Food Culture


A food culture is a distinctive system of deep beliefs, values and understanding about all aspects of food expressed through common habits, customs, behaviours, knowledge, appropriate skills, distinctive foods and food technologies, shared by a group of people and transmitted socially.

Nothing will change with our food until we change how we think and what we deep down believe about it. That means that nothing will change until our food culture changes. If we hope to bring a change to what we eat, we must first understand the roots from which our foods come and make changes at that deep level. This is a fundamental change and can happen only on an individual level, as it requires change of our deep beliefs and these we don't change easily, if at all.

What is the global industrial food culture? This doesn't have to be explained because it is what we see around us and which is presented in any kind of public media. This is the culture promoting industrial foods by focusing on consumerism, low prices, availability of all foods regardless of a season, uniformity rather than diversity, convenience of shopping through supermarkets or eating out in chain restaurants or take-home ready- to-eat meals. This is the culture that tells us which foods and tastes we will like and which we abhor. This is the culture that offers an ever expanding variety of brands and products, even though diversity of food is dramatically reduced. This is the culture that also supposedly cares about our health; it tells us which foods are good for us and which are not, promotes always new and fashionable nutrients and stresses the ultimate importance of food safety that is assured by governments. We all know what the industrial food culture is. It is the culture which we live every day.

It is more difficult to define what a sustainable food culture could be. The main principle is that it should be able to sustain us, humans, over generations. Sustainability understood this way cannot be achieved in a fractioned way; it must include all aspects of food production and among them must address our health and relationships built around food. If societies continue on the downward path that causes and spreads illness and the genetic degeneration of our species then from our human perspective, no other aspect of food sustainability than effect of industrial foods on our health will matter more. ARSAN has developed 17 Principles of Sustainable Foods and these best describe which criteria need to be considered and applied to conceptualize a sustainable food culture.

A food culture lies behind a system that provides foods for people and societies, big or small; the shape and build of a food system is the result of their beliefs and values. However, in recent times something has changed quite dramatically, reversing the relation between culture and the food system. The industrial, global food system has been shaping our beliefs and values to match and support what is important to interests of big corporations, not only those directly involved in food. In the last decades our food culture has deeply changed. That not only allows for pushing our food further the industrial, global path. It also helps increasingly marginalize any food dissent that could challenge the dominating beliefs and values about food. The global food system not only expands its territorial reach, it also increases its depth, consistently working on eradication of any food dissent. This is the direction that might will eventually lead to total dominance of the industrial food culture that already rules.

The potential dangers of such dominance of our minds, control of our health, and consequently of our whole lives need to be assessed by each one of us individually. But it is very important to understand how this process of eliminating potentially sustainable alternatives to our ruling food culture occurs. It happens on at least five different platforms:

  • Economics: industrial food system externalizes costs making foods look cheaper and more convenient than sustainable foods and those who want to produce sustainable foods cannot effectively compete.
  • Food and other sciences are almost entirely focused on and addressing only the interests of industrial food corporations. There is little money available to do science that could help expanding ideas about food sustainability.
  • Food propaganda and marketing. It is a very powerful way of changing and pushing the industrial food culture in which Big Food corporations and all mass media play crucial roles.
  • Food safety and other regulations heavily favour and serve interests of industrial foods that are produced on mass scale but regulations are not concerned with and don't address needs of small scale sustainable food production.
  • The medical establishment that rejects and is largely ignorant about the fundamental ties between our food and our health, supports diets and nutrition concepts that are fully in line with corporate interests, and particularly strongly supports interests of the pharmaceutical industry.

With such a heavy systemic pressure there is no wonder that it is very difficult, and for many almost impossible to form different beliefs and then get engaged in actions to develop an alternative sustainable food culture. Yet this is happening and the cultural dissent is steadily growing. That growth of food dissent is a visible proof that there must be a fundamental fault in our dominant food culture and that the problems it creates are too important for us, collectively and individually, to ignore.

Ancient Futures. Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalized World by Helena Norberg-Hodge