Good To Eat? Knowing Food in Practice

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.

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Details: RGS-IBG AC2015 Postgraduate Snapshots Session – Provocations and Possibilities ‘in’ and ‘of’ the Anthropocene

Friday 4th September 2015 14:40 – 16:20.
Peter Chalk – Room 1.6, University of Exeter.
(Session Number 269 in Conference Programme).


Conveners:  SCGRG Postgraduate Reps 2014-2015.
(Katie Ledingham, University of Exeter; Suzanne Hocknell, University of Exeter; Emma Spence, Cardiff University).

Sponsors: Social and Cultural Geography Research Group & Postgraduate Forum

This session will explore the different ways in which postgraduate researchers in Social and Cultural Geography are both engaging with and attending to the manifold provocations posed by the concept of the Anthropocene. Postgraduates will present a brief ‘snapshot’ of their work (whether a photograph, a quotation, a field diary entry, an image of an object, or mini-video clip) as a focus for contributions that explore the ways in which their theoretical and/or methodological interventions are acting to work with and against the rise of the Anthropocene. We encourage participants to fully utilise their snapshots in ways which further deepen and enrich the developing trajectories, tensions, and textures associated with the mobilisation of this concept.

Chairs: Suzanne Hocknell (University of Exeter) & Emma Spence (Cardiff University)

Presenters:  Luc Tripet (Universite de Neuchatel); Yannick Rousselot (Universitie de Geneve); Amita Bhakta (Loughborough University); Anna Pigott (Swansea University); Leigh Martindale (Lancaster University); Natalia Stutter (Cardiff University); Jacob Barber (University of Edinburgh).

Discussant:  Emma Spence (Cardiff University)

ABSTRACTS:
Consistency vs Constancy: a Manifesto against Striating Ontologies in the Anthropocene
Luc Tripet (Universite de Neuchatel, Switzerland)
Yannick Rousselot (Universite de Geneve, Switzerland)
Striating ontologies overcode any socio-ecological becoming, reducing it to reified and alienating structures, hence producing a regulated, striated space. We argue that it is notably through these ontologies that the rhizomatic entanglements of human and nonhuman is deterritorialized and reterritorialized into a dual stratification: Nature as resources, society as a value-producing structure. This relative movement is based upon a totalizing principle – an absolute -, the capitalism in its process of capture of the earth. Therefore, striating ontologies raise an essential issue. One does not explain anything with constant ontologies but has to acknowledge the immanence and contingency of existence in order to grasp more than reifying abstractions. For the real is never constant, one has to encounter the becomings that give consistency to our world. In the case of the Anthropocene, a pretence of constancy such as the productivist and anthropocentrist stratification annihilates the becoming-entanglements of the human and the nonhuman. More precisely, this performed blindness to our rhizomatic relation to the earth sustains the strange ideal of constant progress and perpetual growth in a finite world, from which the environmental crisis proceeds. We conclude arguing that ontologies have to embrace consistency; be(com)ing nomad ontologies, to dispense with constancy.

Accommodating disability in sustainable living: embodied tensions of access in eco-communities
Amita Bhakta (Loughborough University, UK)
In an era in which adaptation and mitigation to anthropogenic climate change has become of increasing importance, grassroots eco-communities continue to emerge as a response to combating an array of environmental challenges we face. However, with a continually ageing population, meeting our changing and embodied needs mediated through dis/ability remains to be an issue which merits further attention, particularly in the context of sustainable living. Drawing on a snapshot of field reflections of embodied experiences from the perspective of Cerebral Palsy, this paper discusses the tensions between accessibility for dis/abled people and the practices tied into sustainable living within an eco-community context. Attempts to reduce environmental impact have, in practice, provoked both physical and social exclusion for dis/abled people. Greater attention to understanding bodily difference and the body itself in finding solutions to environmental challenges is needed, through going beyond policy and towards an increased dialogue with the less able.

Imagining Anthropocene futures: glimpses from Wales
Anna Pigott (Swansea University, UK)
This research explores how the future is being imagined, envisioned and hoped for in Wales in the context of the ‘Anthropocene’. Increasingly, imaginations of the future are seen as influential to social change because they are a vital part of how possible futures are pre-experienced and set in motion (Yusoff and Gabrys, 2011), and yet it is also suggested (e.g. Harvey, 2000) that contemporary societies have experienced a decline in the hope and utopianism that once motivated social change. Wales provides an important context for this research as its Government is pioneering a cutting-edge approach to sustainability and the well-being of future generations (One Wales: One Planet, 2009). The research draws on ethnographic engagements with a range of case studies that shed light on diverse imaginaries of the future, and explores their significance in relation to both national and global narratives about the Anthropocene.

Understanding humans in the Anthropocene: Finding answers in Geoengineering and Transition Towns
Leigh Martindale (Lancaster University, UK)
Despite ‘knowing’ about and understanding that human society is the major reason for global environmental change, the evidence to date suggests we haven’t acted in accordance to this knowledge. Indeed, ‘business-as-usual’ is arguably the predominant reaction to issues of climate change and the idea of the Anthropocene. This presentation will therefore suggest how environmental discourse can be transformed – in order to become emancipatory – during the era of the Anthropocene. Using the idea of material or ‘geological politics’ (Clark, 2013; 2014) in the context of local geoengineering strategies and Transition Towns, I hope to show that the question is not ‘what is to be done’ but rather: ‘what is being done and how can we help move this forward’ (Gibson-Graham, 2009).

An Unusual Sight in Hanoi
Natalia Stutter (Cardiff University, UK)
A group of itinerant bicycle vendors in Hanoi gather at the side of the street – resting, chatting and laughing with one another. They stand at ease with their bikes parked; they are comfortable and pay little attention to passers-by. The conical hats symbolise that these women are from the countryside. Economic reformation in Vietnam and rapid urbanisation – key contributors to the development of the Anthropocene – have had adverse effects on the amount of land available for traditional agricultural practices. As a result rural families, whose members often have little formal education or skills, are forced to find alternative forms of income. Selling food in the city is one of the few options available, however the presence of mobile vendors in Hanoi is fraught with challenges. As the city continues to develop and modernise the vendors are becoming increasingly marginalised as we move further into the Anthropocene.

Psychohistory and “the Anthropocene”
Jacob Barber (The University of Edinburgh, UK)
I want to suggest that at one end of a spectrum ‘the Anthropocene’ narrative is one of hyper modernization by numbers. A project that imagines the entirety of human behaviour in the singular Anthropos, and, like the fictional psychohistory of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation universe, casts an impersonal eye into the future to make decisions about and for all of us. This is a world of hazily imagined planetary sovereignty that I fear only exacerbates the problems that prompted Crutzen and Stoermer to coin the term Anthropocene’ in the first place. At the other end of this spectrum, however, the Anthropocene appears as doing too much, trying to explain too many things under an umbrella-term that disguises a vast heterogeneity below. If this is the case, if ‘the Anthropocene’ really is doing too much and trying to explain everything, then I question the applicability of that term to anything.

Top 7 Presentation Tips for Your First International Conference

By Emma Spence

It can be incredibly daunting to present at your first international conference, but it needn’t be. There are innumerable resources readily available to help you construct the perfect presentation- from what to put on your PowerPoint slides to how to prepare for questions. This post addresses a few practical considerations for conference newbies.

1) Know your environment

Visit the room that you are due to present in as soon as you can when you arrive at the conference. This way you will be familiar with the room layout and can better visualize your presentation during your final practice run. Also, knowing how the room is laid out, where you’ll stand, and whether or not for example there is a lectern or whether you would have to hold notes etc will ease your anxiety on the day of your presentation.

2) Learn from others

If possible go and see other presentations before your own so that you know what to expect. How did others present? Did they sit and read, stand and point, or pace up and down? What worked? What was off-putting? Should you change your technique? How do your PowerPoint slides compare in terms of clarity and function as a visual aid? Seeing first-hand how others present will help you improve your own presentation style.

3) Know what to expect

Arrive to your session early and with plenty of time to load your PowerPoint on to the PC. Double check the running order with the session conveners. Will the Chair use prompt sheets to ensure timely presentations? Will questions follow each presentation or will they come at the end of the session? Knowing what to expect will help ease tension in the build-up to delivering your presentation.

4) Do what feels comfortable

We all want to be able to deliver impeccable note-free enthusiastic and inspiring Ted-like lectures of our research. In reality, especially in the earlier stages of our academic careers, we’re a little shakier. So when deciding whether to present with or without notes- do what feels comfortable- whether that is reading from your notes, or going freestyle. As long as you are well prepared and can deliver your material confidently and with some enthusiasm, the audience will forgive any over-reliance on notes.

5) Enjoy it!

The audience is there because they want to hear about your work, so reward them with an enthusiastic, engaging, and enjoyable presentation. The more you enjoy it, the better the reception from the audience will be.

6) Don’t rush off

As tempting as it may be to dart to the nearest pub as soon as you’ve been clapped back to your seat, don’t rush off right away. Take your time leaving and speak with people in the audience. Chances are they’ll have some helpful suggestions and/or some nice things to say about your presentation that were not covered in the Q&A- so go seek them out.

7) Rookie mistake

And finally, when you’re done DON’T FORGET TO COLLECT YOUR USB STICK!!

Got any more tips? What do you wish you knew before you presented at your first international conference? Share your experiences…