Geography of Food

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The Geography of Food is the cultural, environmental, and economic study of substantive nourishment (as well as certain stimulants such as tea and coffee) as it relates to space and place.[1] The geography of food crosses over into studies of consumption, production, globalization, commodity chains, agriculture, transportation, localism, sustainability, health, and social justice.

Photo of a banana distribution center in New York City. This facility ships a million boxes of bananas per year. For more information, visit

The geography of food often crosses over with the disciplines of anthropology, cultural studies, ecology, economics, history, psychology, and sociology.


[edit] Concepts

Food studies can range greatly in scale. For example, food security is pronounced a concern by governments on a national scale, but also by individuals on a personal or family scale. Food mobility can be studied on international, national, or regional levels. Food consumption can be studied on the level of the body or on the level of the nation.[2][3][4]

Further, food is created in a place at the same time as it creates place, and thus able to absorb Henri LeFebvre’s concept of the production of space. It can become a typical example of David Harvey’s space-time compression, and he actually cites food migration in his 1989 The Condition of Postmodernity.[2][5]

Food is perceived as a medium with which humans and their environment affect each other, as evidenced in the popularity of journalist Michael Pollan’s work on food. As academia and popular culture often dialectically feed one another, the public attention on this highly geographic topic requires the discipline’s attention.

[edit] History

Food geography has long been studied, and is referenced in such ancient books as Isidore of Seville's seventh-century Etymologiae. Because food is a necessary piece of everyday life, as long as people have been traveling and trading food, they have theorized about the connection between food and place.

Geographers, anthropologists, and colonial officials studied food regionally and ethnographically during the period of exploration and colonization in the nineteenth century. Studies were either practical or descriptive. Anthropologists such as Garrick Mallery, William Robertson Smith, Frank Hamilton Cushing, and Franz Boas studied food culture, though not explicitly geographically. Mary Douglas and Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote a significant amount about food in the 1960s and 1970s, paving the way for the cultural food studies that would later spring up in geography.[6] Meanwhile, Roland Barthes dissected foods like margarine, steak, wine, and milk in his 1972 semiotic work in Mythologies, connecting various food and other commodities to place and identity symbols, thus initiating another influence on food geography.[3][7]

Merrill K. Bennett, founder of the Stanford Food Research Institute, had gotten a master’s in English and a PhD in economics. However, his mid-century work had a distinctly geographic tone. In a 1941 paper published by the American Geographical Society, he wrote:

Differences are found in the “dishes” consumed from country to country, region to region, locality to locality, even family to family. Within a country or region, these differences appear also from one epoch to another. They are so prevalent and conspicuous, in fact, that it seems almost hopeless to discover, in the international sphere, some way of characterizing summarily the diets of different nations and contrasting them one with the other.

This characterizes both a concern with scale and the geography of the day’s conviction that it is impossible to generalize anything from region to region. Despite its antiquated feel, the article, which includes a map, was a take on food that fell well within the bounds of the still relatively new discipline of geography. [8][9]

With the speeding of globalization in the 1980s and the cultural turn of the 1990s, food geography in particular began to grow rapidly in importance and in interest. It moved well outside the bounds of regional descriptions and agricultural concerns and into correlation with almost every subdiscipline in geography.

[edit] Approaches

There are numerous approaches to studying food geography. These approaches can be divided type.

Examples of Approaches Associated Type
food biography, ethnography, folkloric history, mapping, deconstruction methodology
economic geography, historical geography, political ecology, cultural studies,

urban studies, Marxist geography, feminist geography, postmodern geography

globalization, sexual politics, food activism, migration specific interest

Four prominent approaches are described below.

[edit] Political Ecology

Ecology is often used as an anti-politics machine. A political ecology approach to food geography has had an impact on concepts of world population, with, for example, scholars using projections to counter popular neo-Malthusianism, or to reveal hunger as a political issue.[3]

Food is intimately wrapped up in agricultural practices; even if farmers are not growing food, what they are growing may be displacing food. Agriculture is wrapped up in development studies, which is has long been of interest to geographers. Geographer Michael Watts, for example, studied agriculture in Africa in the context of development, rural poverty, and changing ways of life. He goes beyond describing the problems farming communities were facing by formulating possible solutions that pointed to a local food economy. [10][11]

Political ecology may also blend a cultural critique into its food scholarship. For example, geographers might look at how narratives about jargon about fair trade agriculture, rainforest-friendly products and natural ingredients are play on environmentalist sympathies might be driving a wedge between environmental and social activists.[12]

[edit] Cultural Studies

The cultural studies approach uses functionalist, structuralist, and poststructuralist views of culture as a lens for food geography.[3] This includes studying food consumption practices, including the places people eat, such as the kitchen or a restaurant. It might look at commodity culture, including how food is advertised[13] and turned from a free resource into a commercial product.[14] The cultural approach also includes the study of food movements, identity-making and nationalism, and how exotic, gourmet, or trendy foods may become the centerpiece of social interactions, or even a stand-in for sex.[2][15]

Book cover of Salaman's 1949 biography of the potato.

[edit] Food Biography

One method of studying food geography that has become popular in recent years is an approach that focuses history, geography, ecology, and economics through the lens of one distinct food. Also called following the commodity, this approach follows the chosen food through its journey from agricultural development to market to table, through time, and situated culturally. The first apparent version of this approach was in R. N. Salaman’s 768-page History and Social Influence of the Potato, first published in 1949.[16][17]

[edit] Globalization

This approach took off in the 1980s and 1990s, at the same time as globalization became more widely recognized. The study of globalized food “addresses problems and issues that arise from the global movement of commodities, fashions, and ideas.” [18] Of particular interest was McDonaldization, or the homogenization of culture (today Starbucks is the homogenizing image). The age of globalization also transferred food politics from a national to a personal scale. At the fall of the Soviet Union, a fear of nuclear war was replaced by personal safety food fears, such as mad cow disease. [6]

Today, many globalization food studies move away from essentialized assessments of the effects of globalized culture that either proclaim it the saving grace of poorer nations or the sure destruction of traditional culture. They instead look at the sometimes ignored and often unexpected multiplicity of actors and effects that globalization can have on food.[6]

[edit] Recent Developments

[edit] Visceral and Emotional Geographies

These new subdisciplines in geography often include attention to food, as it tends to be a culturally and psychologically charged factor that serve as a connection between outside and inside the body, and between body and mind.[19][20][21]

[edit] Alternative Food Movements

Approaches to the geography of food in the twenty-first century continue to evolve. As agricultural methods change and genetically modified organisms becomes more prevalent, so has the concept of organic foods. Globalization, meanwhile, has triggered a consciousness of the need for local foods. These fall among many other facets of what is often called the alternative foods movement. Fermentation, [22] farmers markets, urban forest foraging, and slow food may reflect concerns with poverty, nutritional health, fair trade, multiculturalism, and pleasure.

This map of food deserts in the US is just one application of food geography to social justice issues.

At their most politicized, alternative foods movements are concerned with social and environmental justice. Analyses and debates about the importance and place of these movements flourishes as a simple commendation of organic foods meets a turn toward local foods and concern with food deserts meets cultural problems with volunteerism.[23][24][25][26][27][28]

[edit] New Health Geographies

Recent health geographies often involves food studies, and focus on the ways food and place interact to affect health. One direction is work by Julie Guthman, who seeks to understand how epigenetic discoveries could change our relationship to the calories-in-calories-out model of weight gain, which give a change of focus to both food justice work and obesogenic landscapes studies.[28] Another direction is that taken by Becky Mansfield in her work on women’s position at the crux of biopolitics environmental justice as they choose whether or not to eat mercury-contaminated fish.[29]

[edit] Scholars Interested in the Geography of Food

[edit] See Also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Gregory 2009
  2. ^ a,b,c Bell and Valentine 1997
  3. ^ a,b,c,d Atkins and Bowler 2000
  4. ^ Freidberg 2000
  5. ^ Harvey 1990
  6. ^ a,b,c Watson and Caldwell 2005
  7. ^ Barthes 1972
  8. ^ Bennett 1941
  9. ^ Johnston n.d.
  10. ^ Watts 1989
  11. ^ Watts, Ilbery, and Maye 2005
  12. ^ Bryant and Goodman 2004
  13. ^ Jackson and Taylor 1996
  14. ^ Cook and Crang 1996
  15. ^ Probyn 2001
  16. ^ Mintz and DuBois 2002
  17. ^ Salaman, Burton, and Hawkes 1985 [1949]
  18. ^ Watson and Caldwell 2005, 11
  19. ^ Hayes-Conroy and Hayes-Conroy n.d.
  20. ^ Wright 2012
  21. ^ Matthee 2004
  22. ^ Katz 2003
  23. ^ Cook et al. 2006
  24. ^ Goodman and Goodman 2007
  25. ^ DuPuis and Gillon 2008
  26. ^ Cook et al. 2010
  27. ^ Goodman, Maye, and Holloway 2010
  28. ^ a,b Guthman 2011
  29. ^ Mansfield 2012

[edit] References

  • Atkins, P. J., and I. R. Bowler. 2000. Food in society. London: Arnold.
  • Barthes, R. 1972. Mythologies. New York: Noonday Press.
  • Bell, D., and G. Valentine. 1997. Consuming geographies : we are where we eat. London; New York: Routledge,.
  • Bennett, M. K. 1941. International Contrasts in Food Consumption. Geographical Review 31 (3):365–376.
  • Bryant, R. L., and M. K. Goodman. 2004. Consuming narratives: the political ecology of “alternative” consumption. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 29 (3):344–366.
  • Cook et al., I. 2006. Geographies of food: following. Progress in Human Geography 30 (5):655–666.
  • Cook, I., and P. Crang. 1996. The World On a Plate: Culinary Culture, Displacement and Geographical Knowledges. Journal of Material Culture 1 (2):131–153.
  • Cook, I., K. Hobson, L. Hallett, J. Guthman, A. Murphy, A. Hulme, M. Sheller, L. Crewe, D. Nally, E. Roe, C. Mather, P. Kingsbury, R. Slocum, S. Imai, J. Duruz, C. Philo, H. Buller, M. Goodman, A. Hayes-Conroy, J. Hayes-Conroy, L. Tucker, M. Blake, R. Le Heron, H. Putnam, D. Maye, and H. Henderson. 2010. Geographies of food: “Afters.” Progress in Human Geography 35 (1):104–120.
  • DuPuis, E. M., and S. Gillon. 2008. Alternative modes of governance: organic as civic engagement. Agriculture and Human Values 26 (1-2):43–56.
  • Feagan, R. 2007. The place of food: mapping out the “local” in local food systems. Progress in Human Geography 31 (1):23–42.
  • Freidberg, S. 2004. French beans and food scares culture and commerce in an anxious age. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.
  • ———. 2005. French Beans for the Masses. In The Cultural politics of food and eating : a reader, eds. J. L. Watson and M. L. Caldwell. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
  • Goodman, M. K., Damian Maye, and L. Holloway. 2010. Ethical foodscapes?: premises, promises, and possibilities. Environment and Planning A 42 (8):1782–1796.
  • Gregory, D. 2009. The dictionary of human geography. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  • Guthman, Julie. 2012. Doing Justice to Bodies? Reflections on Food Justice, Race, and Biology. Antipode :no–no.
  • ———. 2011. Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism 1st ed. University of California Press.
  • Harvey, D. 1990. The Condition of postmodernity : an inquiry into the origins of cultural change. Cambridge: Blackwell.
  • Hayes-Conroy, Jessica, and Allison Hayes-Conroy. 2011. Veggies and visceralities: A political ecology of food and feeling. Emotion, Space and Society. (last accessed 2 November 2012).
  • Jackson, P., and J. Taylor. 1996. Geography and the cultural politics of advertising. Progress in Human Geography 20 (3):356–371.
  • Johnston, B. Creating Stanford’s Food Research Institute: Herbert Hoover, Alonzo Taylor, Carl Alsberg, J.S. Davis, and M.K. Bennett. (last accessed 1 November 2012).
  • Katz, S. E. 2003. Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods First ed. Chelsea Green Publishing.
  • Mansfield, B. 2012. Environmental Health as Biosecurity: “Seafood Choices,” Risk, and the Pregnant Woman as Threshold. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102 (5):969–976.
  • Matthee, D. D. 2004. Towards an Emotional Geography of Eating Practices: an exploration of the food rituals of women of colour working on farms in the Western Cape. Gender, Place & Culture 11 (3):437–443.
  • Mintz, S. W., and C. M. Du Bois. 2002. The Anthropology of Food and Eating. Annual Review of Anthropology 31 (1):99–119.
  • Pliny, H. Rackham, W. H. S. Jones, and D. E. Eichholz. 1940. Natural history. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press ; William Heinemann.
  • Probyn, E. 2000. Carnal Appetites: Food, Sex, Identities. New York; Florence: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group [distributor].
  • Salaman, R. N., W. G. Burton, and J. G. Hawkes. 1985. The history and social influence of the potato. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Watson, J. L., and M. L. Caldwell. 2005. The Cultural politics of food and eating : a reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
  • Watts, D. C. H., B. Ilbery, and D. Maye. 2005. Making reconnections in agro-food geography: alternative systems of food provision. Progress in Human Geography 29 (1):22–40.
  • Watts, M. J. 1989. The agrarian question in Africa: debating the crisis. Progress in Human Geography 13 (1):1–41.
  • Wright, S. 2012. Emotional Geographies of Development. Third World Quarterly 33 (6):1113–1127.
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