Back Forty: Red plate, blue plate

Back Forty will bring you periodic reviews, interviews, and reporter insights about the stories they wrote. We hope you enjoy it as a companion to our content on and our Ag Insider policy news site. You can subscribe to the newsletter below.

Jeff Baughman bites into a double cheeseburger at a McDonald’s in Miami Beach, Florida. July 2002. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

By Brent Cunningham

In a study published in December, the vast majority of people who identified as politically conservative described the Certified Organic label on foods as “liberal.” They referred to it, variously, as “woke shit” pushed by “tree huggers” who “believe in no pesticides because it destroys the environment.”

More than 62 percent believed a photo of a towering cheeseburger, topped with what appears to be bacon, steak, and a fried egg, “had a partisan association,” and most said that association was conservative. “Liberals these days,” one explained, “are more and more against meat because they now tie it to ‘climate change.’”

Robert, a conservative from a small town in Pennsylvania, said of the man on the Quaker Oats box: “Look at that guy. He doesn’t have any gender identity issues or any of that. That just says hard-working American to me.”

The study, Partisan Wellbeing in America, was conducted by a London-based consulting firm called PropellerFish that works on “strategic innovation” with global companies like Kraft, Mondelez, and McDonald’s.

Starting in 2016, PropellerFish noticed an “increased use of partisan language in our conversations about wellness and nutrition in conservative leaning parts of the country.” So last year it surveyed 1,400 Americans, then followed up with a more granular study of a subset of respondents.

The upshot: “Conservatives were more likely to classify an image [of food or other health- and wellness-related products and activities] as liberal when the product was perceived as” symbolizing “privilege”; signaling “entitlement”; being “technologically advanced”; or being associated with “liberal causes” like climate change, or with “a predominantly liberal place” such as California.

The authors of the study attribute this divide to “fundamentally different worldviews” between people who live in “coastal cities” and those who live in “heartland small towns.” Residents of the former, the study concludes, believe their choices matter — that they can improve their career by changing jobs, for instance, or improve their health by changing their die — while residents of the latter believe their choices don’t matter. They feel less empowered than their coastal counterparts, less visible in the media and popular culture.

Given the health, wealth, and educational disparities between those two Americas, this divide is understandable. But the polarization that PropellerFish discovered did not begin in 2016.

Food is inherently political. Who gets enough of it and who doesn’t, what it costs, who profits from its production and sale, and so on. It’s why there are food policies — and protests against those policies. It’s why Congress seems increasingly likely to put off finishing the (already late) farm bill, the nation’s most important piece of food legislation, until after the presidential election.

What we eat is also among our most intimate personal decisions, tying us to family and place, shaping our understanding of who we are in the world. Taken together, these things make food a powerful shorthand for identity and belonging, a symbol that can be used and abused. 

For the past thirty-plus years, the political right and its allies in the media have exploited the symbolic power of food in a largely manufactured culture war designed to turn “real Americans” against the “liberal elite.” They do it for political gain. This strategy is what put those words and assumptions in the minds and mouths of the PropellerFish respondents. It was Rush Limbaugh inveighing daily against latte-swilling liberals and the “food police”; the New York Post decrying that “food fascists have demonized everything we eat”; the Heritage Foundation declaring that school lunches “soon could be influenced by climate change concerns”; and Tea Party congressman Paul Broun warning his silver-haired audience in Elberton, Georgia, that the CDC is “gonna be calling you to make sure you eat fruits and vegetables, every day. This is socialism of the highest order!”

Fabio Parasecoli, a food scholar at New York University, would describe this strategy as a form of “gastronativism,” which he defines in his eponymous 2022 book as “the ideological use of food in politics to advance ideas about who belongs to a community … and who doesn’t.” (It’s a strain of the nativist tendencies, racist and anti-immigrant, that have intermittently plagued the United States for two hundred years.)

He cites examples throughout history. In the early 5th century, the Romans disparaged the foodways of invading Germanic tribes as “uncouth and disgusting” because they were perceived as hunter-gatherers, not practitioners of agriculture who exercised dominion over nature. In the latter half of the 19th century, Japan experienced an agonized embrace of meat-eating — reformers there having “identified meat consumption as one of the reasons why Westerners were both physically and politically more powerful” — as the country opened up after decades of isolation from the West. During World War I, Americans took up the Roman prejudice, swapping “sauerkraut” for “liberty cabbage” as part of their opposition to all things German.

Parasecoli ascribes the contemporary version of gastronativism to the consequences of neoliberal globalization, which ascended in the late 1980s and upended the economic and political status quo.

Neoliberal policies hinged on privatization, deregulation, and the unrestricted flow of goods, people, ideas, money, and technology. Growth, production, and competition became the goals that mattered. This created a lot of wealth for some, and turned the consumer marketplace into a cornucopia of options. But income inequality grew, corporate profits soared, and the social safety net unraveled as the state ceded authority to the private sector. Jobs went overseas, where labor costs were cheaper, or were lost to technology. 

Add the 2008 economic crisis, climate change, mass migrations, the threat of terrorism, and Covid-19 to this mix, and it’s easy to understand why so many people feel they are on their own in an increasingly precarious, and perilous, world.

“The losers of globalization fear that their ways of life and their privileges can be … taken away,” Parasecoli writes. For some that fear curdles into resentment toward those who thrive in this new world “thanks to their education, social relationships, and access to capital.”

Such anger and angst are easy to exploit politically, and food is a powerful tool in that effort. It “activate[s] emotions and does not require much mediation; everybody experiences it, everybody is an expert,” Parasecoli writes. It taps into the heightened longing for, and idealization of, the past, of tradition, and becomes a way to defend cultural identities — a sociopolitical stew tailor-made for pseudo-populist leaders like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who preach grievance, nationalism, and xenophobia.

Not surprisingly, over the past thirty years instances of gastronativism have become more prominent and acrimonious. The most famous might be José Bové, the French farmer who in 1999 destroyed a McDonald’s outlet under construction to protest the threat fast food posed to French food culture. In 2004, Lega Nord, a right-wing party in Italy, served vats of polenta at a rally that featured posters reading, “Yes to polenta, no to couscous,” using the North African and Middle East staple as shorthand for their opposition to immigration. And during the Obama administration, the right’s culture warriors waged a years-long assault on Michelle Obama’s White House garden and healthy-eating crusade. 

In India, where the cow is sacred and considered the mother of all Hindus, supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP political party have taken gastronativism to a violent extreme, with Hindu nationalists carrying out “beef lynchings” of Muslims and other minorities who constitute the dangerous “other.” As Siddhartha Deb reported recently for FERN, between 2015 and 2018, Human Rights Watch recorded at least 44 people killed in “cow-related violence” across 12 states.

Beef plays an increasingly central role in the culture war here in the U.S. By some estimates meat production is responsible for 60 percent of agriculture’s significant share of total greenhouse gas emissions, with beef the leading culprit. It’s hard to see how we can address the existential threat of climate change without reducing our consumption of beef. And yet beef is iconic, historically central to Americans’ self-image and notions of power and success. A lot of people don’t want to give it up, or even cut back — as the PropellerFish study made clear.

The U.S. culture war around food has been mostly rhetorical. But as our politics have devolved into a Manichean tilt, the rhetoric has sharpened. As the effects of climate change become worse, the pressure to make changes in how we live and eat will grow more acute. Depending on what happens politically in November and beyond, it’s not unreasonable to imagine the inverse of India’s beef vigilantes here, with nativist mobs assaulting vegans, “soy boys,” and anyone who aligns with — or is perceived to align with — the need to eat less meat. The hackneyed adage, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are,” has never had a darker subtext.