SEATTLE, Washington — Although many often consider food a means toward reducing poverty, such as through food pantries or the introduction of agriculture to poor regions, the study of food politics is a lot more complicated. Food politics involves the production, control, regulation and consumption of commercially grown food and takes into account health and cultural concerns to influence food policy. Studies on food politics have contributed to more robust food policy, better food security and social justice causes like heightened jobs and increased food aid. Here is some information about gastronationalism and how it could be a means of poverty reduction and cultural solidarity.
“Food is an expression of identity, it’s an expression of culture, of expression, of many other things that go beyond either economics or dietary issues,” Fabio Parasecoli, Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU, told The Borgen Project.
One avenue of contemporary food politics involves the discussion of gastronationalism, which according to researcher Michaela DeSoucey “signals the use of food production, distribution, and consumption to demarcate and sustain the emotive power of national attachment, as well as the use of nationalist sentiments to produce and market food.” Gastronationalism shapes both individual and collective identity especially during periods of globalization but has also led to international conflicts and debates, which has further strengthened nationalist efforts and has helped bring many out of poverty.
“The nation is quite an abstract concept, an imagined community, and so food has been a way to bring it down to something that’s a little more tangible. Food is so connected with personal experiences, emotions, preferences, it’s something that enters us, so in a way, particularly powerful,” Parasecoli said.
The Case for Feta Cheese
In the 1990s, feta cheese was the subject of a 10-year legal dispute in the European Union over a PDO label, which signals E.U. products that certain geographical areas produce. Until 1999, feta had a PDO label for Greece, and no other country was allowed to use the name “feta” within the E.U. In 1999, however, Denmark and Germany challenged the label by arguing that the name had become generic and actually derives from an Italian word, not a region of Greece. Additionally, the countries argued that other E.U. nations shared Greece’s geography and climate in which producers make feta, so this restriction was not valid.
However, in 2002, the Greek PDO for feta underwent reinstatement, since over 80% of its production and consumption occurred in Greece and therefore had a strong cultural significance. Non-Greek cheese-makers could not use the word “feta” within the E.U., which improved farmers’ incomes, increased retention of rural populations and drew more resources to Greece’s agricultural sector. Greece experienced an uptick in employment after this reversal, which protected Greek traditions and reinvigorated food producers to continue selling their products in a market that could have run them out of business had the PDO not existed.
This same phenomenon of gastronationalism has occurred a number of times in Italy as well with “pizza Napoletana” and “Parmigiano-Reggiano,” which also increased agricultural output and led Italy to retain many rural jobs.
“There are countries all over the world that are adopting the same system that the E.U. has, which is called geographical indications. Europe is very strong in that, but now China is adopting it, India’s adopting it,” Parasecoli said.
Debates Over Foie Gras
In France, foie gras plays a surprisingly large role in the country’s economy; France produces an estimated 75% of the world’s foie gras, with about 15,000 farms producing around 20,000 tons of foie gras each year. The industry employs about 30,000 people and impacts about 100,000 more through marketing, veterinary sciences and tourism.
Despite international criticism from animal rights organizations, the French National Assembly and Senate considered foie gras as a means of gastronationalism as part of the “officially-protected cultural and gastronomic patrimony of France.” Many critics noted that foie gras production was extremely inhumane, since ducks and geese are force-fed multiple times a day for two or three weeks, yet France continued to support the industry to protect jobs and retain its cultural heritage.
Towns across France like Sarlat-le-Canèda rely heavily on foie gras production to survive, driven by tourism and farmers’ markets. France has embraced the dish’s authenticity as a national tradition and a way of consolidating a collective French identity. France’s valorization of foie gras continues to meet with other European nations’ criticism, which has led France to protect its culture and its thousands of workers in the foie gras industry against global market forces.
Arab Food in Israel as a Means of Empowerment
A paper by researcher Liora Gvion analyzed the role of cuisine in Palestinian culture across Israel, especially in relation to poverty and political systems. In a country where 20% of the population is Arab-Palestinian, the cuisine has played a major role in preserving Palestinian identity while serving as a system of knowledge that assures survival and self-reliance. As a so-called “cuisine of poverty” among rural Palestinian populations, Palestinian cuisine has maintained independence from the more widespread Israeli cuisine and has revealed historically politicized issues like unfair labor practices or land tenure.
In 1948, more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or underwent expulsion from their homes in the Nakba, and until 1967, Palestinians lived under a military regime that excluded Palestinian farmers from the agricultural market. In order to survive, Palestinians started seeking manual labor as unprofessional workers, and the effects of this still reflect in the Palestinian poverty rate of 29.2% in 2017.
Gvion noted in the study that women play a significant role in preserving Palestinian cuisine and ultimately political power, as the cuisine becomes a strategy of gastronationalism for claiming entitlement to land and preserving Palestinian connection to their homeland. Palestinian chefs in rural areas know economical recipes and food preservation techniques that lessen dependence on local stores or cash; urbanization and industrialization have led much of Israel’s population to depend on markets and local stores for food, yet Palestinian rural populations have resisted this process while guaranteeing a year-round supply of seasonal items.
The Role of Mass-Produced Food
“Mass produced food is still very much prevalent in that almost everybody eats one way or another industrial food, but the interest for local food, for artisanal foods, for authentic food is really part of the new sense that globalization is going so fast that we’re losing our roots, and so there is the need to find that some way,” Parasecoli said.
More broadly, Gvion writes that the cuisine of the ethnic population can undergo modification to suit the dominant group such that a dominant group can limit access to ingredients or devalue the status of certain dishes. Over time, ordinary ingredients acquire “an exotic status,” such as meat in Palestinian cuisine which Palestinians eat only sparingly on important occasions. Although Palestinians have faced discrimination and poverty for decades, their cuisine has helped them establish an ethnic economy by opening cheap restaurants and shops, which decreases their dependence on the country’s job market. While Palestinian cuisine is not immune from appropriation, the cuisine is at lower risk of losing its distinctive features due to a general disinterest in Palestinian cuisine among Jewish populations. Cuisine thus becomes a means of identity creation that gives Palestinians a greater voice in political discourse, impacting poverty reduction and the growth of local economies.
– Noah Sheidlower