originally presented at: First European Conference on Understanding Food Design, Milan, Italy; October 8-10, 2015
Questions about food are changing. “How much?”—referring to either cost or availability—used to be more pressing. Recently however, such questions have increasingly turned to “where is it from?” and “how was it produced?”
This anxious curiosity is justifiable, since the food systems we rely on suddenly seem strange and ugly, unrecognizable even, when compared to the common imaginary of green pastures and wholesome farmers in overalls. Instead, it always comes as a shock and a horror for us to learn that most of food production is a highly industrialized, factory-style operation.
One way in which the concerned consumer seeks to allay his anxieties is with knowledge of food’s provenance. If there is indeed an epistemic rift between the farm and the consumer, certain alternative movements in ‘Civic Agriculture’ like CSA’s, Farmer’s Markets, Community Gardens and WWOOFing appear to be consumer driven attempts to bridge this knowledge gap. These venues bring producers and consumers into direct exchange relationships, which subsequently foster more personal relationships between eaters, their food, and the people who grow it.
Knowledge of production then, while having itself become a sort of commodity (just as ‘organic’ has become a kind of brand), has also become a site of bitter contest between consumers, activists, large scale agro-industry, various types of ‘alternative’ farmers, and governments.
In this contest for and over knowledge, and thus for political agency in the food system, players compete to learn, expose, obscure, mis-represent, affirm, or willfully ignore narratives about the origin of food. A particular arena where this struggle is most articulated is in meat. The simple fact that meat requires the killing of another mammal, presents a complex set of knowledge contests which is unique relative to other agricultural products. That a conflicted ambivalence towards meat has emerged among consumers—namely in the form vegetarianism and other forms of abstinence—is all the more significant when we recognize that for quite some time the symbolic transfer of power that emerges from consuming the flesh of another, has held a natural place in western cultures of consumption.
This paper examines how these contests for knowledge of production and their epistemological spoils have led some consumers to abstain from meat altogether, just as others have chosen alternative ways to have their steak and eat it too, by resorting to what some call a ‘New Nostalgia for Meat.’