Julie Guthman: How responsible are we for our fat?

by Catherine Dolan

We are, we are told, in the throes of an obesity epidemic, supersizing our way to diabetes, heart disease, and premature death. According to conventional wisdom our profligate appetites threaten to cripple our public health system, weaken our economy, and accelerate our vulnerabilities to climate change. To reverse the trend we need to change our consumption habits: put down the down the remote and head to the gym, and spurn burgers and chips for locally-sourced produce from our neighbourhood farmers market.


Professor Julie Guthman of the University of California, Santa Cruz, challenged this established account of the obesity ‘crisis,’ provoking us to look at what the crisis narrative highlights and more importantly what it obscures. According to Guthman, all the attention paid to reforming the dietary decisions of individual consumers is misguided; there is more to spiking obesity rates than calories in and out. Our girth, she argues, is not necessarily a product of our laziness, shoddy food choices, or the obesogenic environment – the prevalence of fast food restaurants, walking paths, or the food available in our communities, workplaces or schools – that surrounds us. These explanations divert our attention from a complex range of economic, biological, and political factors that are equally plausible predictors for the contemporary prevalence of fat. She noted, for example, that the alternative food movement’s promotion of farmers’ markets and seasonal, organic produce fails to account for the political economy and geographies of food availability and affordability: eating right thrives in ‘high end’ areas of race and class privilege, making healthism and the market-based solutions it implies complicit in the obesity epidemic.

Instead, Guthman suggested that we look to the role that endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) play in obesity rates, citing a number of environmental obesogens that permeate our food system, from the hormones and pesticides used in the production of meat and crops to the chemicals used in packaging our favorite foods (e.g. perfluorooctanoic acid used making the lining of pizza cartons).  These chemicals not only disturb hormonal balances and promote fat storage but can also induce changes in genes themselves, potentially altering the bodily form for future generations. According to Guthman, prenatal and perinatal exposures to these and other chemicals (e.g. those found in hair dye, medicines, cosmetics etc.), can help to explain why we see accelerating rates of obesity in newborns and children.

Thinking about how environmental toxins contribute to obesity shifts the lens away from how much we move and eat, and like David Barling’s earlier seminar, takes the notion of the autonomous free-choosing consumer to task. Indeed, if we accept Guthman’s argument, consumers may be less responsible for their swelling waistlines than the toxins and food additives that epitomise contemporary industrial food systems.

This was the fifth talk in our seminar series on the Politics and Practices of Food Governance. We will make a recording of this talk available shortly.


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.

Alan Petersen on childhood obesity in Australia

Alan Petersen, Professor of Sociology at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia), gave the second seminar in The Politics and Practices of Food Governance series. Alan’s talk drew on findings from a recent study[1] that explores how mothers engage with childhood obesity policy and practice in childcare centres. For that purpose Alan and his colleagues recruited participants for an interview study from three childcare sites in Melbourne, Australia, and conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with eight mothers and two childcare workers per site (n=30). The research team asked mothers and childcare workers about:

  • Day-to-day practices of nutritional care, diet and weight management including child food preferences and portion control
  • What ‘health’, a ‘healthy diet’,  ‘healthy weight’ and ‘appropriate’ physical activity meant to them
  • Sense of responsibility concerning children’s diet and weight
  • Challenges encountered in providing a ‘healthy’ diet and ensuring the ‘healthy’ weight of children
  • Information received about and attitudes towards overweight in children and childhood obesity
  • Public health interventions, advice received and experiences

As numerous excerpts from the interviews showed, the effort to manage diets as ‘responsible’ mothers and citizens proved challenging to the interviewed mothers. The diversity of information about children’s nutritional needs and what constitutes ‘healthy ’ diets, the constraints posed by personal socio-economic circumstances, and the need to juggle domestic and non-domestic activities all made dietary management more complex.

Alan drew attention to the significance and role of emotions in this context. He talked about mothers’ anxieties and worries in relation to their children’s (future) health. From a theoretical point of view, Alan suggested viewing social anxieties as they pertain to health, body weight and diet as integral to contemporary, neoliberal rule and the ‘responsibilisation’ of mothers. As such, the study highlights the gendered division of emotional labour in private and public spheres, and seeks to understand this as a form of ‘affective governance’.

While efforts to align personal practices with prescribed ideals of ‘healthy, responsible’ motherhood can be taxing and generate anxiety, Alan argued, it would be wrong to suggest that mothers accept expert discourses uncritically.

In summary, Alan and his colleagues demonstrated that mothers are well aware of dominant policy and expert discourses in relation to childhood obesity, and are conscientious about how they engage with and negotiate these discourses. However, this engagement is not always graspable in the public health policy terms of ‘making healthy choices’. Choice as a concept through which to view – in this case the Australian mothers’ – food purchasing and preparation practices is not only limited by food affordability, accessibility and availability, but also does not reflect the lived reality of mothers’ care practices in relation to food and eating. To examine this dissonance, we can problematize the notion of ‘choice’ as the ‘anchor’ of food purchasing and consumption. What Alan and his colleagues’ study alerts us to, then, are the limitations of choice as a key concept for understanding mothers’ food practices – and hence, the limitations of choice as a key concept for public health policies that frame childhood obesity as an issue of consumption.

We will make a recording of this talk available shortly.

Charles Godfray on the challenge of feeding 9-10 billion people by mid-century

by Stanley Ulijaszek

Charles Godfray, the Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food gave the first seminar of this series, one that laid the ground and stated the issues that surround food governance at the macro-level. Charles is extremely erudite and well-versed in the debates that surround “The challenge of feeding 9-10 billion people by mid-century”. The world food system will certainly experience unprecedented stresses over coming decades from marked growth in demand at a time of increased supply-side pressures. To a packed audience, Charles covered a broad range of issues, some obvious, some less so. He explored the challenges ahead and argued that radical changes are needed in the ways we produce and consume food, as well as in the organisation and governance of our food systems. The talk quickly led into keen discussion about whether proposed solutions, frequently emanating from the natural sciences, take sufficient account of cultural, social and political economic factors. The questions came from every direction, and Charles was never short of an answer. An outstanding start!

Please note that due to a technical problem, we have not been able to record this talk. We intend to publish audio recordings of subsequent talks in our series.


… to the Oxford Food Governance Group (OFG) blog – the collaborative blog of, currently six, researchers at the University of Oxford who share an interdisciplinary research interest in food governance practices. We are mainly based at Saïd Business School, the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) and the Unit for Biocultural Variation and Obesity (UBVO), but collaborate with colleagues in many other departments. This blog is written and updated collectively by members of the group.