Transforming Food: Evolution, Commodification, and Culinary Consciousness

By: Lauren Breen 

Edited by: Victoria Percival

After nearly seven years, Spencer Leefe’s November 2017 article for Inquire Publication titled The Importance of Cooking remains extremely relevant. His initial question—whether we still care about food or not—has become even more complex as events like the COVID-19 pandemic continue to alter our food systems and our connection with food. Discussing similar but diverging discourses as Spencer, I wanted to build off his highlights from a food systems-oriented lens. Throughout this article, I’ll discuss how we got to the point of convenience foods and stores taking over our lives and some promising solutions for reconnecting with our food. 

In pondering how we got to where we are, constantly passing streets lined with grocery stores, fast food, and convenience options at every corner, we must look back on the two great food revolutions in human history. The third edition of Critical Perspectives in Food Studies by Koc et al. (2022) provides excellent insights on this topic. As noted in Robert Albritton’s chapter, the first great food revolution, also referred to as the Agricultural Revolution, is thought to have occurred approximately 12,000-10,000 years ago during the Neolithic period. It is marked by the shift from hunter-gatherers to farming societies, including the domestication of plants and livestock as its central feature. It was during this revolution that formalized societies were born through the consistent availability of food. However, consequences from this revolution still underpin our lives today, such as social inequalities arising from conflict over the control of resources and soil degradation resulting from improper land management (Albritton, 2022, p.107). Although handled and controlled differently in our current lives, there is no doubt that these issues still exist today, with modern examples including disparities in access to healthy food options and ongoing debates over sustainable agricultural practices.

The second great food revolution saw capitalism firmly entrenching itself into our food production systems. While this transition had its roots as early as the 17th century in England, it wasn’t until after the Second World War that capitalism began to invade the agriculture industry in Canada and the United States (Abritton, 2022, p. 108). The rapid pace of capitalism—driven by the pursuit of profit—facilitated globalization and industrialization on an unprecedented scale, enabling the mass production and distribution of food. Food, functionally, became a commodity. Subjected to the rigors of efficient supply chains, food was broken down into constituent parts and then reassembled for distribution worldwide.

The evolution of food systems, shaped by historical revolutions, was accompanied by an evolution in societal behavior and consumption patterns, particularly during the transition to capitalist structures. The effects of capitalism on food commodification and global supply chain expansion have fragmented the food journey from farm to table and prioritized convenience over mindful consumption. This shift ushered in the proliferation of processed foods and the rise of grocery stores, fast food chains, and convenience foods, transforming food from a communal and cultural symbol to a global commodity. Consequently, individuals became increasingly disconnected from cooking, as taste and nutrition took a backseat to profitability and shelf-life concerns. 

Contemporary factors, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and global summits addressing food security and sustainability, have served as catalysts for change in our food behaviors. The pandemic has brought to light vulnerabilities in our food systems such as supply chain resilience, prompting a revaluation of consumption habits and priorities. Simultaneously, international efforts to address food security and sustainability, such as the United Nations Food Summit, have underscored the urgency of transitioning towards more resilient and equitable food systems. However, the pervasive culture of prioritizing convenience over health has fueled rising rates of diet-related diseases and exacerbated issues such as food waste even further.

Addressing the systemic challenges within capitalist food systems demands decisive action to reestablish a profound connection with food and propel sustainability forward. Inspired by Marel Van der Meer’s compelling insights in 6 Reasons Why We Should Care About What We Eat, our approach is clear: we must confront these issues head-on. That is, we must not only mitigate food waste through proactive educational and policy interventions but also spread awareness of the profound health implications intertwined with our dietary choices. Additionally, we must champion sustainable agricultural practices and bolster local food systems, thus diminishing our reliance on global supply chains. 

But our journey doesn’t end there. We must cultivate community resilience, infuse mindfulness into our consumption habits, and fully embrace the slow food movement. Through these concerted efforts, grounded in respect and reverence for our food, we can foster a deeper appreciation for culinary traditions while fostering a sustainable future. Supporting local ingredients and prioritizing quality over quantity serve as pillars in our mindful approach to consumption. Ultimately, by raising awareness of the environmental and ethical dimensions of our food choices, we empower individuals to make informed decisions and ultimately drive positive societal change.

Spencer’s article suggests that we’ve been conditioned to approach food mindlessly, leading some to question how change is possible within a system seemingly opposed to it. Yet, this opposition fails to acknowledge individual agency and collective potential. Rather than succumbing to defeatism, we can challenge the status quo by recognizing our capacity for change. We’re not mere cogs in the machine but agents of transformation. By actively engaging in initiatives to build community resilience, promote sustainability, and support local food systems, we can dismantle barriers and pave the way for a more equitable and sustainable future. It’s about being proactive, rejecting complacency, and inspiring others to join the movement for change.

In conclusion, our current food systems have led to a disconnect between us and the act of cooking, jeopardizing our health, environment, and cultural heritage. However, there is hope. By reframing our approach to food consumption and production, prioritizing sustainability, and fostering a renewed appreciation for food, we can lay the foundation for more resilient, equitable, and culturally rich food systems. It’s imperative that we collectively work towards this goal, recognizing the power of our choices in shaping the future of our food landscapes. Through education, advocacy, and community engagement, we can transform our relationship with food, ensuring that cooking becomes not only a necessity but also a joyous celebration of life and culture. 

Photo Citation: 

Wendt, P. (2016, August 6). Fresh Veggies [Image]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fresh_Veggies_(Unsplash).jpg

References

Albritton, R. (2022). Two Great Food Revolution: The Domestication of Nature and the Transgression of Nature’s Limits. In Koç, M., Sumner, J., & Winson, A. (Eds.). Critical perspectives in food studies (3rd ed., pp. 105-112.). Oxford University Press.

Blakemore, E. (2019, April 5). What was the Neolithic Revolution?. Culture. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/neolithic-agricultural-revolution

Carducci, B., Keats, E. C., Ruel, M., Haddad, L., Osendarp, S. J. M., & Bhutta, Z. A. (2021). Food systems, diets and nutrition in the wake of COVID-19. Nature Food, 2(2), 68–70. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00233-9

Janus, A. (2019, January 17). More than half of all food produced in Canada is lost or wasted, report says | CBC News. CBCnews. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/food-waste-report-second-harvest-1.4981728

Notaras, M. (2014, October 31). Slow food movement growing fast. Our World. https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/slow-food-movement-growing-fast

Thomson, E. (2024, May 4). The Global Food System no longer meets our health needs. here are four changes that can help us to Eat Better Food. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2024/03/health-nutrition-global-report/ 

Van der Meer, M. (2021, February 26). 6 reasons why we should care about what we eat. FoodUnfolded. https://www.foodunfolded.com/article/6-reasons-why-we-should-care-about-what-we-eat