The relationship between being human and food

by Jessica Iubini-Hampton

Just like other animals, humans too have to feed on other living organisms in order to survive. This means that, as part of the cycle of life, human food is obtained by ending the lives of other animals and other living species. There is no difference to how other animals feed, what is different is the neat void there is, in our society, in our minds and therefore in our lives, between the slice of bacon in a BLT sandwich and the individual from whom the bacon was obtained: the pig. Such void, such erasure is part of a much bigger and more complex system of absence (Stibbe 2015:145) which, in turn, has been resulting in the disappearance of animals in our consciousness (Stibbe 2012:1).

Being Italian, I can’t help but immediately link what it means to be human with our relationship with food. Because I’m human, I’m aware of my social identity and as I happened to be born and grow up in Italy my identity, like that of most other Italians, is exceptionally intertwined with the unique cultural traits of my community, such as our local language (commonly known as ‘dialect’ but a language in its own right) and, equally as important, our culinary traditions.

The well-known adage “We are what we eat” is strongly adopted on a philosophical level in the lives of many Italians, so much so that it isn’t difficult to hear people being scolded for ‘not speaking as they eat’. Following the unification of Italy in 1861, Standard Italian was introduced as the language taught in school throughout the Nation as the local dialects differed too much to allow for mutual intelligibility (D’Agostino 2007:25). Whilst the dominance of a standard common language, to the detriment and decay of local dialects, was possible through the implementations of laws and legislations, culinary traditions remained the only uncontaminated domain through which local communities could still express their unique culture and identity. It is therefore easy to see how the way people eat in a community can be a source of pride, ownership and membership.

This is still true, generally speaking, of present-day Italy where, not only are people maintaining a diet mostly consisting of local dishes (for regional pride) but they are also very concerned with the quality of the food they put on their plate and therefore choose to buy organic. For me, personally, it is important to eat local produce, as it supports the ethics and economy of local farmers whilst reinforcing a sense of regional identity and knowing exactly where your food, in other words animals and plants, comes from. This means becoming responsible individuals aware of the link between our choices and the set of values we’re buying into.

If this were sufficient then I would completely agree with the philosophies of vegetarianism and veganism, however as part of my ecosophy (Stibbe 2015: 13) I strongly believe that I must account for the consequences my choices may have on the environment both directly and indirectly. It’s not just about cutting down on meat to protect the welfare of animals and to reduce carbon levels. If I fed entirely or mostly on vegetarian/vegan food which had been grown in a hothouse or imported from a distant country, I wouldn’t be doing any favours to the environment either. In a holistic approach to my gastronomic habits I therefore embrace my Italian culture and push myself to eat local, seasonal, organic food as far as possible, whilst respecting and being grateful to the natural world for allowing me to feed and survive. These are values also shared by the Slow Food movement which, not surprisingly, was funded in Italy and promotes for everyone food which is good, clean and fair.

The discourse promoted by Slow Food is one of reconnection (Stibbe 2012:63) with Nature and, amongst others, needs to be promulgated through education in order to reach people’s minds and have an effect on their ideologies. I was very fortunate to attend a mini course in January, organised by Crossfield institute, there I was able to witness the power education has through reaching out to people, allowing them to gather to work and think together. A concrete opportunity to allow your mind to expand and prepare it to see the work of counter-discourses and how they can change the way you’ve known life and the world so far. Such courses are vital as sources of information and enlightenment as we’re surrounded by messages of consumerism which don’t disclose the impact on the environment our actions and choices have. Instead they encourage us to buy for fashion and to eat beyond need.

We don’t exist on this planet as mere guests but we are part of it and our existence depends on the wellbeing of our world. The fundamental link between food and being human is therefore one of existentiality and survival. Humans may consume food in ways that other animals don’t, such as cooking, but instead of letting this difference distance us from the natural world and allowing it to erase nature from our lives we should be doing the exact opposite.

Understanding that other animals and plants are not mere given resources with the sole scope of feeding us is key in realising that they need our respect and appreciation. We have a responsibility towards their welfare which can be promoted through the choices we make in our everyday life when going food shopping. Choosing to buy a chicken who had the chance to live a good-quality life locally and was fed sustainably means rising the demand for ecologically sensitive farming methods, supporting local people, reducing transport-related pollution, eating natural and healthy food, and appreciating the intrinsic value of all life, including the chicken’s, our own and everyone we are connected with.



Courtesy of Mirko Corsi


D’Agostino, M. (2007) Sociolinguistica dell’Italia contemporanea. Bologna: Il mulino.

Stibbe, A. (2012) Animals erased: Discourse, ecology, and Reconnection with the natural world. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Stibbe, A. (2015) Ecolinguistics: Language, ecology and the stories we live by. Abingdon: Routledge.