Food is a source of life and is linked to our basic needs. For some it is scarce, while for others the supplies are too plentiful. Food can define culture and can be a path opener in a global context.
In the western world food is often wasted, whereas in other parts of the world getting hold of food is a daily effort. Food is a source of income for the poor farmer as well as for big international corporations. In this respect, the consumption and the production of food raise many ethical issues.
Food traditions vary from country to country and culture to culture. What is typical food for an Italian, would not be typical for a Chinese.
- Think of one or two of these countries and define what its inhabitants prefer on the table.
- The United Kingdom
- The USA
- How have the specific food traditions developed? Look at these clues and decide which you think match the food traditions you have defined in one or two of the countries above.
- Neighbouring countries
- Whenever food is eaten, we call it a meal. It can be for one person or a group of persons. Make a list of what you find most valuable with meals. Discuss your list with some of your fellow students.
- Food traditions often develop out of social occasions. Choose two of the following occasions and find out what is served. Try also to find out why this particular food/dish is on the table.
- Bar Mitzvah
Scarcity and Poverty
The Potato Famine and Emigration
In the 1840s, the potato crops in Ireland failed seven years in a row. Read how the famine affected Ireland and its population and how it led to mass emigration Ireland - Introduction
The Biafra Crisis - a Media Event
Throughout history minority groups have tried to break away from their mother country and create their own nation. Some have succeeded, others have failed. In 1967, a tribe in south-eastern Nigeria proclaimed their own nation, Biafra. This initiated a civil war, and had enormous consequences for the civilians. Pictures of skeleton-like children were broadcasted all over the world, and international aid was sent. Still, more than one million people in Biafra died because of military actions or from hunger. In 1970, there was a cease-fire between Nigeria and Biafra. Due to television, this was the first humanitarian crisis that reached the public on a broad scale.
The Ethiopian Famine - Live Aid
In 1984, BBC broadcasted reports from Ethiopia where over 400,000 people in the northern part of the country starved to death. Drought played a big part in the famine. A civil war and the abuse of human rights, though, made the consequences fatal. The BBC report caused Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to release the charity record "Do They Know It's Christmas?". In 1985, this initiative was followed up by Geldof's colleagues in the music business and it sparked big Live Aid concerts and charity records.
Find out reasons for food scarcity and link them to specific incidents. You may choose among:
- boycott policy
- climate changes
- natural disasters
- blight and pest
- the soil
Potato Famine (1840s), Biafra Crisis (1967), famine in concentration camps (1940 - 45), Russia (1921), in Somalia (2011) and North Korea (1990s)
Food and Globalization
The production of food and food habits are global, and it's not a new phenomenon. You have read about the East India Company (1600 - 1874) and how goods were produced on the demand of the colonial powers. Coffee, tea, sugar and spices found their way to tables in Europe in the 1600s. Today, you are likely to find Coca-Cola and MacDonald's everywhere in the world, and to such an extent that it is a concern that these big brands might wipe out local food and traditions.
Read about the global food industry and take a quiz here
Food and Waste
It is estimated that more than 40% of the food in the USA is wasted. A lot of food is rejected due to minor imperfections before you can even buy it in the supermarket, whereas tons of food are tossed out because of "best before" or expiry dates.
South Korea with a population of 50 million is particularly concerned about food waste. The traditional food is mostly based on soup, which is based on fermented ingredients. It has to be disposed of quickly because of the smell. The solution is to charge the residents per kilo of waste. Waste disposal is a public service, though, and very inexpensive.
The Swedes deal with the matter of food waste in quite another way. In 2011, it was made a national target to turn food waste into biogas by 2018.
Read more about food and waste in the USA, South Korea and Sweden here
Starvation on a Global Scale
According to the UN's World Food Programme 842 million people in the world are exposed to hunger and malnutrition. This means that starvation is claiming more victims than malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis combined. Look up the WFP's statistics of hunger here
In 2012, the UN held a world conference in Rio, Brazil on sustainable development, proclaiming:
It is time to rethink how we grow, share and consume our food (The UN, Rio, 2012)
You can read the UN report about the production and distribution of food here
Whereas 1 in 7 lacks food, other parts of the world face another problem - people are getting bigger and bigger. We used to think of obesity as an American phenomenon. Now, every parent in Britain and Ireland is reminded by huge posters that their offspring needs at least one hour or more of physical activity per day to avoid obesity. Obese children have an 80% chance of staying obese as adults. Read Obesity - Introduction
You have probably heard the saying: Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.
Money and food production are inextricably tied to one another. Food producers are constantly tempted to take "short cuts" to increase their income. The outbreak of Creutzfeldt-Jakobs disease in the UK (1996) was one of the incidents that turned many meat-lovers into "veggies". The demand for ecological food has also increased over the last decades.
Since 1989 Ethical Consumer, a UK alternative consumer organisation, has kept an eye on food companies and their products. The organisation makes its findings and records public. Check their survey Ethical Consumer Guide
Literature and Film About Food
- Read Douglas Adams' comic science fiction novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It consists of three parts. The last part is The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In Chapter 16, p. 82 you will find a scene where the dish of the day presents itself. The Restaurant At the End of the Universe. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was adapted to film in 2005.
- Read an excerpt from Elizabeth Gilbert's novel, Eat, Pray and Love. The protagonist sets off on a journey of self-realization. The first part is dedicated to exploring the famous Italian cuisine. The novel was adapted to film in 2010. Read an excerpt from chapter 26 where the protagonist discovers that food and eating out is an inextricable part of Italian culture, Eat, Pray and Love - Excerpt.
- Read the Irish dean and author Jonathan Swift's highly satirical essay from 1729 about his contemporary poverty-stricken country. Swift attempts to stir the public conscience by suggesting that the rich ladies and gentlemen should eat Irish children: "a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust." A Modest Proposal
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