31 May 2019



I have written many times on the issue of food and food supplies for past topics, with the most recent being: The Impact of Population Growth (https://www.philomadrid.com/2018/12/from-lawrence-sunday-philomadrid_14.html).

My general ethical and political position on the topic of food supplies is the following. In principle countries already produce or can produce enough food for everyone so none will go hungry. I discuss this issue in the essay mentioned above. Briefly, the issue is more of management and distribution rather than finance and quantity. And large corporations have already shown us the way on how to deliver products throughout the world cheaply and effective.

My other position is that if people need charity it’s because their government is abusing their human rights. And today my position is vindicated by the situation in the UK as reported by the United Nations Human Rights Office. “GENEVA (22 May 2019) - The UK Government’s policies have led to the systematic immiseration of millions across Great Britain,…….”(1) and “Although the United Kingdom is the world’s fifth largest economy, one fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty, and 1.5 million of them experienced destitution in 2017.” (2).

The British example is a modern case of poverty in a supposed advanced first world country where either by intention or consequence of political policies or ideology people are forced into poverty to the extent that they rely on food charities. The Trussell Trust reported handing out 1.6million three-day food supplies between April 2018- March2019. (3)

It might be argued that political ideology, and extreme political ideologies in particular, are fated to cause disasters resulting in many people becoming poor leading to famine as we know from some historical examples. The Neo Liberal policies of Tory governments in the UK have led to the above documented social disaster. Historical extremes include the Holodomor Famine in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-1933 and the Great Chinese Famine in 1959 and 1961. Some might even argue that the Great depression of the 1930 in the USA was also a failure of the capitalist system.

The philosophical hard question is: under what legitimacy or mandate do political groups (parties) who hold power are allowed to introduce policies that can adversely affect the welfare of people? At face value the answer is no justification at all. But this question should be contrasted in the context of sovereignty of states and the right for governments to rule (govern), at least under their own constitution.

On the other side of the food topic spectrum, we have production of food. The problems here start from what to grow as food staples and where to grow it. For example should cattle be kept in large pens or left roaming in open fields? In many cases cattle are kept in large forest or jungle clearings without proper care of the land itself. All have positive and negative consequences and in many cases we know precisely what the consequences are: for example in the case of animals the more they are kept under unnatural conditions the more likely they'll be affected by infectious diseases which spread quickly in the population.

The economics of food production and food supplies is that those who are responsible for growing our food or even preparing our food are not necessarily fairly paid as much as those who manage food. This report from Ireland, which I found at random from Google, is a good example: 'We might as well be giving lambs away for free': Sheep farmers protest over 'savage' price cuts  -  Independent.ie.(4)

The issue goes up the chain to the point of sale which includes fast food outlets or large supermarkets.  Job-Applications.com (5), USA, an employment agency who specialise in the fast food industry (found at random in Google), report an average wage for a cook in a fast food restaurant to be between $7.25 – $9.00 per hour. Compare this with the figure reported in Trading Economics, for the average hourly rate in the USA of $23.31. In other words the food we eat might involve damage to the environment and even financial exploitation of some people working in the industry.

Indeed food is a key human activity especially in the production and supply of food and by definition that creates issues in economics and politics which imply philosophical issues. An important issue in the philosophy of food includes the aesthetics of food. Basically, can food be art? Of course, the primary purpose of food is to provide nourishment for survival: a Trussell Trust food parcel can hardly be described as art but then again the Las Meninas can hardly be described as art given that paintings in the 17th Century were more a vehicle for social status than art for art sake.

I would argue that the status of art can apply to food in the same way that the title of art can apply to paintings, literature and music. But, like music, paintings or literature, not all examples of food are examples of art. The biggest drawback of food as art is that each example of food as art can only be enjoyed by one person; only one person can consume the artness of food unlike say painting. Basically, the “artness” of food must reside in the taste and digestive after effects of the food rather than how the food looks. Even more, for something to be art it must be created or made by human beings. We do not really attribute artness to nature, but we certainly attribute beauty to nature. A particular peach might be exceptionally beautiful, but does that make a peach melba made with this beautiful peach a work of art? Certainly not it’s the chef or cook that will turn a beautiful peach into an artistic peach melba. 

Another quirky aspect of food as art is that the work of art itself has to be destroyed for a human being to enjoy the full artness of the food. The half life of an artistic piece of food can be measured in hours: the half life of Las Meninas is probably hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. And the residual question for us is this: is the artness of the piece of food we have in front of us, as individuals, in the food itself or is the artness in the recipe of the food?

At the very least we have to accept that the chef of an artisitc piece of food must be able to recreate his/her artistic creation to the same standard and quality every time. This is very similar to music, where the composer of the music is not necessarily the one who will reproduce the artness for us, the audience. The artness of music is usually reproduced for us by others, although one might be hard pressed to claim logical identity if someone reproduced a work by The Beatles or Elvis Presley. Thus, can a dish or cake recipe have the lofty status and majesty of say the music score by Beethoven of the No. 9 Symphony, Ode to Joy? Is the recipe of a Christmas pudding the equivalent of the score for Ode to Joy in gastronomy?

One of the main discussion issues in aesthetics is the fact that the appreciation of art is subjective. Some people like the Las Meninas in the Prado and some don’t, but there is no question that Las Meninas is art. But like a chef, Velazques was himself creating a subjective work which of course people have still hailed as a masterpiece. But the bottom line is that this is the subjective work of an individual in the same subjective way that someone may or may not like the painting.

But unlike a painting or a piece of music, one cannot step away from a piece of food if one does not like that food or worse, say if one is allergic to one of the ingredients. In the involved/implicated debate we are implicated in the Las Meninas but fully involved, like the pig in an English breakfast, in the case of the Christmas pudding. We can walk away from the Las Meninas, but once we bite into a slice of Christmas pudding, there is no going back.

And this leads us to a serious question on whether to afford the status of art to food. Food can cause us harm in a way in which the Ode to Joy will never do no matter how much we hate it. Can we declare that: art ought not cause harm to people? Maybe we might add art must not cause harm when appreciated as art? Sure if the painting we call Las Meninas fell on someone it will cause them serious harm, but that’s not what I mean. A modern context example of this moral question would be a laser display that might cause harm to those exposed to the laser beam.

I conclude with three questions: Could it well be that a necessary condition for the status of art has is to be “do no harm” to those enjoying the art? And would the potential of causing harm, for example allergenic ingredients in the food, an a priori factor to exclude food from being art? But when food causes harm, eg fast food, who is morally and legally responsible; those who provide the food or the state who allows such practices?

Best Lawrence

(1) UN expert laments UK’s ‘doubling down on failed anti-poor policies’ (press release) https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=24636&LangID=E

(2) Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (Great Britain)

(3) The Trussell Trust – End of year stats

(4) 'We might as well be giving lambs away for free': Sheep farmers protest over 'savage' price cuts  -  Independent.ie

(5) Fast Food Restaurant Job Salaries  -  Job-Applications.com USA

(6) Trading Economics - United States Average Hourly Wages

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