PFat™ Futures

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.   <suzanne.hocknell@ncl.ac.uk>

 

24th October, 2067.

To Frida.

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

Food-Water-Energy videos by young people

The (Re)Connect the Nexus research team are pleased to announce that online voting has opened for the Food-Water-Energy Challenge video competition (http://www.foodwaterenergynexus.com/Competition.php).

The video competition was open to children and young people (under 25), anywhere in the world on their understanding of the ways in which food, water and energy is produced, consumed and experienced in everyday life.

Entries were received from Brazil, UK, Singapore and India – the quality, creativity and diversity of videos produced was excellent.  The research team have selected ten videos to be judged by the public vote.  The video with the most likes by 12pm on Monday 24th April will be the winning entry for the public vote.

To vote, please see the videos on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_D2l8t-U8bEPXlvDkvapZQ

Please encourage fellow Geographers and others to vote for and share these videos – given the huge amount of effort and thought that has gone into their production.

The (Re)Connect the Nexus project, funded by the ESRC and FAPESP, aims to examine young people’s (aged 10-24) understandings, experience and participation in the food-water-energy nexus in Brazil. For more information about the research project, please see the website: http://www.foodwaterenergynexus.com/.

Happy watching!

Peter Kraftl

RGS-IBG AC17: Food and power: Decolonising food systems and food research

Convened by: Charlie Spring, University of Salford

Sponsored by: Food Geographies Working Group

2016’s conference saw a pair of sessions discussing reflexivity, political engagement and related issues in the doing of food research, aimed primarily at postgraduate and early career researchers. This year we’d like to extend this discussion to a session exploring the 2017 conference theme. It aims to draw out some of the dynamics of power, oppression and coloniality that many of us encounter in our research into food and the systems of its production, consumption and wastage. Specifically, we invite reflection into the research ‘gaze’ and the researcher’s role, and its potential to reproduce the very oppressions and omissions it may seek to reveal and even counter.This session will provide a safe and gentle space for such reflection.

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CFP: RGS-IBG 2017: Geographies of global (sea)food markets: influences of consumer behaviour on sustainability and justice in the Global South

Sponsored by Coastal and Marine Research Group & Food Geographies Working Group

Convened by Carole White (University of East Anglia, UK)

Global seafood production continues to increase every year with an ever-growing proportion coming from aquaculture in the Global South. Eating fish is promoted to consumers as a healthy (low fat, high protein and omega 3) and environmentally friendly food choice (lower carbon footprint). However, concerns including overfishing and environmental damage have increasingly led to demands for ethical seafood sourcing standards by consumers and retailers in the Global North. The number of labelling schemes has grown over the last few decades, with marked differences in standards including ethical concerns over labour use, animal and human health, biodiversity loss and ecosystem conservation. Although certification and other schemes aimed at changing consumer behaviour are often heralded as the path towards achieving sustainable and resilient food supply chains, little research exists on whether such schemes help to achieve improved outcomes for the environment, or justice for those working in food production. The development of ethical food schemes has in some cases placed high demands on small scale producers, particularly in the Global South exacerbating inequality and leading to injustice in some of the poorest parts of the world. Continue reading

CFP: RGS-IBG AC17: Brexit and the Future of Agriculture, Food and Rural Society

Sponsored by FGWG & RGRG

Convened by Gareth Enticott (Cardiff University, UK) & Damian Maye (University of Gloucerstershire, UK)  

Brexit poses the most significant challenge to the future of rural areas of Great Britain. In the short term, Brexit has highlighted the reliance of the food system on cheap migrant labour and the complex ways we are connected to Europe (market, regulation and policy links in relation to farming, food supply and trade, for example). Longer term, decisions and choices will be made on systems of rural development, agricultural subsidies and ecosystem services.

In this session we invite papers that engage with the rural impact of Brexit: what are its immediate social and economic impacts? What are the key rural policy and governance impacts? What do we know and not know about the impact of Brexit to agriculture, food and rural society? What kinds of rural geographies and futures does Brexit offer? What are the implications of Brexit in terms of research agendas and knowledge generation? And what is the value of rural geography and its expertise in a post-Brexit world? Continue reading

CFP: RGS-IBG AC17: Food in Urban Africa

CFP: RGSIBG Annual International Conference 2017: Decolonizing geographical knowledges, London, 29 August to 1 September.

Sponsored by the Food Geographies Working Group. 

Food is fundamental to human life everywhere, not only in terms of biology but also in terms of society and culture. In recent years, scholarship on food has grown dramatically as researchers explore how what we grow, buy, cook and eat illuminates many other social dynamics including power relations, deeply-held beliefs, and intimate relationships. Geographers especially have noted that our food systems also shape the places in which we live and how we imagine them, but the complex connections between food and place in the global South, and specifically in Africa, are poorly understood. Given that the African continent is urbanising about twice as fast as most other world regions, and given also that discourses on food in Africa continue to be dominated by rural imaginaries and narratives of production, it is critical that we develop a robust understanding of the dynamics driving the ways in which urban citizens source, eat, and think about their food. This session aims to explore both how food might illuminate broader urban processes, and how the spaces of the city shape the ways in which food is distributed, sold, bought and consumed. With an explicitly decolonial lens, the session also aims critically to interrogate the dominance of food theories emerging from the global North and to generate a vibrant conversation about the value that ‘Southern theory’ may add to emerging debates on food.

CFP: RGS-IBG AC17: Alternative food geographies and the foodscapes of ‘clean eating’.

Sponsored by the Food Geographies Working Group.

Session organiser: Christine Barnes, King’s College London. 

There has been a recent and rapid rise in ‘clean eating’, diets defined as much by what they exclude as what is eaten. ‘Wellness’ is promoted through eating more ‘natural’, unprocessed foods and related lifestyle changes. Cutting out gluten, sugar, dairy, or meat is encouraged, even for those without allergies, with claims to health, wellbeing, ethical, and environmental benefits. Yet there is growing criticism of the lack of scientific evidence of these claims, the dominance of ‘non-expert’ voices, and the high cost of ingredients. Such forms of diet and lifestyle are deeply classed and gendered, often including moralising rhetoric about the right way to eat while simultaneously creating new economies to serve clean eating devotees. Continue reading

CFP: RGS-IBG AC17: Alternate food geography and the discursive production of gendered labour

RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2017: ‘Decolonising geographical knowledges’. London, 29th August 2017-1st September 2017

Session Convenor: Regina Hansda (Independent Early Career Researcher)

Session Sponsor: The Food Geographies Working Group (FGWG)

Abstract
In the recent scholarship on alternative food movement, questions of race and class—essentially the production and reproduction of ‘whiteness’ has been raised in the context of organic farming in the global North (Guthman, 2008). Within the broad spectrum of alternative agro-food scholarship, whether large or small-scale, corporate-mediated or community-supported, rural or urban agriculture, what invariably gets inadequate attention is the gendered dimensions of some of these practices. This session aims to understand how conventional framings or local-global discourse implicate, as well as render invisible racialised, gendered bodies that produce food through methods and techniques, which fall within ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’ food and farming practices. Some of the other questions that this session aims to understand are: in what way some of the embodied, gendered, racialised experiences same or different in the context of global North and global South? How can some of these insights help in extending the food justice/labour geography/ ‘ethical’ food practices debates? Continue reading

CFP: RGS-IBG AC17: Different and Diverse Knowledges of (Rural) Food Access and Security? ‘

RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2017: ‘Decolonising geographical knowledges’. London, 29th August 2017-1st September

Session Co-Convened /Co-Sponsored : The Food Geographies Working Group and Rural Geography Research Group

Session Convenors: Eifiona Thomas Lane  and Rebecca Jones (Prifysgol Bangor University)

Abstract : This two part session, framed around the tensions between rural production and consumption, naturally merges areas of current debate and concern across both traditional rural interests and emerging food geographies globally. The sessions will facilitate a broad interdisciplinary exploration of food from and within rural spaces and places, diversity and differences in experiences and knowledge of inaccessible, insecure and unaffordable food and paths towards enabling sufficiency and localised food (and drink?) justice. Continue reading

CFP: RGS-IBG AC17: “The cultural geographies of new food”

RGS-IBG Annual Conference, London: 29 August – 1 September 2017
Sponsor: Food Geographies Working Group
Convenors: Jonas House (University of Sheffield) & Alexandra Sexton (King’s College London)
The ‘new cultural geographies of food’ (Friedberg, 2003) have yielded fruitful theoretical and methodological engagements with the complicated matter of food, but relatively little work has engaged with the cultural geographies of new food in particular.
‘New’ foods are multifaceted:  they could include those which, although established in particular places, are newly introduced elsewhere; they could be repositioned or remodelled versions of foods that are either relatively familiar or culturally unusual (e.g. the examples of avocado and insects respectively in the UK); or they could be in a sense completely new, having arisen out of the culinary application of recent biotechnological developments (e.g. cultured meat). New foods may arise, inter alia, as a ‘sustainability fix’, a corollary of capitalist expansion, or as a result of migration.

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