Monday 22nd January
Structure and Systems Thinking
Monday was spent with Geoff Tansey, an expert in food systems, food policy and food justice. His key message is that all that matters is to have “safe, secure, sustainable, sufficient and nutritious diets for all, equitably”. Geoff helped us to understand some of the workings of the food system and where the problems might be, which resulted in a fascinating but somewhat frustrating day; feelings that seem to sum up the systems module so far.
Geoff has been working in food policy since the mid-1970s, and told us that for the most part, not much has changed in the food system. In the last 40-50 years, there has been huge overproduction, with fewer and fewer companies controlling the market and creating more and more products. During the 1990s, global food rules changed to include intellectual property rights, which has led to just a handful of corporations controlling the seed industry. As we have discovered in previous lectures, this is leading to a huge loss in biodiversity.
Geoff emphasised that more needs to be made of the social and cultural aspects to consumption, as we don’t eat nutrients, we eat food. For example, he lamented the push to get the Chinese to drink milk in order to boost sales, as it has never been a part of their culture, and most are lactose-intolerant. He also highlighted environmental sustainability and the current structures of power and control as the main areas for improvement in relation to food security.
He stressed that what is being advertised to us is exactly the opposite of what we should be eating, with less than 3% of advertising spent on fruit and veg. Extraordinarily, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola each spent more on advertising per year in the mid-2000s than the entire annual expenditure of the World Health Organisation (WHO) for everything. It is perhaps no wonder that diets are suffering across the world, with 815 million undernourished, and over 2.2 billion overweight or obese in 2016, according to the WHO.
In the hope of finding a positive note, we asked Geoff to tell us about what has improved in the food system since he began working in this area. He explained that more people, from a wider range of backgrounds, have become interested in food, and that the visible effects of climate change are causing people to think more about how and what they eat. He recognises the trend in food writing as beneficial, but pointed out that often it can cut certain groups out, or tend towards ‘food porn’ rather than being something that people actually carry out.
In a world where we do have enough food to feed everybody, Geoff suggested that with new economics and incentives, an effort to steer away from the ‘Western diet’, and by looking beyond technical innovations to social, institutional and legal approaches to the issue, there is a chance for things to be different. Although at times, when reading about the recent history of the food system, it can seem like there is no hope, Geoff emphasised that the future isn’t fixed. He was keen to stress that we are citizens, not consumers, and should be helping to shape the kind of society we want. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to rebuild the food system during our afternoon group activity, but hopefully if more people approach the problem in this way, and begin to understand the complexity of the system, there might be a chance of a more promising future.
Tuesday 23rd January
Mass Media, Power and Trust
On Tuesday, we took a whistle-stop tour through the history of mass media, before considering how it is used today. The emergence of mass media came about due to advances in technology, such as the introduction of the printing press in the fifteenth century; the invention of the telegraph and telephone in the nineteenth century; the discovery of radio waves in the early twentieth century; and the launch of the television in 1936. The BBC was formed in 1922, and food featured on the radio very early on. As technology improved, communications went global. Nowadays we take it for granted that a news story can travel across continents in seconds.
With the spread of the media came the struggle for power and ownership, which in turn affected regulations and the focus of the content being communicated. Staggeringly, the US owns more than 50% of the world’s media. Considering another 20% is owned by Great Britain, it’s no wonder that our news centres around the English-speaking world. Perhaps this is also why we have become unable to engage with tragic news events unless their victims are from the Western world.
In relation specifically to food, we took a look at Signe Rousseau’s Food Media. This week we were exploring the role of celebrity chefs in the mass media. Rousseau believes that “the more food media we consume, the less incentive we have to think for ourselves about how we eat”. Over one-third of cookbooks bought aren’t ever used, highlighting the lure of those beautiful recipes concocted by whichever celebrity chef/Instagram star is in vogue, promising to make us better cooks, but which we never open. Rousseau’s claim that food can exist as a fetish rather than nourishment reminded me of Geoff Tansey’s worry that food writing is becoming more ‘food porn’ than something people actually follow.
To further examine mass media and its role in the world of food, we were joined by investigative and campaigning journalist, Alex Renton. Over the years, Alex has worked as a war reporter, arts and food writer, and has examined subjects from food policy and the environment to abuse in British boarding schools. As we introduced ourselves, we were asked to mention where we access the news. Maybe not surprisingly, only a third of us pay for our news, in the form of a TV license or the purchase of a newspaper. The majority rely on social media and apps for news, which, although not wholly unexpected, is the reason why there are very few news journalists working today; “artisan journalism” as Alex called it.
The fall of traditional media has brought about the rise of ‘fake news’, which creates even more scepticism about all news we are being fed. Although it seems preferable not to have to pay for our news, the more journalists there are, the more competition there is, and the better the quality of news. He described the current support online for papers like the Guardian, as being almost a charitable act, with many people paying just to keep them going rather than actually making the most of their membership.
Within the food industry, retailers and large-scale producers hold the power, which is where investigative journalism becomes crucial in trying to figure out the truth. In recent years, there’s been an abundance of food stories to investigate, perhaps the most controversial being the horsemeat scandal. Alex shared his findings about this, and the meat industry in general, in his e-book Planet Carnivore. He maintains that chickens sum up what’s wrong with the food industry, and said that even after campaigns by Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in 2008, which led to a brief slump in the sales of cheap poultry, you can still buy a whole chicken for £3. It seems even celebrity chefs, hailed by Rousseau as the demigods of the food world, can’t lure us away from a bargain.
Before we delved too far into a subject that made us feel as if we were back in a Monday doom-and-gloom systems lecture, Alex began to discuss some recent good news in the food industry: the sugary drinks tax and the minimum pricing of alcohol in Scotland. Although of course these issues have their problems too, with criticisms that the extra charges will mainly affect the poorest in society, Alex explained that it was encouraging that these taxes could go ahead even with very little coverage in traditional media. Perhaps, even after all of this, there is hope for the future of news and food journalism. After all, it’s thanks to new media that I can share my gastronomic journey with you through this blog, and if that leads to even one reader re-thinking their food habits or joining the MSc Gastronomy, it has done its job.