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Brief observations on food in an age of opulence and scarcity

Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch—Orson Welles

An early introduction to food geopolitics

My first lesson in political economy came at an early age. Granted, it wasn’t given by an economist and it did not take place in a university lecture hall. It was given by my grandmother while we were at the dinner table and I was a young boy growing up in South America before magical realism became less real and less magical. Her delivery was friendly, but the message contained an ominous element: “Eat all your food because there are thousands of little kids like you starving to death in the United States.”

Why she chose the US as an indicator of her socio-gastronomic advice is hard to know. Was it political irony wrapped in the cold war discourse of her generation? I doubt it. From what I remember, she was never sympathetic to the Russian or the Cuban revolution. For her, the Soviets were “all atheists” (a mortal sin in accordance to her Catholic views), and the Cubans needed a “long overdue haircut” (a capital sin according to her aesthetic views on Latin masculinity).

At the time, of course, I did not quite assimilate the geopolitical implications in her remarks, except that in the US, where everybody seemed wealthy and healthy and white (based on the empirical evidence provided by my occasional glances at my mother’s Sears catalog), somehow kids my age were starving to death. That realization also led to guilt, because my aversion to the vegetables and soups I was being urged to consume became linked to my knowledge of other children’s hunger.

Time basically proved my grandmother right. Today, in a world with historically unprecedented levels of wealth, food is wasted while others don’t eat. According to a national analysis by the Children’s Defense Fund in 2018, over 12.8 million American children live in poverty, and nearly half (46.3 percent) of all poor children under 5 live in extreme poverty. Poverty among children is not exclusive to the US but wide spread around the globe. The World Bank Group conducted a study in 2016 indicating that nearly 385 million children in the world live in extreme poverty. Needless to say, food quality and availability are factored in the poverty indexes. The problem in this case is not food but lack of it.

Swallowing: the big divider

Some argue that there are two different ways to look at food–one is cultural and the other is physiological. In “The Value of Qualitative Research in Nutrition,” Patricia Crotty argues that the swallowing act is divided into “two cultures”—the post swallowing world of biology, biochemistry, and physiology, and the pre-swallowing world, which includes culture, behavior, and society. Given my professional qualifications as the writer of this article, I give no attention to the post-swallowing physiology of food. Instead, I limit myself to some brief considerations of the social signification and the cultural-political unconscious of food.

Food, labor, nature and the making of humanity

Historically, in order to survive, humans interacted with nature, first in rudimentary hunter-gatherer scenarios and later, with the advent of agriculture, industry, and development of technology, this interaction took the form of more complex models of production, distribution, and consumption.

Within this set of interactions with nature we became what we are now, including our particular forms of social organization. These forms or modes of production determine how economic goods are produced, who owns the means of production and distribution, how goods are finally consumed, and who the main beneficiaries are of this process.

In other words, in human efforts to survive, we interacted with nature, we changed nature, but nature also changed us, since we are both nature and culture. As Marx put it in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: “Nature is man’s inorganic body…and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.”

Food as identity: tortilla Española? Really?

Many agree that food constitutes a marker of identity, either national or regional. Food is also linked to class and ethnicity. There is an unending list of food considered to be the “gastronomic face of nations.” These foods transport us to familiar places of language and social surroundings. They remind us of who we are via the evocative powers of flavor and perhaps the most powerful of all the senses, smell. Allow me to mention a few national dishes:

England: roast beef and yorkshire pudding
China: dumplings
USA: apple pie
Jamaica: ackee and saltfish
Korea: bulgogi
Canada: poutine
Poland: bigos
Thailand: pad-thai
France: pot -au-feu

While national identification with food is strong and vibrant, as demonstrated by the large variety of ethnic restaurants in our cities, nonetheless, given the long history of trade among peoples and nations and the current globalization of the market, food items can also reveal some incongruencies in nationalistic food claims. For example, we tend to associate “tortilla Española” with Spain, “pizza” with Italy, and “apple pie” with the US, but closer examination of the origins of the ingredients needed for these foods exposes contradictions present in these national contentions. Neither potatoes, tomatoes, nor apples originated in any of those countries. Respectively, these foods come from the Andean region, central and Andean South America, and Central Asia. In fact, scrutiny of the above list of “national” dishes would show the true cosmopolitan character of food. The expression “food brings people together” makes lots of sense in this context.

Gastronomic diplomacy

It is customary among heads of state and diplomats to conclude their negotiations with a ceremonial banquet. A notorious example of this ritual was provided by Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in Vietnam. They started with dinner and mutual praise, followed a few hours later by an end to their bromance when they simultaneously pulled out of a planned formal lunch the next day. Another significant example of gastronomic diplomacy comes from Thailand, which a few years ago launched the Global Thai Restaurant Company Ltd. plan. This was designed to augment the presence of Thai restaurants around the world, increase consumption of Thai exports, and bolster tourism. According to Myles Karp writing in Munchies, this resulted in over 5,342 Thai restaurants in the United States, while there are only 300,000 Thai-Americans. Similar government-sponsored culinary diplomacy has been launched by South Korea, Malaysia, Peru, and the United States.

Food as commodity in history

The landing of Columbus in America was a financial enterprise backed by Iberian-Judeo capital looking to ensure an alternative route for procuring Asian spices for Europe. Upon his return to Spain — besides gold, which turn out to be the main goal from then on — Columbus brought allspice, vanilla, and red peppers; along with regional crops such as cacao, maize, potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum, cassava, pumpkins and groundnuts; as well as tropical fruits like pineapple, avocado, guava and papaya. As the colonization process expanded, so did dependence on forced indigenous labor. The further expansion of capitalism incorporated production of sugar with the concomitant establishment of the infamous Triangular Trade. This trade depended on violent extraction of free individuals from Africa to turn them into slaves for sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Sugar thus produced was sent to New England to be converted into rum for sale in Europe and the rest of the world. Today, it seems fair to say that there is no food product that is not part of the commodification of the world in which we live.

The obese society

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 39.8% of adults in the US are obese, about 93.3 million adults in 2015–2016. When considering its negative health effects such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain type of cancers, obesity belongs to the post—swallowed act of the food equation; but it’s also the result of pernicious eating habits encouraged by the food industry in the pre-swallowed stage in order to increase profits.

According to Statista, advertisements attempting to persuade consumers to buy products within the grocery store industry alone generate over 190 billion US dollars annually. According to the same source:

“In the third quarter of 2017, Burger King accounted for the highest number of ad occurrences among the leading food-related brands on TV in the US. Adverts for the fast food chain ran over 26,000 times on American television in that year and were closely followed by Domino’s Pizza and Little Caesar’s, each with over 24 thousand TV ad occurrences. MacDonald’s is the leading restaurant in terms of advertising spending in the US followed by Subway and Taco Bell, and is also the fourth most advertised brand in the country. Apart from TV, radio, or magazine ads, internet games, promotional packaging, giveaways, and corporate sponsorships and donations to schools are also some common avenues for food advertising in the US that are predominantly targeting kids and adolescents.”

What can we make of these observations?

Along with Roland Barthes, one could say that the foregoing observations refer to a larger set of themes and situations; that they refer to the social environment of the world and the nation, signified by food. Ideally, these observations lead the reader to continue to resist swallowing the ideology of large-scale advertisement that tells us how to think about and how to consume food. We might instead choose to look at food as a function of social relations closely connected to history and geography, which in turn expresses relations of domination and alienation among us as human beings. Food, from this perspective, primarily serves as “food for thought” because, as my grandmother would have said, “there are millions of people starving to death in the world.”

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