Developing an Academic Interest

2015 Honours Fellow Cressida Rigney reflects on how her Honours year has prompted her to do a PhD on the future food security of Australia

From Food and Culture in identity formation and social boundaries to an eco-theological and environmental ethics driven investigation of Insecure Food and Culture in Australia’s Future

My Honours thesis was perhaps the most ‘left of field’ that the Sydney Environment Institute supported with a Fellowship Grant this year. My work, entitled: You Are What You Eat: Food and Culture in Contemporary Religious, Spiritual and Secular Contexts delved into the intersections of food and religion in community groups as they formed communal and individual identities and social structures through which to operate in broader society. Moving from a focus on Jewish food practices in New York and identifying how food was a medium for boundary formation and cultural protection in this traditional religion, the second two chapters were more directly relevant to the work of the SEI. My second chapter ,‘Contemporary Intersections of Food and Religion: Devotion within Diet Groups’, delved into the fascinating, varied and ever multiplying arena of the ‘Wellness Industry’ in particular the popularity of veganism and the raw food diet. My work identified an ethical motivation in the first and a deep interest in the purity of the body in the second. Both groups displayed operational mechanisms and doctrinal language which could be clearly linked with religious structures, and, like the New York Ultra-Orthodox Jews, they used food as a way of establishing moral boundaries and to communicate with others, converting and sharing. The third chapter,‘Food as Outreach: Bridging Social Boundaries with Sacred Feasts’, explored an alternate use of food to break down boundaries amongst social classes and looked, in particular, at local charitable groups, Homeless Run and Red Frogs, with a final global focus on the various modern day martyrs in the USA arrested for providing for the homeless due to zoning laws.

The support of the SEI has allowed me freedom with research opportunities this year by funding books and a conference. This well rounded research experience has encouraged me to pursue a PhD next year and so I conclude this blog post with a section detailing my future research directions.

I seek to investigate key aspects of the ethical and environmental challenges for the future food security of Australia. Research will focus on intersections with the areas of food and culture which are key pillars of Australian society. In doing so, my research will approach a study of Australian community through the lenses of Environmental Ethics and Eco-theology highlighting areas of concern and suggesting a model for the future of the Australian food attitudes which is based on ethics not economics. Comparative analysis will be conducted by researching aspects of the food security and sovereignty models of fellow commonwealth country Canada. My research will identify and assess ethical and environmental challenges by answering questions of the relationship between Australians and their food such as – What does the rise in popularity of locavore movements and Indigenous ingredients suggest in contemporary society and how does it reflect changing understandings of food sovereignty and environmental ethics? How could Australia improve its response to the challenge of providing for its working poor and homeless community particularly in regards to nutrition and mental health and how does faith intersect with these issues? and Have modern Australians lost an awareness of their countries geographic isolation due to increased communication, and are they unaware of Australia’s potential for food insecurity?

I will explore issues of industrial agriculture and changing soil salination in Australia alongside the social and environmental impact of a declining farming industry and a government supported, destructive mining industry. The Ecology of Food Movement will be particularly relevant, forming a core theme in my research and providing a base for niche case studies such as the social elitism of certain rare and, or, imported foods and the sacrality bestowed upon those consumer products. In particular I will look at Australia’s reliance on imports and food transportation, even our national produce travels a long way due to the sheer size of Australia’s landmass. A discussion of disparate food sources (i.e. farmers markets and super markets) will examine the influence of food retail sources on social makeup and the perception of Australians on personal food consumption patterns, ethics and will explore the role of eco-theology with a sense of personal responsibility.

In particular I want to explore the recent explosion of Native and Indigenous foods into the Australian culinary imagination. I will seek to investigate the many angles of this development. For example from a social studies perspective it is crucial to determine whether this incorporation is executed in a sensitive and appreciative manner respectful of both the land, its first peoples, the nutritional value offered by particular foods) or whether there is a danger of appropriation and the erasure of the Indigenous history of foods. From a more geographical and ecological perspective I will consider the benefits of the intensely local nature of many of these foods which reduce food miles and are native to the ecosystems of Australia. This section will incorporate environmental ethics and have a strong focus on eco-theology, the sacredness of food and aboriginal spirituality.

Developing this focus on Indigineity I hope to investigate initiatives such as the Nyéléni Declaration’s (2007) seven pillars of food sovereignty which actively include Indigenous peoples. The seventh pillar determines food as sacred. I will explore successful urban farming projects in Canada and the USA and argue that similar projects would have a positive effect on the Australian social landscape and contribute to an ethical food future. This will include schemes such as urban farming, food co-operatives and improvements to existing community centres. I hope to investigate the implications of the legal system in regards to access to food, from the barriers to charitable giving and wastage created by food safety legislation to those caused by land zoning. Barriers to charitable giving also manifest as a hindrance to the lived religion of many people who channel their faith into community service and social responsibility to a world, and people, created by their God.

I finished my Honours year with a great sense of pride in the work I had produced and excitement over my potential future research. The Sydney Environment Institute has already put me in touch with contacts in my chosen area and I hope to maintain contact with the Institute as I complete my PhD.


Cressida Rigney was awarded a 2015 Sydney Environment Institute Honours Research Fellowship. She recently completed her thesis “You Are What You Eat: Food and Culture in Contemporary Religious, Spiritual and Secular Contexts” with the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney.

Image: Erika @haphopper ‘Queen Victoria Market / #Melbourne / #Australia’ via Flickr Commons