Food is identity

From September 28 to October 1 we talk about food and identity. The reading on Twitter of the “Science Agreement”, by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Foundation and Expo Milano 2015, goes on. Play and discuss with the hashtag #LabExpo/foodscape.


The large-scale production has separated the farmers, the consumers and the territories of the food. Food culture is radically changed because new modes of production in producing and thinking food have inevitably modified the ideas of locality and of local autonomy, the notions of nature and of the environment. Wide “processes of separating agriculture from ecology, production from consumption and reproduction, and the increasing desymbolisation of agricultural land” (Vasavi, 2015) have taken place.

Agriculture is undergoing a strong agrarian crisis of unsustainable development models, strong social fears connected to food crisis or of food manipulations and diseases, increasing risks of rural land abandonment, even more in hilly or mountain areas. Furthermore, the consumption of soil in peri-urban contexts are extending, while intensive are the rural transformations in connection to the global dynamics of agro-food industry. The management of common resources, as land and water, shows the strong contradictions of intensive modernization paradigms and reveals at the same time, its political character at center of the public debate and social movements towards a new frame of agricultural citizenship.

Reconnect food, territories and agri/cultures

Facing the widespread political and social attention connected to sustainable models of development, to food security and sovereignty, the analysis of rural contexts are often restrained by a reductionist perspective, unable to understand the complexity, the heterogeneity and the dynamics that are today at stake in agricultural and pastoral areas, even more from the perspectives of small producers. It is therefore crucial an analysis of the development models that are at stake today and a special attention to the relationship between societies and environments, condensed in the ideas and practices in producing and consuming food. The livelihoods and comprehension of small and family farmers and producers of food is the first step to rely on “farmer resourcefulness” (Ayeb) and not amplifying the increasing dependencies and policies, which may become more and more distant from local realities.

Food is connected to its scarcity and famine in many countries, its unequal access in quantity and quality and to food crisis, where strong stereotypes are mediated between us/them, north/south of the world, which avoid reading the social and economic dynamics as they are perceived by the local populations: the coping strategies, the relationship between food crisis and structural economic problems (as agro-pastoral realities), migrations, patterns of malnutrition, dynamics of poverty and the encounter with aid machine in food distribution, which often works following strong cultural misunderstanding or introducing new political realities in the distribution of resources. Different humanitarian modes of food aid face strong misunderstanding of local realities in the distribution of the resources.

“Connecting food to the contexts where it is produced and consumed means also to have a close look to how disconnections happen” (Rossetti, 2015), as multiple example of cash-for-food aid for women in Africa show, where facing these financial policies, women “are too poor to save” and their patterns of resistance shows a way out towards new forms of agency, “ownership” and control over the processes of exclusion.

Agricultural patterns are interconnected to cultures and ‘agri/cultures’: system of values, of belonging, of local experts systems and knowledge patterns linked to local “savoir faire” and incorporated knowledge, all elements which are at the base of the production of “diversity” (cultural, economic and ecologic). Ethnographic perspective, which focuses attention to daily social and cultural patterns, allows revealing the social dynamics, the local resource management patterns and cultural strategies in facing the intensive changes and processes of exclusion in food production and in environmental relationships.

In this scenario, emergent and innovative patterns of production, distribution and consumption, are redefining the symbolic and collective dimension of food.Sustaining emergent and alternative networks of food production, of distribution and of consumption (as Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale and Distretti di Economia Solidale in Italy, seeds banks, local rural networks of food security) and the new ideas of food as social and political critic are today a challenge for a truly participation for a sustainable chang. Local food movements and solidarity economy networks around food are today a form of active citizenship.

Food and the body

Not less important is the centrality of the body as a medium reflecting the relationship between production and consumption spheres. The pervasiveness of food is well visible in the act of incorporation, which is fundamental in the construction of individual identity: There is a close bond between body and food (Lupton, 1996) and both notions have undergone significant historical, social and cultural changes in recent years. Socio-anthropological scholarship has documented the shift from a conception of the body as “open” typical of pre-modern societies, where the single individual and the body were assimilated to society through rituals, to a performative conception of the body as inherently “closed”, typical of modern societies, where the individual asserts control over his/her own corporeal boundaries and chooses what to assimilate. The emphasis on individual responsibility and the dichotomous distinction between good or bad aliments, healthy or unhealthy food, just or unjust alimentary habits. Individuals are progressively less aware of the origins of their aliments, Food has become an opaque object, less invested with symbolic and belonging connotations. Such process is similar to the current individualization of the body, which separates the individual from society as a whole (Le Breton, 1990). At the same time – however – it is revealing of a diffused sentiment of regret for “food as a means of sharing and intimacy” (Favole, 2015).

As a result, a growing number of individuals have become aware of the over determined nature of their alimentary choices, have voiced critical concerns towards the assimilation of aliments void of identitary character, and have embraced a new-found interest in the idea of food as a means to assert identity

(Manceron, 2014). Sociologist Guido Nicolosi (2007) has elaborated on the notion of orthorexia to metaphorically define a prominent feature contemporary society, one that is characterized by a high degree of reflexivity at the level of alimentary practices. Such hyper-reflexivity is presented in its various meanings: dietary (fitness), ethical (critical consumption), aesthetic (food design), symbolic (slow food), psycho-pathological (alimentary disorders) and translates into a modern gastro-anomy (Fischler, 1992).

To find out the identity meaning of food means also to think about food as a cultural product, a vehicle of individual and collective identities.

Organic-related food practices and modes of consumption – a inherently heterogeneous category that includes a variety of aliments, modes of production, distribution and consumption and various social actors more or less actively involved in the search for valid alternatives to industrial food chains – represent a viable path to overcome the limits of food as nourishment concept. This alternative approach suggests a holistic vision of food, no longer considered as a mere object but as a relational construct, from an ecological (the relation with the environment, the animals and the plants) and social (the relation with the producers) point of view. From this perspective, eating is an economic and political act and social actors are not passive consumers: they are co-producers, co-participants of the food-chain, responsible for their alimentary choices and the social and ecological consequences they entail. Food regains its symbolic value, the sign of belonging to an integrated world where nature, culture, consumers and producers, individuals and society reunite.