My first week at Penn State has come to an end. America greeted me, like everyone else, with endless regulations and checks, people rushing to help you out whenever you need it or appear to, and ample donuts stations, candy stores, and fast food places, which, in combination with ever-smiling faces of Americans, raise suspicions that sugar and fat-laden food is a clue to human happiness. Despite that most stereotypes I’ve heard about Americans prove to ring hollow so far, one thing that is certainly true is that food is a big issue here. Grocery stores are gigantic, and the size of the shopping carts tells you something about the scale on which an average American likes to do his food shopping.
At the same time, food issues are certainly a part of the current public discourse. The amount of nutrition labelling claims (at times simply ridiculous) on all kinds of foodstuffs clearly evidences the industry’s efforts to respond to the growing trend towards better diets. From what I could observe so far, it seems that concerns over personal health precede more outwardly oriented ethical considerations. Claims such as “no antibiotics, hormones, GMOs or pesticides” on organic products underscore their primary positioning as “good for you” rather then the environment, while fair trade is not nearly as widely available or praised as, for example, in the UK.
Lay observations aside, the last several days at Penn State proved to be very fruitful in terms of establishing contacts with scholars from a wide range of fields whose research interests cross with mine in one way or another. The next month and a half promises to offer a truly inter-disciplinary academic experience – while officially affiliated with the College of Agricultural Sciences, I will also be meeting with academics specialising in Rural Sociology, Food Science, Women’s Studies, as well as get involved in the work of the Rock Ethics Institute. The opportunity for multidisciplinary dialogue on my research highlights how wide the spectrum of approaches to the study of ethical consumption is. Thus, the very first event I attended here at Penn State has expanded my thinking about food ethics and their connection to larger social and cultural domains. Delivered by Dr. Gretel Van Wieren of the Michigan State University, the seminar on the religious responses to key issues raised by the modern food system exemplified how religious narratives and symbolic actions can be an important part of the cultural ideas about ethics of food. Environmentally oriented spirituality, ritualisation of agricultural and food practices – these novel concepts provided me with new angles from which ethical food practices can be looked at and understood.
Next week, I am attending a student colloquium at the Rock Ethics Institute and starting to audit a philosophy course on bioethics. During my visit to Penn State, I hope to gain new insights into the issues I have been trying to comprehend since the start of my PhD. I also hope to be able to apply this new knowledge to the data analysis (currently on hiatus due to the swirl of the events I now find myself caught in) and yield a deeper understanding of the motives and forces behind individuals’ engagement in ethical food consumption.