By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe the impacts of globalization on food and food diversity.
- Define food deserts and food oases.
Globalization of Food
Most people, when they think about food, consider it a local, individual choice based on personal preferences and economic possibilities. But food is a global commodity marketed by transnational corporations, health institutes, advertising campaigns, and subtle and not-so-subtle cultural messaging through global media such as movies, television, and online video. Most often, what people choose to eat is based on underlying structures that determine availability and cost. While there are now hothouse businesses growing year-round fruits and vegetables, affordability often prohibits everyone from having access to fresh, ripe foods. Instead, mainstream grocery stores most often stock foods imported across long distances. Most fruits and vegetables sold in the grocery store were harvested unripe (and often tasteless) so that they would last the days and weeks between harvesting and purchase.
In her work on food and globalization, anthropologist and food studies specialist Lynne Phillips points out the “crooked pathways” (2006, 38) that food takes to become a global commodity. Increasingly affected by transnational corporations, food today is marketed for endlessly higher profits. Food no longer goes simply from producer to consumer. There are many turns along the way.
Food globalization has numerous effects on our daily lives:
- The food chains from producers to consumers are increasingly fragile as a small number of transnational corporations provide the basic foods that we eat daily. Failures in this food chain might come from contamination during production or breaks in the supply chain due to climate crises, tariffs, or trade negotiations between countries. Our dependence on global food chains makes the food supply to our communities more vulnerable to disruption and scarcity.
- Our food cultures are less diverse and tend to revolve around a limited number of mass-produced meats or grains. With the loss of diversity, there is an accompanying loss not only of food knowledge but also of nutrition.
- As foods become more globalized, we are increasingly dependent on food additives to enhance the appearance and taste of foods and to ensure their preservation during the long journey from factory farm to table. We are also increasingly exposed to steroids, antibiotics, and other medicines in the meat we eat. This exposure poses health risks to large numbers of people.
- As plants and animals are subjected to ever more sophisticated forms of genetic engineering, there is an increasing monopoly on basic food items, allowing transnational companies to affect regulatory controls on food safety. As corporate laboratories develop patented seeds (such as the Monsanto Corporation’s genetically engineered corn) that are super-producers and able to withstand challenges such as harsh climate conditions and disease, growers become dependent on the seed sold by these corporations. No longer able to save seed from year to year, growers have little choice but to pay whatever price these corporations choose to charge for their genetic material.
- Factory farming of all types, but especially large-scale animal farms, are major contributors to global warming. Not only do they produce large amounts of water and air pollution and contribute to worldwide deforestation, but as more and more forest is turned into pasture, the sheer number of livestock contributes significant levels of greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. Worldwide, livestock account for around 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (Quinton 2019).
Food has long been an international commodity, even during the 17th and 18th centuries, when traders sought spice and trade routes connecting Europe and Asia. Today, however, food has become transnational, with production sometimes spanning many different countries and fresh and processed foods moving long distances from their original harvest or production. Because these migrating foods must be harvested early or packaged with preservatives that we may not know or even be able to pronounce, there has been a parallel development in local food movements, organic food movements, and farm-to-table establishments as people see the dangers of food globalization. In the very popular The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006), American author and food journalist Michael Pollan advocates that people should know the identity of the foods they eat and should make every effort to eat locally sourced products. Shortly after the book’s publication, chef and author Jessica Prentice coined the term locavore to refer to those who eat locally and know the origins of their foods. In 2007, locavore was chosen as the New Oxford American Dictionary word of the year.
Food Deserts and Oases
Worldwide, access to nutritious and affordable foods is growing increasingly unequal. Areas with inadequate or unreliable access to nutritious foods are sometimes called food deserts. Food deserts present serious challenges to health and wellness in multiple ways and have been linked to eating disorders, obesity, and malnutrition. In Western nations, food deserts frequently correspond to other areas of social inequality, such as low-income and minority communities. Reduced availability of healthy and economical food often exacerbates many of the challenges these communities face.
As the world population continues to grow (currently at around 7.9 billion people), climate change accelerates, and food production becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of a few corporations, access to food will become increasingly critical to our survival. The story of progress embraced by Western society tells us that globalization and agricultural developments have stabilized and secured our food chains, but anthropological studies of foragers suggest otherwise. Agricultural production is tied to access to arable land, clean water, stable climate, and a reliable workforce. Periodically, crops (and animals) fail due to disease, drought, and even disruption from warfare and extreme weather, leading to scarcity and famine in many parts of the world. In addition, as families and communities produce less and less of their own food and become more and more dependent on intermediaries to gain access to food, their vulnerabilities increase. While there are many differences between state societies and foragers, there are valuable lessons we can learn from them. Foragers, facing the same unstable conditions that we all face worldwide, have a more varied and flexible diet and are able to adjust their needs seasonally based on local availability. They eat locally, and they adjust their needs to what is available.
There are also food oases, areas that have high access to supermarkets and fresh foods, and these are growing in number. Some are in urban or suburban areas, and some are in rural areas where sustainable farming supports a local community or restaurant. In Harrodsburg, Kentucky, the Trustees’ Table serves food from the nearby Pleasant Hill Shaker gardens. Visitors to the Shaker site, a historic cloistered religious community, learn about the Shaker seed industry, plant varieties, and sustainable gardening techniques at Shaker Farm, then walk down to the Trustees’ Table to have a farm-to-table meal. The seasonal menu features local Kentucky dishes that would have been common fare during the period of Shaker occupation (1805–1910), such as garlic potatoes, warm or cold salads, vegetable pot pies, and apple pie. By utilizing the foods raised in the nearby gardens, the Trustees’ Table serves as a legacy restaurant that helps preserve and sustain Shaker research and farming on-site.
In Richmond, Virginia, an organization called Real Local RVA was founded in 2014 as a grassroots local food movement to support businesses and residential areas in the downtown area of the city. It expresses its core value as “collaboration over competition.” The group sponsors monthly meetings, local farm tours, and community events highlighting businesses and prominent figures in the local food movement. The participants are all farmers, independent grocers, or local restaurants that source local ingredients and products as part of their mission. Besides advocating for small farms and independent businesses, Real Local RVA also sponsors workshops and education on sustainable farming, does joint marketing and “storytelling” about its partnership and the values of local food networks, and provide a recognizable brand to identify participating members for the wider urban community.
Although local food movements are increasingly popular, most still primarily operate in more affluent areas. As we develop more of these healthy initiatives, we also must expand the zones in which they operate, especially in cities, to include all of our neighbors and neighborhoods. Food and sociality go hand in hand. As Michael Pollan writes, “The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from mere animal biology to an act of culture” (2008, 192).
The study of food in anthropology is important for many reasons. Food reveals cultural identities and physical vulnerabilities, and it helps build social networks and mark important life events. How often eating is prescribed, what foods are considered appropriate, who cooks, who serves whom, and what foods are most and least valued all vary across cultures. As anthropologists seek to understand human cultures, food is often a centerpiece ingredient in knowing who we are.
Food plays an important role in long-term memory, as it is linked to smell, taste, and texture and often is a central feature of social functions, whether they be family dinners or holiday feasts. In this project, you will interview two individuals who are likely to have different food memories than you; they may be older, they may be living in a different part of the country (or world), or they may have lived part of their lives in a specific environment (rural or urban) that is different from yours. Ask each person to share with you stories about special holiday meals prepared and served as part of their family life, whether as a child or an adult. What foods do they most identify with specific holidays? How did they prepare and consume those foods? Were there specific gender roles during the preparation and holiday meals? After collecting and writing up what you have learned, what conclusions can you make about the role of food in human social and cultural life?