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Food: what we eat is who we are

Ian Christie
16 April 2003

Few things in life are more fundamental than the food on our plates – or the lack of it. Food is associated with family, with celebration, with guilt and shame, and with the sources and rhythms of life itself and human significance in the world.

Once most food production and consumption was a very local matter. In the 21st century farming and eating are the most potent everyday examples of globalisation of technology and trade. Now the citizens of the rich world spend freely on food and drink in globalised supermarkets, offering a phantasmagoric range of products from all over the planet.

This revolution in food has completed the work of the industrial revolution in separating the majority of people from the land and any direct relationship with the cultivation of the stuff of life. Disconnected from the seasons and from all local constraints of production, consumers can feast on a multinational banquet all year long – if they can afford it. Meanwhile, local production patterns around the planet are being transformed, in large part to enable the consumers of the west to eat anything they like at any time. And new technologies promise or threaten yet greater changes in the making of our food, opening up the prospect of genetic manipulation and still more environmental change on a planetary scale.

In his Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy (La Physiologie du Gout, 1825) the French sage Brillat-Savarin said, ‘Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are’. In the modern world, we are coming to dread the answer. The more our eating is subject to globalisation and to the attentions of scarcely comprehensible technologies, the more the western world and ever more citizens in the developing countries fear the impact of their food on their health. In a world in which toxic chemicals from the industrial world find their way into the diet of the Inuit of the Arctic, and health scares about food are as much a part of the daily diet as breakfast, we have good cause to wonder what we are becoming as a result of the way we farm and eat.

Food is the focus for passionate debates about the economics, environmental impacts and cultural aspects of globalisation. Many people, in the west at least, have gained enormous variety and plenty in our supermarkets, but at what cost? The economics of food are organised to favour the rich world, and food is at the heart of controversies over the future of world trade. How can local producers thrive in a world where food is increasingly a commodity in globalised markets dominated by multinational concerns?

The environmental impacts of globalised high-tech food production and distribution are also now a source of great anxiety, as the effects of ‘food miles’ clocked up by exported products and the pollution from fertilisers begin to have global ramifications for the health of ecosystems. The pillaging of fisheries worldwide points to the risks of catastrophic over-exploitation of the sources of food as populations grow and demand for protein rises. And the prospect of major and irreversible consequences from the development of genetically modified foods is now at the centre of debates over health and the environment, and the sustainability of food production systems.

Finally, food is at the heart of increasingly sharp debates and conflicts over the cultural dimensions of globalisation. Against the seemingly unstoppable tide of international fast food and the ultra-processed products of high-tech food corporations, there is now a small but burgeoning ‘slow food’ movement, growing in influence from its Italian base. Slow food is about respect for the art of cooking and the role of food in making family and community, about respect for seasonality, and about securing a place for the local in a globalised system. And the contradictions of food culture are thrown into sharp relief too by the co-existence of obesity and a cult of thinness in the rich world, as we simultaneously ‘pig out’ on the glut of grub all around us and yet recoil from it.

What we eat and how we produce it have always been telling indicators of the condition of societies and the view they hold of nature, the sacred and everyday relationships. How the world eats now – and what the future of food might be – is the new debate for the Ecology & Place theme on openDemocracy. We will be exploring the tensions at work in modern political life concerning the production and consumption of food, the connections between food and the environment, and the cultures of food that illuminate differences in values and outlooks around the world. We invite you to send us your experiences, views and recipes.

The discussions we plan to explore in this new Food strand revolve around the economic, environmental and cultural tensions that developments in farming, technology and trade have begun to generate. What we eat now brings home vividly the nature of globalisation and the impact of new technology on our ways of life, our environment and the prospects for our children. Nothing makes the links between the local and the global more apparent – and more disturbing and at times exhilarating – than the changes in our diets and our farms.

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