Monday 25th September
You Are What You Eat: Food and Identity
What is ‘culture’? It’s a question I’d never really considered before, and had probably used the word without even considering what I really meant, however today we began to pick apart the meaning behind this complex term.
We started by discussing how one might identify with food and decide what to eat. Apart from reasons such as availability, cost, and health benefits, we often choose the foods we do because of our ‘culture’. This is where we came to the big question of what culture really is. Many people think about ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, but there are many elements that influence our own culture. We learn from family, friends and teachers how to behave and act around others, and we generally follow ‘norms’ in society, such as sitting at a table to eat and using cutlery. Culture informs our foodways (our choice of foods), which has an influence on our identity.
We then considered consumer culture and how capitalism is fuelling our increasing consumption. The aspiration to have the ‘perfect’ lifestyle drives us to consume, and what we see in the media, in particular social media, creates pressure to keep up with the latest trends. Instagram is awash with images of beautiful plates of food, which can make us feel somewhat embarrassed of our cheese on toast for dinner or the cake that tasted fabulous but had collapsed in the middle, even though of course all those pictures on Instagram have been carefully chosen and edited. It is highly unlikely that people are eating ‘Instagram-worthy’ meals three times a day. This is just the lifestyle that they wish to portray.
This brought us to the discussion of the class system, in which we looked at Pierre Bourdieu’s theory that our lifestyle choices are determined by ‘taste’. Our ‘taste’ is influenced by the capital that we possess, whether it is economic capital (how much money/property we own), social capital (our social networks), cultural capital (knowledge and skills) or symbolic capital (such as being awarded an honour).
When we make a choice about what to eat, is this a truly individual choice? Or are we so influenced by trends, social media and our inbuilt judgment system determined by our class and culture, that in fact we cannot make our own decisions any more?
Tuesday 26th September
On Tuesday, we began by looking at the facts and figures relating to the amount of food produced in Scotland. Beef cattle is the largest sector of Scottish agriculture, and Scotland is the biggest exporter of soft fruits in Europe. Many products in the world are grown year after year on the same patch of land (monocropping), which leads to a lack of diversity amongst plant types and in our diets. I touched on this topic last week in relation to the Commons and to industrial agriculture after the Green Revolution, however we looked at this concept in more depth this week.
Food production both relies on and threatens biological diversity (biodiversity). Industrial agriculture involves adapting the planting method of the crop to fit the machines, so that food can be produced more quickly and efficiently. Crops are grown in neat rows or bred so that a machine can process them easily. There is no room for diversity. With intercropping, diversity is planned into the farming method, so that different species can be grown together, benefitting the plants and the soil, because different plants contain different nutrients.
A good example of the effects of biodiversity loss is the Irish potato famine during the 1840s. At this time, people were reliant on the production of potatoes, of which almost all were of a single variety. When this variety was affected by potato blight, there was a period of mass starvation, leading to disease, death and emigration.
A current example is the case of the Cavendish banana, the only species of banana that we buy in the UK. The species derives from one plant at Chatsworth House in England, but now almost half of all the bananas in the world are of this variety. Before the 1960s, our banana of choice was the Gros-Michel (which is the flavour you can taste in banana sweets), however this species was wiped out by a fungus called Panama disease. Now, the disease has returned and is affecting the Cavendish. With no diversity amongst the crop, once the disease can destroy one plant, it can eradicate them all. The pressure is now on for scientists to create a new variety that is able to overcome the disease in order for us to keep enjoying our favourite banana.
In the afternoon, we considered how we value our ecosystems. According to the Centre of Agri-Environmental Research at the University of Reading, bees contribute £651m per year to the UK economy by pollinating our crops. They also found that if bees were to be replaced by humans, paid minimum wage to hand-pollinate all our plants, the cost of an apple would more than double.
We looked beyond crop diversity to biodiversity amongst flora and fauna, and its link to diversity of language. This is an area I had never thought about before but that I found fascinating. The relationship between biodiversity and linguistic diversity has now been studied and it is clear that areas of the world with very high biodiversity also contain the largest number of languages. Out of the 7,000 spoken languages in the world, 2,500 are at risk of extinction, with up to 90% of these being lost by the end of the century. As these languages are lost, so too are cultures and the knowledge required to live and hunt in these environments.
At the same time, between 0.01% and 0.1% of all known species become extinct every year. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost since the 1900s, and out of the 250,000 to 300,000 known edible plant species, only 7,000 have been cultivated and a measly 150 to 200 are widely used by humans. Think of all those wonderful foods you are missing out on!
These statistics show that conservation of ecosystems and language are both equally important. As well as protecting endangered species of animal, we should also be trying to revive the diversity in our food products by cultivating a larger variety of species, and making sure that we record languages on the brink of extinction. I was shocked to hear that in 2015, the Oxford Junior Dictionary took out around 50 words relating to nature, including buttercup, heron and acorn, replacing them with terms such as broadband, chatroom and cut-and-paste. Although it is important for these new words to appear, it seems barbaric to take out words relating to the place that we live. If children are spending less time playing outside and have no words in the dictionary to describe what they can see out of the window, how will they have any knowledge in the future of the world around them? Even more reason to take children outside and let them interact with nature. Otherwise who’s to say that if future generations have no word for an otter, they might not value it enough to look after it.