Tag Archives: economics

Bread, Milk, and the Greek Parliamentary Record

by Leo Vournelis

Liana Kaneli, image provided by the author.

Two weeks ago the Greek government announced a new round of austerity measures targeted primarily at civil servants, wage earners, retirees, and low middle class families. The picture above shows Liana Kaneli, a member of the Greek Communist Party, addressing her fellow MPs in the Greek Parliament during that same week (you can see a video of her speaking here). As she approached the podium carrying a plastic grocery bag, she requested that her entire speech be recorded to the Parliamentary Record (Praktika) “because she is a woman”. It is not clear if the MP meant that she is bringing in groceries to the Parliament floor because she is a woman, or because she is a woman she might otherwise be ignored if her speech is not recorded to the Parliamentary Record. Then she proceeded to remove a loaf of bread and a plastic bottle of milk and invited the audience’s attention with an expression commonly used in farmers markets by sellers trying to catch the attention of the shopping housewives. The MP wanted to make the point that these items are becoming increasingly unaffordable for large sections of the populace, however she was interrupted by the Chair of the Parliament and was told that food on the podium did not constitute imagery that was appropriate for the Greek Parliament, “otherwise I could bring some chickens in here and someone else can bring some sheep” said the Chairman. The MP sarcastically apologized for offending the dignity of the Parliament and for ruining the “décor” and proceeded to submit the food items to the Parliamentary Record.  Amidst protests from other MPs that physical objects may not be submitted to the Parliamentary Record, Kaneli removed the offending food items from the podium and after concluding her speech she walked away. The next day the Chairman of the Parliament issued a statement condemning the event as “political theater”, while the Greek Communist Party issued its own announcement supporting its member’s actions and, citing Bertolt Brecht, noted that “those who are in high places have always found talking about food to be demeaning”.

Perhaps Greek gender politics played into the fact that it was a female MP who chose to criticize government policy in the language of daily food shopping, yet heated discussions like these concerning the affordability of every day staples help us understand the serious economic hardships that many Greeks are facing. It is not surprising, therefore, that references to food are common in Greek public discourse about the crisis. When it first became clear, 2 years ago, that the Greek State was essentially broke, food was widely used as a metaphor in popular calls demanding accountability.  The question of “Who ate the money” was raised by people and politicians alike.  While eating money refers to irresponsible and wasteful spending of money, popular demands to know who it was that “ate the money” were essentially calls for justice. Politicians and state functionaries were called out for their mismanagement of the resources of the Greek economy. David Sutton in “Eating in Times of Financial Crisis” discusses the use of food as a theme in making sense of the debt crisis. He points out that although the economic crisis was not framed always in terms of food issues, food as a theme is becoming increasingly central in making sense and navigating the new economic realities in Greece.

The incident in the Greek Parliament last week shows the ability of food to embody value (a practical way to assess the rising cost of living) as well as values. The heated exchange between the MP and the Chairman was brought about by the polluting presence of food in a space in which political philosophies are debated and bills are voted on. During this exchange which lasted less than 3 minutes we witness, among other things, the power of food to embody meaning, provoke conflict, offend sensitivities, and express ideas about class and gender. Ultimately, this power is derived from the ability of food to bring together diverse cultural domains of experience and practice.

The associative powers of food can also help us understand another prominent use of food in the unfolding of the debt crisis. This past year thousands of Greeks have taken to the streets, following the example of the Indignados movement in Spain. They have used food as a tool, a physical object to be expelled en masse in public marches, protestations, and strikes usually against the police and politicians. The food most commonly used as a projectile is a traditional variety of Greek strained yogurt made from sheep’s milk that bears strong associations with rural lifestyles and values. When the Chairman wanted to mock MP Kaneli, he made reference to rurality through the not very subtle suggestion of bringing livestock into parliament. It is interesting to consider why references to rurality make up a key feature of popular protests as well. In my next post I’ll suggest some of the ways that exploring yoghurt as political protest provides provocative angles on some of the sources of discontent in contemporary Greece.

 

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Filed under anthropology, culture, Debt crisis, economics, food policy, food security, gender, Greece, SAFN Member Research

Eating in Times of Financial Crisis

File it under “strange and unusual.” That’s what Reuters did in putting up the photo of one of many Yemeni protestors who made the link between food and politics explicit. The usually stuffy journal Foreign Policy was also taking notice, as a “first-ever food issue” featured articles on “The Baguettes of War” and “Eat, Drink, Protest.” shows how unstrange and usual are the actual connections between food and protest.

Theodoros Pangalos, via http://en.contrainfo.espiv.net/

This is a picture of Thedoros Pangalos, the portly deputy prime minister of Greece who recently claimed that all Greeks have to pay for the current financial Crisis because “we all ate together.” This expression intrigued me, as it showed the different metaphors used in different countries in Europe to express the idea of sharing the blame. In Ireland, the claim was “we all partied,” whereas in the U.K. it was the more anodyne “we’re all in it together. The food theme, however, resonated in Greece. In Athens in May of this year protest over the so-called “debt and IVA crisis” was not framed explicitly in terms of food issues. Taking their inspiration from protestors in Spain, Greeks gathering in the central Constitution Square dubbed themselves the “outraged,” to express their frustration with a political system and a global economic system that had led the country to hopeless solutions that punished ordinary people without touching the wealthy that had brought the system to its current state. But protestors were quick to respond to Pangalos’ claim: after a man wearing a mask of the deputy prime minister repeated the line to the crowd of thousands, their response barely missed a beat: You lying bastard!” They roar back. “You’re so fat you ate the entire supermarket.”

During this time I was involved in my ongoing  research project on changing cooking practices on the island of Kalymnos, one of the Dodecanese islands in the Eastern Aegean. While there were not protests in the streets of Kalymnos as yet, the financial crisis was much on peoples minds as they commented sardonically on the exploits of Dominique Strauss-Kahn as Kalymnians went about their daily cooking,and shopping, or held debates via Facebook about the implications of the “Argentinian model” for Greek default. The implications of the crisis for food practices was seen in debates over whether “tradition” could see them through hard times, with some suggesting that a return to the “old days” of beans 5 days a week and everyone gardening was the proper response; and indeed, rumors were in the air that many Athenians were returning to their natal villages (or their parents or grandparents natal villages) to go back to the land. Others insisted that Kalymnians were now too addicted to meat to contemplate a different diet, but that the circulation of cheap cuts of meat due to the growth of multinational supermarkets on the island meant that people needed to be more calculating shoppers. This intrigued me because shopping  has always been a moral act on Kalymnos in which one balances obligations to friends and neighbors and the specific circumstances of shop owners—at this store, the parents were trying to send two kids to University, at that store the owners are Communist so they should/shouldn’t be supported—with a sense that good shoppers don’t allow themselves to be taken advantage of. Was a different social morality of shopping in the process of emerging? Not everything was “new” however, as many Kalymnians pointed out to me that the financial crisis had led to the return of the “debt” (verese) system of keeping books of accounts at small grocery stores, indeed this helped those smaller stores compete against the big supermarkets that didn’t offer such amenities. Debt with a small “d” meets debt with a capital “D” in contemporary times. Both for Kalymnians and for the Athenian protestors food remained a key idiom and practice to think through some of the outrages of our contemporary political-economic system, even sometimes in cannibalistic terms. As The Guardian reported:

Politicians now walk around with bodyguards,” says Aris Chatzistefanou, the co-director of Debtocracy, a film about the Greek crisis that has become a sensation. He quotes a newspaper report of how restaurateurs are taking down those cheesy framed photos of dining politicians, of how one government spokesman went to dinner a few weeks ago only for the rest of the restaurant to start shouting “You are eating the blood of the people”.

Comments by David Sutton

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Filed under anthropology, culture, Debt crisis, disaster, economics, food security, Greece, SAFN Member Research

Contaminated cuisines and the omnivore’s dilemma

The Egg of Death?

As a service to our readers and with the permission of the editors of Anthropology News, we have decided to republish each month’s SAFN column from that publication.  This, then, is the December 2010 column, edited by Kenneth Maes and Alyson Young.

Contaminated cuisines and the omnivore’s dilemma
By George Armelagos (Emory U) and Kenneth Maes (Brown U)

Much media and scholarly attention has been paid to obesity epidemics. More recently, worry over food safety in terms of pathogenic infection and toxicity has assumed prominence on par with concerns about over-nutrition. George Armelagos, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology at Emory University and recipient of the AAA’S 2008 Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service, recently took on both of these issues in an article published in the Journal of Anthropological Research (66[2]:161-186), entitled “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Evolution of the Brain and the Determinants of Food Choice.” The article critiques Michael Pollan’s popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma for ignoring the importance of infectious epidemics caused by industrial food systems in the US. Below, George Armelagos and Kenneth Maes discuss the omnivore’s dilemma in light of last summer’s massive salmonella outbreak in the US egg supply.

Omnivores have a predilection for a varied diet, but this represents a challenge given that new foods are often feared for their potentially poisonous and deadly qualities. This is the omnivore’s dilemma: the confrontation between neophilia and neophobia.

The omnivore’s dilemma for our primate cousins is instructive. The rainforest may seem to be an unlimited source of food, much like a supermarket. But many plants have evolved toxins for their own protection. In 1978, Daniel Janzens commented that the primate world is not colored various shades of green, but instead colored morphine, caffeine, tannin, phenol, oxalic acid, and saponin. Thus potential jungle foods demand careful discrimination.

The invention of cuisine was an essential process in human biocultural evolution. As a cultural system, cuisine determines items in nature that are potentially edible and how they are processed into food, flavored or enhanced, and eaten in a culturally-correct manner.  Cuisine is thus an attempted solution to the omnivore’s dilemma. But not all aspects of a cuisine are adaptive. Aspects of an industrialized food system can be severely maladaptive—and thus the omnivore’s dilemma remains unvanquished for modern humans.

This is illustrated by last summer’s recall of a half-billion eggs after nearly 1300 cases of salmonella infection were reported among US consumers. This massive number of eggs came from only two factory farms in Iowa, which in turn had a common supplier of chicken feed. This attests to the extent of conglomeration in the food industry, driven by a desire for cheaper food, which incentivizes the cutting of safety corners. Neither factory involved in the recall had ever been inspected by the top federal and state agencies responsible for food safety oversight (for details, click here).

In last summer’s salmonella epidemic, hens were individually exposed to infected rodent feces, leading to salmonella infection of their ovaries and thus their developing eggs. In previous salmonella outbreaks spread by chicken eggs, the mode of transmission involved contamination of the outer shells of already-laid eggs. This is controlled by more stringent procedures in preparing eggs for market. Unfortunately, such procedures cannot prevent the infection of hens’ ovaries and thus eggs that are infected “from the inside-out.”

In 1999, Paul Mead and colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths in the US each year. Salmonella, Listeria, and Toxoplasma are responsible for 1,500 of these deaths, while the majority of deaths and illnesses are caused by unknown food-borne agents, including toxins, viruses, and other bacteria. For Mead and colleagues, the importance of these unknown agents cannot be overstated. Yet 63% of US shoppers feel that foods sold in supermarkets are safe, though this percentage may be dropping.

Throughout human evolution, contaminated or poisonous foods have posed a problem despite the attempts of cuisine to keep them out of our bodies. Michael Pollan’s popular writings overlook this aspect of the omnivore’s dilemma. For Pollan, the dilemma faced by humans in the U.S. and around the world involves the long-term health consequences of over-consuming sugars, fats and salt. Over-nutrition is certainly important, but is only part of the dietary dilemma faced by people today. A complete understanding of the omnivore’s dilemma must include the more immediate dangers posed by infectious microbes and toxins in industrialized food systems. Perhaps rainforests and supermarkets share a fundamental similarity after all.

Please send your news and items of interest to Kenneth Maes or Alyson Young.

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Wheat prices “tumble” — for now?

miles and miles of Washington wheat

Last week I reported on the dramatic rise in wheat prices and suggested that this may be a sign of another food crisis. The rise in price was driven by bad weather and fires in Russia, which is a global player in wheat exports. Russia reacted to the predicted shortfall by imposing export bans on grains. This signaled to markets a reduction in supply, with no change in demand, and prices rose. Speculators moved in and drove the price up further.

Now it looks like things are swinging the other way.  Since that post, wheat prices have “tumbled”, largely in response to new information about the global supply of wheat (including larger than expected US harvests) and the belief that farmers will react to the “shortfall” by increasing production.

This latter point highlights a central tension in global food markets. Limited supply and high prices can generate human suffering in the short term but lead to increased production in the long term.

Grain markets are predicted to remain uncertain for some time as traders try to get a handle on the global wheat supply but given information on the current supply it looks like speculators will ease up, and prices will come down.

Posted by Craig Hadley

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Behavioral Economics, Food and Culture

Picture courtesy of Emily Yates-Doerr

Try this as a thought experiment: Imagine a store that sells broccoli and doughnuts, along with everything else a grocery store sells.  Now, let’s manipulate the prices of those two items to see whether or not we can get people to buy more or less of each.  Why?  Well, we are going to assume that broccoli is healthier than doughnuts and we want to find out if we can get people to buy more of the former than the latter.  Of course, we can probably use price to influence these purchases.  But wait, you might say, that is silly.  Nobody substitutes broccoli for doughnuts.  People buy them for entirely different occasions.   And you might add that just buying them doesn’t tell us much.  Do people who buy broccoli actually eat it before it rots in the fridge?  Do they smother it in butter or cheese?  Is there someone out there who ponders whether or not to have doughnuts rather than broccoli with their steak?  Clearly this experiment leaves a lot of relevant information out of the picture.  We probably would not want to use this sort of experiment to figure out how to address obesity in the U.S.

One of the key insights of nutritional anthropology—of all anthropology, really—is that human behavior can best be understood holistically.  This means that food consumption choices, for example, can rarely be explained by only one thing, like price.  To understand why people purchase items at a grocery store—and why they later consume them, assuming they do—we need to look at the social relations those items help create and maintain, as well as the meanings people attach to particular goods.  We also want to put the whole set of transactions and meanings into historical and political-economic context.

In other words, when you buy broccoli or doughnuts, there is a lot of explaining to be done.  And if we, as a society, decide that we are too fat, we need to look very carefully at the whole context of fatness in figuring out what kinds of policies might help address the problem (for one good take on that, check out the wonderful book Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession, edited by Don Kulick and Anne Meneley).

About a week ago, National Public Radio ran a story on an effort to encourage grocery store shoppers to buy healthier food.  The journalist, Allison Aubrey, cited a study by researchers at the University of Buffalo who set up an entire fake supermarket and then recruited some mothers to shop there.  They supplied the mothers with money and then manipulated prices on items they (the researchers) decided were healthy and junk in order to see if they could influence choices.  They discovered that prices can have an impact, although they also found out that the mothers would still buy “junk” if they had money left over after purchasing reduced price broccoli.  The reporter also found a “behavioral economist” who, citing a “theory of loss aversion,” said he found this behavior (by the mothers, not the researchers) unsurprising.

As far as I know, they did not study whether or not anyone ate any of the stuff they bought.

This is stunning, you have to admit.  No, not the price sensitivity.  I think that is pretty obvious.  Rather, the idea that researchers would set up an entire fake grocery store.  Why not study how people really shop, in real stores?  Why not see what they do with the food they buy?  And find out what their families do with it?  Maybe even ask them about it.  No, not in a survey.  Not even in a focus group.  Go watch them.  Hang out with them.  Follow them around.  Check out differences between what they think they do, say they do…and really do.  The fake grocery store merely allows researchers—perhaps this is what behavioral economists do—to assume away big chunks of social, cultural and historic context.  It turns out, of course, that there are anthropologists who have studied consumption practices in a more holistic manner.  Daniel Miller and colleagues (check out the Material World blog) have done some great work in this area, for example.  And read this brilliant story about what happens when an anthropologist observes a family actually eating breakfast.

The vigilant team here at FoodAnthropology has found even more fantastic recent work by anthropologists that help put these choices in context.  Amy Paugh and Carolina Izquierdo recently published work on the battles between parents and children over what constitutes healthy dining in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology (“Why is This a Battle Every Night?: Negotiating Food and Eating in American Dinnertime Interaction,”2009, vol. 19, number 2).  Joylin Namie has produced some very useful recent work on the role children play in family food choices, writing recently in Anthropology News that “When it comes to food in US households, children may not be driving the car, but they are often driving the cart” (“The Power of Children Over Household Consumption,” 2008, volume 49, number 4, pages 11-12).  Price, it turns out, is only one factor in determining why people buy food.  We need, as these anthropologists (and many others) show, to pay attention to what people really do and to why they do it if we want to develop policies that will really address obesity.

Otherwise we may as well be comparing broccoli and doughnuts.

Posted by David Beriss.

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