David Barling on sustainability and governance of the food supply

by Catherine Dolan

Dr David Barling

David Barling

Dr David Barling of the Food Policy Centre, City University, delivered another thought-provoking seminar for the The Politics and Practices of Food Governance series, laying out the state of play in European food governance. Since the late 1990s, the food supply has become the focal point for a range of regulatory standards and voluntary certification schemes. David charted the genealogy of these initiatives and presented a clear picture of how forms of food governance — public regulation, corporate initiatives, and public private alliances — hold ever-greater authority over the way our food is produced, marketed and consumed.  As he discussed, however, the policies and practices of food governance are not always aligned and there are powerful political, social, and financial stakes in defining sustainability in particular ways.

This, David suggested, raises pressing questions on how the contemporary complex of standards, certification schemes and auditing protocols is shaping the role of consumer citizenship. Problematising the notion of the empowered consumer who exercises choice through market preferences, David described how it is the structures of food governance, whether state, market or hybrid alliances, that often choose for us, designating which issues have salience and which do not. He gave a vivid example of how a UK retailer wrestles with which information to feature on product packaging (e.g. dolphin friendly? organic? fairtrade? low fat?, and so on), selecting consumer concerns that are most obviously linked to sales at the check-out till. This process of information editing not only determines the choices available on supermarket shelves but also shapes how consumers understand the meaning of ‘ethical’, ‘healthy’, and ‘sustainable’ food.

David’s talk thus challenges us to think more deeply about how the policies and practices of food governance are affecting consumer sovereignty: are we free agents exercising our political values through consumption, or consumers whose knowledge and choices are evermore controlled by the contemporary architecture of food governance?

We will make a recording of this talk available shortly.

This was the fourth talk in our seminar series on the Politics and Practices of Food Governance. Our next  speaker will be Professor Julie Guthman who questions the notion of ‘fat places’  and the obesogenic environment thesis in her talk.

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