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2017/ Eating in the city: sustainable distrust?

International symposium organized by the UNESCO Chair in World Food Systems (Montpellier SupAgro and CIRAD), UMR Moisa (CIRAD, INRA, Montpellier SupAgro, CIHEAM-IAM), OCHA (CNIEL) and the Edgar Morin Center of the Interdisciplinary Institute of Contemporary Anthropology (IIAC)

Paris, Unesco, 6 December 2017

The third day of the international "Eating in the City" symposium was divided into two parts. In the morning, findings from the first two days were summed up with presentations on how distrust manifests itself in recently industrialized countries. The afternoon, the discussion focused on the topic, ‘From nutrition to politics, from the symbolic to the ecological’, and proposed an interdisciplinary approach to this consuming distrust.

Globally, questions of confidence and distrust have recently gained particular urgency: we have witnessed a decline or even collapse of confidence in politics and the state, the press and media, in institutions in general, and in big businesses and their brands. Yet, in food and eating, mistrust is longstanding, even inherent to the condition of the omnivore. Furthermore, since the 1970s, a series of food safety crises have exacerbated this primordial mistrust and intensified it, to the point that it becomes a generalized state of distrust. The burden of proof is inversed: one should be suspicious in principle, until there is proof otherwise.

From the consumer’s perspective, food products that have been industrially transformed and are the result of so-called, “intensive” agriculture have increasingly been subject to bad press. They are reputed to lack flavor and nutritive value, deficient in vitamins and micro-nutrients. Certain ingredients and additives have been denounced as harmful. The food industry has been accused of fraud and advertising charged with manipulation. Intensive agriculture and processed foods have been charged with having caused a destructive homogenization of food and eating practices. But in the recent context, new dimensions have been added to these perceptions, intensifying the tensions surrounding our entire relationship to food and eating to an extreme. This was first manifest in ecological perils: pollution, climate change, damage to biodiversity, exhaustion of resources, drug-resistant bacteria, etc. It is also, and especially, a question of the relationship between humans and animals, the emergence of which was later in France than elsewhere, but that much more intense. Can there be sustainable food systems with such an increasing distrust?

This turbulence excites emotions. Fear, anger, and disgust create a terrain ripe for the creation and spread of hypotheses and beliefs that take the form of rumours, urban legends and theories more or less controversial or “alternative.” Today, stories regularly circulate that place blame on familiar foods. Fear and accusations, in their most radical manifestations, take on clearly political manifestations. Suspicion of “Big Food” creates natural links with “Big Pharma,” the suspicion of food with that of vaccines and the medical establishment. One interpretation treats these critiques of all that is “big” as driven by anticapitalist or populist discourses, be they “mainstream,” or “alternative.” Another reading would be to consider the effects of these critiques, be they from the margins or more established institutions, on the evolution of the dominant food system, examining the redistribution of power that accompanies this disapproval and its management. A third perspective might focus on the ways that powerful economic actors listen, recycle, and respond to distrust, as capitalism “digests” its critics.

As such, the distrust of the eater reflects and feeds the distrust of the citizen. It is at once metaphor and metonymy. Distrust gnaws at and consumes eaters, citizens, and society. Individuals, who have to eat, even in the face of consequential constraints, must, in turn, consume distrust.