A feast for the eyes

A feast for the eyes

Monday 12th March


The Cost of Food: Impacts of the System


The real cost of food. True to form for a Monday lecture, we knew this wouldn’t be a pleasant topic to discuss. Especially as our preparation homework involved some investigation into slavery, child labour, exploitation of workers, and land grabbing. We began by exploring these four issues, that take the cost of food beyond simply monetary value.


My group had a look into child labour within the chocolate industry. Child labour is defined as being “work that deprives children of their childhood, potential and dignity, interferes with schooling and is harmful to their physical and mental development” (International Labour Organisation).


This is a problem affecting mainly the Ivory Coast in Africa. Farmers struggle to survive off the wages they are paid for their cocoa, and with large families, it can seem like the only option for them to use their children to help out on the plantation. These are children that may be being trained to eventually take over the farming business. This makes it very difficult to determine at what point this becomes child labour, when there can be positives to older children helping out on the family farm whilst also receiving a decent education.


Pressure from chocolate consumers has led the local government to make schooling free and compulsory up until the age of 16. The goal is now to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by 2025. Large chocolate corporations such as Nestlé and Barry Callebaut have admitted to using child labour, but have agreed to this pledge.


Tony’s Chocolonely aims to produce slavery-free chocolate. The Dutch company was started by Teun van de Keuken, a journalist who worked to expose child labour in the chocolate industry. The story is shown in the film, The Chocolate Case. Tony’s Chocolonely aims to work with farmers and co-operatives to improve quality and productivity, whilst paying a fair price for the chocolate. However, they say themselves that it’s fine for children to help out on family farms as long as their education and development are not hindered. This brings us back to the difficulty in determining a precise definition of child labour. The chocolate is also processed by Barry Callebaut, who as a company have admitted to using child labour, and this outsourced processing means that it is not possible to guarantee that 100 per cent of the bar is traceable back to Tony’s Chocolonely’s partner co-ops.


The largest chocolate companies agreed in 2001 to end the worst forms of child labour by 2008. Although still a long way off, the hope is that by 2025, this will finally be achieved. However, with a blurry definition of what child labour is, and what constitutes the ‘worst forms’, it could be a lot longer still until slave-free chocolate is the norm.


Other groups in the class shared information about slavery, exploitation of workers and land grabbing. It’s unlikely that many people realise the extent to which all of these issues affect the food we eat on a daily basis. Slavery is used to harvest vegetables in the south of Spain, and many of the big supermarkets source prawns from businesses that use slave labour. The exploitation of workers can also happen in a range of companies in the UK, particularly in the hospitality sector. Land grabbing involves governments or companies buying up land in order to secure food supplies or increase their production. It can displace indigenous people and other communities, and often occurs in countries where famine is prevalent.


In the afternoon, we discussed issues around animal welfare. Debates continue regarding to what extent animals can suffer and feel pain. The lack of a definitive answer means that animals are being mistreated on an enormous scale around the world, in order to feed us. We could be considered ‘speciesist’.


As we saw when we went to the livestock market two weeks ago, once large numbers of animals are being dealt with, they start to be seen simply as numbers and pieces of meat. Factory farms amplify this effect. Consumers are often led to believe that their meat comes from an animal that has been roaming around a farm all its life, when in fact it has been shut indoors, and an image of a fake farm has been plastered on the packaging. With the conditions in many large-scale factory farms and abattoirs, it would be terrible marketing to give consumers a true picture of what they are buying. Hardiesmill Place, that we visited on our recent trip, is an example of a business doing their best to ensure that their animals live as good a life as possible, and are treated with respect right up until they end up on our plates, with an on-site abattoir and butchery. This system, however, is not going to feed the world, which leaves us at the moment, unfortunately, with factory farming as it is.



Tuesday 13th March


Food and Art


On Tuesday, we explored the way that food has been depicted in art by taking a trip to the Scottish National Gallery. Catherine, a member of the education department, had picked out a few paintings from the collection for us to discuss.


We began at Abraham van Beyeren’s Still life with Fruit and Game, a Dutch pronkstilleven (translated as ‘sumptuous still life’) from around 1660. Exotic fruits, a partially plucked bird and two fluffy hares are displayed alongside delicate Venetian glassware, a brass pestle and mortar, and a Chinese porcelain bowl, all carefully positioned on a plush velvet curtain, laid over sturdy wooden table. It is a painting of excess, to show off the wealth of the owner, and the skill of the painter.




Next to The Vegetable Stall (1884) by William York Macgregor, a member of the Glasgow Boys. Again, an abundance of food is shown, but this time it is seasonal and muddy, with the texture of the paint being used almost to sculpt the forms of the vegetables. Although there are no figures in the painting, a human presence is suggested by the knife signalling the preparation area. Previously, there was a girl counting change, but the artist decided to paint her out.




We then formed small groups to look at further paintings, before gathering together to share our findings.


An Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618) is an early painting by Diego Velázquez, showing a scene of everyday life (known as a genre painting). In addition to showing off his skill by painting figures, fabric, earthenware, brass, and a shiny red onion, Velézquez pushes himself further to try to depict the moment of transformation during the cooking of eggs in oil.



The Cook (1630-40) by Bernardo Strozzi is another genre painting, showing a coquettish young woman plucking a bird by the fire, surrounded by several other feathered creatures ready to be prepared for a meal.




The main focus in Sir Peter Paul Rubens’ The Feast of Herod (1635-38) is Salomé displaying the head of John the Baptist on a silver plate. John the Baptist’s death has been carried out on Herod’s orders after he promised Salomé anything she wanted, which she decides is the death of John the Baptist after consulting her mother, Herodius, as he spoke out against the marriage of Herod and Herodius. Although this is a human head and not food, it is depicted as being part of a banquet, with Herodius teasing Herod by pricking the tongue with a fork.



In Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1654-56) by Johannes Vermeer, a loaf of bread is positioned in the centre of the composition. Bread, as a staple and the staff of life, shows Martha’s hospitality towards Christ.




There is a distinct lack of food in Distraining for Rent (1815) by Sir David Wilkie. A farmer and his family are unable to pay their rent and are faced with eviction. The farmer and the bailiff are staring at one another over a table empty of food, highlighting their desperate situation.




This session only just touched the surface of food in art, which is something that can be explored further, in paintings and sculpture of the time, through to contemporary examples including conceptual art as well as video and digital art. Food as art can be seen not just in painting and sculpture, but also in food photography…a topic I’ll save for a future post.