Bio food’s inherent value and the nature-culture division

by | Oct 24, 2023

Home 9 Food consumption ideas&research 9 Bio food’s inherent value and the nature-culture division

I argue that in bio food’s edible materiality lies its inherent value. Indeed, bio food consumers take a particular interest in this materiality (Roe 2006). Although ‘value’ is one of those abused terms, when basically anything can have a ‘value’, especially in monetary terms often not reflecting its true value, I use this term because it refers to what this materiality is like, namely ‘useful’, ‘significant’ and ‘precious’. Bio food’s inherent value can only personally be discovered in a bodily relation with it, and thus is fundamentally different from socioeconomically or ideologically produced value. Furthermore, bio food’s edible materiality epitomizes the natural-industrialized opposition.

Inherent value of bio food found in its edible materiality

Socioeconomical and ideological values represent values that are created and attributed to things by humans. For instance, Appadurai understands ‘value’ in this sense when for him it is not ‘an inherent property of objects but is a judgement made about them by subjects’ (1986:3). For him, like for Kopytoff (1986), exchange and use are the sources of commodity value and not vice versa. Socioeconomic value can be understood as the result of ‘a process constituted through a wide range of relations and representations’ (Thomas 1991:32). Value can also be purely ideological when it is not based on things’ actual material qualities but, like in case of brands, it is created around their ‘glamorous and largely artificially produced iconic qualities’ (Newell 2014:205).

Since bio food is part of the market and the sociocultural world, it has also a socioeconomic value, which is most visibly reflected in its price. Bio food’s price is often higher than the price of non-bio food. It is often seen as something ‘negative’, an obstacle which prevents one from buying bio food. Yet, as my personal experience proves, it is rather used as an excuse to avoid it and reflects food’s place and importance in one’s life. Either way, price is only bio food’s ‘immaterial’ value. Its intrinsic or ‘natural’ value is ‘material’. Inedible materiality, that is, the packaging which contains the official bio label is important, but it does not give bio food its intrinsic value; it can only points to it and help make bio food recognizable and identifiable. For none of my interlocutors is the bio label the most important or only criterium of buying and trusting bio food.

 The edible materiality makes from bio food the end in itself. It is not a means to be used for other purposes. Its material qualities and potential are not attributed or ascribed, but are rather something which this food ‘naturally’ possesses, and so can only be discovered by those who eat it. Bio food’s value can only bodily and personally be recognized and experienced in the process of literal incorporation. To see the edible materiality as the most valuable part of bio food may seem counterintuitive, for valuable things are those which are durable in their materiality, to which one can develop an affective relation or which can be really possessed, and not those which are fragile, highly malleable and unstable like food.

Natural versus industrialized food

Bio food’s edible materiality gives it not only its inherent value, but in it the natural-industrialized opposition is also materialized. This binary is perhaps the most common and prevailing binary is natural–industrialized. As ‘natural’ is seen the food that is raw, fresh, organic, homemade, artisanal, minimally processed or refined and free from additives, colorants, or other artificial substances. Industrialized, synthetic, processed, ‘artificial’ or ‘fake’ food is quite the opposite, and so seen as ‘unnatural’. The word “natural” is associated with nature, purity, rural life, authenticity while “industrialized” with culture, civilization, urban life and artificiality. According to Lupton, this opposition is ‘a response to uncertainty’ (1996:92). Surely, food uncertainty and confusion can be real, particularly for those who do not grow and produce (their own) food.

However, this does not mean that the opposition is irrational, unjustified or arbitrary, and thus not based on people’s embodied relation with food. In fact, rather than the opposition, what appears problematic is the classification of food as either ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’. For instance, due to their way of production and distribution, it is no longer valid to categorize all raw and whole food, such as fruit and vegetables, as ‘natural’. Indeed, they are not so ‘natural’ anymore when chemicals are used during their cultivation, to keep them fresh or delay their decay. The naturalness of this food is then justifiably contested. It does seem that such a food is actually quite ‘unnatural’ and closer to ‘culture’ than ‘nature’. In fact, modern development in food and food practices could be seen as a process of retreat from ‘nature’ towards ‘culture’ (Lupton 1996).

Nature versus culture


Like the body, food too is highly ambivalent. According to Lupton, food threatens contamination and bodily impurity through its uncleanness and highly unstable materiality. Indeed, ‘food intrudes into the ‘clean’ purity of rational thought because of its organic nature’ (Lupton 1996:3). Yet food is vital for our survival, and is also desired as a source of pleasure and satisfaction. Modern industrialized food could be seen as an attempt to overcome this ambivalence by eliminating or at least diminishing food’s organic aspects, and turn it into a more inorganic substance. Indeed, such a food is ‘rational’, ‘clean’ and relatively stable when the packaging conceals its smell and keeps it clean, and the processing, additives or preservatives make from it a more stable substance. Prepared or ready-made food is an epitome of such a food.

One could say that ‘nature’ is ‘conquered’ by ‘culture’ and merges with it, and that the natural–industrialized dichotomy and the related nature–culture dichotomy become irrelevant. Like ‘body’, ‘mind’ or ‘society’, ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ too are general, broad and vague terms, which are understood rather intuitively, and thus one can easily be ‘lost’ in them. Moreover, it is quite impossible to keep them totally separate; they are intertwined and impact each other. In effect, culture is built on nature, and so nothing cultural is purely cultural but a mixture of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. For instance, a packaged cake one can buy is a cultural product, even if the ingredients it is made of as such fruit or wheat are always to some extent natural, that is, they are not really made by man. Food is thus a cultural and natural amalgam, or a liminal substance connecting nature and culture (Lupton 1996).

However, bio food, thanks to its vaunted naturalness and other features, recreates the natural–industrialized opposition, and, in a sense, frees ‘nature’ from ‘culture’ in spite of the fact that it is also a sociocultural product. So even though it is quite impossible to divide food into either ‘natural’ or ‘cultural’, this does not mean that the opposition is irrelevant, and the two are basically the same. As bio food makes clear, and itself epitomizes, not all food is equally natural and cultural. To not only understand bio food but also our recent complexity of food, food’s composition and origins, it is crucial to distinguish between food’s ‘nature’ and ‘culture’.

The preceding blog Bio food as a material thing: Materiality & immateriality of bio food can be found here

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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