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Session 4

Food as Commodity

12 July 2020

Can the power of aesthetics sell a new food future?

Session 4 Food as Commodity: Speakers

Hilary Heslop

Can the History of Turning Staples into Icons be the Saviour of our Food Future? 

Eighty years separated the relaunch of an iconic brand and the strapline on its 1996 annual report:

Quick, Name a Soft Drink.

Coca Cola already knew the result. By 1949, only 1% of Americans couldn’t identify the shape of a Coke bottle. The original brief had been simple:

Develop a bottle so distinct that you would recognize if by feel in the dark or lying broken on the ground. 

Thus the “Mae West” shape was born.

Arguably the British Empire’s quest for food began the modern age, and with the 20th century, the United States would shape what it would look like, literally and figuratively as it turns out with Coke. The spread of the British Empire and the rise of the United States created a platform for consumerism and food was at its core. All you needed was to win hearts and minds. In the days of empire, tinned and packaged comestibles were seen as prestigious abroad. Crosse & Blackwell soups and Huntley & Palmers biscuits helped colonial officers press further into inaccessible regions — and when they arrived, they used them as a display of culinary prestige.

How something looked communicated a variety of needs states not just physiological but also of safety, belongingness and esteem. Food could be all things to all people. 

But this success came with a price that we live with today. This paper will ask can the power of aesthetics work their magic again to influence perception and change, to ensure our food future?

Hilary's career focus has been in food retailing, food manufacturing, hotels and restaurants. She currently works as a  food consultant and teaches a course on food ethics. Hilary graduated in the Hautes Etudes du Gout programme run in France, and  holds a Le Cordon Bleu Master of Gastronomic Tourism. This and work experience in the UK, USA, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia for major retailers, food suppliers and hotel chains have focused her interest on the tensions between consumerism, food ethics and sustainability. Hilary has spoken at the Oxford Food Symposium, the Australian Food Symposium and at Food and Words. Hilary likes to write the stories of food and their impact on us all while never forgetting the sheer pleasure food can bring to us all. She thinks M.F.K. Fisher said it best:

"First we eat, and then we do everything else."

Mr Peanut Death.jpg

Tad Brown

Planters Peanuts and the Taste for Secrecy

Food companies appeal to class distinctions to market products. One way of creating a sense of exclusivity, and justifying a higher price-point, is through the public display of intellectual property. In this talk, I illustrate how Planters Peanuts directed attention to the visual quality of its goods. Planters held a trade secret on processing peanuts, and the company sought to differentiate its peanuts from other retail offerings by mentioning this special process on print media advertisements and packaging labels.

A shift from gustation to presentation in the first half of the 20th century went hand-in-hand with a marketing strategy that circulated displays of who was intended to eat the peanuts, and who was to grow them. Peanuts’ history in America was as “Negro food” or rowdy circus fare — something Planters peanuts were not. Through print media, the Mr. Peanut logo helped position Planters peanut products as befitting an uppity luncheon, while also insisting that it was within the household budget, unlike costly foreign alternatives. The name-brand marketing of Virginia peanuts could be recontextualized to suggest new social feelings of scarcity. These feelings became real during a shortage of jumbo peanuts on the homefront during the Second World War. The science of food nutrition helped recommend the wholesome snack for soldiers overseas (as well as the post-war health movement to follow), while Mr. Peanut urged loyalty and smaller portions. The Planters company helped educate the buying public into registering that their peanuts, roasted and salted in secrecy, were a class apart.

Tad Brown is an anthropologist whose work takes a historical perspective on agricultural development. He is currently a PhD candidate in the TC Beirne School of Law at The University of Queensland as part of the ARC Laureate "Harnessing Intellectual Property for Food Security." His thesis explores peanuts as legal subject matter.


Jocelyn Bosse

The aesthetics of a name: the emergence of the ‘Kakadu plum'

Efforts to commercialise native Australian plants in the last few decades have made plain the incongruences between Indigenous knowledge systems, Western scientific practices, and Euro-American intellectual property laws. The paper draws upon ethnographic work with Aboriginal persons, plant and food scientists, commercial bioprospecting entities, and government officials, to understand how the law shapes social relationships of production, exchange, and attribution of the Kakadu plum (Terminalia ferdinandiana). Against the historical backdrop of highly-charged biopiracy allegations in response to the (il)legitimate patent applications of several US cosmetic companies, the paper attends to the technicalities and materialities of recent claims to intellectual property rights over the name ‘Kakadu plum’. The paper will trace how, as plants and associated data are collected, exchanged with scientists from different fields, and transformed through bureaucratic frameworks, they are stripped of other forms of knowledge and culturally specific plant-human relationships. These circuits of exchange are shaped by the uneven application of sovereign power across jurisdictions, divergent practices of actors who operate in legal borderlands, and the translations that occur at the boundaries of different forms of knowledge in the pursuit of achieving “officialdom” in neoliberal bioeconomies. 

Jocelyn is a PhD candidate on the ARC Laureate Project. Jocelyn is interested in the intersection of biodiscovery research and the patent system. She is undertaking a comparative analysis of the access and benefit sharing (ABS) legislation in Australia, and the implications of the United Nations (UN) Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

She completed her studies at The University of Queensland, where she studied dual Bachelors of Science/Laws (Honours) with a concurrent Diploma of Languages (French). She is a graduate of the UQ Advanced Study Program in Science (ASPinS) and conducted three undergraduate research projects in plant biology and agricultural science. The results of her rice cold tolerance research were published in Crop and Pasture Science in 2016.

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