As we discussed the topic of how to sustainably feed two billion more people on the planet by 2050, one thing became perfectly clear to us: food is controversial. Everyone has an opinion about what you should or shouldn’t eat and why. In this episode, we explore why we get into heated debates and arguments when we talk about food.
In this episode:
Charlotte Biltekoff, associate professor of American studies and food science and technology at UC Davis. Author of “Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health.”
(UNFOLD THEME MUSIC)
ALEXA: Coming to you from our basement studios at UC Davis.
AMY: This is Unfold, a podcast where we break down complicated problems and discuss solutions. I’m Amy Quinton.
ALEXA: And I’m Alexa Renee.
AMY: Hey Alexa.
ALEXA: Hey Amy.
AMY: This season, we’ve been discussing ways to sustainably feed two billion more people by 2050. And I was surprised at how controversial some potential solutions could be,such as switching to meat-free diets or genetically engineering food.
ALEXA: You were surprised that food is controversial?
AMY: Well, I think it’s the degree of controversy that surprised me. People are passionate about what they eat and why and they get into arguments over it.
ALEXA: Yeah, even some of the researchers we talked to can disagree with each other.
AMY: And some of you may not have liked or agreed with everything said in these episodes. I wanted to get some perspective on this. I mean, why is food so controversial? It’s just food, right? So I asked Charlotte Biltekoff. She is an associate professor of both American Studies and Food Science and Technology at UC Davis. She has an interesting perspective on all of this. Charlotte says asking the question, "why is food so controversial?" is actually the wrong way to start the conversation.
CHARLOTTE: Because, what is food, you know?
AMY: She says food can mean different things to different people.
CHARLOTTE: For some people food is nutrients and for others food is a way of connecting with the earth and for others it means history and tradition. For some it’s about technology and innovation and thinking on a cellular level or a biological level about what’s possible for the future and sometimes all of these things come into conflict with each other.
AMY: Charlotte says at its core, food is a lot more than just what we choose to eat.
CHARLOTTE: Food is controversial because it touches on our deepest held values. And so when we’re having conflicts about food it’s never really just about food. It’s always about a broader set of conflicts about our values, which fundamentally that means a conflict over politics.
AMY: The idea that food represents our values has played out historically. Charlotte examined the last 100 years of dietary advice and dietary reform movements in her book, Eating Right: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health. Not surprisingly during that time frame, both dietary ideals and social values have changed.
CHARLOTTE: But I found that the relationship between them remained consistent from the late 19th century to the present. Dietary ideals have expressed social ideals. In fact our ideas about good food are fundamentally ideas about what it means to be a good person, to be responsible, moral, ethical and even what it means to be a good citizen.”
AMY: In the late 19th century, the idea of a good diet was about getting enough calories for the least amount of money, in the pursuit of getting a good day’s work done. Charlotte says if you were a laborer, progressive era reformers advised that you shouldn’t bother with a salad- not enough calories. Salad was fine for those that weren’t in factories all day.
CHARLOTTE: At that time there were also very well-established and not subtle but overt ideals about how different classes of people needed different diets, not just because their occupations might have different caloric needs, but there was a more elaborated set of ideas about why those diets should be different and should be kept distinct from each other and there shouldn’t be any blurring of the lines.
AMY: Charlotte says it was a moralizing social hierarchy of dietary ideals. During World War II, dietary advice focused on vitamins. Understanding them was key in being able to substitute one food for the other. That dietary ideal was a direct response to what was going on in society at the time- the rationing of food during the war. And in more modern times we’re seeing the emergence of alternative food movements.
CHARLOTTE: The paradigm that really informs the emergence of alternative food movements is a whole new way of thinking about good food that isn’t purely through the lens of nutrition, but starts to incorporate a systems mentality that connects food to all kinds of other systems- social and economic and environmental, etc.
AMY: For example, some people choose to not eat meat because they feel all animal agriculture is harmful to the environment, as we heard in Episode 1 of Unfold. People may only want to eat local food because they desire closer social relationships with the farmers that grow their food. Or people may not want to eat GMO crops not just because they feel it’s unsafe, but because they don’t trust current food systems or corporate agriculture.
CHARLOTTE: That’s what’s so fascinating about all of our conversations about good and bad food is that you know fundamentally they reflect these deeply held values and ultimately, they are important sides of political debate and negotiation and many people wish, and I understand why they wish this, that it was purely a technical debate, and that it could be settled simply on the basis of facts, about safety etc. and benefits. But that hasn’t proven to be the case.
AMY: Charlotte says that obviously doesn’t mean that the science about how food may affect our health or environment is wrong.
CHARLOTTE: It’s not to say that the science isn’t true or doesn’t exist or it’s not valuable or meant to help people’s health, but it can’t be magically removed from the context from which it emerges and is applied.
AMY: So then, how do we have conversations about food that don’t erupt into political debate? Is it even possible? Charlotte says first, giving people more scientific information or facts about food, how it’s made or grown, or whether it’s good for you nutritionally, doesn’t necessarily move the needle. She says trust plays a huge role.
CHARLOTTE: I think people really want to know like, what are the processes through which regulatory bodies decide what is safe? Who gets to be at the table? Whose interests are represented when we evaluate risks and benefits? What are the long-term gains and who gets them in the global food system for pursuing certain scientific questions and not others?
AMY: Historically, Charlotte says dietary reform movements were about expert middle-class reformers establishing a norm and seeking to apply it to everybody else. She says it was as misguided then as it is now. Just as there is income inequality in this country, there is also dietary inequality. People need to be cognizant that politics and power dynamics are inherently at play in these conversations.
CHARLOTTE: My wish would be for us to always keep an eye on the structural and systemic factors that shape, limit and enable people’s dietary choices, habits and preferences and that takes some of the pressures off of the moralizing that can so easily happen.
AMY: I asked Charlotte how hopeful she is that we can bridge our different ideas and values about food in order to tackle big food issues going forward.
CHARLOTTE: I’m optimistic about the future of food because I’m here at UC Davis. And truly, I get to see all the sparks and all the energy and passion and commitment and sometimes that can mean like that we passionately disagree with each other. But I think that’s ok. And the other thing that I see here that I’m really optimistic about is a growing sense that we do need to come together across radical and profound disciplinary differences, the kind of disciplinary differences that are really meant to be insurmountable.
AMY: I swear I didn’t tell Charlotte to brag about UC Davis. But she says finding ways to collaborate and have conversations about the future of food across research disciplines will be key in the face of the enormous challenge of sustainably feeding 10 billion people by 2050.
AMY: We hope that despite the controversy, you’re enjoying this season’s episodes of Unfold.
ALEXA: And that you’re learning a thing or two.
AMY: Next week, we’re going to step away from Unfold.
ALEXA: You’ll still be hearing from UC Davis experts, but this time on some lighter food topics. You'll get a few little Bonus Bites.
AMY: Thanks for listening.