Horseburger and our odd global foodscape

Although it is just the latest in a long line of worrying food scares, I have still been fascinated by the recent ‘horseburger’ scandal; but not too alarmed, mind you, because I don’t buy processed meat and, even if I did, I don’t mind eating horse meat. In fact, along with some nice wine and good company, I had it once at New Year’s and it wasn’t too bad, although I did face a few hurdles in getting home later that night. Ok, ok, sorry, that was bad; but I do think these are better:

Anyway, happily for me, the horseburger story is timely because I will start teaching my 3rd year module called ‘Global Foodscapes’ just under a week from now. I use the term ‘foodscape’ to try to get students to think about the odd way food is placed, located, positioned, dressed up, differentiated, hidden, and connected to and moved around us. I say ‘odd’ because, relative to the span of human history, the way we deal with food today is exceptionally strange.

Take as a decent example the invention of chocolate Philadelphia cheese. Cream cheese is delicious. Adding chocolate isn’t all that ingenious, but isn’t it odd that this sort of ‘innovation’ is what humans want to see happen to their food? Nor is it just Philadelphia cheese. Cheestrings have been a fantastic export success for the Kerry Group. And having eaten some (strictly for the purposes of fieldwork, of course) I can vouch that my younger self would’ve been all over them. But stop. Look at what we are doing here. We haven’t been doing too bad with conventional cheese, have we? Yet, for the sake of market share (and supposedly in response to consumer demand) there are these new inventions that ramp up our energy use and create new waste products, all of which is supposed to be fine so long as it results in an export success (and even if it’s one that promotes Irish cheese as a stringy rubbery substance that can substitute for shoe laces).

This sort of weirdness doesn’t stop on the supermarket shelves. Consider some of the ways that supermarkets have been trying to connect their actions (and interests) to their localities, almost as if that’s where they come from and only exist. There are vouchers for computers in local schools, charity fundraising drives, even signage with historical information about the locality: almost to say to the consumer, ‘we know about this place here because we belong here, even though we’ve really only been in this actual store for a few years but who’s counting? And anyway, like it or lump it but we’re not moving, well, not unless profits dip or we go bankrupt, but who’d HMbelieVe that’ll ever happen?’

A UK supermarket provides information about its locality, in this case Partick in Glasgow

A UK supermarket provides information about its locality, in this case Partick in Glasgow

Thus, in an effort to make us believe they are just like us, supermarkets develop these weird strategies that make claims about how they belong to a place. But how odd that they feel the need to do this. They’re so enormous, so networked and stretched out and everywhere; yet rather than celebrate these spatial aspects of their existence, they get all twisted and sell a story of their rootedness, how local they are, how they’re so much a part of here – – regardless of where here is.

It’s as if there’s some sort of a complex unfolding within the supermarket brain: some fear of their real geography and a contradictory desire to be something else entirely, such as one of the craft butchers or master bakers that were in those localities for a century or more (and closed once the supermarkets arrived). That we even see this sort of signage and are exposed to these sorts of messages in out-of-town shopping malls, where only five or ten years ago there were fields and cattle, is all the more surreal.

The foodscape is also odd beyond the supermarket. There’s the highly inconstant nature of it all, as shops, restaurants, fast food joints, butchers and so on open and close and re-open and (all too often, especially now) close down again. Don’t get too attached because that bakery you once loved won’t be there for long:

There was once a really nice bakers here in Glasgow, now it's a Subway

There was once a really nice bakery here in Glasgow, now it’s a Subway

Nor should you get too emotional about the foodscape in other ways. Don’t get angry about empty crisp packets or drink cans scattered around the entrance to your local park because, with budget cutbacks and privatization it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine whose job it is to empty the bins and sweep up. But also don’t become too trusting because you never know when the odd way we produce certain foodstuffs, such as burgers, will betray us.

Finally, and heading back into the world of retail, there’s the odd tension out there between a drive to reduce the variety of food providers as firms consolidate and buy up each other (see Kerry Group’s investments and acquisition history here), but a drive also to increase the variety of products on offer and enforce the ‘tyranny of choice’ that leaves so many us perplexed and unsure about what to buy.

I think the general point from all this is that food necessarily has a geography, much of which we can see right in front of us. We can discern the place of origin; look at some of the representations of space used by the various diverse companies that bring food to us; observe and think critically about the places where we purchase, consume food, and throw away any leftovers; and do a tracing exercise to think about how the food we eat reached our table. Paying attention to all of these aspects forces us to look around at where we live and consider what sort of actions, practices, objects and movements need to be brought together on a daily basis to make sure we can eat and reproduce ourselves.

However, some of the geography of food is also not-so-apparent; not exactly or entirely hidden from view, not necessarily obscured deliberately, but still not in our faces, not immediately here in front of us. As such, it’s necessary to investigate some of those background issues, such as the role and character of food safety regulations and regulatory agencies; trade agreements and rules; competition and consolidation in the food processing sector; mistakes and sometimes criminality; often far-reaching environmental changes; land grabs and dispossessions; twists and turns in consumer tastes; and much more besides.

In my module we use three main texts to try to get to grips with these ideas: Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved; The Global Food Economy by Tony Weis; and Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer. Each has its own take on the sorts of processes that connect up and make our foodscape. The books by Patel and Weis, in particular, do a fantastic job of highlighting how the foodscape we all encounter today is increasingly a global one. For me, this means two things.

The first is that there’s been a process of globalization shaping the way we produce and govern food and agriculture. The degree to which things have become more global is unevenly experienced, of course, and so we cannot get too carried away here, but it is nevertheless the case that we have recently seen some quite new and, whilst perhaps fragile (in the sense that they can break down), still deeply important global scale production and governance shifts. Some obvious aspects highlights include the global production and sales networks run by large transnational corporations upstream (such as Monsanto, BASF, Dow Chemical) and downstream (Kraft, Nestle, Walmart, Tesco) of agriculture. Then there’s the global significance of the World Trade Organization and its Agreement on Agriculture; or agricultural subsidies and food import regulations in the US, EU or in Japan and their respective global impacts. These issues come into contact with us on a daily basis. We are the consumers on whose actions hinge all the  investments made in this form of globalization; our guts are the target of all the movements, connections, trading partnerships, and imaginations that give us access to, say, Kenyan baby sweetcorn,  Peruvian mangoes, or Vietnamese fish. We are therefore caught up in this interconnected economy, often even taking it for granted that it will operate normally and deliver to us the sorts of commodities of the appropriate quality that we expect to see year round. In this obvious sense, then, the foodscape we see in front of us on a daily basis, or that we meet as we travel around, is closely bound up with a larger set of changes occurring globally.

But another global aspect of the foodscape – one that the Patel and Weis books so excellently call attention to – is the moral, ethical, and deeply political questions that emerge alongside the globalization of food and agriculture. What’s at issue here is that, although we might like to pretend otherwise, the foodscape we encounter is increasingly global because the very interconnectedness that gives the foodscape is odd form means we cannot disconnect our food consumption here in this place from someone else’s consumption elsewhere in the world. We are all eating our planet together, hence how we eat (and live) is connected to how others eat (and live). It is this sort of reality that justifiably leads Patel and Weis to begin their books by placing damning statistics about hunger and malnutrition next to obscene statistics about obesity levels. These deep imbalances call attention to mundane and everyday interconnections that span the globe and then come alive when we eat.

A good case in point – and one that connects with the horseburger scandal – is meat consumption. If the so-called ‘meatification’ of diets continues there are going to be further far-reaching consequences for thousands of millions of people who not only cannot afford meat but who also struggle to afford to buy grains in a global marketplace in which millions of tonnes of grain are diverted into meat production as feed. It’s important to note here that, even if we were to restrict our meat consumption to grass-fed beef, we would still generate demand for a form of land-use that could otherwise be used to produce other, more environmentally-friendly and ethical forms of protein, particularly beans. And it’s worth noting that the meat trade requires immense energy inputs to slaughter and process and package and refrigerate: requirements that also have a far-reaching impact. It is in these sorts of ways that we need to see our food consumption here in a place such as Ireland as necessarily rippling through the marketplace, the food chain, the networks of relations and ‘bounds of justice’ that connect our lives with the lives of distant others.

My hope is that GY333 Global Foodscapes will generate opportunities to learn and think critically about these sorts of issues. The module closely connects with the horseburger story, but also lots more. I’m looking forward to meeting my new students next week.

Alistair Fraser

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2 comments

  1. David Martin · · Reply

    Hi Alistair
    The horseburger issue is indeed timely for the Global Foodscapes module! What makes it more interesting is that it is still evolving. Here are a few thoughts.
    The horseburger issue presents interesting areas for thought in terms of social geography. Many of the commentators refer to ‘low value cuts’ used in the production of these burgers. There seemed to be relief amongst the various interests that this only affected the lower end of the market. One commentator I heard on Vincent Browne on TV3 (whose name escapes me) expressed relief that this issue only impacted on the lower end of the market. The cliché ‘you are what you eat’ is brought further in terms of your position in society, and in this context is determined by the value of the meat cut that you purchase. The point that I am making is that this ‘low value cut’ is most probably used by people on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. The reality is that for many parents trying to put a substantial daily meal on the table these burgers can be a means of providing meat in the mix. If this is the case then those affected can be mapped with one of the determinants being socioeconomic status………ability to pay. Of course the horseburger narrative contains little in terms of concern for the domestic market. Ok, much has been made of Tesco and others cancelling orders from the burger suppliers. But what of the consumer? It seems that most of the concern surrounds perceptions from abroad. This then takes precedence because of Ireland’s dependence on export markets for Irish beef. Perhaps political discourse dictates that we obsess about exporting beef products causing Irish beef to appear, processed or non-processed, on the global market and maintaining our dominance there. So, are there negative impacts for Ireland and elsewhere in increasing the global pilgrimage of Irish beef?
    At the Durban climate conference in November 2011, the Minister for the Environment Heritage and Local Government, Phil Hogan in his address was very concerned about global food security. So then Ireland needs to produce more beef for the export market to enhance global food security. This is despite the already high methane levels for Ireland in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. There is speculation that the minister has been subject to intense lobbying from farming and business groups in the lead up to the conference, but of course this is only speculation!!! He is presenting Ireland as a unique case in terms of its dependence on agriculture and at the same time pushing to increase output. A significant increase in output will be needed if the Irish government succeeds in accessing the Chinese market which it is at present attempting. History was even invoked to support his argument: ‘Our historical experience of famine has left an indelible mark on our national psyche and has ensured that our overseas development assistance program has a particular focus on hunger’. He was of course defending Ireland’s current greenhouse gas emissions (in this case Methane) and also making a case for future increases under the guise of concern for global food security. Simon Coveney recently referred to the Chinese market as an infinite one. This notion is somewhat disconcerting as it evokes a sense of euphoria, (infinite market!!). Of course if we create an overdependence on one market for Irish farmers then we will create a parallel vulnerability. One case of BSE in Ireland and the Chinese will simply close the doors to Irish beef exports for an indefinite period. What is interesting for me is that Hogan is not distinguishing between hunger and appetite. How many times have we heard someone in a restaurant at lunch time say ‘I’m not hungry, I’ll just have a sandwich and a coffee’. Coveney’s infinite Chinese market for example is not one to satisfy hunger, but appetite. So Hogan’s ‘feed the world’ narrative appears almost noble but is easily destabilised.
    Finally, is what we do with food today really that strange? For me this is more easily understood as a consumer (whilst recognising that it is also driven by a desire for bigger market share and profits). How food is transformed and presented can often determine whether or not the product is purchased. I remember putting cheddar slices into the lunchboxes of my dears and sending them off to school happy in the knowledge that they would be nutritionally sustained to the day. This allusion was repeatedly shattered every evening with the sight of the very same cheese slices in the lunchbox. At that stage they looked less appetising with their darkened and curled up corners. Thank God for cheesestrings which often prompted an almost Dickensian cry for more!! So the product was transformed into a rubbery stick with an ‘afro’ hairstyle and was obviously more appetising. So then perhaps these ‘innovations’ are designed satisfy the liking for food rather than a natural desire to satisfy hunger.
    Dave Martin

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  2. oh how I miss your lectures!! I envy the students who will be taking this module this year and hope they appreciated it as much as I. It really opened my eyes, and I still think differently about food now because of it!

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