Global Trade, Food Safety, and the Fear of Invisible Invaders
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Global Trade, Food Safety, and the Fear of Invisible Invaders

in recent decades, food has emerged as an increasingly relevant domain in social and political debates. A variety of factors beginning in the 1970s have played a role in the inception of the new prominence of all things food: growing concerns about the environment, sustainability, and resilience, heightened by the awareness of climate change; the embrace of alternative food production and consumption modes, from the "back to the land movement" to macrobiotics in the counterculture of the 1970s to today's farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture organizations; preoccupations with personal health and nutrition, experienced as closely connected with what we eat; greater visibility in all kinds of media, and especially in social networks, from blogs to Instagram; the prevalence of the so-called experience economy in postindustrial society, where consumers want more than just products; a desire to break free from the mass-produced industrial food managed by big business and the desire for more embedded food production; and the acknowledgement that food availability and accessibility, as well as individual and communal food security, are key components of the struggle toward social justice.

In this context, the attention paid to how food is produced, distributed, bought, cooked, and disposed of has reached new heights, causing unprecedented anxiety at all levels, from the personal to the international. Wherever there is a body, be it physical or political, and such body is conceptualized and experienced as an autonomous [End Page 183] and self-contained reality, the fear of dangerous intrusions caused by the unavoidable necessity of ingestion is often palpable. Food and eating thus become fields in which the Other—over which we inevitably feel we have limited control—is resisted and at times fought against. Individuals may not want to consume products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or growth hormones; they are wary of food adulterations and counterfeits; they may prefer to consume local products, even when what counts as "local" varies greatly; they may be suspicious of foreign ingredients and dishes, expressing reactions that range from curiosity to outright refusal; and finally, they may want to support local food jobs, at the regional and national level, by limiting imports from abroad. Furthermore, the possibility of food-borne diseases and pests, such as the avian flu, makes food imports a delicate and controversial aspect of international trade. Overall, individual citizens and societies fear contaminations and illnesses that may come through what we ingest, both physically and metaphorically.

How do fears of otherness impinge on our experience of food? In reflecting on this question I do not aim to be exhaustive but rather to outline directions for future, larger research projects, with the goal of bridging different fields and disciplines such as biology, bio-engineering, environmental sciences, economics, sociology, and politics. Here we will see how preoccupations about individual bodies are reflected and generated by concerns ranging from the micro (for instance, GMOs and the intestinal biome) to the macro (the environment and international trade).

FOOD ANXIETIES

Food literally becomes us, sustaining us and allowing us to thrive. At the same time, it remains an extraneous matter that we necessarily incorporate, with all the risks that such a dynamic entails. Anxiety and ambivalence are inevitable. The French social scientist Claude Fischler noticed how human beings are constantly pulled between two opposite attitudes, neophobia and neophilia: the curiosity to try [End Page 184] new food, based on the omnivorous nature of man, and the fear of being poisoned (Fischler 1990). We are painfully aware that food can be both a source of nourishment (and pleasure) and a very dangerous substance, if taken in excessive quantities, or badly cooked, or just clumsily chosen. As Paul Rozin observed:

The insulated, safe self, protected by skin from the rest of the world, experiences a material breach of this boundary every day in the act of eating. The world enters the self. This is an act that be exquisitely pleasurable, but also frightening; an act that nourishes, at the same time as it increases the chances of death or illness by toxins and micro-organisms.

It is not surprising that...