Five food problems that people in the US, Europe and China could work on together


There is no doubt that food is a big issue and something that has exploded in the public consciousness in the Global West. Cities now have food strategies aimed at improving access to healthy food and there are moral panics, and maybe real panics, over the production of obesogenic environments that contribute to rises in diabetes, bowl cancer and heart disease and are largely considered to be caused by a food system that is supermarketized. Then there are the food scares and food scandals from BSE to Horse meat that plague Europe. At the same time, discussions regarding China’s food problems regularly pop up in the news; be they the problem of zoonotic diseases that threaten to turn into global pandemics, anxiety over how China will feed itself, distress over how China is taking over American food producers (e.g., Smithfield) to satisfy its own meat desire just as China’s products are invading American supermarket shelves, or assertions about the lack of integrity of Chinese food producers. What strikes me is that instead of constructing an Orientalist discourse around food issues of the west and the rest, West and East might come together to learn from each other and seek solutions. Here are just five food related problems that I think would benefit from just such a joined up approach.

1. Urban Food Sustainability. Since Burgess, Park, Worth and the rest of the Chicago School there has been a conceptual divide between urban and rural. This divide positions rural spaces primarily as good for agriculture and other activities that would then allow cities to get on with what is positioned as the more important work of economic growth and expansion. Unfortunately in China, this ideological positioning has ment that the government has neglected rural development in favour of a form of controlled urbanism. This urbanism has resulted in mass migrations of rural farmers to urban centers, such as Shenzhen, where they earn more that those who stay at home, but live comparatively impoverished lives compared to their non-migrant urban Hukou holders. At the same peri-urban agriculture has been lost to urban construction, which is to a large part responsible for the rise of large pool of suddenly wealthy urban dwellers. These dual trends of migration and land development have resulted in abandoned agricultural capacity. Along side there is an increase in demand for meat and imported foods to satisfy the desire to express cultural capital, grow social capital, and produce class distinctions. Having said this, China’s cities still have a market system that enables local food knowledge and that utilise food that is sourced through short supply chains. British and American cities have largely a different story, which they are beginning to realise. Cities like London and New York, for example, are starting to actively question, at both the grass roots and public policy scale, the configuration of food systems that cast urban residents as dependent upon globalised food supply chains and ignorant of where their food comes from. In a joined up approach China could provide contextual examples of still existing local food provisioning, while jointly East and West could consider new forms of urban agriculture and share developing knowledge on innovations such as rooftop and vertical gardens that are not only environmentally friendly, but efficient and productive uses of found land.

2. Obesogenic Food Systems. This second problem is related to the first. Obesogenic environments are places dominated by food practices that foster quick eating of foods that are high in fat, salt, e-numbers, and sugar. The promotion of supermarkets as the main supplier of food for domestic consumption over other forms of food provisioning is seen as a key element in this. The Slow Food Movement has sought to highlight the perils of fast food, and ready meal type eating and offer alternatives, though not always successfully due to criticisms that include pointing out that this kind of eating practice relies heavily on the labor of women and is can be more expensive than eating quickly. While increasingly recognised in western cities as a problem in need of solutions, it is not yet considered in Chinese cities though I believe it is one that is on the horizon. As China seeks to reform is agricultural system and is welcoming large supermarket chains as part of its urbanisation strategy, it is likely that the resultant problems of such environments will be increasingly felt. Indeed, Hong Kong is a city where the effects of wealth and ten years of an increasingly supermarketized system are noticeable in the rise of childhood obesity and increased rates of diet related illness. The rest of China, and indeed Hong Kong and Western cities can learn from these mistakes. Doing so would enable China to avoid the high cost of poor nutrition as a result of such environments, while at the same time work with Europe and the US to consider how viable, low cost food systems can be developed.

3. Mountains of Food Waste. It is widely recognised that food waste is a massive problem, not just because it is wasteful and therefor a source of inefficiency but also because wasted food contributes significantly to green house gas emissions that are linked to climate change. Those of a certain age will probably remember being told by our parents to clean our plate “because there are starving children in Africa”. Apparently Chinese children are told the same thing or at least something similar. Of course, as a child I was always willing to send that extra food to Africa, particularly the Brussel sprouts and I am sure there are Chinese children who have similar thoughts. Despite the reluctance of my child self, the lesson remains that by not making a clean plate food is taken from the mouth of someone else and a problem is being created. Organisations like Wrap in the UK and Clean Your Plate in China have undertaken campaigns to reduce food waste, which have helped to some degree, but waste is still and issue and further solutions that are sensitive the specificity of foodways need to be imagined. Because eating is such an everyday and taken-for-granted activity sometimes fresh eyes can offer insights. Perhaps exchanges that seek to exploit researchers who come from different everyday food practice cultures could provide new perspectives for rethinking provisioning, cooking, and eating so that less might be wasted.

4. Food Justice and Insecurity. While those who live middle class lives in wealthy economies like to think that food justice and food insecurity are issues that plague other places, the fact of the matter is that in the US and Europe as well as in China’s cities, including the wealthy cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai, there is food insecurity for the poor. Recently, for example there have been reports in the British press about the increased use of food banks. So while we are wasting food on a massive scale, those who live below the poverty line in our cities and rural places are experiencing food shortages. Finding new ways to re-use food that is not quite waste is one solution that organisations like Oxfam HK are pursuing. Part of the issue is working out at what stage in the supply chain does food really become waste and then redirecting surplus toward those who need it. Other solutions being explored in the US concern thinking about land capacity and trying to work out ways of making healthy food affordable to those with little or no money. Detroit has been very active toward this aim and could offer lessons that would be of benefit more widely. The question remains as to how we scale up this local knowledge in ways that will work in places where the built environments offer different sets of challenges. Intra-place, cross-national and cross-continent research, that incorporates local initiatives seems a useful way forward.

5. Integrity of Supply Chains. Speculators and media pundits suggest that a key reason why China wants to buy Smithfield foods is because China has a food confidence issue. Indeed this lack of confidence in the food supply is in part what has lead to the recent baby milk conflicts between the Mainland and Hong Kong, and which was the inspiration for Ai Weiwei‘s recent installation that was part of Art-Basel. But it isn’t just China that has a problem with the integrity of its food system. The UK and Europe have also had their fair share of food scandals and scares, the most recent being the selling of prepared foods as 100% beef, when in fact there was horse meat also present. We could also talk about BSE and what I think of as the Foot-and-Mouth-Fiasco, which saw the British countryside closed and millions of animals slaughtered all because pigs were feed improperly sterilised garbage that contained meat products. Of course this also raises questions all along the food supply chain that concern how we treat the land and with what, how we treat our animals that eventually become our food, what we consider honest labelling, and how we monitor and regulate our international food exchanges. China exports food to the US imports from Europe. It is an interconnected system in which we all have an interest.

These five problems are not our only food problems, but they are pressing. As citizens we cannot just sit and expect that academics will address them as institutional research cultures and funding regimes do not always easily allow for the types of international and at the same time local investigations, dialogs and information sharing that solving these problems will need. These are problems that will require both big data examinations and qualitative and ethnographic analysis. They are problems that require the insights of citizen, activist, scientists, humanities, and industry perspectives which are also rooted in disparate cultural contexts.


For more information on the Hukou system, Tom Miller has written an accessible quick read titled China’s Urban Billion. A word of warning, while illuminating and informative, the writing style is extremely repetitive in places. My impression is that this book was a series of longer news type pieces that are poorly edited together into a whole. You can find the book here from and from

This post is also part of the Daily Post weekly photo challenge for the theme of between, because between us we can address this issue.

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