Let Them Eat Cake

Food. Humans constantly consume food from the moment of birth until the day they die. What constitutes as food and what is consumed will change constantly over time and space. Why is this? Why have the eating habitats of societies changed throughout the years? Why do different cultures eat different foodstuffs? What makes food, food?

This discussion aims to examine three facets surrounding food. Firstly how do things become and how does meaning and purpose align itself with objects to turn them into food? Secondly the production and commodification of food will be examined. Lastly The processes of consumption, what we eat and why will be investigated. By grounding this discussion with real life examples, hopefully some insights into the food economy can be drawn.

What is Food?

Looking out of a living room window what do you see? Is there anything that stands out? Anything important or unusual? It is unlikely anyone will notice anything about the view, despite the fact that the street below will be littered with cars, people, lampposts, other houses etc. This is because we see these everyday objects as part of the ‘background’ noise, ever present but seemingly invisible to us, or at least not noticeable. Extending this concept to food, if you were asked to point out potential food sources whilst standing in a field, what would you say? Chances are you would point to any cows, sheep and crops that were in view. What would you say the question was asked and food was an alien concept to you? How would decide what could be a food source if you had never heard of food before? What Harrison (2000) is asking here is why does something show up as significant? What turns an object into a potential food source? Why do we look and apples and cows as sources of fruit and beef?

Traditionally potential resources have been viewed in purely physical terms, independent of society, static and a part of the background noise (Bakker & Bridge, 2006). It is only after the application of a scientific method that objects and things become socially and economically useful and utilised. This view has been challenged, Demeritt (2001) putting forward the concept that resources are dynamic and fully utilised through practical engagement. Society configures resources in a way such that they become ‘recognisable for us’ For example pigs are seen by many as source of bacon and yet it is off limits as a food for Muslims. The cultural values of a given society assign purpose and meaning to objects. Rather than ‘being’, resources ‘become’ based on the interaction between ‘biophysical heterogeneity’ and social institutions (Bakker & Bridge, 2006). The material nature of an object is not a reflection of the intrinsic properties of nature and scientific study does not reveal any inherent properties (Whatmore, 2006). Apples and oranges have no purpose assigned to them other than that society designates for them. Their purpose as fruit and a food source is given to them through historical socio-cultural practices (Roe, 2006).

The products that we see in stores are there because society has deemed them acceptable, by imposing on them a purpose as food. That is not to say on a personal level the idea of eating certain food is repulsive to some, the Muslim example and I myself am a vegetarian and as such have no desire to eat meat products.

My diet is based on my own personal history; culturally meat consumption is the norm in my family. Walk into any Tesco or Iceland and you can buy many forms of plant; lettuce and celery (leaves), potatoes and carrots (roots) and wheat, rice and legumes (seeds). Yet you would be hard pressed to purchase the leaves of trees or daffodils for human consumption. Whilst perfectly edible, societal values dictate that these are not to be eaten. Societal values do change though, and the foods in stock in thirty years may be markedly different to today. Food scares can provide temporary blips in the popularity of some foods, such as the BSE crisis in the late eighties.

Production and Commodification

The foods that we buy and consume are not grown and then supplied to us without some form of human interaction and process. Food is unlikely to be produced ‘naturally’, but on a mass, mechanised scale. Walk into any supermarket chain across the country and you can find the same packaged box of cereal or packet of grapes as you would in another of their stores elsewhere. In purchasing from a supermarket, the consumer can be sure of the price, packaging and quality of food. With local stores such as greengrocers, the kinds of food may be similar from one to the other but consumers can be markedly less sure of the price and quality.  Castree (2003) indicated that this is a part of the capitalist commodification of resources. Qualitatively different goods (apples, oranges, beef etc.) of differing and similar kinds are rendered equivalent through the medium of money. Each greengrocer will have a different supplier, with tier own production processes but the consumer can walk into any of them and purchase goods with the same medium (money), regardless of the nature-society interactions that food underwent.

The foods we see in the stores therefore are a result of the human-environment interactions that occur in production. If all foods were grown under the same conditions and processed equally there would be no differentiating between different kinds of the same types. One lemon would be equally identical to the next. The differences between Tesco value goods and the finest ranges are a result of the way they are grown and handled before it reaches the store. The growing conditions, pesticides used, method of transport, packaging and promotion will be distinct between them. What makes finest goods ‘better’ than the values range? Consumers will likely point to the texture, aesthetic quality and taste, although these are highly subjective. The properties of ‘better’ are therefore the result of the process that food goes through, although they cannot be quantitatively defined (Bakker & Bridge, 2006). To some consumers ‘better’ foods matter more than others and particular properties will be of more significance than others. Personally I find that finest goods do not taste any better but can look more appealing.

Grocers are perceived to stock food that is fresher but more perishable than supermarkets and chain stores, which on the other hand will stock food that appears nicer (aesthetically) and lasts longer. These may be stereotypes that have no truth, in terms of reflecting reality, but these assigned values to goods influence and determine where and what food we purchase as a society. They have ‘truth’ to us, and this is the most significant meaning when it comes to personal food shopping.


Why do people eat certain foods? The ideas of taste and appearance have already been noted but there are a number of more personal, ethical and moral reasons as to why consumers purchase and eat certain foods more than others. The driving force behind these choices is what Castree (2003) defines as the privatisation of consumption. The choices we make are down to personal preference alone. If consumers want to express an opinion as to how our food should be produced or packaged, they act by purchasing only the goods that fulfil their moral and ethical values (Barnett et al., 2007). It is no longer the preserve of companies to force consumes to change behaviours or act more ‘responsibly’. Ethics and morals are subjective as will be discussed later but consumers themselves must make the choices. Companies react to what their customers purchase. If items are not profitable they will no longer be stocked and given the high stock turnover of British stores, consumers can make an impact over a relatively small time scale (Fernie, 1994).

On a personal level, as a vegetarian I consume a lot of fruit, but very few vegetables. When I go shopping I look for the ‘5 a day’ labels (Figure 1). I can be sure that they are then high in fibre and therefore ‘good’ for me. I associate the ‘5 a day’ initiative with healthiness and make sure that I meet the minimum of five each day. I make conscience choices about the fruits I consume based on my personal knowledge that lots of fruit is good for you and I live healthier for it. This personal view appears to be supported by some studies into cancer and stroke prevention for example (van Duijnhoven, 2009; He et al., 2006). I assign a ‘health’ attribute to certain foods which then appeal on a personal level, which I then buy.

The moral and ethics of consumption have grown hand in hand with the privatisation of responsibility. It is easier than ever to express choices that are compatible with one’s beliefs. Organic, fair-trade, non-animal tested and free range goods are ever more present. These are a response to the idea that our actions, through purchasing food, have consequences, even though they are at some spatial and temporal distance. Consumers are increasingly looking to minimalise their impact on the environment and on livestock. Companies are looking to capitalise on the ethical and green dollar, as such products can fetch a premium and some people are willing to pay it (Brockington, 2008). I always buy free range eggs as I feel that I am doing some ‘good’ for the chickens who will not suffer as much as their battery farmed equivalent. The extra cost to me is not much but to others may represent a too high a burden. I wouldn’t buy organic produce as I feel that the food tastes exactly the same is too high a cost and not a priority for me as a student. I have therefore in my mind placed a higher value on the welfare of chicken’s welfare than on the land which is subject to pesticide use.

The ethical around animal husbandry comes down to treating the animals well for the period that they are alive. In the end though they are still killed and consumed. Buller and Morris (2003) make clear that animal rights does not equate to animal welfare. The moral absolute of eating animals is wrong does not sit well with practical husbandry policies. The continued use of animals for food maintains an ‘impenetrable humanity-animal divide’ that no moral or ethical reasoning can bridge. Consumers are increasingly aware of animal exploitation however and expressing this view at the counter, although as a vegetarian it is quite hard for me to as I do not eat animals in the first place. For some vegetarianism rejects animal meat and fish but still relies on dairy products, so we can never truly escape the link. Veganism is increasingly popular and food products have taken off such as soya milk which seeks to bridge the divide.

Animal exploitation has been highlighted in the national consciousness through national health events such as the BSE epidemic. There is imbedded in consumers the idea of a link between animal and human health; healthy animal, healthy human. Exploitation has also been highlighted through successful campaigns by charities and NGOs (Oxfam, Soil Association, and Natural England). Friedberg (2004) believes that consumers do not care how food is produced only that it is ‘clean, pretty and in a convenient package at the store nearest to them’. Campaigners make clever use of low cost, high impact media to force change, with companies fearing the bad press coverage and damage to reputation. This is certainly true for some who put price above other concerns. For me buying organic, free range milk would never occur to me but the price would certainly put me off if I did as I personally cannot tell the difference in taste or quality and money is bigger motivator for me at this moment than animal welfare. This seems a contradiction to what I mentioned earlier about free range eggs. The price difference for eggs is small enough that I am willing to pay more for free range but not for organic milk. The cost barrier is too great, which I suggest is psychological rather than based on logic.

There is also the idea that Jackson et al. (2008) put forward of ‘invisible food’. Consumers take for granted where and how food is produced or simply do not care. Animals are so numerous that we feel we cannot have an effect or it just registers as part of the ‘background’ of nature. This is linked with an idea that Barnett et al. (2005) put forward that everyday consumption practices are ‘ordinarily ethical’. Consumers ‘construct’ a life based on choices centred on their personal preferences; price, value, quality etc. Shopping then becomes about relationships and not on ‘individualism, self-indulgence and narcissism’, as consumers put thought into what they buy and for whom. As ethics are not absolute but shared, consumers make choices based on what is ethical to them. It is just that some ethical values can have a more significant ‘good’ impact on the environment and livestock than others.


Hopefully what this discussion has shown is that the definition of food is what society deems it to be. What we consume is a part of our socio-historical culture and deeply personal. What an individual values in terms of quality, taste and texture is unique to them and their consumption patterns and processes will reflect this. There are many cultures who view resources differently, vegetarians, vegans, Muslims and Jews are examples of groups in society that have differing consumption patterns based on their beliefs.

The moral and ethical decisions we make are a part of the privatisation of consumption. We are no longer mass consumers, purchasing without thought as to where and how our produce was made. Consumers can now make choices that reflect the personal views they hold and this in turn can affect the kinds of food that retailers stock. It has been shown however that ethics do not fit neatly into a world of animal consumption; as long as animals are consumed there will be conflict between animal rights and animal welfare. Yet the choices we make are in one way ethical to us. We make choices based on quality, price and texture in ways that are significant have meaning to us personally. There are no absolute morals and ethics, in the same way as there are no absolutes in the definition of food.

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Jackson, P., Ward, N. & Russell, P., 2008. Moral economies of food and geographies of responsibility. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 34(1), pp.12-24.

Roe, E., 2006. Things Becoming Food and the Embodied, Material Practices of an Organic Food Consumer. Sociologia Ruralis, 46(2), pp.104-21.

van Duijnhoven, e.a., 2009. Fruit, vegetables, and colorectal cancer risk: the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(5), pp.1441-52.

Whatmore, S., 2006. Materialist returns: practising cultural geography in and for a more-than-human world. Cultural Geographies, 13(4), pp.600-09.

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