Academic plenty in an era of want

Consumption in the Age of Affluence - Tough Choices - Population and Food
July 18, 1997

The attraction of food as an object of study is that really everyone can have a crack at it. Moral philosophers, archaeologists and geographers can gnaw away at issues such as meat eating as happily and usefully as anthropologists and biologists. Over the past 15 years, food has once more become a subject considered worthy of study after years of neglect by all but food's hardcore disciplines such as nutrition, home economics (now often relaunched as consumer studies) and agricultural economics. We owe a debt to them for keeping the flame alight after wartime reconstruction returned food to the file marked "business as usual".

Today, for the first time since the war, there is an awakening of wider academic interest, as a result of a questioning of the food revolution that was then unleashed. New products, new processes, new domestic technologies, new ways of distributing almost everything from farm to stomach have inevitably had extraordinary effects on the texture of our daily lives, how we cook, shop, eat and relate to each other. Affluent western consumers graze from the world's larder. The pace and scale of the change has been considerable. It is this, I suspect, that often underpins researchers' motivations to study food. We are all, collectively, taking snapshots at an extraordinary period of (food) history.

One of the delights of the renaissance of interest in food is that the vice-like grip of traditional perspectives has been weakened. Within and between disciplines, debate and dissent have been breaking out everywhere. Questioning is in the air. In nutrition, no sooner was the fats thesis (that excess consumption of saturates was implicated in cardiovascular diseases) bomb-proof than along came a different interpretation from the anti-oxidants researchers trying to explain why the French could eat a diet relatively high in fats without keeling over like the Brits. The French eat considerable amounts of green vegetables, or used to. And then, wham bang, just when Margaret Thatcher had pronounced class dead - or was it John Major? - along came the new class theory arguing that variables such as diet could not account for health gaps between rich and poor; class affects health through psychosocial factors - how much control one has over one's life.

The kind of vibrancy has huge implications for public policy. Farming and public health go to the core of any government's role vis a vis the citizen. Every state claims a responsibility to ensure adequacy of food supply, if only because history is littered with regimes which have been threatened or toppled by failing to meet it. Food is a deceptively wicked policy area. Only this February 18, Jacques Santer, European Union president, made an extraordinary, almost confessional speech to the Parliament in which he said Europe - all of us - now have to rethink the policies of recent decades. BSE and its aftermath, of course, was the reason for his particular Sauline conversion, but it was symbolically powerful.

This very strength of food as a subject - its topicality and excitement - can also be its weakness because few academics try to make sense out of the whole. This is for the simple reason that the complexity of the issues thrown up by each discipline is awesome. These books illustrate that problem perfectly and none falls into the category of thinking too small. Each addresses an issue of central importance, whatever one's discipline, and contributes to the task of making sense of the sheer enormity of today's food system.

To some extent, Consumption in the Age of Affluence is the most ambitious. It brings together an economist, a social researcher and a specialist in food policy to see whether food is at all special as an object of consumption. Their answer is that it is and it is not. By far the most useful sections are the case studies of sugar, meat and dairy systems. The 53 pages on sugar are the weightiest and best, and for this reason alone the book deserves to be read as an accompaniment to the incomparable Sweetness and Power by Sid Mintz, the United States anthropologist.

Good, too, was the book's second chapter where the authors argue that food studies has "been given a shaking out" by the arrival of new perspectives, from feminism to cultural studies and psychology. One very much wished that this had been expanded; it tantalised with unanswered questions about the direction of theory. Where I had more problems was in some of the more formal economic theory woven around the case studies. Setting out to situate food in a systemic model, the early section of the book hovers on the edge of merely mystifying. The task is cumbersomely done, and for all its faults, the evidence-led descriptions in Tansey and Worsley's The Food System are still preferable.

I admit that I find some social science theory akin to sleeping tablets with tinges of self-doubt thrown in - one asks oneself, "is it my fault I get lost in this?". That said, the theorising is useful here in confronting the ahistorical and anticlass perspectives that have permeated too much food research. In my experience, the authors are right. When I worked in the consumer movement, I became increasingly uneasy with the endless references to "the consumer" as though this was a discrete entity. You do not need a fancy degree or research pedigree to appreciate that the experience of the rich shopping at the Harvey Nichols food hall is a world away from the shopping experience of the estimated fifth of the United Kingdom population who cannot eat a diet officially deemed healthy because they cannot afford it. Ben Fine et al perform a great service in dismissing such sloppy thinking. Class, they argue, is essential as a tool for analysing food consumption.

Class also features in Tough Choices, the latest book from Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC. I do not associate the institute with a class-based analysis, but here is Brown writing of the coming food-supply crisis, noting that the rich have the ability to absorb rising food costs but not the poor. Brown argues that rising population, whatever its extent, is beginning to confront absolute limits of land and water, and that the second half of the 20th century's experiment with boosting yields by fertiliser, management and seed improvement will be unable to meet mass needs in the 21st century. No one factor is deciding, it is the combination which is devastating. Climate change plus water shortages plus pressure on grain prices as the Chinese trade up to eat more meat plus decline of irrigable land plus total amount of cultivable land per person plus a declining backlog of "unused technologies", etc. This latter notion is puzzling. The nature of applied technologies is that one can rarely anticipate their arrival or use value.

I love reading Lester Brown. First, he is a fine performer in the flesh and I visualise him speaking when I read; the book is a must for its starkness and is beautifully written, as ever. Second, I enjoy that frisson of pessimism: we are doomed, so that is settled. In tones reminiscent of Star Trek he tells us we are now leaving the "old era" and entering the "new era". The capacity of new food technologies, including use of genetic engineering, to get humanity out of its fix is diminishing, he argues. If the old era's politics of food was dominated by surpluses, the new era will be dominated by scarcity and competition. This is neat, but so neat that we know it cannot be that simple; never should we underestimate the capacity of people to adapt and dig themselves out of holes. That is the challenge for public policy.

Tim Dyson, professor of population studies at the London School of Economics, has written a coherent overview of the population and food supply question, but class is almost completely absent from his analysis. This important book ostensibly takes a narrower focus than Brown's, but covers some similar terrain. It, too, is clear and comprehensive and is a discourse with the neo-Malthusians like Brown. Dyson sets out optimistic and pessimistic scenarios, and concludes that the neo-Malthusian case does always not add up. He agrees that population growth will drive demand for more cereal production, but despite regional variation, he estimates all regions will meet their needs except sub-Saharan Africa. (Everyone agrees this is the number one crisis spot.) Humans have a lot of variables they can play with and he expects food production in 2020 to be on a par with that of 1990, not less, as Brown argues.

Unlike Brown, who sees fertilisers as a declining force and a source of pollutants, Dyson thinks them the key to rising output, a holding operation. Where I disagree with both of them is that so much depends on agricultural technique. Organic production can equal fertiliser systems over time, but until recently it received next to no state research backing. It is time this was rectified. Dyson thinks that the food supply question requires careful data and analysis. True, but it also requires policy people to think the unthinkable and to investigate other systems of production and distribution.

Dyson's is not a naive book. Like Brown, he agrees the future beyond 2020 is by no means rosy. If these very different books can agree on that, the message is doubly powerful. The short termism which characterises so much food policy has to go. If academics can agree to tell this message to politicians, books such as these are doubly welcome. The big question is, how to get the political will, locally, regionally, nationally, internationally, to change the framework in time.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy, Thames Valley University.

Consumption in the Age of Affluence: The World of Food

Author - Ben Fine, Michael Heasman and Judith Wright
ISBN - 0 415 13155 3 and 13579 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £15.00
Pages - 305

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