When food-related topics enter academia (commentary)

When food-related topics enter academia (commentary)

FALL inherently ushers in a sense of renewal on college campuses. However, one thing is never new.

About halfway into the semester, students will approach me outside of class because they want to discuss some food-related topic (e.g., vegetarianism) that's covered in another course. This semester has proved no different.

We all have to eat; thus, there's nothing more basic to the human experience than food. That reality has led many instructors to increasingly utilize the subject as an important and effective platform to establish common ground in the classroom. That's favorable.

Simultaneously, to some degree, college campuses are a microcosm of the real world. Heightened interest in food among the general public has resulted in a growing number of food-related classes and/or studies across a variety of disciplines.

Instructors follow their passion and, subsequently, develop a curriculum around food topics and food production. In many cases, though, there's no real background or expertise to provide such offerings. That's not so favorable.

Whatever the reason, my after-class conversations indicate that students are wrestling with ideas and developing their critical thinking skills. But are they? That holds the key to this discussion.

There's always an underlying need to remind my students that agriculture and the food industry are full of complexities. That's because their questions typically revolve around some binary, black-and-white, good guy-versus-bad guy presumption about the food industry. That's not unusual across college campuses.

For instance, Warren Belasco's successful text, Food: The Key Concepts, contends that the world "seems to spin from one major political crisis to another." Therefore, "watching what you eat may be one such way to feel in charge of your destiny," the outcome being that "the academic left has found food studies to be a fertile base for activist analysis of hunger, inequality, neo-colonialism, corporate accountability, biotechnology, globalization and ecological sustainability. These concerns underlie much of the food scholarship today and animate many new food studies courses, where students often attempt to recover and illuminate the invisible links in the global food chain."

Similarly, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article several years ago titled "The Vegetarian Lesson" by Chad Lavin at Virginia Tech University. Lavin's position demonstrates some of the pervasive bias.

He claims that "the operations of the meat industry (are) indefensible," with hopes that his "child be born into a world in which the default option is a diet free of the cruelty to both animals and workers endemic to feedlots, slaughterhouses and fast-food outlets."

The ultimate goal, he says, is political expansion of the vegetarian movement via the classroom: "If the industrial killing of animals is as bad as these writers say it is — 'a crime of stupefying proportions' ... — why does vegetarian literature rely almost exclusively on appeals to individual choice and invoke only tentatively political factors like power, law and the state?"

It's interesting to note that there's neither firsthand experience nor any real personal exploration. The projected worldview is based solely on what others "say it is." That does not represent critical thinking.

All of this struck a personal chord for me several years ago. A colleague with no food industry experience or training was teaching a food issues course and had reached out "looking for a good piece/book that responds to the wave of modern food criticism (like from Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and others) from an agriculture perspective. These are mostly journalists raising good questions, but my guess is that the mainstream (and my students) is not hearing the reasoned responses very often."

Precisely. Mainstream consumers and students don't hear the reasoned responses. However, the inquiry, in of itself, represents an enduring lack of deeper knowledge about food. My colleague didn't even know where to look.

It's impossible to establish balanced perspectives in that type of environment, yet that doesn't seem to give pause to some instructors; they press ahead despite the shortfall.

We want students to learn to reason and think critically. Unfortunately, food's complexity somehow lends itself to a rationalization that passion is the only important qualifier to facilitate meaningful instruction.

That merely serves to promote superficial discovery, lazy thinking and inherently slanted conclusions. In that scenario, education morphs into nothing more than a costly platform for food activism and ideology. We need to do better.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:85 Issue:43

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