Focus: Food and Eating

Focus: Food and Eating

Alan Warde and Luke Yates

In this edition of Discover Society, Alan Warde and Luke Yates bring together research reports and commentary on the subject of food and eating. What and how to eat are among the most portentous issues facing individuals and societies. People are concerned because, in the over-used words of Brillat-Savarin, ‘we are what we eat’. We emerge from our eating experiences with bodies of varying shapes and sizes, a susceptibility to illnesses, cultural identities and a sense of belonging, taste preferences, sometimes political unease and depleted wallets. The articles in this edition address a variety of currently important and contentious issues associated with the production, distribution and consumption of food, matters of environment, of trade and food security, of profit, of taste and of social relationships. Food is a topic which constantly crosses the boundaries between economy, politics, nature and civil society and is therefore a powerful lens on the contemporary world.

Why is eating nowadays so troublesome? 

Food, and what we should or should not eat, is one of the contemporary world’s most troublesome topics. The list of controversies is long: food additives, agro-chemicals, waste, subsidies, distance from nature, animal well-being, ready meals, dietary recommendations, meat production, food miles and animal antibiotics, to name only some of them. Different cases and competing claims are made by different actors. The public hear the more privileged voices of corporations, trade associations, government departments, and some campaigning organisations. Unsurprisingly, people are confused and rather at a loss about what to say and think about what and how to eat and they tend to solve the problem practically – by eating what they usually eat.

Food preparation and eating take place in neither a diagnostic nor mostly even a deliberative context. Eating is mostly the outcome of habits and routines, of social obligations and pressures. The household is a crossing point of pragmatic everyday social organisation, as members coordinate their paths through work and recreation, and of socially meaningful relationships in which the provision and sharing of food is a central activity. Much research has shown the ideal of the family meal to be a pivot for relationships of care, love, belonging, but also for domination and conflict. Family dynamics are closely tied up with dinner. The social relations of eating are also central to and constitutive of many other types of social relation with their own histories and rules, including networking canapés, the restaurant date and working lunches. These food routines, rituals and interactions are part of, and subject to, a set of overlapping notions and influences shaping and defining ‘good’ food, the most appropriate and virtuous way of supplying it and the ways in which it should best be consumed.

Conflicting priorities of actors with contradictory objectives are the foundation of political dispute, public controversy and some competing practices. Stabilising the public budget for health care, protecting the profits of supermarkets, arresting global warming, ensuring the nutritional welfare of babies, and guaranteeing decent subsistence to the poor, for example, are not easily rendered compatible. All are closely bound up with food production and consumption. All concern some people more than others. All presume answers to the question of how we should eat. In a world of heavily biased and compromised mass media, and fragmentary and opinionated social media, mistrust in the advisability of pursuing their recommendations is rational. Clearing the ground for understanding the anatomy of controversy is now a principal task for social science.

One approach is to isolate underlying principles, discourses or values which appear in complex controversies and which supply to antagonists a degree of certainty and self-justification when embarking on sustained courses of action. Important works like Boltanski and Thévenot’s (2006 [1991]) On Justification: Economics of Worth and Haidt’s (2012) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion help by pointing to the difficulty of reaching compromises between rival principles or values which different people deem deserving of commitment. In this article we identify four desiderata lying behind contested views of what it means to eat well today. Food should be nutritious, aesthetically appealing, ethically justifiable and affordable. We discuss some features of each of these principles or standards, which are embedded in public discourses around food, showing how they inform contemporary debates, create confusion and resist compromise.

Nowadays, the dominant way of talking about food consumption is essentially medical. The language of the science of nutrition is pervasive. Public policy has promoted this view assiduously since the 1990s and increasingly attributes personal responsibility to its citizens regarding their obligation to maintain a healthy body, thereby to reduce the cost to health services of avoidable illness. No doubt, many people have absorbed the message and with it the metaphor of the body as a machine requiring maintenance – oiling, re-fuelling, cleansing and regular servicing through diet. Most are aware in general of the outline of official dietary recommendations, although they do not faithfully observe them in practice. Scholars talk of nutritionism as an ideology which postulates that food intake should be subject to rational calculation of the vitamins, calories and mineral traces consistent with optimal bodily efficiency. However, the set of ideas based on the metaphor of food as medicine has failed to quell alternative and rival principles like identity, fun or justice. For, as its critics assert, nutritionism mistakenly views the body in isolation from its social connections. As in many other fields, where attempts are made at behaviour change, a focus on the individual neglects the contexts of practical action.

One contrary principle governing food production and consumption, and a major challenge to the hegemonic nutritionist discourse, proposes that eating is an art rather than a science. To eat well is a matter of the enjoyment of eating occasions, pleasure, and good taste. Abundance has meant for the majority in the global North the overcoming of the imperative to get enough to eat to satisfy hunger and maintain rudimentary health, and to be able to exercise some discretion about what might be preferred at a meal. Some see this as a problem – choosing, especially choosing among too great an array of options, is sometimes also a source of anxiety. But for others it is the basis for expressing an enthusiasm for matters culinary. Eating, and on occasions cooking, is a form of popular recreation. The foodie whose preciousness and obsession was the butt of jokes in the 1980s now finds their reputation rehabilitated; that so many people no longer find reason to apologise or feel embarrassed indicates the resurgent power of aesthetic justification.

Gastronomy used to preoccupy only a very few people, mostly men, mostly rich, and pre-eminently in France. No doubt people living above a minimal standard of living always sought tasty and wholesome meals, but considerations of variety, excellence, authenticity and provenance were not principal criteria. Globalised capitalism brought these considerations to the attention of many more people in many more places. Access via restaurants to a wider variety of foods extends popular horizons, but in a context where making food beautiful is an ever greater tactic of the food service industry. Prestigious restaurants follow the logic of art markets – creativity, excellence of technique, experimentation, authenticity – meal provision of a type fundamentally different from that of the works canteen or the suburban household. Nevertheless, a process of trickle down means that aesthetic criteria have an increasing role to play in domestic cooking, perhaps especially when entertaining guests but also for enthusiastic amateurs serving only household members. The epoch of the foodie is testimony to the repudiation of an ethos of rational efficiency transmitted by government recommendations and proprietary diets, dismissed as boring, killjoy and lacking in imagination.

The question of what is the right food to eat and buy became controversial in a context of crises and food scares, and of social movements expressing ethical and political concern about the food system. For example, the Slow Food Movement combines interest in the aesthetics of food with normative principles linking provenance with healthful eating. It is hostile to the dominant industrial mode of delivering meals (see below) and the scientific nutritionist paradigm (see above), and condemns procedures in agriculture and food processing which mass-produce cheap food. Other values are celebrated – the familiarity of custom, the aesthetic aspects of eating, the respect owed to the land, the climate, the farmer and the artisan producer. The Slow Food Movement wants us to value provenance properly, not because eating local produce might save food miles but for the sake of quality and regional identity, and implores us to take enough time to savour the pleasures of the content and the ritual of the meal. Although, like Slow Food, many movements frame their cases according to other additional principles of justification, most are driven by values of justice, equality, sovereignty and the environment, and hinge upon our individual and collective responsibility for the food system. Perhaps their greatest victory was to make food visible, open to debate and thus part of the political agenda.

The ethical framing of food has detained some of the biggest social movements of recent years. The key characteristic of alter-globalisation mobilisations was to bring together movements, activists and NGOs united particularly by questions of justice in global trade. Movement coalitions spanned the commodity chains of food, from farmers and civil society groups from the global south with activists and consumers from the North. José Bové, the French activist who drove a fleet of tractors into a McDonald’s under construction, became symbolic of such struggles around the relations of localism and globalisation, production and consumption, transnational inequities, and nature and the industrial food system.

Food is a key area where social movements problematize contemporary lifestyles, aiming to shift everyday practices directly as well as by applying pressure for legislative change. Movements foster initiatives for producing and consuming food according to principles which suggest or ‘prefigure’ alternative eating arrangements and food systems including: cafes serving free wasted food in order to mitigate food poverty and raise public awareness; community gardens to provide space to cultivate and produce food locally; and the promotion of varieties of products which portray ingredients and meals as expressions of moral purpose.

In this context, individual consumers are often encouraged to take responsibility for problems or to embrace particular solutions through their orientations to food. The objective is to apply increased pressure on corporations, supermarkets, farmers and governments to account for practices according to principles of equity, justice and environment. Codes and frameworks are commonly co-produced between industrial organisations and movement actors, most obviously in the field of corporate social responsibility. Changing conceptions of the consumer define new responsibilities for engagement with other hot political issues. Lifestyle groupings motivated by ethical concerns, of which vegetarians and vegans are long-standing examples, typically enrol their adherents in wider political struggles, cultural movements and practices, including pacifism, feminism, punk music, anarchism and new age spirituality. Orientations towards food become important in building oppositional identities, subcultures, movements and new norms.

Much of the subject of critique for contemporary movements circulates around contesting what is seen as an over-riding emphasis on a fourth principle, that of economy. The food system and food policy in recent decades have been heavily premised on prioritising the production or provision of cheap food. As a consequence food is now too cheap for the rich and too expensive for the poor. Overcoming hunger and scarcity for many has been a major achievement in the global North and rightly remains a key priority of development. Nevertheless, low prices rely on externalising other costs. Capitalism has legitimated itself for many years by its capacity to draw populations out of poverty and scarcity, but its incapacity to provide for some, to the benefit of others, raises persistent questions.

The price paid for food is in important part politically determined. Partly as a consequence of the success of agro-food policy in raising productivity, the proportion of UK household income spent on food has halved in the last fifty years. 7-15 per cent of household incomes in Western European and the US are expended on eating. This compares to around 20-30 per cent on average spent by most of the rest of the world. Inequalities within countries are also considerable: food for the poorest 20% of British households accounts for twice as much as a proportion of their food expenditure than for the average household. It is widely reported that one million households in the UK use food banks.

The low production cost of food has not only unequal distributional effects but is also unsustainable as a mode of supply. The food system accounts for one-third of global GHG emissions and causes many other ecological problems. Cheap food in the global North relies on cheap labour – usually without employment rights – in the global South. Growing interdependencies in traded food mean that countries where survival is more precarious are vulnerable to sudden price rises, often exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Reduction in food subsidies in many poor countries in response to IMF-led policy reform caused major cost-of-living protests in the 1970s and 1980s Middle East. Food shortages also helped spark the democratic revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’.

In the UK food retailing is overwhelmingly dominated by supermarkets which justify and maintain their position by claiming to make safe food widely available at affordable prices. Yet, although state benefits are consistently framed as costing society too much, tax credits subsidise the low wages prevalent in supermarkets and catering work (and low pay makes cheap but poor quality food the only option for many). This ‘corporate welfare’ has been challenged in part by proposals for a so-called ‘Tesco tax’, whereby large supermarkets are asked to contribute a greater proportion of their revenue to the local area. In fact, though, giant supermarkets are in decline. In their place, however, massive warehouse distribution or ‘logistics’ centres are expanding not only to service existing retail sites but also to support their online shopping wings. Pay and working conditions here are poor: temporary and zero-hour contracts, with shifts cancelled at short notice and worker productivity tightly monitored. Supermarket chains reveal some of the problematic interdependencies between widely available cheap food, producers, localities and welfare.

To take away: some conclusions
Contemporary eating is shaped by a number of vocal and powerful actors drawing on often rivalrous and incompatible principles including those around nutrition, gastronomy, justice and price. Food serves many ends. Industrial modes of food provision have much reduced the problems of scarcity and hunger characteristic of most of human history. They have allowed greater numbers of people to enjoy the aesthetic qualities of food and extended the pleasures and comforts of eating and meal occasions. However as many critics and movements have argued, industrialised provision of cheap food brings uneven benefits. Some inequalities have become sharper, some populations more vulnerable, problems of waste, obesity and eating disorders have intensified, and ecological problems are multiplying.

Understanding the controversy around contemporary food systems means recognising the distinct cosmologies, priorities and objectives of the different actors at stake. It should also involve recognition that not all parties have an effective voice in the debate. The reputation, and public value, of science and social science may be enhanced through rigorous analysis of this plurality of interests and priorities. More enlightened policy approaches would encourage critical evaluation of objectives and respond to a broader range of imperatives. Most often, this would involve balancing economical food production and efficient nutrition with an appreciation of the social contexts of eating in households, the satisfactions and pleasures incumbent upon eating, and questions of justice, equity and the environment. In other words, we need to think more about the role of food in the good society.

The critical and imaginative essays in this special issue of Discover Society engage with current debates in order to advance the understanding of the dynamics of the contemporary food system.


Alan Warde is Professor of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences and Professorial Fellow of the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. His research interests lie in consumption, culture and food. His most recent book is The Practice of Eating, published by Polity Press in 2016. Luke Yates is Hallsworth Research Fellow in Sociology and the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. His research interests are in social movements and in everyday practices, particularly eating patterns and living arrangements. He has recent articles in the British Journal of Sociology, Social Movements Studies and Appetite.

Photo Credit: Lyzadanger ‘The New Fred Mayer on Interstate on Lombard’. CC BY-SA 2.