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.   <>


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

‘How can we link people to healthy local food?’ #WorldEnvironmentDay special

June 5th is Wolrd Environment Day. For the occasion, we are featuring #WorldEnvironmentDay specials on our blog in order to raise awareness on the role of food in environmental thinking in dedicated blog posts. In this blog post, we share insights from prof. Stewart Barr (University of Exeter) during the ‘Feeding Exeter’ workshop on April 22nd, 2017 and organized by Exeter Food Network (EFN) Continue reading

‘Why SURPLUS food is important’ #WorldEnvironmentDay special

Juen 5th is Wolrd Environment Day. For the occasion, we are featuring #WorldEnvironmentDay specials on our blog in order to raise awareness on the role of food in environmental thinking in dedicated blog posts. The first blog, by Dr. Megan Blake (University of Sheffield), is on the importance of surplus food for feeding vulnerable people.

There have been a number of arguments in the press and on social media arguing that the use of surplus food to feed food insecure people is at best only a short-term solution and at worst harmful (e.g., Caraher 2017).  I would agree that the hunger that is caused by poverty is not only not being addressed by the UK government (see Blake 2015, and a more recent update of the article published by GMPA) but in some cases is being enhanced by current government policy (e.g., a benefits system that has built in delays, draconian sanctions, programme cuts that impact on the most vulnerable). In reading the argument, however, a number of issues stand out as needing further clarification and interrogation.  Firstly, there is a lack of understanding about food surplus in terms of what it is.  Secondly, there is misconception about how food surplus becomes food for bellies as it travels through the charity sector. Thirdly, there is an overly narrow understanding of the value of surplus food both for charities and those whom they support. These issues are explored in this blog post Continue reading


Using the Arts for Food Research and Dialogue – New briefing paper

The Food Research Collaboration has published a new briefing paper on ‘Using the Arts for Food Research and Dialogue’.

The paper particularly examines creative arts-based methods through a participatory and community-centred approach to research and community engagement.  The briefing paper explores the use of photography, drama, and collage, providing details of the approach, method, and other considerations, as well as case studies of how the methods have been used for engagement on food issues. It is hoped that this briefing paper will be of interest to researchers and civil society groups who are working on food-related issues.

This paper came out of the success of the workshop held in London in May 2016. The paper was co-authored by members of BSUFN along with other academics and civil society groups. The briefing paper is attached or you can read more about it here:

A range of resources and information about the different methods, including additional examples from case studies and the outputs from the BSUFN-FRC workshop held in 2016 are available here:

Using the Arts for Food Research and Dialogue

This information is kindly provided by Rachael Taylor from Brighton and Sussex Universities Food Network

New Open Access Book: Sustainable Food Systems: The Role of the City

Sustainable Food Systems: The Role of the City

Robert Biel
Download free:

Faced with a global threat to food security, it is perfectly possible that society will respond, not by a dystopian disintegration, but rather by reasserting co-operative traditions. This book, by a leading expert in urban agriculture, offers a genuine solution to today’s global food crisis. By contributing more to feeding themselves, cities can allow breathing space for the rural sector to convert to more organic sustainable approaches. Continue reading

China’s Changing Food System

LinkedIn group called “China’s Changing Food System” to promote more awareness and discussion about food system sustainability issues in China. Anyone can join. Here is the description:

China has a rich food culture, diverse agricultural practices, and intricate local cuisines. China has also undergone periods of tremendous food shortages in its history. Nowadays, its large population and the growing demand for food, accompanying rapid economic growth, has generated significant impacts on the food system globally, such as volatility of global food prices and “land grabbing”. The food system within China is undergoing a rapid transformation towards being more efficiency-oriented. This accompanies a process of rapid urbanization in which farmers are migrating to cities and farmland is being taken up for construction. This agri-industrialization has also brought about serious environmental and social consequences. In the sphere of civil society, grassroots initiatives such as alternative food networks are emerging to tackle these challenges. To grapple with these complex issues around food production, distribution, consumption, and waste in China, this group aims to open a space for conversation and knowledge exchange among people with diverse backgrounds who are interested in social, economic, political, and ecological dimensions of transformations in China’s food system. Potential topics for the group are food security, food safety, food policy, food supply chains, ecological and organic agriculture, “alternative food networks” (such as farmers’ markets and Community-Supported Agriculture farms), and the roles of the state, the private sector, and grassroots actors in food initiatives.
For more info:

IPES-Food: 10 Principles to guide the transition to Sustainable Food Systems


The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, IPES-Food, is a new initiative aimed at informing the debate on how to reform food systems. IPES-Food has identified 10 key principles to guide the urgently-needed transition to sustainable food systems. They include principles to shape the sustainable food systems of the future, as well as principles for the types of knowledge and analysis that are required to support this transition. These principles will underpin the work of IPES-Food over the coming years.

What types of knowledge and analysis are needed to support the transition?
Holistic & systemic. Hunger, obesity, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, the pressures on smallholder livelihoods, cultural erosion, workforce exploitation and other problems in food systems are deeply inter-connected. Holistic thinking is needed in order to identify systemic ‘lock-ins’, and to find integrated solutions and potential levers of change.
Power-sensitive. Analysis of food systems must not ignore the differential power of actors to influence decision-making and to set the terms of debate for reform. Power relations and the political economy of food systems must take center-stage.
Transdisciplinary. Knowledge must be co-produced with farmers, food industry workers, consumers, entrepreneurs, and other social actors and movements who hold unique understanding of food systems. Actors from fields such as public health, environment and rural development also have much to contribute to the debate on food systems reform.
Critically engaged. Producer organizations, retailers and other actors in food chains must be fully engaged in defining and developing sustainable food systems. The interests of some private sector actors, in particular multinational agribusiness firms, have typically been aligned with existing political arrangements, e.g. policies favoring export-led production systems for bulk commodities and processed foods. This makes it all the more challenging, and all the more necessary, to critically engage agribusiness firms in the debate.
• Independent. Science and knowledge cannot be made to fit within the parameters set by dominant actors: IPES-Food is a fully independent panel, without financial or organizational ties to any corporations, governments, intergovernmental agencies or advocacy groups*.

What principles and values should underpin the sustainable food systems of the future?
Sustainable in all dimensions. Sustainability must be the benchmark of food systems reform, and must include environmental, health, social, cultural and economic dimensions. Sustainable food systems must deliver diets that are nutritious, affordable and culturally acceptable**, and must provide food security without compromising the ability of future generations to do so***.
• Diverse & resilient. Food systems must be fundamentally reoriented around principles of diversity, multi-functionality and resilience. This shift is required in agriculture in order to sustain yields and agro-ecosystems in the longer-term, and must be complemented by diversity in supply chains and markets in order to support diverse and nutritious diets. As an embodiment of these principles, agroecology must be fully supported.
Democratic & empowering. Decision-making in food systems must be democratized in ways that empower disadvantaged actors and help to realize the human rights of all, including the right to food. Access to these processes must not depend on gender, age, ethnicity or wealth. The needs and perspectives of small-scale farmers, indigenous communities, disadvantaged consumers and other groups must not be drowned out by more powerful and visible actors.
• Socially & technologically innovative. The transition to sustainable food systems requires complex and holistic change processes in which social innovation plays as big a role as technological innovation, and extends to food distribution and retail practices, as well as modes of production. The impacts of innovation pathways should not be assumed to be only benevolent, and should be continually assessed.
• Adequately measured. New indicators of progress must be developed in order to capture the benefits of equitable, resilient, diverse, nutrient-rich food systems in ways that productivity growth, net calorie availability and other existing measures do not. Efforts and initiatives to improve the sustainability of food systems should be assessed with a view to seeing continuous improvement; accountability must be clearly assigned in order to hold actors to their commitments.


*i IPES-Food is fully funded by the Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation, a philanthropic body. For more on donor relations, see the IPES-Food governance principles.
** At the International Scientific Symposium, Biodiversity and Sustainable Diets, organized by Bioversity International and FAO on 3-5 November 2010 at the FAO Headquarters, sustainable diets were defined as “diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally ad- equate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources”.
*** As defined by the High Level Panel of Experts on food security and nutrition (HLPE) “a sustainable food system (SFS) is a food system that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised”.

Thinking and Handling Food Waste: notes and impressions on the Food Matters Symposium at West Ide Farm

By  Charlie Spring, University of Salford

The term ‘symposium’ has perhaps been dried of its historical drenching in the conviviality of shared food and drink, interwoven with the discussions that we tend to associate with the symposia of modernity. As a number of us anticipated the RGS annual conference to follow, with its welter of words and notes and snatched, pre-packaged, uniform lunches, our day at West Town Farm proved, for me at least, a vital and calming yet utterly invigorating prelude to the conference work. Food (and the systemic wasting thereof) was the theme and the context. The first words I heard upon leaving the minibus were an invitation to make a cuppa in the barn, that symbol of hospitality that is as British as talking about the weather. Into the tea-from-afar I stirred milk from Ashclyst Farm Dairy down the road, who in a context of fervent strife over milk pricing in the UK and EU independently provide organic milk at £1/litre.


Greetings over tea and hay bales were followed by provocations from Henry Buller, which swiftly and succinctly laid out multiple aspects of waste worthy of our attention: the consumer waste as households discard edible food in the fallout of everyday life and supermarket sales; systematic waste as inherent to industrial production and manufacturing alongside growing demands of waste-heavy meat production; paradoxical waste of overproduction and surplus to maintain commodity values- butter mountains amidst unbuttered bellies; marketeers’ insistence on our psychological need for abundantly overstocked shelves while unprofitable farmed animal lives are crushed in huge quantities; the metabolic waste evident in the stuffed girths of our us, the “physical and medical embodiments of nutritional excess” as we pee out most of the B vitamins of our beloved bananas. Fundamentally he called us to attend to waste as a driving force of capitalism, echoing analyses such as Zsusza Gille’s insistence that value circulation is interdependent with waste circulation. Henry called to mind Michael Taussig’s notion of mimetic excess, a way of thinking through the dull blindnesses of our commodified relationship with food: the meat on a shelf that prevents us from any engagement with that animal’s life, but also a way to think about the visceralities of food and its production that our day at the farm allowed us to see, smell, feel…and talk about! He also reminded us of Don Delillo’s hypothesis that civilization is defined not by what it creates but by what it throws away.


The imagination fired, we set off in groups to explore the farm. My group was in the capable hands of Kevin Cotter of Love Local Food whose storytelling hat was unworn but gleanable in his lyrical, humbly funny and wise way of communicating the farm as we traversed just a small but richly diverse part of it. We witnessed the symbiosis of sheep and apples in the orchard, partly a response to High-Level Stewardship requirements for a ‘properly Devon’ landscape and partly just good sense as sheep keep down the grass (woe betide the wayward sheep who mounts the tree fence to eat tree and not grass!). Economic histories of grubbing and reinstating (“non-sense”) are interwoven with ongoing human relationships to enable the apples to be taken away and turned into juice and cider, which then returns. We crossed fences and boundaries to enter other zones- the old Teign Valley railway tunnelled into what is now a cool, lush wilderness for badgers and bats. Underfoot squelched red mud and around and above us were ferns, mosses, birch, holly and stick piles (whose rotting wood fuels the insects who fuel the bats). Kevin called it ‘enrichment from the bottom up’, in resilience and diversity rather than the maximisation of immediate profit (the farm’s soil, for example, has grown in depth and structure since the conversion to organic methods).

Kevin rounded off his tour with a peek at the community garden, the intimate scale, where volunteers arrive twice weekly to garden and make communal soup- many are people at the edges: those with mental health and other life challenges- including, Kevin wryly noted, those who spend too much time at computers (inner nod: this past summer for me has been more powerpoint than permaculture).


During the panel session ‘Knowing Food in Practice’, we hear from farmer Andy Bragg about links between national policy and the intimate- and often emotional- experience of livestock farming, our “out of kilter” social structures and values, the policy changes and corporate consolidations that have led to a sense that “we’re governed by these wills”. He gave a plea for academics to do good research and communicate it with bravery. Increased regulation such as tracing livestock in the export system can increase trust and reduce waste, but he reminded us that much food is still artificially cheap, so we devalue and waste it, if our value relationship with food is based on pennies alone.

The affordability of food question linked us to the explicit focus on food poverty from Kim Chenoweth, who described the burgeoning landscape of food charity in the southwest and expressed the bind so many charitable providers are faced with: the wealth of industry surplus combined with the levels of need in a no/low-wage economy driving the need for services like hers, alongside her sadness at having to do such work.

Martyn Bragg of Shillingford Organics described the irony of the way small-scale farming and distribution produces less waste, yet at higher sale prices than industrial production can achieve. The human relationships described by Kevin help deliver closed-loop approaches to waste: small carrots from Shillingford go to the kitchens staffed by Kim, Real Food Store’s waste can be transformed into meals at their restaurant, and kitchen waste returns to the farm as compost. Veg boxes allow for the distribution of gluts and the enlisting of clients in cycles of seasonality and weather-dependent variations.

Discussion followed: questions arose on the heritability of farms and access to land- how the Farm Business Tenancy Act and subsidies have allowed big farmers to expand even further, the time taken by farmers to write bids and handle bureaucratic demands, how to balance the affordability of food with environmentally-responsible production and distribution systems, how to think politically on a local level if Westminster won’t listen, how governance structures affect local food networks in North Wales and the role of municipal domestic waste collections. How the experiences of Devon can spread and engage with diverse other places.


Lunch was prepared in groups- my group had chosen the ‘unfashionable meat’ theme, some out of an explicit self-challenge given their vegetarianism or aversion to the bloodiness of butchery. Offal puns abounded, aprons requested and a hesitant huddle around that carnal site, the flaming barbecue. Sian deals with meat sales for the farm and explained some of the issues with selling offal and other unfashionable cuts such as the pork neck that she assured us she’d stuffed and slow-roasted for us. We’d mentioned the way pet food and burger manufacturing provide outlets for ‘waste’ parts of the animal- the less-valuable ‘fifth quarter’ that Andy ‘gives’ to the abattoir. The farm loses organic status for their cut meats because the closest abattoir cannot provide the necessary separate processing facilities but they prefer to use the closest so as to minimise stress for the animals in transit to slaughter-in addition to welfare concerns, stressed animals means less-tasty meat. Unflinching and experienced, Sian heaved various sealed bags onto the table and cut them open to lift out the dripping organs: cow’s heart and liver, lamb heart and kidneys and pig liver. They were plonked onto white cutting boards and we were invited to get stuck in- there was no shortage of willing meat cutters but I found myself relieved to be the note-taker: I had an unexpected surge of gut nausea as I watched Jeremy slice the lump of purplish, jellyfish flesh. There were options for the more squeamish to slice sage for flavouring the meat, emitting scents that comingled with the charcoal smoke and faint smell of blood. It didn’t smell bad here in the barn (I was anticipating the repeat of an unpleasant kidney dissection at school), though Sian mentioned her teenage work at a supermarket meat counter, where the punishment for turning up hungover was to cut up liver.

Close up the parts looked mottled or iridescent, perforated with holes that hinted at their former functionality and connectedness to other, unseen animal parts. The cutters spoke the sensations: cold, jellylike, fishlike. Henry remembered how as a boy he’d conducted experiments with tubes and hearts to test the pump function. Eifiona shook liberal amounts of cumin into the bowl of flour and sage into which the meat was tipped and coated…and deftly cleared away the blood-sluiced boards as we turned our attention to the hearth- the meat curled and browned on the hot rack above the coals and I joined Junfan Lin in turning the pieces, now barely recognisable to me as belonging to this organ or that- the smells were strong as I pondered the thousands of chemical changes going on within each piece as it turned to the cooked, the domesticated, the edible.

Over lunch I asked my fellow participants about their thoughts about the day: for many, this stemmed from a bridging of the sociability and emplaced, embodied activities enabled by the day’s organisation (and memories of childhood attachments to lands near and far) with wider questions of food justice and agricultural sustainability. Laura felt that food waste is an “unresolved issue” and it felt necessary to bring such diverse backgrounds and approaches to consider it, while Elspeth felt the lush richness of the farm to be a place to consider her rural childhood and the lives destroyed here and in Australia by drought and agricultural disease, and to build networks in the ways we deal with these past and future questions.


Megan Blake preluded her talk with an activist’s urge to do work that actually changes things for people. She spoke of the assumptions of productivist science and policymaking- predicated on a futurist neatness and invoked Jevons Paradox to challenge the assumption that we’d waste less if food were more expensive, when the history of food systems tells us that making food systems more efficient doesn’t necessarily result in reduced overall impacts- in fact the impacts are often just downstreamed, and therein lie issues of power and inequality. She spoke of current efforts by industrial players to redistribute surplus food- so long as it doesn’t harm profits- in a world where food is a mechanism of profit, not the commensality and pleasure we’d just experienced over lunch. She pointed to the way the assignation and placement of waste produces and reproduces social divisions and requires work and relationships to ‘remake’ it as food, food reordered beyond commercial values. She exemplified this by describing the work of the Real Junk Food Café in Sheffield, one of a network of café projects intercepting waste food and cooking it into meals to challenge the idea that surplus should be wasted, to widen participation in the food economy through a pay-as-you-feel mechanism and thus to draw more people into shared eating experiences. She described the challenges they face in doing so, including the way food deemed ‘surplus’ can devalue eaters despite attempts to level differentiation, the uneven and sometimes unhealthy supplies of food available and, crucially, the project’s paradoxical reproduction and reliance on the category of ‘surplus’ even as it attempts to diminish it.

Matt Reed [see earlier post for talk transcript] gave an intriguing insight from his interviews with ‘conventional’ farmers, who described organic farmers as ‘wasters’- wasters for forsaking the opportunity to maximise productivity, while an alternative framing spies the excess of intensive farming with its fossil fuel inputs and hunger for new tranches of land. He guided us to focus on how business models might create change; farming as a value-configuring political activity, essentially. He described the problems inherent with scaling up organic agriculture and its embeddedness within capitalist economics subject to recessions and consumers’ capacities, but called us to attend to analyses of the profound political-economic changes underway such as those of Manuel Castells and Paul Mason. Do these new formations allow us to rethink food production- from involving eaters in urban growing to considering the needs of growing populations relying on free food? “How do we build business models around that?” he asked.

Emma Roe gave a fascinating ‘behind-the-curtain’ insight into the workings of the meat industry and the variegated values of different parts of the carcass, asking about the global distribution of these parts and asked us to consider the connections between one’s eating body and those of the dispersed beings eating the dispersed parts of the same carcass. WRAP research suggests that waste meat arisings are higher than those of other food sectors and its recommendations to find ever-new markets for the absorption of those products- a sense that the global scope of food distribution might mitigate waste, even as this provides new routes for capitalism’s spread. Questions of modifying consumer preference and improving anthropological understanding for the expansion of food commodification was juxtaposed with ethical questions of who gets to eat what- in the case of reconstituted meat products, why is it that people on low incomes should only be able to afford less desirable parts of an animal (regardless of how unidentifiable to the eater is a Turkey Twizzler or horse-bulked burger). Her contribution led to considerations of the moral economy of meat and compromised virtue, the difference between cooking and having a corporation factory ‘do the cooking’, and marketing as ‘applied social science’- I thought here seriously about the way our own analyses of the ways people eat might be (mis)used for commercial purposes.

Matt led us neatly into the small group discussion stage by asking whether ‘waste’ is a heuristically useful concept, especially given its generative capacities (again, O’Brien’s book is a useful exemplar of humans ingenuity in transforming ‘waste’ into useable products). Should we refer to waste as ‘underused resource’?


We discussed the equity issues engendered by the proliferation of food banking. Julie raised an interesting point about the ‘local’ implications of new forms of surplus redistribution, suggesting that FareShare’s Exeter supermarket collections do not go to Exeter folk but travel to Bristol and other FareShare ‘hubs’, raising the question of regional distribution of need and aid provision. She mentioned negative reactions to recent French legislation against supermarket food waste, which might obscure food business’ pre-existing relationships with local organisations that could be threatened by imposed formalisation. She asked what happens to the people relying on food aid if efforts to drastically reduce food surplus succeed? We spoke of the shame, the stigma and differentiation represented by the food bank, but again the variations of volunteers and spaces therein.

Such questions of proximity and distance underpinned the larger group feedback session. A key point to emerge was that of ‘many solutions’- and convergence: while our discussions of the ethics of foodbanking hinge on the indignity and denial of agency of accepting food parcels, perhaps we need to challenge the discourse of ever-expanding choice, shopping for which marks us as grown-up individuals: but should we rely on the idea of consumers making choices as the driver for what will lead to a better food system? As ever, more questions were raised than solutions proffered, and the question of whether we should interrogate the utility of surplus v waste remains…


Elspeth Probyn summarised for us her thoughts on the day’s activities and discussions. She argued for the necessity of complexity- that simple coding of the world removes the “obligation to learn more” [food for thought in our desire to tame the messy waste/surplus/excess/resource categories]. She highlighted the role of social ‘science’ in making and communicating stories in narrative networks that link multiple contexts of food production and consumption and their material practices. She mentioned the severing of metabolic intimacies with non-humans in the loss of herds and the ways of eating animals and this brought me back to Taussig’s ‘mimetic excess’- what is it about the conditions of today that prevent us from seeing and acting in accordance with the behaviours and patterns of the non-human world? Finally, she recognised our indebtedness to this magical place where we’d drunken ale (and paid as we felt), trodden the soil, soaked up the sun and been very much cared for. She acknowledged the symposium as a place of shared experience as well as listening and participation, thanking Andy and Martyn for joining in for the whole day. They in turn expressed their gladness at having realised that useful questions are indeed being asked by academics (phew) while acknowledging that despite the good listening and sharing of values we haven’t quite got past seeing the problems to seeing the solutions- yet.

So, in conclusion of an unresolved discussion (which bled into the sea of discussions at the main RGS conference), I mention merely the beautiful willow tree made by Deggie, constructed in three layers of looping willow to hold leaves upon which we wrote our intentions and resolutions in willow charcoal made at the farm. The crumbling and chipping of my piece reminded me of the fragility and potential of the connections inhering within this act and the act of writing more widely: what happens to what we commit to word, voiced and written- and how do we deal with the responsibilities and implications of writing others’ worlds? After wolfing down delicious wood-fired pizza (time is always short for the important things), the tree was dismantled and crammed into the minibus to be carried onto the campus, banner-like, into the foyer so that the messages of the farm might reach unknown passers-by. Plucked into a new context by the creativity of one and the participation of many, it felt good to be see it there as I pinballed between powerpoints…

Reflections on the Food Matters Symposium: Systemic Food Waste, West Town Farm 1/09/15

By Louise MacAllister, University of Exeter

Arriving at West Town Farm for a symposium addressing issues of food waste, I walked into the venue in wellies, and took up a seat on a straw bale in the barn. The farm environment felt familiar to me, but catching snippets of other people’s conversations, the location for the symposium was badgeralready provoking lines of thought that would not be possible inside a more ‘standard’ venue.

The day began with some provocations from Professor Henry Buller, whose opening comments immediately highlighted the complexity of questions of food waste. Waste was framed in a variety of ways, including but not limited to; waste as a natural result of working with a biotic medium, waste as the result of unlimited consumption, waste as systemically inherent, waste that is actively produced, and metabolic waste. Waste that exists on scales from the household, to the 35 million male chicks that are seen as a waste product of the egg industry, and are therefore killed at one day old. However with these chicks mostly feeding the pet food industry, waste can again be differentially framed; waste as a commercial opportunity.

With these ‘provocations’ bouncing around in conversation we set off in groups for a farm walk. As we walked these provocations were made to feel real, complicated and entangled with everyday farming and the vital materialities of the farm. Andy Bragg who farms at West Town Farm led the walk. We stopped by a small herd of cattle which Andy spent quite some time talking about. The cattle watched us while we talked about their lives, their feed patterns, their everyday care, their breeding, their death, and the processing of their bodies. We talked about these things with the aim of reducing food waste, while simultaneowest town cowsusly being enchanted by the cute calves, the curious heifer at the fence, and the face-pulling of the bull.

Returning to the barn these real life complexities were extended to further contexts in the panel ‘knowing food in practice’. We heard more from Andy Bragg about the pressures of farming, and how food scares and food waste are governed by the madness of food export rules. We then heard from Kim Chenoweth of the Devon and Cornwall Food Association. Kim works as a volunteer helping feed those who may well otherwise go without, and explained the reliance of the charity on ‘waste’ food such as undersized vegetables, and the questions this raises about socially-just eating. Finally, we heard from Martyn Bragg who runs a farm to consumer veg box scheme and how food costs accumulate through wasteful practices such as unnecessary packaging, here our wasteful practices can be understood as generative of costs that structure access to food.

Following the panel it was time to practically engage with waste food to make our lunch! Splitting off into three groups to work with offal, ‘misshapen’ vegetables and past-best before bakery ingredients, I joined the latter group. The main question of this session being ‘how would we know food is good to eat if we take away the best before date?’ I think this session is worthy of a bit more attention that I will give to the other parts of the day because this was where we engaged with food itself and so came to approach the topic in ways that cannot be reached through traditional methods. The food we were working with was laid out on a table, the session leader, Ken, explained it had been left over when he closed his bakery in 2012.

From the simple question of how would we know this food would be good to eat came a whole range of possible approaches to this question. Just what is ‘good to eat’ in the first place? Does it mean it has the same nutritional quality as when it was first produced? How does flour degrade? What bacteria are at work, incorporating themselves into our food, into our bodies, and into debates about food waste? Does such degradation even render it unsafe anyway? Touching the ingredients prompted further thought; what are we feeling for? What does good food feel like? Can you smell bad food? What can we do with food before it reaches our mouth to ensure it is safe to take into our bodies in the absence of a black and white date, past which the food is widely understood to have ‘become bad’ and ‘waste’.

This is not just about the food itself though, thinking about food waste through a visceral engagement with food prompts questions of social justice and access. Who has to make these decisions about food waste and safety and who is afforded what may be considered the luxury of not having to worry about food safety, with food beyond the best before date being ‘safely’ consigned to the dustbin and firmly placed in the category of waste? Can society be divided today between those who eat first and those who eat what is left in a modern day version of ‘the upper crust’?

Besides such classed questions are questions of care. Are we taking care for our own bodies when we take in food that is past a particular date? Are we taking care of the environment if we do NOT take in food that is past a particular date? What about when we care for others? I was not the only parent in the group who would eat food past a ‘best before’ date myself, but who would be far more cautious about feeding it to my children. Here food waste becomes entangled with my gendered responsibilities to care. But who receives my care and who does not when I make these decisions about food waste? And is the decision to eat and feed my children food past its ‘best before date’ a particular privilege that I am afforded, that others do not have?

We had no such decisions to make today, lunch was based on food that would otherwise have gone to waste, and if anyone was under the impression that ‘waste’ food somehow automatically tastes bad, this was dispelled by the lunch, the scones below being part of the pudding!scones

Lunch was of course also an opportunity to talk to fellow delegates. Sitting in our conference barn venue, back on our straw bale seats, I spoke with several people about the venue itself. The farm walk may have seemed like some kind of fun interlude, but as one delegate explained, ‘it makes it much easier to think about food waste, it makes it seem more real’. The place of the conference itself, and the materialities we were engaging with during the day, were combining to forge new ways of framing and engaging with the topic, a way forward to solutions?

After lunch we returned to an academic focus with a panel session. Dr. Megan Blake talked about food waste in relation to neo-liberalism, Dr. Matt Reed about social structures and organic farming, and Dr. Emma Roe about the food animal carcass as a vital materiality whose ethics of distribution can be framed in terms of social and cultural practices.

The day ended with ways forward. Splitting into three groups and then returning for a roundtable discussion, the group I joined began from the starting point of ‘what might a less wasteful food production utopia look like?’ This could not be easily defined, from ‘eating your landscape’, to food justice, fish based diets, in-vitro meat, and finally the close celebration of the life of an animal we may consume through the example of the parties held for the slaughter of pigs in Spain, we found utoleavespia could not be grasped. Food, taste and consumption is at once personal and communal, and so it was that utopia was different for each of us. As the day had demonstrated, this is a complex issue that can be approached in a variety of ways. However the day had served as an excelled point from which to think about these complexities and forge connections and ideas for possible solutions. These possible solutions, thoughts and questions were captured at the end of the day not in the more standard ‘post-it note’ format, but in keeping with the day, on paper leaves, our ‘ink’ being charcoal produced on the farm.

What was perhaps most clear from today was that food waste is not something that can be addressed in a singular straightforward way. Approaching food waste and arriving at meaningful solutions demands that we take into account debates from household practices, to their social and cultural frames, to economic and political structuring. Accounting for such complexity is not a straightforward task and ways to prompt new lines of thought are vital for this. A farm-based symposium with visceral, academic, and industry engagements was a perfect approach from which to further this ongoing process from a venue that engaged and immersed us in the vitality of the world we talk about.