Should We Support ‘Food Studies?’

Food, clothing, and shelter are the primary physical elements necessary to human well being, but can they – or should they – be addressed as separate academic disciplines? Food is getting everybody’s attention these days so that universities are offering certificates, majors, and degrees in everything from food studies to culinary arts. But should food be treated as a separate field in itself?

It seems to me each primary element of human well being encompasses a wide and overlapping domain of application. Therefore, by limiting the study of food to a single utilitarian discipline, a more encompassing view of civilization as a whole and its evolutionary impact on the environment is lacking. My view on how well our colleges are presently able to define “food”and to address our current food health crisis follows.

First, I find it fascinating that the teaching of many popular concepts (sustainability, adaptability, resilience, etc.) appears way ahead of the actual research into plant and animal evolution over relevant geographies in representative time frames. And as far as I’m concerned, Henry David Thoreau provided us greater insight to plants as food in 1850.

Current teaching in agriculture is a lot like what I discovered about “science” in Parochial School, the problem is not so much what’s included as what is left out. And of course, if you’ve already destroyed important natural ecosystems, you’re taking your information from less reliable sources. And then when one gets into “nutrition” and how much ideas have changed about health in just the last decade, it’s difficult to separate the conjecture from the sources of funding.

One example is quinoa, where an entire food knowledge base was intentionally and directly destroyed by the Catholic Church. My position: reliable course structures relating to food are only now being tested in our universities and their scientific validity depends very much on how far they depart from Western industrial models (say, “white man’s ways”) and how willing professors are to stand up against conventional norms.

Authorities are also slow to differentiate “style” from meaning. What I mean is the embellishment humans place on necessary functions like eating — call it the “art” of cooking. Many of our current poisons in food are disguised under artistic wraps. Some prized delicacies are triple cooked and dressed in near-plasticized sauces. And then there is what we so ardently try to defend in Western society as “culture” or lack of it. Please, define current “culture” in the US for me.

All considered then, who’s the authority on “food” and where’s the meaning? For instance, it has been difficult for me to concentrate on food sermons given by a popular nutritionist who we’d agree is obviously overweight. And what about an ecologically-minded farmer who craves junk food. One wonders if it isn’t all convenience driven by capital? Someone tell me, what’s real in America in 2013?

I remember a brilliant ecologist, Eugene Odum, who was dismissed as a crank by pro-technology professors of agriculture in the sixties. I had Odum’s textbook and carried it as a bible for many years (I still refer to it). Still, contemporary authorities on “food ecology” tell me I was caught in an “intellectual silo” back then. Obviously, one way to limit knowledge is to narrow the landscape and restrict the points of view to conform to peer-selected special – often personal – interests. Professors sitting on tenure have a tendency to do that.

Another way to limit food knowledge is to 1) saturate it with all kinds of extraneous, often irrelevant, superlatives, and 2) separate areas of food study such that critical evaluations across disciplines become convoluted or even impossible, especially when you have major ideological differences. How often students graduate in applied science with opposing views these days. Compare botanists interested in preserving biodiversity (preservationists, restorationists) with those developing virus-resistant wheat or sweeter plums. Where do we go with what we place in students’ minds? And how will they find gainful employment with the tools we give them?

Or, should we teach the science of food at all? Of course we should. But like in the sixties with ecology, we need to focus on the bigger questions, admitting we really don’t know very much and what we do know has been completely distorted by the utilitarian commercial interests of industrialization, industry-conditioned consumer tastes, and the propensity of humans for artifact.

Everybody has an opinion about food (like sex) but few people can agree about what food behavior is best. Even so, more people each year are growing sick from the food they eat and a growing number are even dying — much of our food is becoming unsafe. People should indeed know where their food comes from but college may not be the only place to learn.