NEW BOOK: Unsettling Food Politics

UPDATE: There were some teething issues regarding the cost of postage to Australia, I believe these have been resolved.

Also, in addition to the 60% discount for hardback there is a 30% discount code for e-book – UFP30.

60% off discount Unsettling Food Politics

I had the initial idea for this book in 2013. In December 2014 I pitched it to the series editors during the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. Almost five years later, my book – Unsettling Food Politics: Agriculture, Dispossession and Sovereignty in Australia – is being released by Rowman & Littlefield.

During that five years, there were many changes to the scope and direction of the book. I could probably spend another five years making further changes. Fortunately deadlines meant that was not possible. I’ll post more on the back story later. For the moment here is the synopsis and some very kind endorsements.

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Synopsis

This book uses social and political theory to critically examine the historical constitution of contemporary alternative food discourses. While alternative food activists appeal to food sovereignty and agrarian discourses to counter the influence of neoliberal agricultural policies, these discourses remain entangled with colonial logics of sovereignty and dispossession of indigenous peoples. In particular, this book addresses the influence of Enlightenment ideas of improvement, the use of agriculture to establish ownership, and the production of a white population in Australia. In combination with this critical history, this book brings continental political philosophy into conversation with Indigenous theories of sovereignty and alternative food discourses in order to open new spaces for thinking about food and politics in contemporary Australia.

Endorsements

The inter-disciplinary nature of the work is reflected in the generous endorsements from a variety of scholars from different disciplines.

Mayes’ book is an important and, yes, unsettling reminder that in the Australian context, too, a return to smallholder farming as an antidote to the world’s food woes, is a return to an imaginary thick with dispossession and unfree labour.

Julie Guthman, Professor of Social Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Too often debates around food focus on the individual consumer and consumer choice without acknowleding the way in which those choices are determined by the culture of possibilities in which the consumer is situated. The impact of current food practices on health, the environment, and social inequity cannot be addressed merely by changing individual habits; rather, food justice will require fundamental changes in the systems of production and distribution that determine what and how we eat.

This important and timely book exposes the complicity of commodity agriculture not only in the global obesity crisis and environmental injustice, but also in the food insecurity of vulnerable populations. Drawing on the resources of Foucault, Mayes demonstrates convincingly the role of agriculture in the project of colonialism and its historic injustices. Though he focuses primarily on Australia, his analysis of the way in which contemporary agricultural practices reflect racism and the dispossesion of indigenous peoples has a global reach.

Mayes does not only offer a critique of the provision of food as a biopolitical act that privileges some bodies over others; he also offers positive strategies for transforming our current food culture in order to address the injustices inherent in it. As he argues, by recovering the knowledges of indigenous peoples and by giving the marginalized a place at the table where decisions are made, we may be able to revolutionize current food practices in ways that will not only address inequity, but also improve the well-being of each and all.

Mary C. Rawlinson, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Philosophy, Stony Brook University

Unsettling Food Politics is an extraordinary rethinking of food sovereignty politics beyond formal sovereignty structures and discriminatory discourses of settler-colonial states. Fashioning a reflexive historical method to construct a substantive sovereignty of indigeneity, Mayes raises profound ethical questions for food sovereignty movements and practices within states and farming systems founded on indigenous subjugation. This is powerful food for thought.

Philip David McMichael, Professor, Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University

This is the book we have been waiting for. Unsettling Food Politics finally provides the critical study of settler-colonial food regimes that we so desperately need today. Historically grounded and well argued, this book is essential reading.

Thomas Nail, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Denver

Unsettling Food Politics models a radically different conception of political responsibility. He achieves this by means of a brilliant, and wholly convincing, double movement. One the one hand, Mayes widens the net of our complicity in Indigenous dispossession beyond what many are likely to find comfortable – as he puts it, unforgettably, “If you eat, you are involved in settler-colonialism”. On the other, he insists that any credible response must proceed from the acknowledgement of the moral primacy of the First Peoples of this land, their claim on the soil, their food practices. Mayes’s book is, in effect, a startling demonstration of what it would mean to accept the invitation extended by the framers of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, for non-indigenous Australians to join the First Peoples at a table they have set, to discover what it might mean, finally, to become political companions (in the original sense of the word). And perhaps that is the best description of what Mayes sets out in this remarkable book: a politics of companionability. Unsettling Food Politics is an extraordinary achievement.

Scott Stephens, Religion & Ethics editor, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and Co-host of The Minefield, on ABC Radio National

Agri-Food XXV – CFP

For full details regarding special sessions, keynotes, deadlines, etc click here Agri-FoodXXV Call for Abstracts

I am organising the following session:

Towards a postcolonial conception and practice of food sovereignty

The history of agriculture is deeply enmeshed with the history, and continuing legacy, of violence and dispossession inAustralia and most of other settler-colonial societies. While mining only lasts as long as minerals remain to be extracted, agriculture has a permanence that enables the establishment and reproduction of a population, which expands at the expense of Indigenous lands and livelihoods. This dynamic forced Indigenous peoples to either enter the new economy, usually in the form of unfree labour, or raid farms for food, which was often used as grounds for official and unofficial death squads. Consideringthe role of agriculture in denying Indigenous sovereignty, this session asks whether food sovereignty is an appropriate or useful concept to be used in Australia and other settler-colonial societies.

Food sovereignty is commonly defined as the right of people to control their own food and agricultural systems. The concept originated with peasant movements in South and Central America during their political struggles for land reform. In recent years it has been adopted by proponents of alternative food practices in settler-colonial societies such as Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. In these contexts, it serves as an organizing idea in the struggle for a more democratic, sustainable, and just food system. However, the vast majority of these advocates are neither Indigenous to the lands they occupy or landless peasants. It is therefore important to ask if food sovereignty is an appropriate concept in settler-colonial societies? Can food justice be established without acknowledging and addressing the injustices done to Indigenous peoples wrought by agriculture? This session will explore these and other questions in order to determine whether a postcolonial conception and practice of food sovereignty is possible.

Christopher Mayes (Deakin University) cmayes@deakin.edu.au

If you have any questions about being part of this session please send me an email.

Public health communication & the blurry line from anti-obesity to pro-ana

Public health communication is not easy. Various industries, special interest groups and lobbyists are only too willing to skew messages about health. As such, public health researchers and advocates tend to be sensitive to the different ways a health message can be appropriated.

However, public health advocates, particularly in the area of nutrition, are inconsistent in their concern that people will misuse health-related messages. If a piece of research suggests that something traditionally thought to be “sinful” – alcohol, chocolate, or fat – is not as bad as first thought, then anxious caveats will urge restraint. Yet, if a piece of research over-sells the benefits of something traditionally thought to be “saintly” – exercise or dieting – then there is silence.

Two examples illustrate the first response.

Example 1 – Health benefits of alcohol

Every so often a mainstream media source will pick up on some research that suggests that alcohol – usually red wine – can have some health benefits. Without fail a public health spokesperson or researcher will be very quick to either discredit the research or explain to the public that the research does not provide a license for unrestrained consumption.

For instance, public health nutritionist, Marion Nestle, laments in her book Food Politics that clear guidance is complicated by ‘the inconvenient finding that moderate drinking provides health benefits – alcohol protects against coronary heart disease.’ Whether this research still holds is beside the point, Nestle’s lament that alcohol could have health-benefits reflects a distrust of the public’s ability to negotiate complex or uncertain nutrition messages.

Researchers like Nestle in the US and Mike Daube in Australia are at pains to ensure the public does not misuse or misinterpret claims about the health-benefits of alcohol.

Example 2 – Relationship between weight and health is not as clear as first thought

In 2013, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an epidemiological study from Katherine Flegal and colleagues that found people who are obese grade 1 (BMI of 30-<35) had no increased risk of dying prematurely and overweight (BMI of 25-30) people may actually have greater life expectancy.

Stacy Carter and Helen Walls documented the fall-out of this res2014-12-01 16.22.32-1earch among public health researchers.

Walter Willett of Harvard School of Public Health was indignant. He described the research on NPR as ‘really a pile of rubbish’ and that ‘no one should waste their time reading it’. A UK National Obesity Forum representative told the BBC, ‘It’s a horrific message to put out at this particular time. We shouldn’t take it for granted that we can cancel the gym, that we can eat ourselves to death with black forest gateaux’.

Like the responses to research suggesting the health-benefits of alcohol, these responses to Flegal et al’s research highlight a deep anxiety that the public will misuse public health messages in a manner that undermines their health.

Anti-obesity or Pro-ana? So long as we’re skinny…right?

Despite knee-jerk concern that alcohol or weight-related research will be misused by publics, there is very little (if any) concern that anti-obesity campaigns will lead people to eat too little, exercise too much or that such messages will reinforce and legitimise disordered eating practices such as anorexia or bulimia.

Almost every time I lecture on critical obesity discourses someone will question why there is such a overwhelming focus on obesity and little focus on anorexia or bulimia. Someone will also point out that a lot of the anti-obesity messages can be construed to reinforce idealised expectations about body image.

Compare the use of computer-generated imagery in these two public service announcements (PSAs).

  1. Measure Up – anti obesity

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dL4lN6GKi4&w=560&h=315

2. The Mirror – anorexia

The parameters for the non-pathologised and non-medicalised body is very narrow, especially for young women. In addition to people questioning the differing responses to obesity and anorexia or bulimia, I have had two students tell me that they used weight-focused public health messages to mask damaging practices such as under-eating and over-exercising.

Last year, Dr Richard Newton from the Butterfly Foundation noted that an increase of children and young people with disordered eating and dieting behaviours coincides with ‘a society that is putting an increasing emphasis on avoiding obesity, controlling weight and shape through dieting’.

Psychiatrist Dr Peter O’Keefe also said that anti-obesity messages contribute to the ideal that ‘if you’re thin you’re good, if you’re not, you’re bad’.

These are serious concerns with real consequences for the lives of young people. Yet the zeal for preventing obesity and perceived urgency of the problem, gives public health advocates little time or reason to pause and consider the ways anti-obesity messages can be interpreted.

Sadly, if a piece of research suggests that it’s ok to eat a piece of cake, warnings and caveats are screamed from the rooftops. But if the research says exercise more, eat less, and lose weight, then there is only nodding agreement. After all, why give an inch when we are at war with our bodies – mine and yours.

Pete Evans may sneer at medical science, but sneering back is a bad idea.

Writing in The Saturday Paper, Martin McKenzie-Murray describes celebrity chef Pete Evans as “sneering” at the importance of medical qualifications and that the “medical industry is corrupt”. Evans continues,

What do you need a qualification for to talk common sense? Why do you have to study something that is outdated, that is industry-backed, that is biased, that is not getting the results? That would be insane to study something that you’re gonna waste your time with? That’s just crazy.

McKenzie-Murray is quick to dismiss Evans and describes his interview as “a pathetic performance”. There is much to criticise Evans for. But these are good questions.

What gives someone authority to tell others what to do in relation to their body and health? How is medical and nutrition science produced? What are we to make of the way this knowledge and advice seems to shift over time? Do scandals of corruption and bias in one area of scientific research taint other areas?

These are the kinds of questions philosophy of science and science and technology studies deals with. In fact, Ray Moynihan, research fellow at Bond University, has addressed similar questions in his occasional health column for The Saturday Paper.

As I was writing this I received an email for a conference at Georgetown University that is exploring the question “Does Industry Influence Medical Discourse?” Presenters are asking some of the very questions Evans is asking about the basis of authority, knowledge production, and different conceptions of evidence.

One presenter, philosopher and bioethicist Carl Elliott has spent much of his career critiquing the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on medical practice and research. To be sure, Elliott and other scholars are not drawing the same conclusions as Evans, but nor do they conclude that “everything is ok” in the world of modern medicine.

One only needs to glance at the newspapers (or Retraction Watch) to realise that medicine and scientific research is not a straight-forward or innocent enterprise. Recent examples include a “fake doctor” practicing in NSW with fraudulent qualifications, sugar industry influence on dietary recommendations, or Dr Anna O. Szust – the scientist who doesn’t exist but was able to get appointed as an editor to over 50 academic journals.

These examples of fraud and misconduct are extreme. The point is not that these examples discredit medicine or science, but that they raise questions about the social and commercial contexts in which science is produced and medicine is practiced.

Yet, even when there is no misconduct, there are questions about the results of science when it is “done right”. As I’ve addressed elsewhere, STS and philosophy of science shows that the “inside” of science is a messy, value-laden, emergent, trialled-and-eroded, accidentally-collective network enterprise that bears little resemblance to the smooth, authoritative discursive claims on the “outside.” This is not to say that science is a hoax and one opinion is as good as another. But there are questions about science worth asking.

Evans draws the wrong conclusion that medical and scientific knowledge is fake and can’t be trusted. But he is asking the right questions about how it is produced, who counts as an authority and what does it mean to be qualified. There aren’t always straight-forward answers to these questions. To double-down by saying “trust the experts, you’re a fool like Trump” only serves to entrench polarised and isolated camps.

As Rachel Ankeny said in an interview about Evans and the critical response from the Australian Medical Association and others

“They need to engage with the community — not just those who are pro-science — but the whole community,”

“It’s not about saying you’re a ‘whack job’ and shouldn’t be listened to,”

Instead of sneering back at people who question science – vaccinations, climate change or nutrition – it would be more productive to acknowledge the significance of their questions and provide ways of thinking that avoid the Scylla of scientism and Charybdis of pseudo or anti-science.

‘You Are What You Eat’: The Place of Food in Caring for the Self and Others

This article first appeared on the ABC Religion & Ethics website, 12 Oct 2016

In 1825 the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin declared, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” By this he seemed to mean that he could tell something about a person’s character and class by what they eat.

Forty years later, Ludwig Feuerbach echoed Brillat-Savarin with the pithier, “You are what you eat.” Feuerbach’s intent however was to highlight the materiality of what it is to be a human being – you are material like what you eat is material.

His phrase has since developed a life of its own. A quick Google search reveals multiple documentaries, hundreds of books and thousands of articles and blogs taking “You are what you eat” for their title. Most of these are very prescriptive. You are fat, unhealthy, diseased or unhappy because you eat too much of one thing and not enough of the other.

While varying in rigour and sophistication, proponents of the “you are what you eat” mantra express the sentiment that there is a connection between the food we eat and some ill-defined moral, aesthetic and psychosocial reality.

This sentiment, however, did not originate in the nineteenth century with Brillat-Savarin or Feuerbach. They are part of a much longer tradition that extends back to the food practices of almost all ancient peoples.

Broadly speaking, in the ancient world food was deeply entwined with social, political and religious life. Often this was expressed terms of purity and impurity, which in turn would indicate who was inside and outside of the community. A well known, although immensely complex, example is the Mosaic dietary laws as recorded in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The dietary laws ordered the daily, political and ceremonial life of the ancient Hebrews and set them apart from surrounding peoples. What you could eat, whom you could eat with and how the food was prepared were governed by these rules.

It was in the context of the tightening of these laws that Jesus sought to break the link between diet and religious-moral status – “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11). A lot of ink has been spilt over these words. Generally speaking, Jesus’s point is that assiduous observance of the Mosaic dietary law does not create a pure and holy person. It is not what a person eats, but the orientation of their heart and its alignment with the will of God that makes them clean.

The ancient Greeks were also concerned about the relationship between food and status within the polis. This was not in the binary of pure or impure as practiced by the ancient Hebrews, but was seen in terms of prudence or temperance. As Hub Zwart has shown, Greek dietetics was a way of life through which an individual would subject themselves to a regimen of self-discipline and self-governance to develop an eating habit that is rationally ordered. Food diaries and other self-inspection devices were used for these purposes.

To stray from a dietetic regimen would not necessarily indicate that one was unclean, but that like an animal they could not control their appetite. And if they couldn’t govern their appetite, then they probably couldn’t govern more significant things such as the household or the city.

Greek approaches to food and sex were similar in this regard. The example of Nicocles the ruler of Cyprus illustrates this point. According to Isocrates, Nicocles explains his conjugal fidelity in saying, “I am the king, and because as somebody who commands others, who rules others, I have to show that I am able to rule myself.” Nicocles could have sex with whomever he wished, but if he wished to rule others and the city with glory and authority then he had to rule himself first. The Greek free man was at liberty to seek culinary and sexual pleasures, however if he sought to cultivate an existence characterized by self-mastery and beauty, then he recognized the particular rules of conduct that were constitutive of that subjectivity.

In more recent times, these ways of thinking about the relationship between food and moral character has been transformed. Nutrition science has narrowed the frame so that the effect of food is limited to physiological health. The social, moral and religious understandings of food give way to understandings provided by chemistry and microbiology.

A shift in ethical theory also contributed to the transformation in understanding of the ethical relevance of food. Rather than cultivating an ethical character through certain practices, the concern is over the consequence of choices, duty to others and the capacity to act as an autonomous individual.

These transformations of food play out in debates about the ethics of consumption and the right to know what is in our food. Much of the focus on ethical consumption is on duties or the consequences of certain choices for others. While I have been sceptical about the extent to which ethical consumption can solve global problems such as slavery or climate change, I do think the retrieval of ancient practices of care of the self is an important way for developing an ethical relationship to food.

Some of these resources for this retrieval can be found in Michel Foucault’s work on the “care of the self.”

In his final years, Foucault directed his attention toward Greco-Roman ethics and the constitution of the ethical subject around the use of pleasure. In the books The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, as well as numerous lectures, seminars and interviews, Foucault investigates the constitution of the subject through specific techniques, practices and knowledges of the self.

Ethics in this context does not indicate principle-based normative action that, if followed, is considered morally praiseworthy. Rather Foucault refers to ethics as a practice that forms the subject, guides action and mediates the subject’s relation to oneself, others and the world.

In his analysis of the constitution of the subject through an ethics understood as practice, Foucault isolates four aspects in the process of subjectification: the ethical substance, the mode of subjection, the ascetic work, and the telos of the ethical subject. The relationship among the four aspects is not linear but dynamic and interconnected.

Using the Greeks as an example, Foucault suggests that the “ethical substance” was pleasure, the “mode of subjectification” was politico-aesthetic choice, the ascetic form or ethical work was a variety of the techniques used to govern particular relations around pleasure and, finally, the telos or goal was the mastery of oneself. While the content of these aspects (for instance, concern over pleasure) may no longer be relevant, this orientation towards ethical cultivation and care of the self may still be relevant.

The philosopher Paul Thompson uses Foucault’s approach to argue for a revitalisation of agrarian virtue in relation food practices. In his book The Agrarian Vision, Thompson embraces the idea of agrarian virtue not as an ethics learned from books or philosophy classes, but as an ethics that is lived and demonstrated in the character of the person. “Farming itself,” writes Thompson, “was thought to form the character of rural people.”

For example, in cultivating the land individuals develop an awareness of the limits and conditions of life, which in turn encourages a humble and patient character. By encountering the fragile temporality of life, a person views food, health, prosperity and land not as calculable commodities but as gifts. It is argued that by humbly and respectfully relating to the land as a gift, agrarian virtues of self-reliance, interdependence, sustainability and community are cultivated.

Of course, it could be argued that this is all very nice, but as less than 2% of the Australian population actually farms these ideas are quite irrelevant. Thompson argues that even if the social and material conditions of agrarianism are not currently present to produce virtue, people “can come to understanding of virtue when such a society is taken as a model.” Thompson suggests that these virtues can be cultivated in a “vicarious manner.” Although the actual social and material conditions of agrarian life would make it easier to cultivate agrarian virtues, Thompson suggests that surrogates such as poetry, literature, farm experiences and farmers’ markets make it possible to cultivate virtues.

Thompson’s cultivation of agrarian virtue is just one example of an attempt to renew thinking about the relation between food and the self. There are many others. However, these approaches are not without their problems.

For starters they can be terribly bourgeois. As the historian Thomas Govan wrote in the 1960s, it is the teachers, writers, philosophers and poets who propagate this nostalgic notion of virtuous food practices – those “who milked no cows, shovelled no manure, and picked no cotton or peas.” Writing in the same period, Richard Hofstadter suggested that the “more commercial society became … the more reason it found to cling in imagination to the noncommercial agrarian values.”

The mid-twentieth century nostalgia for non-commercial values has reappeared in the food practices of urban-dwellers in first decades of the twenty-first century. Farmers’ markets, homesteading, community-supported agriculture, slow-food, or dumpster diving are all old yet new food practice that some people are adopting.

Echoing Govan and Hofstadter, critics today have pointed out the way an overwhelming sense of these virtues has blinded some advocates to past and present gendered, class and race inequalities. I have discussed aspects these at greater length elsewhere.

However, a related problem is when the benefits of intentional food practices are overstated. Growing tomatoes on your windowsill may be a useful practice for cultivating a particular attitude towards food and the environment, but it is not going to stop climate change or revolutionise the food system. These limitations, however, should not mean that we simply disregard any value in thinking and acting differently in the way we acquire, prepare and consume food.

It isn’t surprising that the critiques of romantic nostalgia and bourgeois individualism aimed at alternative food are also levelled at Foucault’s idea on care of the self. Lois McNay, for examples, contends that Foucault’s care of the self focuses too heavily on the individual and “amounts to an amoral project for privileged minorities.”

These are important criticisms that cannot be fully dealt with here, except to emphasise that the care and cultivation of the self is not performed in self-imposed isolation or exile. It is in the context of relations with others – an ethics of the self in community.

Likewise, food practices are not performed in isolation, but are social practices that structure ways of relating with others. Food is a central site for relating to oneself and others in material, social and moral registers. The etymology of companion as “bread fellow” or “to break bread with” illustrates the shared ethical practice of food.

There are many examples of the way food is being used to transform individuals and communities, particularly as a means to reconcile differences and dispel fears of the other. For example, an Israeli hummus restaurant is offering a 50% discount to tables seating both Arab and Jewish diners. The Welcome Dinner Project is using a shared meal to connect newly arrived people with more established Australians. The rising interest in Aboriginal foods presents an opportunity for deeper understanding of Aboriginal foodways, which has often been denigrated and dismissed as “primitive.”

The transformative potential of these practices also carries the risk of co-option, either through commercial exploitation or the shallow sentiment of chasing culinary exotica. These practices can also be crushed under the weight of unrealistic expectations. Getting people to share a meal is not going to solve the conflict in Israel and Palestine, eradicate xenophobia, or redress the dispossession of Indigenous Australians. But such practices of the self with others can serve to transform the lives of those sitting at the table.

“You are what you eat” has become hackneyed and calcified with moralistic health messages. Perhaps instead we should start thinking and acting on the idea that “as we eat with others, we become who we are.”

Contested health advice: celebrity doctor vs celebrity chef

In response to Pete Evans’ advice that “calcium from dairy can remove the calcium from your bones”, Dr Brad Robinson used Facebook to ask Evans.

“Can we make a deal? You don’t give medical advice and I won’t tell you how to best shuck oysters. Agreed?”

Sounds reasonable, yet the lines aren’t so clear.

The medical community has been engaged in a long and ambiguous embrace with celebrity chefs, nutritionists and various other popularizers of medical advice. The dietary advocacy of St. Jamie Oliver (aka mockney gobshite), for example, has been lauded in the British Medical Journal for doing “more for the public health of our children than a corduroy army of health promotion workers”.

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Jamie Oliver in his latest documentary, Jamie’s Sugar Rush. Photograph: Channel 4.

While it is unlikely that Pete Evans will receive similar praise in the Medical Journal of Australia, the medical community has (along with a host of other actors) contributed to the conditions for celebrity life-guides to flourish.

For instance, medical and public health concern over the health-effects of micro-practices such as playing computer games, microwave dinners, dairy consumption, sugary drinks, feeding infants formula, alcohol consumption, or mode of transportation contributes to the production of a population seeking clear and authoritative guidance.

The sources through which such guidance is disseminated extends well beyond the clinic, but it isn’t wholly divorced from the clinic either.

Lifestyle magazines, health websites, television programs and smartphone apps commonly feature “medical experts” as a means of legitimating the guidance on offer. And the use of these tools, especially apps or m-health, is increasingly encouraged by physicians. For example, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners states that:

M-Health tools can provide continuous, pervasive healthcare at any time or location. By using m-Health, healthcare professionals and patients have the opportunity to continuously monitor health conditions and access health information outside of the general practice environment.

Considering that a significant proportion of the 3 billion apps available via Google Play or iTunes are health-related, the idea of simple demarcation between legitimate and illegitimate advice is naive at best.

The debate over who can give health-related advice is not new. However, the rise of various technologies, coupled with the dual movement of anxiety and fetishization of food in the present, creates an environment where a clear demarcation of legitimate from illegitimate sources of guidance is hard to find.

The fact that Dr Brad Robinson used Facebook to voice his concerns is revealing – especially as his page seems to largely function to promote the success of his private obstetrics and gynaecology practice.

Of course none of this is to suggest that there is no basis from which to judge different guidance or to highlight the spurious nature of Evans’ advice. The point is simply that the medical community has contributed to the creation of life-guide celebrities and that the contest of over medical knowledge and guidance is more complex than simply saying people like Evans should shut up until he has a white coat and stethoscope.

Public Health has a Tobacco Problem

Image taken from page 855 of '[A series of original Portraits and Caricature Etchings by ... J. Kay; ... with biographical sketches and illustrative anecdotes. [Edited by H. P.]]'The widely circulating media reports that compare bacon to tobacco in terms of its capacity to cause cancer reveals the “tobacco problem” with public health communication.

By “tobacco problem” I don’t mean that researchers or communicators are on the take from “Big Tobacco” or that they have got the facts wrong about its association with cancer. The tobacco problem is that the success of tobacco control has produced a conceptual and political myopia. Or what I call a “tobacco control style of thought”.

Ian Hacking describes a “style of thought” as a particular way of seeing the world or problem that allows some ideas to be thinkable and actionable, while rendering other ideas as unthinkable. The success in linking smoking with cancer and the implementation of controls to regulate its use have contributed to a tobacco control style of thought.

The effect is that all public health issues are shoe-horned to fit the tobacco control model.

Eating bacon and red meat, drinking soda or frequenting fast-food restaurants, or sitting in a chair for too long are all equated with smoking. Why? Because saying bacon is like tobacco means that the problem and corresponding solution is well understood by the public and policy-makers.

Except it isn’t. All of these activities are extremely different from smoking. Eating bacon is not the same as smoking cigarettes. Everyone outside the tobacco control style of thought can see this.

The Australian Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said it is a “farce to compare sausages with cigarettes“. Does Barnaby have financial and political interests in saying that? Yes. Is he wrong in saying that? No.

Sure, saying “bacon causes cancer” generates headlines, but it also distracts from focusing on the actual research on the health effects of processed meats. Public health Image taken from page 277 of 'Lilliput Lyrics ... Edited by R. Brimley Johnson. Illustrated by Chas. Robinson'communicators and researchers need to break out of the tobacco control style of thought that makes bacon or soda look like tobacco.

Public health is currently in a battle with libertarians who cry “Nanny” every time they are told that an activity or behaviour should be regulated. However, in equating activities like eating processed meat or sitting at a desk with smoking, public health communicators give the appearance of legitimacy to the “Nanny State” cry. This does real damage to the credibility of public health research and erodes public understanding of risk factors and epidemiology.

Like the boy who cried wolf, if public health communicators continue to compare everything to smoking, soon people will stop listening.