Tag Archives: Food

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.

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.

How are food, climate and society linked? Seminar series launches this week

Food is central to life; food production interacts with climate; food exists within society and serves cultural and social functions. Over the next few months BSUFN are exploring the links, interconnected issues, and feedbacks between these three areas in a new seminar series.

During the spring term of 2016, BSUFN, the Department of Geography (University of Sussex), and the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme will be co-hosting a seminar series on the theme of Food, Climate and Society. This series will explore the multiple challenges that the global food system is facing: feeding more people healthy food while limiting environmental and social impacts. We’re really excited to be welcoming 11 high renowned speakers to the University of Sussex for this seminar series.

The seminar series launches this week, Thursday the 4th of February 2016, with Professor Tim Lang (City University London) talking on the topic ‘Food: the elephant in the Climate & Society changing room’.

Tim Lang has been Professor of Food Policy at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy since 2002. After a PhD in social psychology at Leeds University, he became a hill farmer in the 1970s which shifted his attention to food policy, where it has been ever since. For over 35 years, he’s engaged in academic and public research and debate about its direction, locally to globally. His abiding interest is how policy addresses the environment, health, social justice, and citizens.

He has been a consultant to the World Health Organisation (eg auditing the Global Top 25 Food Companies on food and health). He has been a special advisor to four House of Commons Select Committee inquiries (food standards x 2, globalisation and obesity), and a consultant on food security to the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House). He was a Commissioner on the UK Government’s Sustainable Development Commission (2006-11), reviewing progress on food sustainability. He was on the Council of Food Policy Advisors to the Dept for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2008-10), and was appointed to the Mayor of London’s Food Board in 2010.

All seminars are on Thursday lunchtimes from 12:30 to 14:00 and will be held in Arts C, Global Studies Resource Centre, University of Sussex. The full programme of speakers and seminar titles is available here.

Conceptual Art Film Communicates Link Between Agriculture and Food

World Food Day 2015 was celebrated on the 16th of October (see our post here). As part of the celebrations for this, Agricultural Innovation in Brabant commissioned the production of a short film about the relationships between agriculture and food.

The film takes a conceptual art approach to communicating relationships which are not always seen. This highlights how arts and media can be effective methods for communicating pertinent food-related issues to those outside of academia.

If you are interested in using arts, media, and creative processes as a means for broadening engagement around food-related issues, please get in touch with us (food.network@sussex.ac.uk) as we are currently preparing a number of projects which may be of interest to you.

What is Food Research?

On Wednesday Ruth Segal and Rachael Taylor gave the weekly SPRU (Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex) Seminar, introducing BSUFN and the innovative way we work to foster community and academic collaborations.

In line with the collaborative and participatory nature of BSUFN, the seminar began by asking attendees to tell us what they think ‘food research’ is and what topics it covers.

This is some of the topics the seminar-attendees listed:

  • Food allergies, health and nutrition
  • Global and local value chains
  • Social policies e.g. community gardens
  • Sustainability
  • Food security
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Food as a way to tackle other issues e.g. health, poverty
  • Concentration of ownership; social enterprise and different organisational forms
  • Spatial and social environments – including obesogenic dynamics
  • Waste management
  • Power
  • Land, water and energy – nexus issues
  • Meanings attributed to foods, advertising and marketing, culture and control

This list identifies many highly diverse topics which are related to food. Despite this diversity, many of the interest areas of current BSUFN members were not raised by seminar attendees. This word cloud presents a selection of key-words taken from BSUFN members’ areas of interest.

What have BSUFN been talking about? A website word cloud

The Brighton and Sussex Universities Food Network covers a very diverse range of topics related to food. Our website hosts blogs and articles written by members about their work or areas of interest. Here’s a word cloud which gives a visual representation of the topics on our website created using the most frequently used words in our articles.

The most common words to appear on the BSUFN website

The most common words to appear on the BSUFN website

From Farm to Fork in Ghana: A Photo Essay

During our sympoisum earlier this year, BSUFN hosted a conversation between the UK and Ghana which addressed the similarities and differences in local farming systems in the two countries (see a summary of the discussion here). This post presents a photo essay of the farming system in Northern Ghana, from production to processing to consumption.

Photos courtesy of Rachael Taylor