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You Are What You Eat

Scrolling down my Facebook feed, along with photos of other people’s vacations and posts by my mom, I often stumble upon videos such as “Italians Try American Snacks” or “Americans Try German Food For The First Time.” We all know these videos: usually produced by media companies like Buzzfeed, they attract millions of viewers using a simple yet classic formula: have a certain kind of people eat a “different” kind of food associated with other people, and watch their reactions of shock. People trying Hungarian, Armenian, Korean or Indian food; all of these videos are quite the same, yet they seem to be highly popular on social media platforms nevertheless. Watching a few of those, it becomes evident that it is one’s own identity that determines the reaction to a “different” kind of food. Or in other words, the emphasis is on difference, rather than on similarity. An Italian might severely criticize an American version of what he calls pizza, because Italian food is an important component of his own cultural identity. Most of us take pride in our national food, and we measure all other foods accordingly. But these, sometimes hidden, cultural boundaries that stem from our own national or cultural pride can have some real consequences for the world economy.

It is thought today that national identity is a continuous process that is embedded in culture, history, language and memory. In this process, our national foods play an important role: food is seen as a medium for expressing feelings of belonging and distinction from others. The term gastronationalism was developed by sociologist Michaela DeSoucey in order to describe a counter-sentiment to the so-called homogenizing forces of globalization. In a world of merging and integrating identities, the need of some to preserve their identities through common symbols has seemed to intensify. Gastronationalism describes how sentiments of national identity are embodied in the production, processing, distribution and consumption of food. If you need an example, check your local supermarket: try to count the number of products that show a national flag on the package, or some other symbol of nationalized production. Not only different types of food become national symbols, but their production as well. In this hyper-politicized discourse, a slice of cheese or an alcoholic beverage can represent the protection of national identity through the actual protection of food industries. This is a classic tale of national symbols translating into economic facts.

Take the EU’s program for labelling foods according to their national origins: free trade is one of the most basic conventions of the European Union, but it has long been argued that some cultural goods deserve protection for their national or cultural significance. This is often claimed when it comes to art or music – global competitiveness might not do well with such cultural industries, while their preservation is considered important. As for food production and marketing, the EU poses strict regulations and standards that apply to all producers alike, aimed at inducing competition and constraining protectionism. These regulations have stirred discontent in some European countries and resentment towards these one-size-fits-all standards and the resulting intensified price competition. It was for these reasons that the EU issued a program in 1992 to register certain foods as cultural exceptions, outside the Common Agricultural and Competition Policies. Small-scale and local producers could now have their products labeled to boost domestic sales and to protect from imitation and misuse of product names. A famous example is the usage of the term “Champagne” to describe sparkling wine; EU regulations prevent producers outside the Champagne region from naming their own sparkling wines in the French fashion. Labeling was authorized also as a measure of food safety as it indicates the origin of production. Thus began a new discussion, extending far beyond the 1992 scheme and revolving around what kinds of food deserve protection, and what makes a certain food a cultural exception.

Adherents of product labeling claim that such practices provide transparency and allow consumers to support local producers. Some of you may remember the “Horsegate” scandal of 2013, when multiple DNA tests in several European countries found horse meat in products labeled as beef. This was considered by consumers to be a major breach in trust, soon demanding the labeling and tracing of the “origins” of products, even those that are not included under the definition of cultural exceptions. Opponents of labeling are worried that this is a camouflaged form of nationalism creeping through the continent, disguised as economic policies. For these opponents, it seems that recently there are more reasons to be worried. In July 2016, France confirmed that it will trial mandatory labeling for some meat and dairy products. The trial commenced in January 2017 and will reportedly continue until the end of 2018; results of the trial could be then generalized to other member states. Food labeling is an extremely sensitive subject in France, where some groups of farmers are linked to far-right parties and engage in activities such as destroying cargoes of unlabeled French goods. French actions were later followed by similar actions in Greece and Finland, who announced the labeling of locally-produced dairy products. Earlier in 2016, Romania tried to pass a law requiring supermarkets to sell a minimum 51% of local food, while Italian producers have declared a “wheat war” on imports from other European countries.

But what is so wrong about supporting your local producers? Indeed, we should all have the right to spend an extra euro in order to support whomever we like. However, we must also remember that buying from local producers does not guarantee that they receive higher prices for their produce. Other efficient alternatives for providing information for consumers do exist, and labeling in itself does not guarantee food quality. It is, however, a powerful tool for marking goods as national and consequently applying some sort of economic protection on selected industries. Whether this is a welcome outcome for EU countries is debatable. European economists opposing gastronationalism take it very seriously – for many, this could signify the beginning of the end of the single market. They view this phenomenon as a part of a larger revival in national sentiments that has already shaken some of the political and economic institutions in Europe. Calls for buying local produce were heard both in the UK after Brexit and in the US after the election of Donald Trump. On the other hand, in a highly globalized world, ownership of cultural attributes can suddenly seem more important. In a sense, gastronationalism is a symbol of an ongoing debate across the European continent and the rest of the world, between integration and protection.

Perhaps we can end on more positive, tasty note. If gastronationalism is now a part of our lives, why not embrace some gastrodiplomacy? The idea of food as an instrument of peacemaking is rooted in the history of diplomacy, from ancient Greece to the courts of the French kings. Government culinary programs are aimed at spreading local foods both nationally and internationally as a form of diplomatic cooperation, not economic separation (Thailand is an example of a country successfully spreading its national cuisine worldwide). For its many attractive attributes, food can be a powerful tool for understanding and mutual recognition of shared origins. Think of joint cooking competitions, festivals and communal meals – wouldn’t it be great to bring world peace with a big bowl of hummus?


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