Monday 29th January
Economics and Trade
Monday morning involved an overview of basic economics, to give us the background we needed to approach the rest of the day. Queen Margaret University Economics lecturer, Dr Gemma Blackledge-Foughali, was quick to point out that economic models are simply models, so can’t accurately capture reality.
After considering the reasons behind supply and demand, Gemma introduced us to the four main types of market structures: perfect competition, for example a farmers’ market, where producers are selling similar goods at similar prices; monopolistic competition, such as restaurants, with a greater range of differentiation; oligopoly, such as supermarkets, of which only a few exist; and monopoly, such as a water supplier, where only one operates in the region.
Following on from this, we looked at the conditions affecting trade. In simplistic terms (like our economic models), a country is better off perfecting the production of one good to trade with the perfected good of another country, rather than trying to produce both goods themselves. Through this, a country can specialise in particular products, but still have access to a wide choice of other goods. Governments can use tariffs, quotas and subsidies to protect their own producers from foreign competition, which in a less-developed country can act as a source of income.
The UK produces less than half of the food consumed within the country, which is a worry ahead of Brexit. The food group that was exported by far the most in 2015 was beverages. In Bittersweet Brexit, which has been part of our reading for next week’s class, Dr Charlie Clutterbuck declares, “I do not want to see us as a world leader in flogging more booze round the world.”
In the afternoon, we explored some of these ideas further, through the study of coffee. Included in the top ten most-traded commodities by value, coffee is usually produced in developing countries, however these are not often the places that benefit from coffee’s popularity around the world. Coffee consumption has doubled in the last 35 years, and as a result, 2017 was the third year in a row that consumption outstripped production, according to the International Coffee Organisation. Climate change is having a drastic effect on the amount of land where coffee can be produced, which is likely to mean there could be shortages, leading to higher prices, in the future.
In a globalised world, with more and more goods being produced and traded, it is important to consider ways in which we can make the most of what we already have. We discussed circular economy as an alternative to the traditional linear economy, which involves re-using resources to obtain their maximum value. Alternative models can be used to approach economics, taking the focus from Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to using, for example, Doughnut Economics, which suggests an area between social and environmental boundaries in which all people on this planet can prosper.
Another alternative model has been proposed by Katherine Trebeck, Senior Researcher for Oxfam, who came in to speak to us about the Humankind Index. Katherine began by asking us to imagine how we feel on a typical Sunday morning, and then on a typical Monday morning. Feelings of relaxation are associated with a Sunday, and alarms and rushing around linked to a Monday. However, it is on the hectic Monday morning that we are, in general, going to be contributing more to GDP. Wellbeing, connected with that Sunday morning mood, is at risk during the working week. In the developed world, our privileged lifestyles are causing us to suffer from stress, and causing the planet to suffer through excessive consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.
Katherine showed us the champagne glass model to show that the problem isn’t population, but the way in which income is shared out. GDP, a top-down measure of economic growth, has been seen as a shorthand for success. However, the Humankind Index, launched by Oxfam Scotland in 2012, is a bottom-up measure of prosperity, taking into account factors that really matter to people. The hope is that these alternative models can inform policy in order to get some way in creating a better world for us all.
Tuesday 30th January
Communicating and Educating about Food
Today we considered food education, not through schools or courses, but through cookery books and food documentaries. Initially, recipes would have been passed down from parent to child or through apprenticeships, but once literacy increased, instructions could be written down.
Amazingly, when looking at some early recipes, you could be forgiven for thinking they were written in the last few years, particularly one from a tenth-century Baghdadi cookbook for coconut yoghurt. Shortly after the printing press had been invented, cookbooks began to be printed, the first being in Germany in 1485. Over time, recipes were used for medical advice, as home economics manuals (most famously, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management), and most recently as lifestyle advice in cookbooks and magazines.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England, women were writing cookery books, however in France it was male chefs. Eliza Acton was the first to lay out the method for the recipe followed by an ingredients list, before Mrs Beeton decided to move the ingredients list to the top, which is the format still followed in cookbooks today. As radio and television were introduced, yet again cookery was high on the list of priorities for early programmes, with Philip Harben and Fanny Cradock being the first to feature in Britain. This early TV cookery will be the focus of our studies in a few weeks’ time.
The afternoon was spent discussing food and film, in particular food documentaries. Before the session, we had a series of film clips to watch, and it was fascinating to see how food can be used to express emotion, denote class, display culture, and communicate symbolic meaning, as well as simply being used as part of the narrative. Keep an eye out next time you watch a film. Meals can be used as a chance for characters to interact and have discussions, and to show daily routine. Even going to the cinema or watching a film at home tends to involve food, usually popcorn.
As seen with the introduction of printing, radio and television, food quickly became a key topic as film emerged. The Lumière brothers filmed a baby eating breakfast in 1895, and by 1906, you could go to watch a film of factory workers making biscuits at Peek Frean and Co. in London.
Food documentaries are often created to campaign for change, and use food as a tool to communicate wider issues, much as we are doing in our study of gastronomy. Although documentaries present factual events, it is still important to approach them critically as they are, as Scottish filmmaker John Grierson claimed in 1933, “the creative treatment of actuality”. It is, after all, the filmmaker who is controlling what we see and don’t see.
Narrative films tend not to show the politics behind food, which is where documentaries can provide an alternative view, and be used to investigate and educate. Food Chains, a 2014 American food documentary, was successful in raising awareness of the working conditions faced by migrant farmworkers, and was beginning to gain traction until Trump entered the White House. Tragically, the film has now been largely forgotten.
As spectators, we also have a role to play. We become part of these stories as we engage with them, and can continue the education by sharing what we’ve learned with others and perhaps turning to food activism. In this way, we might play some part in promoting change in our complex food industry. In the words of Michael Pollan, “Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even if you can’t prove that it will.”