Bio food as a regressively progressive phenomenon

by | Jan 25, 2024

Home 9 Food consumption ideas&research 9 Bio food as a regressively progressive phenomenon

Investigating bio food through people’s personal, bodily and everyday relation with it, I was able to understand as it exists in (daily) reality – as it really is – not just what people tell about it and what circulates about it in the discourse. This embodied, experiential research has enabled me to analyse and conceptualize bio food, go beyond dichotomies and see the differences. Ultimately, I was mapping out an uncharted territory. Bio food is part of and caught in broader processes and changes in which both degenerative and regenerative trends and forces are at play. Therefore, bio food in Belgium can be seen as a regressively progressive phenomenon with an uncertain future.

In today’s Western world, the main food problem is not food scarcity but rather a sort of confusion and uncertainty resulting from our complex and opaque food situation, and from aggravating the omnivore’s paradox (Fischler 1988). Bio food is a response to this situation, and an attempt to keep food safe, nutritious, healthy and restore its ‘identity’, naturalness and authenticity. 

With my research on bio food in Belgium and people’s embodied relation with it, I was able to shed some light on the mutant, regressively progressive phenomenon of bio food in Belgium through a bodily engaged, relational and integrative approach. Such an approach makes from the anthropologist an observing participant, and sees knowledge, experience, ethics and fieldwork as subjectively objective processes. It also goes beyond language and dichotomies such as body–mind, subject–object, material–immaterial or nature–culture, and shows that despite being different, they co-exist and are interconnected and interdependent.

Seeing humans as embodied beings and their relations as inherently bodily, I argue that food and people are not shaped mainly through representations but rather through both symbolic and literal incorporation. These are bodily involved processes, in which, mainly through taste and the sense of taste, we test, identify, select or classify food, and so develop a relation with it as well as our embodied identity.

Investigating bio food through people’s personal, bodily and everyday relation with it, means that my research is truly anthropological. I do not degrade humans to things, and do not anthropomorphise things either. I see bio food as having inherent value rather than an agency. This value lies in its edible materiality, which makes from bio food a natural, healthy and ethical material thing.

Mapping out an uncharted territory

I have attempted to map out and understand the uncharted, personal or intimate and so in a sense ‘tabooed’ territory of bio food. To be able to make sense of bio food and its place in people’s lifeworld, I had to go beyond language, and develop a relational, personal and bodily engaged approach. Yet, to be really understood, bio food has to also be seen within our complex and ambiguous recent food situation and relation with food, which is also why it is not unambiguously established in people’s lives and in the sociocultural world. In effect, contradictory ideas and beliefs often circulate about it. 

As the fieldwork, my experiences and those of my interlocutors made clear, bio food is not clearly ‘defined’ in people’s minds, and their relation with it is also circumstantial and situational. The interviews revealed it is part of people’s lives about which they do not have much to say, and on which they do not really reflect. Bio food and one’s relation with it are not clearly articulated, but understood and lived rather intuitively and automatically. One’s feels through one’s bodily experience that bio food is better, healthier and more natural than non-bio food.

As my research indicates, we are in a process of change, which we do not really control, and do not know what and where it will lead to. In Fischler’s words, ‘what we are currently witnessing is no less than a process of crisis in the full sense of the word, i.e., including both degenerative and regenerative trends and forces; it is cultural mutation in progress’ (1980:950). Indeed, being caught in these forces, bio food appears as a mutant trend with an uncertain and rather marginalized position (like those who subscribe to it) within the sociocultural landscape of Belgium. It could be said that I have ‘trespassed’ onto a largely private ‘building site’ in progress.

Regressively progressive phenomenon

Bio food could be seen as regressively progressive. It is progressive in the sense that it is relatively a new type of food, increasingly global, subjected to modern industrialization of food and other processes, and is part and parcel of emerging sustainable and environmentally-friendly initiatives, practices and lifestyles.

Yet it could also be seen as regressive when it is linked to and associated with the return to our ‘origins’, nature, locality or to the rooted bodily existence as opposed to the uprooted, deterritorialized and largely ‘mental’ one. Such regression could also be approached as a form of transgression – ‘ a return to the (natural) state preceding human and cultural existence’ or ‘ ‘the longing for natural state’, away from the oppressive and discontinuous state of culture’ ( Falk 1994:59).

For now, it is unclear whether the mutant, regressively progressive phenomenon of bio food ‘will become stabilized and will succeed in restoring harmony between pleasure, wants and needs, between the body, cosmos and society’ (Fischler 1980:950). What seems clear is that bio food is part and a result of different intersecting and interconnected phenomena centred around respect and care for the body, one’s health, other human and non-human beings, nature, the environment and the planet.

By the same token, bio food is a response to the unreflective, short-sighted and unsustainable consumer society and to the opaqueness, uncertainties, dangers and anxieties surrounding modern ‘rational’ food. Bio food could be seen and understood as an attempt to ‘save food’, to keep food ‘food’, and to restore its ‘identity’, naturalness and ‘authenticity’. 

My other food consumption ideas and research blogs can be found here

This blog is a slightly adapted part of my thesis What is your relation with food like?: Examining the embodied relation between people and bio food in Belgium (Master of Social and Cultural Anthropology); References available upon request.

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