Few subjects generate as much discussion as the subject of food. Such discussion is increasingly marked by suspicion and pessimism about how our food is produced.
Two years ago, when I was asked to make an in-depth study of the subject of Food for Document Nederland I was full of preconceptions about the food industry. I saw it as dishonest, unhealthy and unethical. More than that, it was contributing to the decline of our planet, unlike in the good old days, and I felt that the magic word ‘organic’ was going to solve everything. So when I embarked on this project, my first impulsive reaction was to bring to light all the misunderstandings about food once and for all.
My research focused especially on farmers and entrepreneurs who were looking for innovation. This group interested me because they were trying to resolve food-related issues that were both relevant and urgent. Visually too, I felt, this presented the greatest contrast between a consumer-driven romanticized ideal and the reality of food production.
I soon discovered that economic pressures and legislation relating to public health, the environment and animal welfare largely dictate the way many cutting-edge entrepreneurs work. To survive they are forced to cross over from traditional production processes to industrial methods where efficiency and scaling-up are all-important. This is just as true of organic production.
Add to this the fact that these days producers are judged by inspection bodies and consumers on the tiniest misstep. Every infection or disease can cause great economic damage. Given the ever diminishing profit margins for producers, any setback of this order is one too many.
Increasingly, then, our food is created in a clean world of rules and protocols. Regulations such as the new laws on the use of antibiotics are compelling poultry and pig farmers to do everything in their power to prevent infection, the result being that they are as good as hermetically sealed off from the outside world. This is not to prevent consumers from seeing what happens behind the scenes, but to cater to those consumers’ wishes for safe and inexpensive food.
The fact that current solutions to many food-related issues often have consumers up in arms can be blamed in part on the food industry itself. Thinking of profits, they paint a romanticized picture of the way things are. These are the images we love to see: cows in the meadow, farmers on tractors bringing vegetables to the supermarket. At the same time critics are alerting us to the flipside of intensive and industrial food production with soundbites like ‘plofkip’ (literally, a chicken fit to burst) and ‘pig towers’.
Given our unprecedented interest these days in how our food is produced, such conflicting reports only sow confusion. However aware we are of seductive sales techniques and marketing strategies, we still prefer, against our better judgement, that romanticized picture than to see the situation as it really is.
After two years of research and photography I realized that the discourse on food production can be infinitely refined and that this often puts supposed advantages and disadvantages in a new light. Scaling-up can actually enhance animal welfare, for example, and organic production is not always better for the environment. Often, an excessively one-sided approach to the subject of food is a barrier to real solutions. Food is simply too wide-ranging and complex a subject for one-liners or to be describing in terms of black and white.