Rachel Ankeny on GMOs, Food Ethics & Consumer Attitudes

By Hailey Grohman

Professor Rachel Ankeny is an associate dean of research and deputy dean in the faculty of arts at the University of Adelaide, Australia, where she leads the Food Values Research Group.

Rachel will be a keynote speaker at the 2016 UVM Food Systems Summit on June 14-15. We talked to Rachel about her interdisciplinary research, GMOs, and the nature of good food.

Your research is very interdisciplinary, varying as widely as history, bioethics and food studies. How do you think that separate disciplines, sometimes with very different methodologies, could work together to think through food systems problems?

Food is an essentially multidisciplinary topic—to look at consumption without also looking at production, for instance, would be absurd. But it also is essential to use a variety of lenses or methods to understand food systems and the multiplicity of questions surrounding them. Of course everything has a history, but the history of food is particularly complex and intriguing, shaping all of what we eat and think about what we eat today, and it arguably has shaped the history of the world. Similarly, our values are deeply entwined with our food choices, habits, and policies. Ultimately, food is part of our biology, so concepts relating to the history and philosophy of the life sciences also are essential. Thus, in order to think through food systems problems and where we are headed, we must reflect on how we got there and how our personal and cultural philosophies have shaped that path.

You’ve done research on consumer attitudes toward genetically modified organisms. As a scholar of ethics, could you talk about how ethical and moral concerns are factored into consumer decision making regarding GM foods? How does scientific data factor into the formation of these attitudes?

Our research has been based in Australia which allows GM crops and foods under certain conditions, but which to date has not had a huge number of GM food products on the shelves. This makes for an excellent site for explorations of consumer attitudes toward GM because policy is still evolving and in some sense the genie is not out of the bottle, as arguably it is already in the U.S. We find that many consumers are most concerned about why GM is being used and who will benefit—to make profit for big corporations or retailers, versus improving nutrition or lessening environmental impacts. They are less concerned about the technical and scientific details of how GM works, and in fact often collapse concerns about additives or pesticides/herbicides [when] discussing the need for better and more transparent labeling. Of course, some consumers simply reject all uses of GM, particularly in the food supply, because of fears about the unknown risks, or because it is what they consider to be unnatural. But people have very different understandings of what counts as a risk, and what is natural, which makes this domain ripe for exploration, with all of its complexities and even contradictions.

Are there any misconceptions about your work that you wish people would understand?

People often want me to tell them what to eat, or whether GM is “bad” or “unethical,” if they should reject non-free range or non-organic products, and so on. My work is not intended to be prescriptive, although we do explore values in detail. But I do hope that we are providing data and approaches, and are asking questions that can help people to reflect on their food choices and habits, and to make the decisions that are right for them and those around them—including their families, local communities, and even the broader environment.


Could you tell us how your academic path led you to study food?

My cultural background is primarily southern Italian, so food is simply part of everything. My original undergraduate degree was in liberal arts (philosophy and math) and then my graduate work was in analytic philosophy, bioethics, and history and philosophy of science. Much of what we explored in those fields was quite theoretical, in the sense that everyday practices were not a key focus if discussed at all (although this has changed in recent years through growing attention to practice in the philosophy of science). Thus, after I had begun my academic career, I was seeking a new challenge and did a master’s degree in gastronomy (food history), which allowed me to integrate my personal fascination with food and my various areas of scholarly expertise.

Finally, in your opinion, what makes food good?

From my personal point of view, food is ultimately social—good food is that which is shared with others in some sense, even when you are eating on your own. I fear that a form of elitism has been creeping into our popular ideas of “good food,’”which is very dangerous and potentially exclusionary, and I want to push back against that whenever possible.

Rachel Ankeny will be a keynote speaker at the UVM Food Systems Summit on June 14-15 at the UVM Davis Center.  For more information or to register, visit uvm.edu/foodsystemssummit.

-Hailey Grohman is a graduate student in food systems, with research interests in food communication and media.


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