Food Science Is Always Political

Almost every food choice is also influenced by policy decisions made by governments, food companies, retailers, and even food scientists, says presenter Cesar Vega Morales in IFT20 session 247.

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By Nancy Mann Jackson

For most people, the decision of what to eat for dinner or what to pack in your child’s lunchbox may seem like it’s based on your income, busy schedule, and taste preferences. But almost every food choice is also influenced by policy decisions made by governments, food companies, retailers, and even food scientists, says presenter Cesar Vega Morales in IFT20 session 247.

Those food policy decisions affect what items are produced by a particular company, how they are labeled, how they are priced, and where they appear on store shelves. While consumers certainly make their own food choices based on their own values, those priorities can fluctuate. For instance, during times of economic uncertainty, a focus on sustainability can take a back seat to focus on pricing, Morales says.

While some consumers have ethical questions about the sustainability of their food or additives in their food, a focus on using purchasing decisions to resolve ethical concerns around food production has not been successful, according to Morales. Instead, policy changes are more effective.

Christy Spackman of Arizona State University delves further into the politics of food science, using case study examples to show how things that don’t seem political, such as molecules, actually can be political. Molecules have political histories, and new food products enter already existing political landscapes—so the choices food scientists make in the lab have an economic, ecological, and social impact on lots of people.

For that reason, food scientists must make their own ethical decisions about science and take a stand with those in their organizations who set policy. John Coupland, a Pennsylvania State University professor, explains how food science often informs policy decisions but the decisions aren’t made solely based on the science.

To make a greater impact, food scientists can take on a variety of different political roles. For instance, they are often asked to assemble data, but the data they choose to assemble is likely based on their own position. Rather than pretending to be indifferent, scientists should take a stand, using data to support their arguments. Good policy making requires people to advocate for each reasonable option, Coupland says.


Learn more about the role scientists can play in food policy decisions by viewing this session in the on-demand library.

Registration for SHIFT20 provides access to the on-demand library of sessions for a full year.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer based in Huntsville, Ala.

Kelly Hensel

Senior Digital Editor, IFT

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