The food politics of Brexit

Dr Alex Colás and Dr Jason Edwards discuss the crucial place of food and drink in the Brexit negotiations, and how they could impact domestic and international politics. They are authors with Jane Levi and Sami Zubaida of Food, Politics, and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System (University of California Press), which will be launched at a reception on 13 December. Find out more and book your free place here.

Whatever the outcome of ongoing Brexit negotiations, one conclusion is abundantly clear: food and drink are critical to this process, and more widely to both domestic and international politics. This is most obvious in relation to the UK’s food security. With just over 30 per cent in value terms of Britain’s just-in-time food supply coming from within the European Union, the UK’S food security is likely to be compromised. A recent authoritative report warns that Britain’s nutritional and political stability could be undermined by price volatility, sharpening inequalities and erosion of public trust following Brexit. Far from being an anecdotal sideshow, the effects of the divorce on Britain’s food economy are starting to become apparent in both the agricultural and hospitality sectors, so dependent on EU labor.

The consequences of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU go beyond the high politics of summitry, increasingly appearing in the everyday lives of UK residents, touching on issues like national and regional identities, public health, fisheries and agriculture, commodity supply chains, fast food workers, food standards and changing consumer tastes. Products like Stilton, Arbroath Smokies or indeed Scotch whisky, all currently listed by the EU as having Protected Designation of Origin or Geographical Indication, are expected to retain this status only if there is a UK alignment with European regulations, and will otherwise have to apply as a ‘third country’ producers. The great British institution of the Friday night curry is also affected by Brexit. During the 2016 referendum campaign, leading Brexiteers secured the support of the Bangladesh Caterers Association – a major organisation representing the sector – with the promise that leaving the EU and ‘taking back control’ of immigration would ‘save our curry houses’. Two years on, representatives of this emblematic sector of the country’s catering industry say they are disappointed that the final Brexit deal is likely to offer EU citizens preferential access to the UK labour market. News headlines have equally highlighted the public health and food safety dimensions of Brexit as farmers and consumers worry about the prospect of chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-treated beef or genetically-modified organisms entering the UK food chain through trade deals with countries outside the EU.

All of these concerns have an extensive history in British and continental politics. In our new book Food, Politics, and Society we take the long view and argue that in fact questions of food prices and international trade; cuisine and identity; state regulation of food and drink; or the public health and environmental consequences of different food regimes have been central to the development of western social theory since the eighteenth century.

Classical political economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and their eminent critic Karl Marx should to different degrees be seen as theorists of food politics. Food is key to Smith and Ricardo’s famous accounts of rent and comparative advantage, while the importance for Marx’s work of the agro-ecological concept of ‘metabolism’ has recently been expertly recovered by Marxian scholars. Closer to our times, theories of nationalism, the public sphere, class or gender have emphasized the centrality of food and drink to the reproduction of these social phenomena.

It is useful to place the ongoing policy debates and political disputes surrounding the food politics of Brexit in wider historical and sociological perspective because food and drink have been of critical importance to European geopolitics in the modern age. In the nineteenth century, ‘Gastronationalism’ played a significant part in the formation of national identity in major states like Italy and France, and the invention of national and sub-national food cultures remains a feature of politics across Europe (an activity, somewhat ironically, much supported by the EU). But modern national food cultures have been shaped by a more-or-less conscious mimicry or rejection of other food cultures. The traditional British distaste for garlic – a French predilection – developed at the same time as a public eating culture massively influenced by French ideas of culinary technique and table service. The ‘revival’ of British food over the last twenty years is in fact far more of an invention shaped by foreign food developments, such as the Slow Food movement originating in Italy.

At the same time, the struggle to define national cuisines within states has often mirrored deep divides along lines of class, gender, and ethnicity. Brexit is – or has become – more than a disagreement over the economic costs and benefits of EU membership. It has expressed underlying conflicts in modern British society, and these conflicts are reflected in contending visions of what British food is and should be. Post-Brexit, British Gastronationalism is likely to be reinvented once again. As one restaurant critic recently put it: ‘In a post-Europe landscape, we’ll drink only Denbies red wine from the vineyards of Dorking and eat fish and chips off fancy plates while listening to vintage Arctic Monkeys’.

Alex Colás and Jason Edwards teach in the Politics Department at Birkbeck College and convene the Birkbeck Food Group. Get free tickets for the launch reception on Thursday 13 December where discount copies of Food, Politics, and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System will be on sale.

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Shining a light on brain development

Since recording the first brain images of babies in Africa, Professor Clare Elwell, part of the Brain Imaging for Global HealTH (BRIGHT) network, of which Birkbeck is a member, has been leading a pioneering study to increase our understanding of early brain development. Clare discusses bringing a new imaging technology to a remote Gambian village, and how it could help babies suffering from malnutrition to reach their full potential.

Image credit Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Before they reach five years of age, one in four children across the globe are malnourished. There’s a lot of research showing the detrimental impact this has on their development. But we know very little about what’s going on inside their brains.

Conventional brain imaging techniques, like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), require large, bulky and expensive scanners. Unfortunately, this technology is not available in resource-poor settings, often where malnutrition is most prevalent, and is not always suitable for very young babies.

Clare Elwell with an infant taking part in the BRIGHT study: Image credit Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

The BRIGHT families

We’re recruiting the mothers before the babies are born, because some of our measures start within the first few days of the infants’ lives. It’s a huge commitment. We’re extremely grateful to all the families in our study, both in the UK and in The Gambia.

For some mothers this is their first baby; they have no idea what’s ahead of them, and yet they’ve agreed to enrol into a study where we’re going to be part of their lives for at least two years. It’s really thrilling to see how motivated and how dedicated they are to this project.

Hopes for the future

I think the BRIGHT study is a good example of where a solution had existed for a long time, but we just didn’t know about the problem. Once I realised that understanding infant brain development in Africa was a challenge, it’s been incredibly rewarding to bring in existing technology to help.

Infant with fNIRS imaging headset in Keneba: Image credit Ian Farrell

We’d like to continue to follow our cohort and to study them in the pre-school years, so that we have a continuous measure of their brain function. I’d also really like to see the MRC field station at Keneba become a centre of excellence for infant brain development studies. Capacity building has been a large part of our project and we have been training many local field staff to conduct a whole range of infant brain development assessments. This will help us use all the skills and the talent that’s already in Africa to learn how we can optimise the methods we are using; to better understand brain development in this population; and ultimately, to ensure that all infants reach their potential in leading happy and healthy lives.

The BRIGHT study is a collaborative project, made up of a team of researchers from UCL, Birkbeck University of London, the Medical Research Council Units in Cambridge and The Gambia at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Cambridge University and Cambridge University Hospitals.

The project is part of the Global fNIRS initiative for the use of fNIRS in global health projects. This blog was first published by the Medical Research Council, and is reposted with their permission.

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How should we talk about white majorities?

Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics, argues that we need to talk about white majorities and do so with understanding in his new book, Whiteshift.

Across the West, anti-immigration populists are tearing a path through the usual politics of left and right. Immigration is remaking Europe and North America; over half of American babies are non-white, and by the end of the century, minorities and those of mixed race are projected to form the majority in most Western European countries. The left-right distinction is being overshadowed by a culture war pitting whites who dislike diversity against those who embrace it. Ethnic transformation will continue, but conservative whites are unlikely to exit quietly; their feelings of alienation are already redrawing political lines and convulsing societies across the West.

Drawing on detailed and extraordinary survey, demographic and electoral data and enriched with illustrative stories, Whiteshift explores the majority response to ethnic change in North America and Western Europe. Eric Kaufmann, a leading expert on national identity and ethnic change, calls for us to move beyond empty and partisan talk about national identity and open up debate about the future of white majorities. He argues that we must move past the dominant storyline of ever-increasing diversity to enable conservative whites and liberals alike to see a positive future in “whiteshift” – a new story of majority transformation through intermarriage that can help lift anxieties and heal today’s widening political divisions.

Professor Kaufmann has been researching immigration, religion, and national identity for over twenty years. A native of Vancouver, British Columbia, he was born in Hong Kong and spent eight years in Tokyo, and is now Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. His previous books include Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? and The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America.

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Female Genital Mutilation and social media

Dr Christina Julios, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Geography discusses the research that has informed her new book on the changes in anti-FGM campaigning over time.

Against a backdrop of over 200 million girls and women worldwide affected by Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), I have explored changes in anti-FGM campaigning over time, while considering the various ways in which anti-FGM activists engage with Internet-based technology. In doing so, tensions between online and offline anti-FGM efforts have been exposed, raising questions about their effectiveness to bring about social change. My new book, Female Genital Mutilation and Social Media draws on twenty-one fieldwork interviews with anti-FGM activists, frontline practitioners and survivors both in the UK and abroad, highlighting the opportunities and challenges they face.

I was interested in examining the many polarised debates surrounding the practice of FGM, which include arguments rejecting FGM in all its forms as a violation of human rights; those justifying it for cultural, religious and aesthetic reasons; as well as those advocating the ‘medicalisation’ of FGM in clinical settings. Within the context of online gender activism, I have unveiled attempts to silence women’s voices in virtual public spaces through the spread of ‘cyber-misogyny’ and ‘online abuse. I have also considered the potential drawbacks of online mobilisation including, so-called ‘clicktivism’ or token activism together with ‘technological determinism’, which may undermine the importance of offline participation.

In order to illustrate the extent and diversity of online anti-FGM activism, I examined various key global online campaigns aimed at eradicating FGM. Featuring social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, they include: the UN’s International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, the WHO’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Programme, The Girl Generation, The Guardian’s End FGM Global Media Campaign and the Massai Cricket Warriors’ campaign. In addition, I documented ten case-studies illustrating the work of prominent international anti-FGM campaigners. In the first instance, my book depicts five African-led narratives from celebrated activists, namely: Efua Dorkenoo OBE, Waris Dirie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Jaha Mapenzi Dukureh and Leyla Hussein. The volume also features five international accounts from FGM survivors I interviewed for the book including: Mama Sylla, Chairwoman of La Fraternite Gineenne (Ginea); Masooma Ranalvi, Convenor of We Speak Out (India); Farzana Doctor, Member of We Speak Out (India); Fatou Baldeh, Trustee of Dignity Alert and Research Forum (DARF) (Edinburgh, UK) and Mariya Taher, Co-founder of Sahiyo and Member of U.S. Network to End FGM/C (USA).

The book’s methodology comprises analysis of primary data from the twenty-one interviews, including written personal narratives submitted via an online questionnaire, as well as content analysis of relevant materials on leading social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. In addition, I engaged in documentary analysis of a wide range of secondary sources including, official publications, parliamentary debates, legislation, scholarly books and journals, newspaper articles, grey literature, online films and documentaries. Such an array of sources and narratives provides a rich picture of the complex phenomenon of anti-FGM online activism in the first academic study of its kind.

Female Genital Mutilation and Social Media is now available from Routledge.

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