Spain: the pleasures and ethics of consumption and production

Travel consumes us, just as we consume the material and philosophical artefacts of the destinations of our desire. We bump onto foreign soil and commence imbibing difference with all senses, some more pleasant than others. We eagerly osmose saturated blue skies, reluctantly inhale the sourness of the unwashed on the train, and happily let the sweet and salty depths of jamón melt on our tongue…

Stuart and I have spent our entire shared life consuming culture, learning our way into other lands by eating churros in Madrid, gazing at Rembrandts in Paris and listening to sitars in Varanasi, reading Machiavelli and Balzac in the Tuileries, and ambling through centuries of Gothic flying buttresses and villages and cities planned and unplanned for habitation. 20 years ago we would read all the relevant novels we could lay hands on before traveling to a new country, and I would commence reading recipes and trying them out on family and friends even before our adventures, only to come home and improve on those dishes after having tasted their distinctions in situ.

So engrossed was/am I with understanding the ways in which we consume culture in pursuit of connectedness, and of a cosmopolitan ethic, that I spent eight years working towards a PhD on the topic, the formal study of which I’ve since abandoned, though it remains a lifelong preoccupation.

Since before becoming a farmer, my interest in consumption logically shifted to a more primary concern with production, ipso facto consumption’s supplier. Our recent trip to Spain, the home of jamón ibérico, exemplified this, as we searched for the roots of jamón, not just the taste. I’ll write more about our findings on jamón in a later post, as here I’d like to share my thoughts on our other observations throughout Spain.

We spent a scant 18 hours in Madrid, and in that time noted:

  1. carnicerías are everywhere in the centre with ceilings and walls lined with jamón,
  2. there’s a bottle of Spanish olive oil on nearly every table,
  3. Spanish olives are standard on tapas menus, but the quality is anything but standardised,
  4. the smoky spice of pimentón is as distinctive to Spanish cuisine as jamón.

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Where and under what conditions is all this produce grown?

As we dashed south out of Madrid in the motorhome we dubbed the Slothvan (unfair really as it was quite speedy on the autovía but lumbered around curves in a not-unpleasing sloth-like fashion), we couldn’t help but be struck by the endless monocultures of olives, seemingly Spain’s equivalence to the central valley of California’s almond groves without the obvious ecological disaster of irrigating a thirsty tree in a drought-prone land. There were rarely water pipes in sight, but also absolutely nothing but olive trees for hundreds of kilometres – no grass between the rows, no shrubs – just thousands and perhaps millions of trees dotting the rocky soils.

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I wondered who owns these orchards and just how big are they? What impact of the growth of Spain’s olive oil industry has there been on the land and local communities (let alone the Italian and Greek industries?) Surely the consequences are the same as anywhere agriculture scales up and smallholdings are lost – more chemical inputs in the name of efficiency and yield, subsequent land degradation, and reduced employment for rural communities who once relied on the viability of many small-scale farms… though a quick bit of internet research reveals that while Spain’s olive orchards are on average bigger than their neighbours’, they are still relatively small by Australian or American standards at 5.3ha (compared with just 1.3ha in Italy!). According to what I read though, lack of control of the value chain keeps the farmers from prospering, just as it does worldwide (the FAO has an entire workstream dedicated to connecting smallholders to value chains).

Dotted amongst the olive groves are huge solar and wind farms – in a dry, rocky land, the Spanish are very wisely harvesting the natural resources of which they have plenty – sun and wind. Something I read when we visited the windmills made famous by Cervantes’ madly tilting Don Quixote suggested the locals worked out a long time ago to harness these resources as their only reliablemainstays – if only Australian policymakers were so wise.

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As we rolled into the steep slopes of the southern tip of Andalucía, the olive groves shrank and seemed to welcome the presence of other species – aberrant oaks and life-giving figs poked up amongst the olives with an appealing diversity after so many homogeneous kilometres. Even grass is allowed between rows in many of the smaller farms, surely a welcome cover for hungry soils under the harsh Spanish sun.img_0178

It got me reflecting back on the abundance of Spanish olive oil available throughout the country (and indeed, in Australia and elsewhere) and wondering where the artisanal local oils are to be found? You know, that whole ‘just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s good’. For example, the region in which we live in Victoria has an abundance of potatoes, most of them grown in big monocultures and sprayed regularly – not what I’d prefer to feed my family… (fortunately it is easy where we live to access the organic and chemical-free potatoes grown by the many lovely small-scale farmers with which we’re blessed).

And then we visited the lovely mountain region of La Vera in the northerly part of Extremadura and saw firsthand how small-scale growing can be aggregated, scaled, and become ubiquitous and still delicious and fair… through the collective model (which of course the olive growers also utilise). La Vera is the most famous pimentón (Spanish paprika) producing region in Spain (Murcia being the other). Back in 1937 the local growers formed a syndicate, and then in 1938 established a cooperative to reduce competition amongst themselves and to create an entity with a real opportunity for export.

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Drying and smoking sheds for the pimenton

img_0465 A niche artisanal (arguably non-staple) product like pimentón can quickly saturate a solely local market, and given it is sold as a dried powder in a tin, it is readily transportable without refrigeration – the perfect product for the age-old spice trade. And witnessing the relatively small-scale fields growing the crops and the old drying sheds where the pimentón are still taken to be dried and given their irresistible smokiness was heartening – I’m heading home with 3kg for my chorizo making – happy meatsmith!

But of course cooperatives aren’t all fair to everyone just because they’re fair to their members. At the recent launch of the Farm Cooperatives and Collaborations Pilot Program in Australia we heard from a number of very large case studies, including CBH, the huge grain cooperative in WA with an annual revenue of over $3 billion that export more than 90% of the grain produced, largely for livestock feed and fuel. We also heard from TSBE in Queensland, a cooperative with $5 billion in revenue that owns feedlots, intensive pig and poultry sheds, and apparently got its start with CSG revenue (food and agriculture are only 15% of their turnover if I noted that correctly).

We ate quite well in Spain – we had ready access to fresh fruit and veg and a variety of interesting Spanish cheeses (such as the lovely, stinky Torta del Casar and the plentiful queso de oveja – curado is much nicer than semicurado) – and made many of our meals in the Slothvan with beautiful views of the wealth of castles that litter the landscape.

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Foraged figs & grapes from a monastery we camped next to, paired with fried potatoes with smoked piment and white anchovies…

The milk was uniformly awful (we could only find UHT, as is the norm for much of Europe sadly), and aside from rare exceptions the bread was mostly terrible. Truck stop food was inspiring – made fresh and with obvious care – there are carnicerías in the truck stops (!), and vast deli options for local cheeses as well as the meat offerings. Of course the meat is almost entirely factory farmed, but with artisanal touches in the processing… more on all of this later in the jamón post.

Truck stops were the best road trip food!
Truck stops were the best road trip food!

Our time in Spain was too short and research was mostly observational and influenced by combining a learning trip with a family adventure, but driving across its vast, dry landscapes from which water must surely be rung out of stone to produce 50% of the EU’s olive oil was certainly more informative than merely scanning and devouring the menus of its cities as we did in previous lives. While consuming food is a central and critical part of life, focusing purely on taste can too easily get stuck on the aesthetic rather than the ethic, whereas following the chain back to where your food is produced can tell you so much more about the communities who grow it and the quality of what they grow.

Having just been to Slow Food’s Terra Madre and braved the crowds at Salone del Gusto in Torino, I have many more thoughts on the problem of privileging the aesthetic aspects of food over the ethics… as well as on the importance of democracy in the food sovereignty movement to effect real change… but just now the cliffs of Cinque Terre beckon. 😉

An ethical approach to food

Our food system is in crisis. Private labels are ruining Australian farmers. Choose free-range pork and poultry. Eat less meat. Stop eating meat. Are any fish still sustainable to eat? Ban GMOs. Labelling is the problem. We need CCTV in abattoirs. Misleading certification schemes make it impossible to trust free range. Eat slow, whole foods. Shop at farmers’ markets. Only eat organic. Ban live export! Save live export! Don’t eat sugar. ColeWorths is the real problem…

PEOPLE, THERE’S A PROBLEM. THERE ARE PROBLEMS.

But how do we solve them?

Let’s step back for a moment from immediate and pressing concerns around seasonal, local, organic, safe, fair, humane food, and consider the confusing array within an ethical framework, such as one that the fabulous Cristy Clark has called ‘ecotarian‘. All of our concerns about the industrial food system can be better understood (and so addressed) if we are led by a coherent ethical approach, rather than atomised ‘problems’.

According to Socrates, people will do what is good if they know what is right, and therefore be happy. But how can we know if we can’t see the means of production of our food (and myriad other items we consume, even if not corporally)?

If we ask ourselves ‘is this organic?’ we are wondering whether there are synthetic, artificial inputs in the form of harmful pesticides or fertilisers, but we haven’t asked ‘how far did it travel?’ or ‘how much were the workers paid?’ We may in fact also be worried about food miles, workers’ conditions, and the treatment of animals, but ‘is this organic?’ didn’t open up the space for those other concerns. The same is true of ‘is this free range?’ or ‘is this GMO?’ and many other such questions about the history of our food before it gets to our plate.

But when we ask ‘was this produced ethically?’ we are required to think about ‘is this right?’ and ‘is it good to eat this?’, which requires consideration of the environmental, social, cultural, political, economic, and physical impacts of our choices. We must consider the entire ecology of the choice – and I include human welfare in my definition of ecology here.

If we take an ethical approach, and in particular the hedonist ethic I have spent some years trying to understand and follow, then a narrow focus on food miles, organics, or heritage breeds is too limiting. These are the cornerstones, the seeds if you will, that make for a fecund garden of ideas to nourish a healthy world. But on their own, each one is but a luscious zucchini, a wayward tomatillo, a cheeky piglet.

An overarching, well-articulated ethic is to local potatoes like permaculture is to veganism. We need systems thinking – what are all the constituent parts? Who are the key players in the system – the seeds, the nurturers of the seeds, the carers of the seedlings, the micro-organic activity of the soil in which the seeds grow, the people who want to eat the zucchinis and all of the potential players in the web of those who will see that the produce makes it from paddock to plate.

Choosing to eat organic, local, seasonal, free-range, fair-trade or vegan diets are all legitimate and important parts of changing our food system, but on their own, they don’t address systemic problems.

But the problem with following an ethic in today’s world is that the supply chain – that long set of links that goes from the production and harvesting of food through to the processing, transport and sales – has grown so long and obscured that you can find yourself eating horsemeat when you ordered beef.

Join me over the next few months as I explore how to demystify the supply chain and participate in transforming our food systems, from production right through to consumption.

And welcome my new title as I re-launch this long-running blog as Tammi Jonas: Food Ethics today – it’s not just me tasting terroir, it’s all of us.

National Sustainable Food Summit 2011

The National Sustainable Food Summit was put on in Melbourne 5/6 April by 3 Pillars Network – on their website they say they ‘will be the leading knowledge network for sustainable business in Australia.’

When I saw the event advertised, I knew immediately that I wanted to go. Unfortunately, my $1500 research funding allowance over the duration of candidature from my School at the University of Melbourne was exhausted last year, and I used up my one funding opportunity for an overseas conference and research on last year’s trip to Finland and Italy, so I had to come up with the registration fee myself, which was not insignificant at $655 (the student price) for two days. Given that no papers were printed (for sustainability reasons – not even the program), I honestly cannot imagine why it cost so much except that it must have been a tidy profit-making enterprise for 3 Pillars. The catering was mostly sustainable, ethical food – free range meats, organic milk and the like, but I still think the price was very high, and sadly meant a lot of people who would have had a lot to contribute (such as small, ethical producers?!) weren’t able to attend.

But on to the event! Because it was organised by a private organisation rather than government or higher education, I was unsure what to expect, and even more unsure what the outcomes would be. A Summit implies gathering the best minds to apply to a problem with a view to informing policy, regulation and community leadership. I’m not entirely clear how 3 Pillars intends to pursue the former two, but it’s obvious that they and many attendees are in fact community leaders, and that this event brought a diverse group together to talk about climate change, food security and a sustainable food future.

I’ll leave it to you to ask questions about the sponsors – I was just relieved neither of Australia’s grocery duopoly were on the list, and the diverse representation from across Australia’s food production, distribution, retail and consumption spectrum was important, in my view.

The key messages I took away were simple: we need good policy and regulation to support sustainable food production and recognise the important role farmers play as custodians of our natural resources, the free market has caused private interests to corrupt aspects of the food system for personal gain that is not in the public interest, and we need to dramatically increase the public’s knowledge and respect for food from paddock to plate.

I’ve quite simply typed up my notes as I took them throughout the Summit (I also tweeted a lot of this on the hashtag #SFS). They are not exhaustive, and I do hope I’ve recorded what I heard accurately. Any corrections would be welcome. The full presentations are up on the 3 Pillars Network Event Blog.

Professor Robin Batterham – ‘What does food security mean and why is it important to Australia?’

  • Population is projected to grow from 6 billion currently to 9 billion by 2050
  • A greater proportion of the world, due to increasing affluence, will (want to) consume more meat and dairy.
  • Increases in aquaculture.
  • Markets are fully globalised
  • France is subsidising farmers because they’re part of the environment and need preserving – a precious heritage and future?
  • Points from The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb
    • A price on emissions and rising energy costs will lead to more expensive fertilisers
    • Peak phosphorus is upon us (Cribb argues we passed it in 1989)
    • 70% of ‘blue water’ is already withdrawn from the system
    • More soil degradation and erosion
    • Productivity gains have lessened/plateaued
    • Food prices track fuel/energy prices
    • Food riots track grain prices
  • Australia produces enough food for 60 million people
  • Although Australia produces less than 3% of global wheat supply, we are the 4th largest wheat exporter
  • More droughts and floods (climate change)
  • Increasing price volatility due to global connectivity
  • Increased reliance on imports
  • The UK throws out 3 billion cartons of uneaten yoghurt per annum (use by dates are very bad policy/regulation)
  • Australian expertise in low input agriculture can help us:
    • develop a carbon neutral food sector
    • develop innovative resource management
  • Land planning focus must improve
    • should decrease taxes on peri-urban land still being used for food production

Dr Amanda Lee, Queensland Health

  • Adults eat:
    • 20% too much red meat (yet young women eat too little)
    • 40% too much starch
    • 30% too many refined grains
  • If 35% of the population is overweight or obese, has the free market failed us?

Robert Pekin, Food Connect

  • A reflection – while driving, you see manicured lawns and gardens. On the train, you see backyards, get a perspective of where and how much home food production is happening (not much in many areas?)
  • Fresh produce consumption increases when people sign up with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box drop system
  • In a CSA, 55% of the retail dollar goes back to the farmer compared with normal average of 15%
  • We need to shift our focus from purely production to issues around distribution and consumption

Jock Laurie, National Farmers Federation

  • Don’t blame farmers for lack of access and over-processing of food – that’s bad policy and business
  • Bad policy and supermarket wars in the face of increasing costs of production are pinching farmers

Julian Cribb, author of The Coming Famine

  • Farmers must double production (by the 2060s) with:
    • half the water
    • less land
    • no fossil fuels (eventually)
    • scarce and costly fertilisers
    • less technology
    • more climate instability
  • Food stress leads to conflict, government failures, ‘refugee tsunamis’ and inflation
  • Solutions:
    • Develop a new eco-agriculture
    • Urgently develop renewable energy sources for agriculture
    • Increase research and development
    • Fair incomes for farmers
    • Recycle urban sewerage for fertilisers
    • Bio-cultures and algae farms
    • New diet: 23,000 edible plants
    • Rehydrate, revegetate, re-carbonise
    • Teach respect for food

Kirsten Larsen, Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL)

‘Future Scenarios for Food? Victorian Food Supply Scenarios’

You really have to have a look at the full report to appreciate what an excellent bit of research this is from VEIL. I can’t do justice to the scenarios they propose here!

  • Adjustment scenario – net food availability decreases
  • Control scenario – food stability
  • DIY scenario – mixed results

Michael McCallum, Global Foresight Network

  • Transactional thinking and effort won’t get us there
  • People have short-term agendas
  • We need transformational thinking
    • Understand why (the shapers)
    • Deconstruct assumptions
    • Focus on where we need to go beyond now (transcendence – transformation is required)
    • Reconstruct meaning and new systems
    • Design integration pathways
    • Drive a change agenda at speed (urgent)
  • Fundamentals of the new curve:
    • resilience – adaptability – sustainability – future focused

Consumption break out session

‘Obesity and climate change are two huge market failures’ (UK)

  • In January 2007 (Australia) 78% of people were concerned about the environment
  • Now it’s 60%
  • Concern rarely translates into action
  • A higher tendency towards green consumption generally leads to decreased consumption
  • There is no consistent market segment that exhibits more sustainable behaviour – higher levels of knowledge correlates to less behaviour change?

Local food economies break out session

  • When the population rapidly increased and food availability decreased in Cuba, people moved to cities – so the government invested in rural areas to draw people back out.
  • Overly strict food safety is a barrier to local food production and distribution, including things like food swaps (pig days, etc)

Dr John Williams, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists

  • Must increase production while decreasing impact on the environment.
  • Must make farming mimic natural ecosystems – they must generally be closed systems
  • Pricing food for sustainability:
    • Reward the provision of ecosystem services (by farmers)
    • Need investment in the economic valuation of ecosystem services
    • Reward farmers for sustaining the land as a matter of public good
    • Cost of food doesn’t include the cost of maintaining natural resource base
    • Need government to create/adjust policy that creates incentives for sustainable practice and costs to the environment being internalised
    • Need market and trade policies that remove perverse subsidies
    • Regulatory framework to ensure food production does not lead to damage to natural resources and environment
    • Need an Australian Standard for sustainable agriculture for local and imported goods

Dr Tim Flannery, Chief Commissioner of the Climate Commission

  • To address issues of an increasing population you need to address education and women’s rights in the developing world – alleviate poverty and you address population issues

Michael McCallum, Global Foresight Network

  • Beyond an economic lens
  • Pressures in current systems deliver poor returns
  • Opportunities:
    • producing with constraints
    • food cycles not waste
    • focus on optimising high nutrition
  • Reconnect people with food
  • Accelerate knowledge and dialogue to deliver a new system

Richard Hames, Asian Foresight Institute

  • We became ‘consumers’ in the 1920s – an audience member suggested we should be ‘food citizens’ rather than the more passive ‘consumers’
  • Australia21 is setting up a Sustainable Food Lab
  • Beyond today’s worldview:
    • Production – increase biodiversity, sustainable practices, conserve ecosystems, local and organic investment
    • Environment – resilient design, protecting diversity, valuing ecosystems, stewardship, adaptability
    • Consumption – not more, but healthier, national food reserve, greater equity, education and information

‘60% of the world’s investments at the moment go to weapons’

  • Our opportunities:
    • Move swiftly to a steady state, low carbon economy using existing technologies
    • focus new investment on climate change adaptation
    • Conserve biodiversity and increasing nutritional diversity
    • Build resilience into the supply-demand cycle
    • Increase investment in sustainable rural farmers
    • Less the power and profit motives of Food, Inc (entire supply chain of big agro-industry through to retailers)
    • Embed sustainable practices – biomimicry, permaculture
    • Move from profit motive as a social priority to other forms of value
    • Legislate unintended consequences out of the system

Waste break out session

  • Sustainability Victoria survey
    • 40% of household waste is food
    • Households report they throw out $2000 worth of food per annum
    • That’s 8L/week per household of food waste
    • 700,000 tonnes, or 7% of waste in Victoria
    • Identified four broad groups of people: Zealots, Planners, Triers and Wasters in order of minimal to maximum food waste. Education programs should target Triers.
  • Katy Barfield, Second Bite
    • 7.5 million tonnes of food wasted per annum in Australia
      • ‘leakages’ and surplus food
      • pre-harvest
      • harvested – inefficiency/quality rejection
      • post-harvest
      • retail
      • edible
    • 1.2 million people in Australia are regularly at risk of not having enough food
    • We need to value food waste
      • economic value – food donors save on landfill, possible tax savings; real $$ value to community programs
      • social value
      • environmental value
      • health value

Don’t just ask ‘how do we produce more?’ but also ‘how do we effectively redistribute food throughout the system?’

Michael Velders, ARUB

One person’s urine provides enough NPK to fertilise 400-500 square metres of agricultural land

Ideas

  • there should be a total ban on organic waste to landfill
  • hospitality must separate all waste – compost and re-saleable/useable
  • triple bottom line reporting
  • ‘humanure’ should be accepted – ban on any sewerage into the sea

Michael Raupach, PMSEIC Expert Working Group on Energy-Water-Carbon (EWC)

PMSEIC – 2010 – ‘Challenges at Energy-Water-Carbon Intersections’

  • Connectivity challenge – trade, media, education, information
  • Resilience (from Resilience Alliance)
    • can recover from disturbances and shocks
    • can adapt by learning
    • can undergo transformation when necessary
    • resilience is a product of evolution
  • Finite planet and connectivity challenges require new foci:
    • integrative thinking
    • holistic education (eg food knowledge)
    • holistic innovation
  • Recommendations from the PMSEIC Report
    • Consistent principles for the use of finite resources:
      • ensure markets transmit full, linked, long-term costs to society
      • require resource accounting to be comprehensive and consistent
      • make markets work with non-market strategies
    • Develop and implement smart network methods
    • Build EWC resilience in landscapes
      • joint food, fibre, water production
      • innovative new technology (eg algal systems)
      • viable farms and rural communities
      • increase resource efficiencies and yields
    • Build EWC resilience in cities and towns
      • increase energy and water efficiency
      • recycle water with energy cogeneration
      • improve microclimates
      • change behaviours to reduce demand
      • stop sprawl with good planning, incentives
      • increase urban food production
    • Develop integrative perspectives
      • enhance incentives for integrative research
      • implement a new core research effort
      • ensure stable and ongoing delivery of essential information
      • a new education paradigm (Earthcare?) – preschool to adulthood, food awareness

Brad, CSIRO

  • The public welcomes supply chain transparency, but then tackling environmental issues head on such as by pricing pollution, etc, is a very hard sell
  • Different forms of reporting available – not everything needs to be on the label
  • Perhaps on the label should include – carbon, water and land?

There’s a lot of information here, and many conversations to have about it all. I’ll pick up some of the threads in future posts. Thanks to 3 Pillars Network for putting on a very stimulating and informative Summit!

If you’re interested in Sustainable, Organic, Local, and Ethical (SOLE) food, you should check out Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. 🙂

The 18th International Ethnological Food Research Conference

This week in Finland has been a stimulating blur of presentations and conversations about food, punctuated daily with doses of pickled herring. The 18th International Ethnological Food Research Conference was hailed by all as a great success, bringing together international scholars from a variety of disciplines to consider the historical, cultural, sociological, nutritional, political and ethical issues around the production, preparation and consumption of food. As well as many excellent papers, the conference had a thoughtful social program of dinners and outings, offering us all more opportunities for meeting and developing new friendships and possible collaborations.

Some highlights from the papers, in chronological order as I heard them:

  • Johanna Mäkelä of the National Consumer Research Centre in Finland gave a detailed overview of ‘The Making of Finnish Food Culture’, highlighting competing discourses of Finnish food culture, such as: ‘it’s rich and multidimensional’, ‘there is no food culture in Finland’, ‘healthiness’, and ‘food as a central part of culture’. Such discourses exist in all nations and indeed many regions or even cities, of course. Johanna’s comments that almost 20% of the Finnish people consider pizza to be one of Finland’s national dishes resonated with Australia’s cultural borrowings as I wrote about in New Matilda earlier this year.
  • Nancy Yan of Ohio State University spoke about questions around ‘authenticity’ in the Chinese American context, asserting that authenticity can either disempower or empower, that it is ‘pervasive but limiting’ and that rather than dismantle the concept, perhaps we need to reframe it. She argued a case for ‘multiple authenticities’, and raised the particularly interesting question – ‘why does location determine authenticity?’ That is, why can’t a dish such as chop suey, invented outside of China, stake a claim to being an authentic Chinese dish? I would probably answer that its stake is in Chinese American cuisine, but that arguably the most pressing question is why is it important to the producers and consumers of chop suey that it have any claim to authenticity in the first place?
  • Eldbjørg Fossgard of the University of Bergen in Norway offered a history of the ‘Cultural and Symbolic Aspects of Everyday Meals in 19th & 20th C Norway’, which sketched out the shift from practices of children eating alone in the kitchen to moving to the family table over time. The changing values around raising children and the importance of role modelling as the nuclear family became more important than extended family models led to discourses of teaching children manners, hygiene and healthy eating habits. This talk resonated with me as I had received an email from my 10 year old Oscar that morning responding to an email I’d sent lauding the virtues of pickled herring for breakfast, in which he wrote: ‘The brekky didn’t sound that good but when you said it was delicious I wanted some.’
  • Ken Albala of the University of the Pacific followed up with a discourse analysis of what food scholars are saying about the perceived decline in the family meal and its social impact. He ultimately concluded that very few in his survey seemed overtly concerned that the declining importance of the family meal signals social decay. Those most likely to be concerned about such changes were in countries where traditions are changing rapidly, whereas those in countries where agro-industry is a fait accompli were very unlikely to note concerns.
  • Christian Coff from the University College Sealand in Denmark gave an excellent presentation on ‘Food Ethics in Everyday Food Consumption’. Christian kindly gave me the copy he’d brought of his book ‘The Taste for Ethics: An Ethic of Food Consumption’, which I’ll write about here on the blog after I read it. Some of his most interesting points included:
    • Ethical traceability – the story of the food should be traceable (in the EU traceability is law, but stops at the retailer – there is no compulsion to pass the information on to the consumer).
    • There are many philosophical schools of thought on ethics, but some of the most compelling perhaps include Honnerth’s notion of ‘consciousness of injustice’ – thinking about ethics in terms of relationships. Food is a relationship, originating from nature and undergoing a transformation from the natural to the cultural.
    • ‘The vision of the good life with and for others in fair food production and consumption practices’ – that is, you cannot enjoy the good life ethically if in order for you to do so you must support or cause some injustice to others.
    • He suggested that the main areas in food ethics include: food security, food safety, nutritional values and production history, and posed the question ‘what about taste?’ – what is its role in considering food ethics?
    • As for food ethics in everyday life, we can consider them at common meals, while shopping and cooking, and via catering outlets (everything from restaurants to hospital canteens).
    • Christian offers a model via the semiotic perspective, where there is the food with its values and qualities as related to two different interpreters, in this case producers and consumers (or suppliers and receivers) – and in between them is the food sign, or the trace, in which case nothing may be signified. The point at which the food is signified or merely leaves a trace is of major significance – how can a consumer have an ethical relationship to his or her food if it is untraceable – the mode of production completely invisible? When the mode of production is invisible, we are left ‘eating secrets’. Agro-industry often has a strong investment in maintaining this opacity – it is not in the interest of a massive pig factory farm (as reported here on boing boing) to show the consumer the horror of the conditions these animals suffer, or they are likely to make different choices. Joel Salatin advocates for making farmers transparent and accountable, as I summarised after hearing him a few months ago.
  • Hanne Pico Larsen from Columbia Univeristy & Susanne Österlund-Pötzsch from Åbo Akademi University in Turku, where the conference was held, gave a very interesting presentation on Marcus Samuelsson, the chef until recently at New York’s Aquavit restaurant, who uses the notion of Ubunto, a word from Zulu loosely translatable as ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’ in his cooking. Samuelsson is ‘multi-ethnic’, being African Swedish now cooking and writing in the United States – and Hanne and Susanne refer to the notion of ‘American plus’ – where there are advantages of being American with a sort of ‘bonus’ non-white ethnicity. They extend the idea, suggesting that ethnic identity in Samuelsson’s work is playful, and that he draws on what they call ‘playful nostalgia’ to make old traditions appealing, also developing a creative hybridity, such as a ‘sushi’ made from pickled herring on a rolled bit of mashed potato. Ultimately, they argued, ubunto enables one to keep multiple and flexible ethnicities.
  • My paper followed directly after Hanne and Susanne, which was timely as I was talking about the importance of maintaining distinctive vernacular foodways in order to have cosmopolitan societies. That is, if one never encounters difference – if hybridity is the new homogeneity – then society stops being challenged by difference and seeking greater openness to and engagement with the Other. I talked about how ‘creative substitutions’ are an essential aspect of successful tactics by migrants at settling homely identities in new lands, but that distinctive traditions and dishes should be respected and to an extent preserved in order to maintain real difference. I also pointed out the inherent ‘dangers’ in insisting on ‘authenticity’ – particularly the dangers of essentialism – but also to the opportunities and affordances for the cosmopolitan project.
  • Déirdre D’Auria from University College Dublin offered a fascinating insight into the historical rise of Italian food as everyday food in Ireland. Interestingly, there is only a very small migrant population of Italians in Ireland, but the many Catholic crossings of the Irish to Rome from 1950 may have been a key factor in the rise of popularity of Italian food. It is a topic worth following further given what I’ve learned in Vietnam, which also has Italian as the fastest growing non-Vietnamese food sector in the country, without a concomitant migrant population to explain its popularity.
  • Håkan Jönsson of Lund University in Sweden gave a very interesting presentation on the ethical aspects of commercialising ethnological research. Pointing to the growing interest in food culture from both consumers and producers, and the nature of glocalisation giving places new values, Håkan believes there is a growing imperative and opportunity for trained ethnologists to provide expertise, in particular to the producers. He warns that as a researcher working for commercial aims, you may end up ‘being an alibi for a traditional line extension product’, and proposes that we should be preparing students for these challenges. Lund University now offers a Master of Applied Cultural Analysis that seeks to provide its students with precisely these research and commercial skills. In the discussion that ensued, Christian Coff pointed out that in fact researchers in this case may end up as ‘tools for the exercise of power’, and I expressed concern that such research training must include ethical training – that surely it is central to scholarship to ensure we are working for the global public good, and not ending up as ‘alibis’.
  • Maria Frostling-Henningsson from Stockholm University in Sweden gave a fascinating paper about her recently concluded research project into ‘Consumer Strategies for Coping with Dilemmas Concerning the Meal and Eating Habits’. The project was particularly interested in examining the gap between intentions and practice, and how people cope with significant gaps. They found that those with children and teenagers were most likely to have a significant gap, whereas empty nesters were much less likely. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common strategy was a ‘justification of non-choices’ – a ‘passive’ strategy that lays responsibility more at the feet of society rather than taking individual responsibility. I was reminded strongly of my post on good cooking and finding time, and my own coping strategies when practice doesn’t measure up to intentions. Two of Maria’s methodologies interested me enormously, one called ZMET, where subjects are asked to choose pictorial representations of their attitudes about food, and another where they asked subjects to write poems about their attitudes. Both seemed very creative ways to engage subjects in multi-faceted ways rather than just straight interviews and observation. In the subsequent question period, Christian again brought a useful philosophical lens when he pointed out that in asking subjects about their intentions and practices, it depends on whether you are asking and answering as a citizen (global good) or as a consumer (individual desires and habits).

There were many other papers worthy of discussion, but I couldn’t go to all of them (we had three parallel sessions each time) and I have here highlighted those I went to that were of most relevance to my own project and interests. The days were incredibly fruitful, the participants wonderfully diverse in discipline, nationality and in fact, age (ranging from late 20s to 93 years old!), leading to many surprising and fascinating discussions. I really hope to be able to attend the 19th IEFRC in 2012 at Lund University, and then to convince them to let the conference move outside of Scandinavia to attract even more scholars from other regions.