By Michelle Phillipov
For the past five years, I have been investigating a new politics of food in which the provenance of food and the ethics of food production have become an increasing central concern for consumers, food marketers, and media. From supermarket advertising campaigns that seek to put a “face” to the farmer to a proliferation of food-focused television programs, apps, and social media sites, we have seen an intensified media focus on food that has impacted on how food has been represented and understood across the artisan-conventional spectrum.
As I argue in my recent book Media and Food Industries: The New Politics of Food, these changes are the product of a convergence of growing consumer concern about industrial food systems, structural change within the media industry, and new approaches to marketing, advertising, and brand management within the food industry. Scholars have suggests that the rise of food media reflects a “broader sense of discontent with the instrumental culture of late modernity”, with the focus on food an attempt to “re-enchant… the contemporary everyday through promoting less alienated, more engaged modes of consumption” and production (Lewis 2008: 23). Together with changes in both media and food industries, this has produced an explosion of popular food media texts — television cooking shows, cookbooks, food-focused digital, and social media — that are united through their remarkably coherent set of representations as to what constitutes “good” food.
An increasing number of food media texts now combine consumer concern about industrial food with the nostalgia of the rural idyll to present “good” food as that produced in bucolic rural surrounds by committed, trustworthy people embedded in their local communities. In these texts, we see images of rolling hills, lush green fields, affectionate farm animals. Such images are the currency of tree-change lifestyle television programs like Gourmet Farmer and River Cottage, which both depict rural self-sufficiency as a means to escape harried urban lives and to truly “know and trust” what one eats. They are also key tropes in cookbooks featuring celebrity chefs — from Kylie Kwong to Mario Batali — that reveal the people and the production processes behind the “good” food that such books encourage us to eat.
These types of media texts tap into a long history of imaging the rural as a space of respite from the ravages of city life — a rural idyll that has been principally constructed by and for urban dwellers on the basis of urban fantasies of rural life. Without a doubt, this is part of the appeal of texts for the urban, middle class consumers that are their primary audience. However, in many cases these texts are also shaped by the genuinely progressive politics of celebrity chefs and media producers seeking to foster an alternative food system based on values of “embeddedness”, “trust”, and “place”, to use David Goodman’s much-quoted characterisation of alternative food practises. In this, food media texts are frequently driven by a politics of visibility: to show audiences where their food comes from and how it is produced.
But how well do these texts really do this?
As a first step to answering this question, it is important to look more closely at how food, farmers and the work of food production are represented. For example, looking at two of the media texts I have analysed in detail — the lifestyle television program Gourmet Farmer and — Kylie Kwong’s cookbook It Tastes Better – it is typical for these types of food media texts to begin with an explicit goal showing us where our food comes from and how it is produced.
However, most ultimately show us very little of the actual work involved in food production. Instead, we might see stories of relaxed dairy farmers knocking off work each day at lunchtime to enjoy a gourmet spread of homemade cheeses (as in the case of Gourmet Farmer) or images of happy, smiling farmers posing with a glass of wine or cup of tea in hand (as in the case of It Tastes Better). Rarely do we see farmers and food producers actually doing the work of food production.
When food producers talk about their work in these texts, they tend to use highly affective terms — they describe their work as a “passion”, as a “love”, as a “labour of love” in ways that present the work of food production more like leisure or like a lifestyle choice, rather than something that might be more conventionally recognisable as “work”. Hardships — physical and financial difficulties, illness, death, crop failure — are rarely mentioned in food media texts and if they are, they are quickly diminished or presented as evidence of the producers’ commitment to producing good food. These texts often reserve the greatest praise for those who accept their hardships without complaint, and in many cases these personal qualities are seen to translate into the superior taste of the produce. That is, these texts suggest to us that we can actually taste farmers’ good intentions and good principles in their food. As Kylie Kwong writes of two potato farmers, both in their 70s and who have worked seven days a week for more years than they can remember, she is “utterly convinced that it is their ability to appreciate what is right before their eyes… that makes Mal and Lola Orr’s potatoes taste so good”.
These representations of farmers are not simply imposed by celebrity chefs and media producers; farmers are active participants in these discourses. When I interviewed farmers and food producers who appeared in a range of food media texts, I concluded that the media stories we see are often quite accurate reflections of the stories farmers tell about their work.
Of course, this doesn’t make these stories a straightforward reflection of the farmers’ real circumstances. Farmers and food producers have become increasingly media-savvy in recent years, and their tendency to talk about their work in affective terms is likely to be at least in part a product of their awareness of the ways of speaking that are most likely to be recognised and affirmed. Certainly, it is the case that the farmers who speak in these terms are those more likely to appear in food media texts, and those most likely to appear in food media texts are those most likely to speak in these terms.
But these media depictions of farmers nonetheless raise a number of key questions: what does it mean that the majority of media representations that we see of “good” farmers and “good” food production are of happy, fulfilled farmers who are satisfied with their lot, who don’t want for more, who live leisurely, unhurried lives, who take their hardships without complaint, and whose happiness is a necessary precondition of the food tasting good? I am reminded here of discourses within the ethical meat movement that link “happy animals” with “happy meat” (for further analysis, see Pilgrim 2013). What does it mean when we do the same thing for the human producers of our food?
Given, Sara Ahmed’s observations about the disciplinary effects of the broader cultural imperative to “be happy”, we must ask what media representations of happy farmers “do” for contemporary food politics. Small food producers are often very keen to be involved in food media because they see real benefits to their businesses, and they often find the format very attractive and appealing. But these formats don’t necessarily achieve their stated aim of showing us where our food comes from and the real work that goes into producing it. Instead, these representations tend to convey idyllic fantasies of food production labour.
And they are very easily appropriated for quite different purposes. For example, we can see similarities in how farmers are represented in food media texts that have an alternative food politics and those of advertising campaigns designed to silence farmers’ criticism of their treatment at the hands of major supermarkets.
The limited visual and discursive repertoires associated with “good” food also constrain larger-scale farmers. As my colleague Jessica Loyer and I have argued elsewhere, in cases where larger farmers have sought to galvanise mainstream consumer support (such as in the case of dairy farmers responding to supermarkets’ extreme discounting of own-brand milk), they have been successful only when drawing on the tropes associated with “alternative” food discourses. What does this mean for all farmers if public support depends on invocations of the “authentic”, “traditional” nature of rural life?
As a form of food politics, such representations are intended to foster a sense of connection and understanding between producers and consumers, but the limited parameters in which food production work is presented risks weakening consumer knowledge about our food systems. If media makes the work involved in food production largely invisible, then the practices and politics of our food system, how people might forge sustainable careers within that food system, and how producers might communicate in new ways with consumers continue to remain invisible as well. Instead of reducing the distance between producers and consumers, such representations may, paradoxically, amplify it, and may prevent food producers from developing an “alternative” not just in their production practices, but also in their media and communications strategies — and we need to more fully think through the implications of this both for our food production systems and our food politics.
Michelle Phillipov is a Lecturer in Communications and Media Studies at the University of Adelaide. She is an expert in the politics of media and is the author of Media and Food Industries: The New Politics of Food.