Spirituality, social identity, and sustainabilityby Peter Varga
Mass-produced conventional food, also called industrial food, has been part of our everyday life in western societies since the mid-20th century when mass production gradually replaced small-scale businesses through economies of scale. One of the major outcomes of the post-war period was that the production capacities of the food industry, among others, have been growing in quantity all over the world. As a result, consumerism as social and economic phenomena appeared where meeting basic alimentary needs is not the major challenge anymore.
In today’s societies where established social norms, values and institutions are changing rapidly, we often associate health with our eating habits. Nevertheless, we should not forget that the correlation between food and health was already part of the social and medical thinking of the past. “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are,” said 19th century food scientist Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, referring not only to the nutritional value but also the spiritual meaning of our relationship to food.
Today’s food consumerism is a result of strong economic progress and active commercial relationships between countries and regions. Globalization boosts food consumerism and the worldwide supply of foodstuffs is constantly within our reach. Nevertheless we should be reminded that coffee was not originally from Latin America and cocoa did not exist in the Ivory Coast, nor was the potato part of the Indian ‘traditional cuisine’. Hence we can say that our eating habits and the symbolic interpretation of the food we consume have been shaped by global dynamics.
So, in our quest for understanding spirituality in today’s paradoxical association of sustainable food consumerism, one should focus on the historical and social dynamics of past societies. In this manner, we can explore the driving forces behind cultural, as well as individual, preferences for particular food items.
Organic food, for example, has recently become increasingly popular with consumers who seek healthier alternatives to mass-produced food in western societies. Sustainable food consumption certainly involves health-related commitments, however it can also be understood from other perspectives, such as the current social dynamics of western societies.
In centuries gone by, exotic foods – for example, imported spices, sugar, drinks such as coffee and chocolate – were considered a luxury and only accessible to the wealthy. Yet, over the years, foodstuffs that were once considered exotic are now commonplace in supermarkets in most western societies because they have undergone not only economic but also symbolic devaluations. Chocolate, for example, was considered as a secular drink for the royal and clerical elite in 17th century Europe where it is now a popular drink for children.
Our spiritual quest for natural and healthier food these days is not new as such. It harks back to the 18th century Renaissance philosophical movements, for example Rousseau’s Noble Savage, when individuals who were more closely linked to nature were somewhat more cherished than those living in polluted urban areas. From this perspective, today’s sustainable trend is a symbolic and physical separation from mass produced, industrial foodstuffs. Nowadays, large-scale, industrial food production seems to be increasingly detached from nature and that, in turn, is having an impact on our collective trust in the industry. Sustainable consumers also differentiate themselves from the ‘others’ in society and that leads to a symbolic separation within society itself.
While exotic foods may hold less fascination for us today, consumers are still influenced by the fact that certain products have faraway origins. Take for example tropical fruits which cannot be grown in Europe. Nevertheless they connect us spiritually with other cultures and regions of the globe that have been considered exotic in the past. Since in today’s society we often associate health with our eating habits, the appetite for healthy food has parallels with the desire for exotic foods previously, as many of our organic food products originate from the developing world.
Then there’s the impact of advertising on consumers. It’s not so long ago that cigarettes were linked by multinational companies to nature, adventure and virility. Today, consumers receive a completely different image of tobacco due to changing health-related discourses. In the information era of the 21st century, food ads are finding their way on to the web and are invading our personal space with an alarming speed.
Yet there are some sustainable trends, focusing mainly on food labelling. Assuming that health continues to be a major driving force as societies become better educated, there will probably be increased pressure for more reliable food supplies – and not just for the wealthy.
Dr. Peter Varga is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at EHL.
You can read more about the topic in the following book chapter: ‘Spirituality, Social Identity, and Sustainability’, The Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Food and Gastronomy, (Eds) Philip Sloan, Willy Legrand and Clare Hindley. Routledge (2015).
First published November 2016