XXXI.1 January - February 2024
Page: 56
Digital Citation

Food as a Feminist Issue

Simran Chopra, Leah Kirts

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With this article, we intend to raise provocations to look at the amnesia around food and to explore the role of technology and HCI within this amnesia. We are putting out a call to design technology differently, to explore ecofeminism in our design processes in a more discerning fashion, and to engage with the practices of growing and eating food. We do not take the invisibility of food production and the oblivion in consumer culture as the same, and question what is presented as information. We are not giving directions, solutions, or suggestions—not creating new binaries—but rather raising complications by asking questions. We are placing emphasis on how these are not dimorphic problems but rather porous boundaries, which need new ways of perceiving and imagining the world. If we are going into uncharted new worlds and futures, we do not want to be explorers, missionaries, or scholars. So, who are we, and what role do we play? These questions require new ways of thinking critically and asking questions that we have never asked before. We invite the reader into the subliminal space of not knowing, provoking the need to know; the appreciation of not knowing is a Buddhist value where one is comfortable with the process of finding out. We want to encourage researchers to co-imagine new ways of living in sync and making kin with the world around us.

back to top  Insights

Researchers and designers need to engage with the messiness and complexity around food rather than building on sanitized notions of the food system.
Technology plays a vital role in modern mechanization and subjugation.
"The personal is part of the collective," and our collective response has the power to produce radical change.

We would like to evoke the need for researchers and designers to engage with the messiness and complexity around food rather than building on sanitized notions of the food system. Navigating these issues of food consumption and production requires the development of new ontological and epistemological structures for future research. Therefore, there is a need to build frameworks for other researchers and designers to use in addressing the tightly knit and interrelated issues around food production, consumption, and broader socioeconomic infrastructures. The turn to more-than-human approaches in HCI still needs to do appropriate justice to this space of work. As Donna Haraway says, "making kin" with the more-than-human world is an urgent ethical responsibility [1]; however, we would argue that making kin just scratches the surface. Haraway's companionship and love for her dog led her to ask a series of research questions that brought forth the idea of making kinship, where plants, animals, and microbes are to be looked at as kin. But what about domesticated, farmed, or abandoned animals? Are they not kin? Do they not occupy the "Chthulucene" and the "Plantationocene"? Are they not more than just part of the food system to benefit humans?

Marxist thought claims that capitalism turns bodies into machines. We connect the dots and voice that the standardization and mechanization in human food production and consumption affects cows, chickens, and pigs similar to how it affects human wage earners and unwaged domestic workers, primarily women. Differing degrees of control, subjugation, hunger, and starvation simultaneously affect people, animals, and the environment. Technology plays a vital role in modern mechanization and subjugation; for example, factory farms increasingly use biotechnologies to engineer animals genetically, food-processing plants exhaust human labor, and the kitchen becomes a laboratory, all in the name of productivity.

There are salient points of connection between the treatment of feminized animals and workers within these industries. Take the poultry industry: Broiler hens are disabled due to the genetic modifications of their bodies to grow breasts bigger than their skeletons can support. In the same industry, underpaid poultry factory workers are permanently disabled from the repetitive motion of dismembering chickens on a speeding conveyor belt. Both the farmed animal and the food worker are devalued and disabled by the same system. Carol J. Adams defines eggs and milk as "feminized protein" [2], that is, nutrients that have been taken from animals to feed human appetites through the abuse of the animal's reproductive cycle—in the case of dairy, this includes forced pregnancy. These are feminist issues wrapped up within food, farming, and biotechnology.

A new generation of Silicon Valley food start-ups has sprouted with "green" and eco-friendly alternatives to farming or eating meat and dairy. They present techno-solutionist visions of a utopian future, promising new food technologies as the silver bullet to all the problems affecting humanity by corporations and policymakers. However, these realities are not far from dystopian science fiction such as the 1973 film Soylent Green, an adaptation of Harry Harrison's 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! Similarly, some corporations portray themselves more as technology start-ups than as food companies. Eat Just (formerly Hampton Creek), which creates plant-based replacements for eggs and mayonnaise, claims to be a sustainable-technology-centered start-up, and has attracted considerable venture capital funding. Former employees of the corporation, however, have called out workplace mistreatment, as well as the company's use of questionable science and its lack of ethics [3]. Greenwashing by corporations and within the technology-focused research community camouflages their underlying motives: to sell products and secure funding. Investment-backed food tech start-ups cannot address the burgeoning ecological problems within the food industry if their business models capitalize on the issues they claim to solve. The overconsumption of energy-intensive resources is unlikely to be curbed by creating more consumer products packaged in plastic.


Swapping out animals for plants without questioning what holds existing systems of power in place will only continue to reproduce the same old inequities. Governments continue subsidizing industrial meat and dairy industries instead of supporting regeneratively grown vegetables, grains, and legumes. Food tech startups that transform mung beans into vegan scrambled eggs or pea protein into bleeding burgers are unlikely to fix the food system if they are backed by venture capitalists who contribute to the problem. Likewise, the energy that is spent promoting vegan capitalist solutions to the ecological crisis overshadows the liberatory economic principles underlying veganism and vegetarianism. Meatless diets are not new, nor are the ecofeminist politics and harm-reduction practices that undergird many of them in culturally meaningful ways. Cuisines around the world utilize nutrient-dense, sustainable, and delicious plant foods and fungi without involving animal agriculture or spending millions of dollars trying to mimic it.

Both the farmed animal and the food worker are devalued and disabled by the same system.

At this point, the crisis of climate collapse is unavoidable, and the status quo within the global food system must change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports have shown that the leading causes of climate collapse are rooted in our global food system [4]: Industrial animal agriculture and rising global meat consumption are among the most egregious human activities in terms of resource extraction, fossil fuels, and land use, as well as labor exploitation of workers, abuse of animals, and harm to both the environment and the people who inhabit it. Consumer culture conditions people to value themselves and others by metrics of capitalist consumption. Their awareness of injustice against workers, animals, and the environment pushes them to "vote with their fork" and act ethically by purchasing "ethical" products, often without meaningful political engagement that could develop class consciousness. Food tech companies capitalize on people's consumer-focused climate anxiety by marketing meat and dairy analogues that use conventional monoculture crops, thus perpetuating old economic models. Food is a crucial factor in ecological, feminist politics. The capitalist global food system runs on the feminized and racialized labor of farmers, growers, food processors and manufacturers, recipe developers, food service workers, and home cooks. Food workers are historically underpaid, undervalued, and denied decision-making power to transform the very systems their labor fuels.

Thus, food is an important topic of contemplation. Under the current food system, choice seems endless; however, it is often a charade of choice. As the renowned Indian ecofeminist and activist Vandana Shiva says, the myth of "free choice" begins with "free market" and "free trade." When the food is controlled by a handful of multinational corporations, she asks, how can it be free trade? [5] This has recently been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the increasing cost of living (e.g., the rising cost of flour or the shortage of eggs), and the energy crisis. On the other hand, food and beverage companies, like many others, have earned record profits through disaster capitalism—when profit-seeking private interests exploit a destabilizing event in a particular region for their benefit, for example, a natural disaster or war. Within these adversarial complexities, gaining control of our food can prove difficult; however, community control of food has presented itself as a challenging but necessary way forward.

These questions should also be examined at the macro level of interconnected socioeconomic and political systems perpetuating systemic violence. These systems have devolved in ways that strip human dignity and diminish possibilities of self-sustenance. Yet, at the micro level, the onus is on the individual not only to care for themselves but also to "save the planet" with their everyday actions. The individual is taught to think as a consumer and to believe that if they live sustainably and "buy green," they can do good. These beliefs are cages of oppression that go beyond an individual scale. A popular outcry from those who uphold the status quo is to "keep politics out of food" in order to maintain existing power structures. In contrast, a feminist rallying cry reminds us that "the personal is political." We must define those political principles and publicly engage with them. Similarly, we say "the personal is part of the collective," and our collective response has the power to produce radical change.

Under the current food system, choice seems endless; however, it is often a charade of choice.

HCI research initially started with individual-focused behavior change models to address ecological sustainability, and is increasingly looking at systemic perspectives. This shift in focus, however, should not forgo the ability of the individual to form collective action, and we build on the growing lens of collective action around food in HCI. The individual has the power to organize their communities to navigate systemic uncertainty, and those communities have the power to create alternatives to alter societal behaviors toward justice. If people think as individuals instead of as members of a collective, it is easier for them to conceive of injustices as single issues detached from one another rather than being interwoven. We can build solidarity outside of consumerism while understanding that what we eat or abstain from can contribute to collective power—not in the transaction itself, but in attaining knowledge, enacting care, and building a better world through the daily acts of feeding ourselves and communing with others.

This piece is the result of a conversation between Simran Chopra, an early-career HCI researcher in the U.K., and Leah Kirts, an independent writer and community organizer based in New York. Together, we explored the intricacies of food through the beliefs that motivate our work and collaboratively built a dialogical reflection to bridge academia and activism to find a middle ground, a common language, and a framework. Our dialogue is one part of an ongoing conversation across disciplines to engage with feminism, food, and ecological justice as we continue to grow ecofeminist futures.

back to top  References

1. Haraway, D. Anthropocene, capitalocene, plantationocene, chthulucene: Making kin. Environmental humanities 6, 1 (2015), 159–165.

2. Adams, C.J., The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist- Vegetarian Critical Theory. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.

3. Carson, B. Sex, lies, and eggless mayonnaise: Something is rotten at food startup Hampton Creek, former employees say. Insider. Aug. 5, 2015;

4. IPCC. Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Core Writing Team, H. Lee, and J. Romero, eds. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 2023, 35–115. DOI:10.59327/IPCC/AR6-9789291691647

5. Shiva, V. Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply. Zed Books, 2001.

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Simran Chopra is a research associate at the Institute for Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh. She is an HCI researcher and interaction designer working at the intersection of food, social justice, community-based participatory design, and sustainability. She completed her Ph.D., titled "Designing for Participatory Visioning: HCI for Reconciling Sustainability Visions with Everyday Practice in Grassroots Communities," at Northumbria University. [email protected]

Leah Kirts is a writer from Indiana based in New York covering food, queer politics, and ecofeminism. They contributed chapters to Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression (2020) and Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals & the Earth (2022). Their food writing appears in various digital and print publications. [email protected]

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