Episode 6: Food Politics | Unfold Podcast

Episode 6: Food Politics | Unfold Podcast


[Unfold theme music fades in] ALEXA: Coming to you from our basement
studios at UC Davis. [Unfold theme music plays] AMY: This is Unfold, a podcast where we break down complicated problems and
discuss solutions. AMY: I’m Amy Quinton. ALEXA: And I’m Alexa Renee. [Unfold theme music fades] AMY: Hey Alexa. ALEXA: Hey Amy. AMY: This season, we’ve been discussing
ways to sustainably feed two billion more people by 2050. And I was surprised at how controversial some
potential solutions could be– such as switching to meat-free diets or genetically engineering
food. ALEXA: You were surprised that food is controversial? AMY: Well, I think it’s the degree of controversy
that surprised me. People are passionate about what they eat
and why, and they get into arguments over it. ALEXA: Yeah, even some of the researchers
we talked to can disagree with one another. AMY: And some of you may not have liked or
agreed with everything said in these episodes. So I wanted to get some perspective on this. I mean, why is food so controversial? It’s just food, right? So I asked Charlotte Biltekoff. She is an associate professor of both American
Studies and Food Science and Technology at UC Davis. She has an interesting perspective on all
of this. Charlotte says asking the question — why
is food so controversial — is actually the wrong way to start the conversation. CHARLOTTE: Because, what is food, you know? AMY: She says food can mean different things to
different people. CHARLOTTE: For some people food is nutrients
and for others food is a way of connecting with the earth and for others it means history
and tradition. For some it’s about um, technology and innovation and thinking on a cellular
level or a biological level about what’s possible for the future, and sometimes all
of these things come into conflict with each other. AMY: Charlotte says at its core, food is a lot
more than just what we choose to eat. CHARLOTTE: Food is controversial because it
touches on our deepest held values. And so when we’re having conflicts about
food um, it’s never really just about food. It’s always about a broader set of conflicts
about our values, which fundamentally that means a conflicts over politics. AMY: The idea that food represents our values has
played out historically. Charlotte examined the last 100 years of dietary
advice and dietary reform movements in her book, “Eating Right: The Cultural Politics
of Food and Health.” Not surprisingly during that time frame, both
dietary ideals and social values have changed. CHARLOTTE: But I found that the relationship
between them remained consistent from the late 19th century to the present. Dietary ideals have expressed social ideals. In fact our ideas about good food are fundamentally
ideas about what it means to be a good person, to be responsible, moral, ethical and even
what it is to be a good citizen. AMY: In the late 19th century, the idea of a good
diet was about getting enough calories for the least amount of money – in the pursuit
of getting a good day’s work done. Charlotte says if you were a laborer, progressive
era reformers advised that you shouldn’t bother with a salad – not enough calories. Salad was fine for those that weren’t in
factories all day. CHARLOTTE: At that time there were also
very, um, well-established and um, not subtle but overt ideals about how different classes of people
needed different diets, not just because of their occupations might have different caloric needs,
but there was a more elaborated set of ideas about why those diets should be different
and should be kept distinct from each other and there shouldn’t be any blurring of the
lines. AMY: Charlotte says it was a moralizing social
hierarchy of dietary ideas. During World War II, dietary advice focused
on vitamins. Understanding them was key in being able to
substitute one food for the other. That dietary ideal was a direct response to
what was going on in society at the time – the rationing of food during the war. And in more modern times we’re seeing the
emergence of alternative food movements. CHARLOTTE: The paradigm that really informs
the emergence of alternative food movements is a whole new way of thinking about good
food that isn’t purely, um, through the lens of nutrition but starts to incorporate a systems
mentality that connects food to all kinds of other systems, social and economic and
environmental, etc. AMY: For example, some people choose to not eat
meat because they feel all animal agriculture is harmful to the environment – as we heard
in Episode 1 of Unfold. People may only want to eat local food because
they desire closer social relationships with the farmers that grow their food. Or people may not want to eat GMO crops not
just because they feel it’s unsafe, but because they don’t trust current food systems
or corporate agriculture. CHARLOTTE: Yeah, I mean, that’s what’s so fascinating
about all of our conversations about good and bad food is that you know fundamentally
they reflect these deeply held, um, values… and ultimately, they are… important sides of political
debate and negotiation, and many people wish, and I understand why they wish this, that
it was purely a technical debate, right, and that it could be settled simply on the basis of
facts, about safety etc. and benefits. But that hasn’t proven to be the case. AMY: Charlotte says that obviously doesn’t mean
that the science about how food may affect our health or environment is wrong. CHARLOTTE: It’s not to say that the science
isn’t true or doesn’t exist or it’s not valuable or meant to help people’s health,
but it can’t be magically removed from the context from which it emerges and is applied. AMY: So then, how do we have conversations about
food that don’t erupt into political debate? Is it even possible? Charlotte says first, giving people more scientific
information or facts about food, how it’s made or grown, or whether it’s good for
you nutritionally, doesn’t necessarily move the needle. She says trust plays a huge role. CHARLOTTE: I think people really want to
know like, ‘what are the processes through which regulatory bodies decide what is safe? Who gets to be at the table? Whose interests are represented when we evaluate
risks and benefits? What are the long-term gains and who gets
them in the global food system for pursuing certain scientific questions and not others? AMY: Historically, Charlotte says dietary reform
movements were about expert middle-class reformers establishing a norm and seeking to apply it
to everybody else. She says it was as misguided then as it is
now. Just as there is income inequality in this
country, there is also dietary inequality. People need to be cognizant that politics
and power dynamics are inherently at play in these conversations. CHARLOTTE: My wish would be for us to always
keep an eye on the structural and systemic factors that shape, limit and enable people’s
dietary choices, habits and preferences, um, and that takes some of the pressure off of the
moralizing that can so easily happen. AMY: I asked Charlotte how hopeful she is that
we can bridge our different ideas and values about food in order to tackle big food issues
going forward. CHARLOTTE: I’m optimistic about the future
of food because I’m here at UC Davis, AMY: [Laughs] CHARLOTTE: You know and truly, I get to see, um, you know, all the sparks and
all the energy and all the passion and commitment and sometimes that can mean like that we passionately
disagree with each other. But I think that’s ok. Um, and the other thing that I see here that I’m
really optimistic about is a growing sense that we do need to come together across radical
and profound disciplinary differences, the kind of disciplinary differences that are
really meant to be insurmountable. AMY: I swear I didn’t tell Charlotte to brag
about UC Davis. But she says finding ways to collaborate and
have conversations about the future of food – across research disciplines – will be
key in the face of the enormous challenge of sustainably feeding 10 billion people by
2050. [Unfold theme music fades in] [Unfold theme music plays] AMY: We hope that despite the controversy
– you’re enjoying this season’s episodes of Unfold. ALEXA: And that you’re learning a thing
or two. AMY: Next week, we’re going to step away
from Unfold. ALEXA: You’ll still be hearing from UC Davis
experts – but this time on some lighter food topics. You will get a few little bonus bites. AMY: Thanks for listening. [Unfold theme music fades out]

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