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M/C Journal, Vol. 12, No. 4 (2009) - 'climate'

Climate Change and the Contemporary Evolution of Foodways


Eating is one of the most quintessential activities of human life. Because of this primacy, eating is, as food anthropologist Sidney Mintz has observed, “not merely a biological activity, but a vibrantly cultural activity as well” (48). This article posits that the current awareness of climate change in the Western world is animating such cultural activity as the Slow Food movement and is, as a result, stimulating what could be seen as an evolutionary change in popular foodways. Moreover, this paper suggests that, in line with modelling provided by the Slow Food example, an increased awareness of the connections of climate change to the social injustices of food production might better drive social change in such areas.

This discussion begins by proposing that contemporary foodways—defined as “not only what is eaten by a particular group of people but also the variety of customs, beliefs and practices surrounding the production, preparation and presentation of food” (Davey 182)—are changing in the West in relation to current concerns about climate change. Such modification has a long history. Since long before the inception of modern Homo sapiens, natural climate change has been a crucial element driving hominidae evolution, both biologically and culturally in terms of social organisation and behaviours. Macroevolutionary theory suggests evolution can dramatically accelerate in response to rapid shifts in an organism’s environment, followed by slow to long periods of stasis once a new level of sustainability has been achieved (Gould and Eldredge). There is evidence that ancient climate change has also dramatically affected the rate and course of cultural evolution. Recent work suggests that the end of the last ice age drove the cultural innovation of animal and plant domestication in the Middle East (Zeder), not only due to warmer temperatures and increased rainfall, but also to a higher level of atmospheric carbon dioxide which made agriculture increasingly viable (McCorriston and Hole, cited in Zeder). Megadroughts during the Paleolithic might well have been stimulating factors behind the migration of hominid populations out of Africa and across Asia (Scholz et al). Thus, it is hardly surprising that modern anthropogenically induced global warming—in all its’ climate altering manifestations—may be driving a new wave of cultural change and even evolution in the West as we seek a sustainable homeostatic equilibrium with the environment of the future.

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring exposed some of the threats that modern industrial agriculture poses to environmental sustainability. This prompted a public debate from which the modern environmental movement arose and, with it, an expanding awareness and attendant anxiety about the safety and nutritional quality of contemporary foods, especially those that are grown with chemical pesticides and fertilizers and/or are highly processed. This environmental consciousness led to some modification in eating habits, manifest by some embracing wholefood and vegetarian dietary regimes (or elements of them). Most recently, a widespread awareness of climate change has forced rapid change in contemporary Western foodways, while in other climate related areas of socio-political and economic significance such as energy production and usage, there is little evidence of real acceleration of change. Ongoing research into the effects of this expanding environmental consciousness continues in various disciplinary contexts such as geography (Eshel and Martin) and health (McMichael et al). In food studies, Vileisis has proposed that the 1970s environmental movement’s challenge to the polluting practices of industrial agri-food production, concurrent with the women’s movement (asserting women’s right to know about everything, including food production), has led to both cooks and eaters becoming increasingly knowledgeable about the links between agricultural production and consumer and environmental health, as well as the various social justice issues involved. As a direct result of such awareness, alternatives to the industrialised, global food system are now emerging (Kloppenberg et al.).

The Slow Food (R)evolution

The tenets of the Slow Food movement, now some two decades old, are today synergetic with the growing consternation about climate change. In 1983, Carlo Petrini formed the Italian non-profit food and wine association Arcigola and, in 1986, founded Slow Food as a response to the opening of a McDonalds in Rome. From these humble beginnings, which were then unashamedly positing a return to the food systems of the past, Slow Food has grown into a global organisation that has much more future focused objectives animating its challenges to the socio-cultural and environmental costs of industrial food. Slow Food does have some elements that could be classed as reactionary and, therefore, the opposite of evolutionary. In response to the increasing homogenisation of culinary habits around the world, for instance, Slow Food’s Foundation for Biodiversity has established the Ark of Taste, which expands upon the idea of a seed bank to preserve not only varieties of food but also local and artisanal culinary traditions. In this, the Ark aims to save foods and food products “threatened by industrial standardization, hygiene laws, the regulations of large-scale distribution and environmental damage” (SFFB).

Slow Food International’s overarching goals and activities, however, extend far beyond the preservation of past foodways, extending to the sponsoring of events and activities that are attempting to create new cuisine narratives for contemporary consumers who have an appetite for such innovation. Such events as the Salone del Gusto (Salon of Taste) and Terra Madre (Mother Earth) held in Turin every two years, for example, while celebrating culinary traditions, also focus on contemporary artisanal foods and sustainable food production processes that incorporate the most current of agricultural knowledge and new technologies into this production. Attendees at these events are also driven by both an interest in tradition, and their own very current concerns with health, personal satisfaction and environmental sustainability, to change their consumer behavior through an expanded self-awareness of the consequences of their individual lifestyle choices. Such events have, in turn, inspired such events in other locations, moving Slow Food from local to global relevance, and affecting the intellectual evolution of foodway cultures far beyond its headquarters in Bra in Northern Italy. This includes in the developing world, where millions of farmers continue to follow many traditional agricultural practices by necessity.

Slow Food Movement’s forward-looking values are codified in the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture 2006 publication, Manifesto on the Future of Food. This calls for changes to the World Trade Organisation’s rules that promote the globalisation of agri-food production as a direct response to the “climate change [which] threatens to undermine the entire natural basis of ecologically benign agriculture and food preparation, bringing the likelihood of catastrophic outcomes in the near future” (ICFFA 8). It does not call, however, for a complete return to past methods. To further such foodway awareness and evolution, Petrini founded the University of Gastronomic Sciences at Slow Food’s headquarters in 2004. The university offers programs that are analogous with the Slow Food’s overall aim of forging sustainable partnerships between the best of old and new practice: to, in the organisation’s own words, “maintain an organic relationship between gastronomy and agricultural science” (UNISG). In 2004, Slow Food had over sixty thousand members in forty-five countries (Paxson 15), with major events now held each year in many of these countries and membership continuing to grow apace.

One of the frequently cited successes of the Slow Food movement is in relation to the tomato. Until recently, supermarkets stocked only a few mass-produced hybrids. These cultivars were bred for their disease resistance, ease of handling, tolerance to artificial ripening techniques, and display consistency, rather than any culinary values such as taste, aroma, texture or variety. In contrast, the vine ripened, ‘farmer’s market’ tomato has become the symbol of an “eco-gastronomically” sustainable, local and humanistic system of food production (Jordan) which melds the best of the past practice with the most up-to-date knowledge regarding such farming matters as water conservation. Although the term ‘heirloom’ is widely used in relation to these tomatoes, there is a distinctively contemporary edge to the way they are produced and consumed (Jordan), and they are, along with other organic and local produce, increasingly available in even the largest supermarket chains.

Instead of a wholesale embrace of the past, it is the connection to, and the maintenance of that connection with, the processes of production and, hence, to the environment as a whole, which is the animating premise of the Slow Food movement. ‘Slow’ thus creates a gestalt in which individuals integrate their lifestyles with all levels of the food production cycle and, hence to the environment and, importantly, the inherently related social justice issues. ‘Slow’ approaches emphasise how the accelerated pace of contemporary life has weakened these connections, while offering a path to the restoration of a sense of connectivity to the full cycle of life and its relation to place, nature and climate. In this, the Slow path demands that every consumer takes responsibility for all components of his/her existence—a responsibility that includes becoming cognisant of the full story behind each of the products that are consumed in that life.

The Slow movement is not, however, a regime of abstention or self-denial. Instead, the changes in lifestyle necessary to support responsible sustainability, and the sensual and aesthetic pleasure inherent in such a lifestyle, exist in a mutually reinforcing relationship (Pietrykowski 2004). This positive feedback loop enhances the potential for promoting real and long-term evolution in social and cultural behaviour. Indeed, the Slow zeitgeist now informs many areas of contemporary culture, with Slow Travel, Homes, Design, Management, Leadership and Education, and even Slow Email, Exercise, Shopping and Sex attracting adherents.

Mainstreaming Concern with Ethical Food Production

The role of the media in “forming our consciousness—what we think, how we think, and what we think about” (Cunningham and Turner 12)—is self-evident. It is, therefore, revealing in relation to the above outlined changes that even the most functional cookbooks and cookery magazines (those dedicated to practical information such as recipes and instructional technique) in Western countries such as the USA, UK and Australian are increasingly reflecting and promoting an awareness of ethical food production as part of this cultural change in food habits. While such texts have largely been considered as useful but socio-politically relatively banal publications, they are beginning to be recognised as a valid source of historical and cultural information (Nussel). Cookbooks and cookery magazines commonly include discussion of a surprising range of issues around food production and consumption including sustainable and ethical agricultural methods, biodiversity, genetic modification and food miles. In this context, they indicate how rapidly the recent evolution of foodways has been absorbed into mainstream practice.

Much of such food related media content is, at the same time, closely identified with celebrity mass marketing and embodied in the television chef with his or her range of branded products including their syndicated articles and cookbooks. This commercial symbiosis makes each such cuisine-related article in a food or women’s magazine or cookbook, in essence, an advertorial for a celebrity chef and their named products. Yet, at the same time, a number of these mass media food celebrities are raising public discussion that is leading to consequent action around important issues linked to climate change, social justice and the environment. An example is Jamie Oliver’s efforts to influence public behaviour and government policy, a number of which have gained considerable traction. Oliver’s 2004 exposure of the poor quality of school lunches in Britain (see Jamie’s School Dinners), for instance, caused public outrage and pressured the British government to commit considerable extra funding to these programs. A recent study by Essex University has, moreover, found that the academic performance of 11-year-old pupils eating Oliver’s meals improved, while absenteeism fell by 15 per cent (Khan).

Oliver’s exposé of the conditions of battery raised hens in 2007 and 2008 (see Fowl Dinners) resulted in increased sales of free-range poultry, decreased sales of factory-farmed chickens across the UK, and complaints that free-range chicken sales were limited by supply. Oliver encouraged viewers to lobby their local councils, and as a result, a number banned battery hen eggs from schools, care homes, town halls and workplace cafeterias (see, for example, LDP). The popular penetration of these ideas needs to be understood in a historical context where industrialised poultry farming has been an issue in Britain since at least 1848 when it was one of the contributing factors to the establishment of the RSPCA (Freeman). A century after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (published in 1906) exposed the realities of the slaughterhouse, and several decades since Peter Singer’s landmark Animal Liberation (1975) and Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights (1983) posited the immorality of the mistreatment of animals in food production, it could be suggested that Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth (released in 2006) added considerably to the recent concern regarding the ethics of industrial agriculture. Consciousness-raising bestselling books such as Jim Mason and Peter Singer’s The Ethics of What We Eat and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (both published in 2006), do indeed ‘close the loop’ in this way in their discussions, by concluding that intensive food production methods used since the 1950s are not only inhumane and damage public health, but are also damaging an environment under pressure from climate change.

In comparison, the use of forced labour and human trafficking in food production has attracted far less mainstream media, celebrity or public attention. It could be posited that this is, in part, because no direct relationship to the environment and climate change and, therefore, direct link to our own existence in the West, has been popularised. Kevin Bales, who has been described as a modern abolitionist, estimates that there are currently more than 27 million people living in conditions of slavery and exploitation against their wills—twice as many as during the 350-year long trans-Atlantic slave trade. Bales also chillingly reveals that, worldwide, the number of slaves is increasing, with contemporary individuals so inexpensive to purchase in relation to the value of their production that they are disposable once the slaveholder has used them. Alongside sex slavery, many other prevalent examples of contemporary slavery are concerned with food production (Weissbrodt et al; Miers). Bales and Soodalter, for example, describe how across Asia and Africa, adults and children are enslaved to catch and process fish and shellfish for both human consumption and cat food. Other campaigners have similarly exposed how the cocoa in chocolate is largely produced by child slave labour on the Ivory Coast (Chalke; Off), and how considerable amounts of exported sugar, cereals and other crops are slave-produced in certain countries.

In 2003, some 32 per cent of US shoppers identified themselves as LOHAS “lifestyles of health and sustainability” consumers, who were, they said, willing to spend more for products that reflected not only ecological, but also social justice responsibility (McLaughlin). Research also confirms that “the pursuit of social objectives … can in fact furnish an organization with the competitive resources to develop effective marketing strategies”, with Doherty and Meehan showing how “social and ethical credibility” are now viable bases of differentiation and competitive positioning in mainstream consumer markets (311, 303). In line with this recognition, Fair Trade Certified goods are now available in British, European, US and, to a lesser extent, Australian supermarkets, and a number of global chains including Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonalds, Starbucks and Virgin airlines utilise Fair Trade coffee and teas in all, or parts of, their operations. Fair Trade Certification indicates that farmers receive a higher than commodity price for their products, workers have the right to organise, men and women receive equal wages, and no child labour is utilised in the production process (McLaughlin).

Yet, despite some Western consumers reporting such issues having an impact upon their purchasing decisions, social justice has not become a significant issue of concern for most. The popular cookery publications discussed above devote little space to Fair Trade product marketing, much of which is confined to supermarket-produced adverzines promoting the Fair Trade products they stock, and international celebrity chefs have yet to focus attention on this issue. In Australia, discussion of contemporary slavery in the press is sparse, having surfaced in 2000-2001, prompted by UNICEF campaigns against child labour, and in 2007 and 2008 with the visit of a series of high profile anti-slavery campaigners (including Bales) to the region. The public awareness of food produced by forced labour and the troubling issue of human enslavement in general is still far below the level that climate change and ecological issues have achieved thus far in driving foodway evolution. This may change, however, if a ‘Slow’-inflected connection can be made between Western lifestyles and the plight of peoples hidden from our daily existence, but contributing daily to them.

Concluding Remarks

At this time of accelerating techno-cultural evolution, due in part to the pressures of climate change, it is the creative potential that human conscious awareness brings to bear on these challenges that is most valuable. Today, as in the caves at Lascaux, humanity is evolving new images and narratives to provide rational solutions to emergent challenges. As an example of this, new foodways and ways of thinking about them are beginning to evolve in response to the perceived problems of climate change. The current conscious transformation of food habits by some in the West might be, therefore, in James Lovelock’s terms, a moment of “revolutionary punctuation” (178), whereby rapid cultural adaption is being induced by the growing public awareness of impending crisis. It remains to be seen whether other urgent human problems can be similarly and creatively embraced, and whether this trend can spread to offer global solutions to them.


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