’? The answer is not as straightforward as you would think.

West Peckham Polytunnels. Credit: Chris Guy - Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Food Meters project, for example, indicates that the geographical radius for local is different in different areas. And this is further complicated by the fact that having less food miles, does not necessarily mean that foods are more sustainable – organic tomatoes imported from Spain may have been grown and transported using less energy and producing less pollution than tomatoes grown in the UK in heated polytunnels or with high levels of fertilisers and pesticides. A third option, and the one that makes the most sense to me, would be to simply give up the idea of eating tomatoes all year round and simply enjoy them in the summer.

If we can learn anything from our past mistakes it is that we need to be thinking of food and farming in a more integrated way. And as Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying, “we cannot solve our problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Instead of resigning ourselves, perhaps conveniently, to claims such as “New Zealand lamb is more sustainable than British lamb”, it might be more productive to ask what could be done to make British lamb more eco-friendly.

And if a certain food simply does not grow well here, we might ask ourselves how our diets could shift to a more local yet still nourishing diet?

Holistic thinking, which is one the ten principles from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (PDF), could be one approach for this.

Who should be making decisions about our food systems and how?

According to principles of Food Sovereignty (PDF), decisions about how to improve our food systems should be centred on the realities of farmers (particularly small-scale and family farmers) and consumers themselves, rather than solely determined by the momentum of markets, the priorities of large businesses (including large-scale industrial farms) or the perceptions of high level government officials who are often removed from the realities of farming and eating on a budget.

But how can we manage our limits in understanding and our own biases?

One option is to use processes in which farmers and consumers come together to reflect and to hash it out, which we are using in our Pathways to Agroecological Food Systems project. This includes bringing together diverse groups of people to discuss and debate what an agroecological food system might look like at a local and national level. It entails building on people’s own knowledge while also presenting them with information that may challenge their perceptions.

One of the most important aspects is that the process includes a focus on the potentials (notice the plural of that word) for things to be different. It entails thinking both about the implications of our current food systems as well as the type of food systems we want to be creating for our future generations.

We recently had our first UK-focused workshop for the Agroecological Food Systems project, which follows on from workshops with farmers in Senegal and Nicaragua, and will be sharing some of our initial insights from our work in all of these countries soon. It is certainly an interesting time to be considering these issues as the UK begins to Brexit – watch this space.

Image credits: fruit bowl – Avi8r; the Food Project Brighton (reproduced with permission from the author); polytunnels in Kent, UK – Chris Guy; container ship – credit Graham and Dairne 

Jamie Oliver, heating up the debate at BSUFN16

By Abigail Wincott, University of Brighton

Jamie OliverThe BSUFN annual symposium yesterday was a lively one and there was a particularly heated discussion during our parallel session on ‘Consumers, Identity and Culture’.

My media colleague Gilly Smith and Jo Ralling from the Jamie Oliver Foundation talked about TV chefs, the changes they might effect in wider food culture and the materials and structures which accompany those changes. For example, Gilly mentioned new restaurants and a foodie tourist trade in Hungary, in part the product of a Hungarian version of Jamie Oliver. Jo talked up the successes of Jamie’s food campaigns in the UK, including the sugar tax and changes to school dinners.
A couple of people in the room took issue with their account, accusing Jamie-style cheftivism of unforgivable smugness and asking why Oliver doesn’t raise the issue of food poverty more often.

Others worried that these chefs’ campaigns tend to shame people, that lifestyle TV formats of problem-expert advice-redemption are inherently judgemental, assume lack of information is the reason for poor eating and don’t recognise the varied and individual circumstances people eat and cook in. The same might be said however for public health campaigning the world over…

To her credit Jo acknowledged she and the team at the JO Foundation were aware of these issues, discussed them and tried to produce programmes which took account of them. At all costs they wanted to avoid shaming she said.

Gilly argued people who make sweeping statements about foodie campaign TV tend not to have watched the half hour programmes, but only read the soundbites in news reports. These leave less room for nuance she argued.

This discussion about lifestyle TV activism is a really important one and we didn’t even scrape the surface on the day. It seems to me the question of form or format is key – Jo and Jamie and  Jo Ralling speaking at the symposiumother media producers are bound by generic conventions like the quest or the transformation. Commissioners need to show they are moving with ‘the next big thing’ and won’t always stick around to follow things up (a point Gilly made). Sound bites may get read more, but long form journalism and longer programmes do have the potential to be both entertaining and a bit judgemental but also so much more.

I think we should all be mindful that food debates of all kinds are mediated, and all are affected by the medium. Academic journal articles, conferences presentations and Q&As are no exception. Our discussion was at least as inadequate on the day as any news report – but it was, I hope, an important opener to a much longer conversation.

Future of Food: Burgers… or bugs?

To celebrate the joint 50th Anniversary of SPRU (Science Policy Research Unit), University of Sussex, and the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), a public event on the future of food was held on the 18th of May 2016 as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival.

The event included talks from BSUFN members Professor Erik Millstone (SPRU) and Dominic Glover (IDS), as well as Vera Zakharov (Brighton and Hove Food Partnership) and Dan Stott (Bug Boys). Edible insect canapes were also available for taste-testing.

A summary of the event is available on the SPRU website and a full audio recording of the discussion is available below.