Why study food?

I have recently had the opportunity to learn more about the relationship between food and public policy. City University London (where I am currently based), in fact, is world-famous for its Centre for Food Policy, where I have been auditing some classes.

When I say I study food, people usually assume that I must have some quirky interest in nutrition, and can’t really see a connection with, say, political economy. Food, however, is at the crossroads of many different forces that are pulling it in different directions. In many cases, food has provided a great illustration of the ups-and-downs of capitalism. Additionally, being such a fundamental part of people’s lives, food is perhaps the most direct means of seeing how given political-economic choices ultimately impact people’s well-being. In the space of a blog post, I can try to provide some examples of the interconnected issues which food policy touches upon.

So, for instance, after World War II, the main idea underpinning food policy (at least in the West) was to increase food production. That, in and of itself, was thought to contribute to eliminating starvation. In sum, this appeared to assume some kind of “trickle-down” effect on people’s well-being. It is, however, the case that – despite having more than enough food for everybody – people still die of starvation today. But it is not this distributional argument that I am mostly concerned with here. Instead, food also provides a great illustration of how the logic of “more is better” has failed even the people in the Western world, leading to a very imbalanced and dangerously fragile “food chain”. So, for instance, the increase in food production has been achieved thanks to various technological fixes (the “Green Revolution”, as it has been called), such as the use of chemical fertilizers, which have ended up making the food system heavily dependent on oil. Indeed, as oil prices go up, it is food prices that are perhaps the first to increase.

Additionally, increased availability and choice of food has not translated in better health conditions, with obesity and imbalanced diets being a constant of the Western world (and – sadly – often also an indicator of class belonging). Several European governments, starting from Denmark and including the UK, have for instance started thinking (or, in the case of Denmark, have already started) taxing fatty foods, igniting a thorny debate (“it’s a tax on the poor that won’t change their eating habits and simply make them pay more for the food they buy”, “it is needed to redirect consumer choices in a way that aligns individual and public health concerns”).

Food, in other words, is much more than what we eat (quite literally, when one considers that the price of retail and distribution “services” now makes up most of the price of the stuff one buys at a supermarket), and a great inroad into deeper explorations about the impact between political and economic choices and people’s well-being. I am, of course, still a neophyte at this, but do expect more posts on the topic!

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