This blogpost is a result of a writing exercise I set myself where I took some aspects of my thesis and extrapolated them in to a bit of a dystopian future. I’ve been sitting on it for months as I couldn’t really think what on earth to do with it, but a colleague suggested I posted it here. I would be interested in any comments / feedback from the wider food geog community, Suzanne. <email@example.com>
24th October, 2067.
Lovely to hear from you! Your question about my research from fifty years ago and how it relates to my current obsession with PFats™ is an interesting one and I’ll do my best to explain. It feels outlandish to be writing this, but at the time of the research, I not only took food for granted, I took choice for granted too. In no period before or since has the British population had so much abundance in food generally, or fat specifically, as in the early twenty-first century. For most of us, our supermarket shelves, our flesh and our bellies were unctuous with oils and fats that you have never even seen, much less eaten – butter, olive oil, oilseed rape, sunflower oil, coconut oil, palm oil, avocado oil, corn oil, duck fat and more. We could choose organic fats, extra-virgin, spray-able, high-oleic, high-omega, high in polyunsaturates, trans-fat free, gm-free, free-from, local, and even low-fat fats, and those choices were understood to matter. And, like many of my contemporaries, I was swayed by the simplistic notion that my food could, and should, be ‘natural’. I could not have envisaged that one day I would gain a partiality for a particular brand of synthetic PFats™.
Even back then though, such a diversity of possibilities was a novel experience. When I was a child, eating had been understood to be a functional necessity, not a choice to be agonised over. Margarine typified the food of my youth – hardly an exciting taste sensation, but it did the job well enough, and was always available. Only at my socially aspirational Nan’s did I eat butter. Olive oil was technically on offer too, but came in tiny bottles from the chemist and was used as a remedy for earache. At home and in school, as a spread, in cooking, and in ready-made products, margarine was just a ubiquitous part of my diet. Yet, by the early twenty-first century, I had come to experience the flavours, textures and odours of margarine as unpleasant and artificial. Reflecting on this shift in my own tastes inspired the first objective of my research, which was to explore how people make decisions about what fats to eat, and the factors that generate changes in these practices.
At the time of the research, eating-well, as individuals and as a society, was something of a social obsession. In popular culture, in the media, and in policy, consumers were rebuked for being fatter than was good for health, more reliant on animal products than was good for the climate, or more dependent on global supply networks than was good for communities. Irrespective of personal circumstances, consumption practices were framed as individual choice and responsibility, a means through which we should practice care for ourselves, our families, nation, those that produce or become our food, and the future of our planet. Yet, for some, ‘choice’ was already out of reach. Austerity was biting, food poverty and malnutrition were on the rise. Foodbank users were expected to be grateful for calories, not to quibble about provenance or quality. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Margarine had been the winning entry in a competition launched by Napoleon III at the 1866 Paris World Fair, and was patented in 1869. Margarine was a novel food, envisaged, invented, designed and marketed as a technical solution to a food distribution problem. Since its introduction, processing techniques from deodorisation to fractionation, hydrogenation to interesterification, had been employed to modify animal and vegetable fats to produce a stable, semi-solid, long-life product with a wide range of textures, cooking and nutritional properties. The stuff of margarine proved itself to be adaptable. Yet, whatever the ingredients and processes involved, attempts were made to imitate the flavours of butter. Initially this was because, for northern European consumers, butter was an aspirational food, but eventually eaters simply became accustomed to this taste mimicry.
Margarine might be made from cows, fish, sunflowers and more, yet ‘kind-of-buttery’ was what eaters came to expect margarine to taste like. If product reformulations resulted in a shift in the balance of these flavours then brand loyalty could be threatened. Tastes are shaped by a complex interplay of material, sensory and symbolic factors, and entangled with social and cultural norms and belongings – tastes do not shift readily. Eating is an intimate experience, and eating-well is about much more-than nutrition. Thinking about these different elements of eating-well informed my second research objective, which was to investigate margarine as a model for foods which can help people to eat healthily and sustainably without having to make major changes in their food tastes or habits.
In 2016 I submitted my thesis. In my work I demonstrated that exploring, unpacking, and critiquing, the doing of margarine raises questions not only about what is good to eat, but also regarding the production, framing and narration of the possibilities on offer. Then in the years that followed, global temperatures took a sudden (if not unexpected) hike. Around the world, there was flooding, famine, condemnation, denunciation, fear, fighting and mass migration. In Britain, food imports became unaffordable and inaccessible to all but a tiny minority. Even British animal fats were too costly for the majority. Antimicrobial resistance decimated the populations of genetically similar farm animals, and the security arrangements to protect the livestock that remained from the attentions of poachers were extremely expensive. You will have heard of the Hunger Resistances, although you probably know them as the Insurgent Larcenies. Communities attempting to organise against starvation were condemned as divisive, elitist and unpatriotic. The TrueBrit government took control, and, under the strapline ‘nurturing our people’, redirected funds out of the health service and in to rewards for corporations who produced marketable fats from fully-hydrogenated oilseed rape. Colloquially known as FARaGEarine*, we were assured that this TrueBrit product was not a substitute for all we had lost, but was a much improved option, trans-fat free and stuffed with heart-healthy omegas. But oilseed rape is a resource hungry crop, and the ensuing increased neonicotinoid use was soon followed by a crash in the bee population. FARaGEarine proved to be a disastrous, if short lived, distraction.
Fats though are essential to life, and despite the repression and demonisation of those who protested, the control the TrueBrit government held over an increasingly hungry population was slipping. Then, inspired by the margarine story, a competition was launched for a ‘nutritive fat’ that would sate disgruntled bellies: PFat™ won. Producing synthetic fats for human consumption was not a new idea. In 1940’s Germany, margarine had been produced from coal, but the experiment proved costly and the trials were small-scale. The TrueBrit government ‘incentivising’ the marginalised hungry to sift plastic waste from old landfill sites, which is then used to produce synthetic PFat™ to sell to the general population is quite an achievement. PFats™ are not particularly nutritious, but not only are we are eating again, the illusion of choice persists. For me, chewing the PFat™ has been a sticky lesson learned too late. For research to make a difference, being important or timely is not enough. Further overwhelming individuals with ever more information can be counterproductive. We need stories that engage communities and policy makers in exploring and debating the outcomes of social, political and economic norms, structures and activities.
Best wishes, Suzanne
*made from Fully Albion Rape and Genetically Enhanced