Food as a Physical, Sensory, and Social Act: An Interview with Nicolas Godinot

This is part of our special feature on Food, Food Systems, and Agriculture.

Arriving in Vevey (Switzerland), on the shores of the Leman Lake (Lake Geneva), I was greeted by the friendly statue of Charlie Chaplin and, emerging out of the waters, a startling giant stainless steel eating utensil. To a great extent, “The Fork,” a 26 foot-tall work by artist Jean-Pierre Zaugg, has become an emblem for the city, often represented on touristic pamphlets as a quick identifier. Designed in 1995 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Alimentarium, an extraordinary immersive and ludic museum entirely dedicated to food and nutrition, and another unique fixture of Vevey’s cultural landscape, the whimsical sculpture constitutes an inviting “foretaste” for what is to be discovered inside the museum located across it. There, visitors embark on a journey through cultural foodways, agricultural history, and physiological and nutritional science. This is where I met Curator Dr. Nicolas Godinot for this candid interview in which he explains his professional role in shaping the museum’s content and shares his personal thoughts and philosophy about contemporary concerns over food systems and the future of food. His atypical path, from laboratory science to popular science, is an illustration of how indispensable communication between lay audiences and scientists is, and an example of the exciting endeavors PhDs can accomplish outside of the strict academic trajectory.

In this special feature on Food, Food Systems, and Agriculture, the neuroscientist also describes the part that he believes “the industry” and the “big business” side of food has to play in optimizing and improving the quality of the food supply, and in facing the challenges of feeding a growing global population. Since much of the food consumed in the Western world is produced by large food companies, these are and should be an integral part of food debates. Standing up to the general and sustained critique over “Big Food” in social sciences, the museum curator engages the role of technology and man-made molecules in agriculture from the stance of the scientific method. But most fascinating is his discussion of tastes and flavors, which is where his passion lies. His enthusiasm for educating the public about sensory science even led to the installation in the museum of two “aroma pipe organs” (homage to poet Boris Vian), which visitors use to blend scents and compose aromas in an experimental context. This interview makes clear that when it comes to food anxieties, food safety, diets, or understanding people’s relationship with food, information, communication, and dialogue among all actors and stakeholders are essential, and that research diffusion and experimentation occur in diverse ways and places.

—Hélène Ducros for EuropeNow


EuropeNow You are the Head of Content at the Alimentarium, a museum entirely dedicated to food (alimentation in French). Let’s start with an apparently simple question. What does “food” mean? What does the term encompass?

Nicolas Godinot In French, “alimentation” is broader than “food” in English. But strictly speaking, food represents these elements from nature that we need to incorporate into our body as external supply to sustain ourselves, to potentially procreate and hence to disseminate our genes. It’s about calories, i.e. energy, and the necessary nutrients our body needs to function properly. This is the most basic, purely functional, level of food, corresponding to “nutrition.” Secondly, food intake is also a sensory act: taking in nutrients is pleasurable. Our reward system makes us actually feel pleasure when we fulfill a physiological need, and disgust or displeasure when we risk harming our body. The entry point into this reward system are the sensations we feel, especially when looking for and consuming food. But, as human beings, we made food into much more than that: it’s also a social act. We’ve organized society around the act of bringing nutrients to our bodies, optimizing this socially so that each one of us does not have to grow wheat or raise a cow. This is important because it is culturally constructed. This aspect of food intake is a fundamental but sometimes forgotten basis of society since today we tend to focus on the impact of food on the body while disregarding its social dimension. We also orchestrate a ceremony around senses: we prepare food, cuisine it, display it nicely—in short, we make it into spectacle. That’s gastronomy. The sensory journey organized around the “food act” is the very reason why we stand a long way from replacing it with pills, tablets, or purée-in-a-bag, even though science fiction has talked about that for over a century. Both the sensory and social dimensions of food would be missing from this scenario. Finally, food entails a complex infrastructure of actors and techniques. These “food systems” lead to questions about how we produce foodstuffs, where food comes from, who makes it, what are the value chains implemented, and what processes and know-hows are employed. All this for the simple pursuit of ensuring that we, human beings, have enough nutrients and energy. Therefore, it is not surprising that food is so central. It is directly linked to individual survival and thus the survival of the species on which eating and reproducing essentially depend.

EuropeNow What shapes human food intake? Nature or culture?

Nicolas Godinot Humans have great drivers towards caloric foods, most likely because the basic level of maintaining ourselves alive is to get calories. Our sensory system, linked to a reward system, is very efficient at making us grab fats (calorie-dense) and sweets (fast-acting calories). Our strong appetence for fats and sweets is innate and we seem less “wired” to crave fruits and vegetables. But we can learn. For example, we learn to appreciate the bitterness of an endive or a cup of coffee although we are wired to be put on alert by bitterness, a sensation conveying the message that there might be molecules present that should not be ingested, because toxic to some degree. To learn how to find gustative beauty in greens, it has to be taught to us. We must be exposed to diverse flavors, vegetables, and cuisines; the younger you are for that, the better it works. At the Alimentarium we want to make food interesting, not to say fun, for children so they go beyond the initial physiological reaction. We also show parents that it’s important to give children variety. In the US, for example, the sensory world is dominated by sweet sensations (taste or related aromas), and it is within this restricted domain that there is variety. Culinary worlds in Western Europe are more of a savory-sweet mix. However, everywhere the easiest thing gustatively is not to grab a zucchini, but a sweet snack, a soda or a creamed cappuccino.

EuropeNow How was the Alimentarium conceived to guide visitors through these thematics? What questions does the museum seek to answer? For which public?

Nicolas Godinot While not trying to be exhaustive in our content, we describe different aspects of food within a historical context and with a longitudinal vision: the physiology of food, i.e. nutrition, the societal aspect, and the production side, which also deals with economics. People visit us in person or online where most of our content is available. We present what food production was like at different times and where some of our food habits originate. We see ourselves as stewards of this heritage.

In terms of public, we consider it essential to speak to children as well as adults so both can learn and re-learn about food. At first, we were seen as a kids’ museum. For different reasons. One is that the museum quickly took a scientific turn. Food addresses cooking, experimentation, and taste, but also technologies, so we come close to “hard” sciences. The usual public for science museums is children. They are curious and “scientific:” they question, experiment, try, and fail. That’s how they learn. So, if a museum deals with science in an experimental way, it will likely appeal to children. Another reason is that since 1995, we specifically developed an area of the museum dedicated to younger children: the Junior Academy. Nowadays, many adults in the Leman Lake area remember visiting the museum as children. Local teachers continue to bring students, using the museum and its online learning platform (Alimentarium Academy) to support their teaching about food and nutrition. Of course, adults come too, but often with children, as families. It’s important to talk to children because our relationship with food is constructed individually but also socially through daily experiences, activities, and exposures. We must know a few rules to eat intelligently. The earlier in life one is exposed to those, the better. Taste awakening has an impact on food intake: for example, noticing our sensations when we eat, recognizing savory from sweet, appreciating the richness of a dish, finding gustative beauty, and gaining introspective awareness about what happens when we eat. But we also cater to adults, especially since our re-opening and the launch of the online platform. People of all ages come here.

EuropeNow This museum is also organized as a “laboratory” through hands-on workshops. Why is this experimental function important in food education?

Nicolas Godinot In 2015, we transformed the museum, changing the scenography, adapting our content and workshop offerings, and adding the online platform to reach all ages as well as an international public. Why hands-on workshops? First, because people expect them. They want to taste, touch, cook –since food is inherently about sensory experiences. You couldn’t have a music museum only displaying sheet music without actual music. It’s the same here. Early on, we offered workshops around simple cooking themes to support our explanations about how food is made. Today, workshops constitute a vector to put learning into practice and for people to (re)appropriate food preparation and the act of eating, as well as take notice of what they eat, pay attention to food preparation and food consumption. It’s crucial that people re-learn all that and do it together.

EuropeNow From a PhD in neuroscience, how did you become interested in food and charged with the Alimentarium’s programs? How does your scientific background inform your approach?

Nicolas Godinot My trajectory may seem unconventional indeed. I have always been interested in biological sciences, specifically neurosciences and ways humans perceive and construct the world through filters our brain controls: “senses”. I discovered a real terra incognita in olfaction and taste research because unlike for other senses (vision, touch), we don’t understand them well, their physical stimuli being harder to control and test experimentally. Chemical senses rely on molecules floating around us that are difficult to create synthetically. What is a taste? What is a smell? We don’t know exactly, although scientists have some answers. I am fascinated by the perception of mixtures of odorant molecules. How come a smell I identify as “strawberry” requires the presence of over fifty volatile molecules?

This research field is remarkably interdisciplinary. As a neuroscientist, I worked with chemists and social scientists. What is perception? How do we measure it in humans? What are potential cognitive biases when we ask questions? These questions involve psycho-physics, sociology and psycho-linguistics. For example, interestingly in French or English we lack words to verbalize smells. When describing a smell we refer to the source of odorant molecules, for example “strawberry.” We have not extracted and named a particular trait from the stimulus like we have for colors. “Red” does not mean anything, it is how we call a specific wavelength. During my PhD, I sought to understand how the sense of smell functions in humans. I first worked on unpleasant bitumen odors. However, while the objects of interest may differ, the approach and underlying questions are the same with food. From smells, I went on to researching tastes.

In agrifood, there remains a possibility for fundamental (or “basic”) research, not just applied. It requires massive financing to fund labs that go beyond development research. Nestlé, Unilever… only a few Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies can afford the investment necessary to conduct basic science in taste and smell. I joined the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne (Switzerland) where 500 scientists from many disciplines work on food. The Nestlé’s R&D network is in charge of basic science research that fuels future innovation. Together we researched aromas, tastes, and their combination as flavors in foods. This seemingly narrow research area is connected to many others. For your cup of coffee to have the desired aromas, coffee beans must be properly grown (there’s a lot to learn from the botany of coffee beans) as well as roasted in specific ways (relating to the chemistry of its ingredients), follow a particular factory process, and require specific physico-chemical reactions to occur (think of the foam on your coffee). It opens to other scientific fields, as well as behavioral sciences, cultural anthropology, sociology, and even market research (why are certain flavors preferred in certain cultures over others? Why do I choose a particular food behavior?). It was a thrilling learning experience to be exposed daily to all these disciplines and interact with experts sitting just next door.

Since I also always liked to communicate and popularize research findings, I left fundamental research for my current position at the museum. Alongside several curators with different foci (“hard sciences”, humanities, and social sciences), I am specifically in charge of the natural sciences. I am also responsible for our contents overall (inside the museum or online). I ensure that our discourse is grounded in science and based on observations that were tested for evidence. The scientific approach is about avoiding the reliance on assumptions and challenging beliefs. One of my functions is to ensure that information is unbiased. But I am also aware of my background and how I develop my own perceptions. My personal beliefs, if not validated facts, are not put forward in the museum.

EuropeNow What has working in different parts of the world brought to your understanding of food and the role of culture in foodways?

Nicolas Godinot Aside from the US, I worked in China in research and development. Whereas in Lausanne I had researched basic taste and smell sensory receptors, in Beijing I studied drivers of food choice and consumption in Asian populations, principally Chinese. I put aside some biological science and deep-dived into the cultural dimension of food choices. As a European with an American experience, I loved discovering what we have in common with other populations, and what is different in other cultures around food, through a more cultural anthropological approach. My preconceived ideas about traditional China were debunked. As many, I tended to wrongly idealize an Asia based on ancestral behaviors. In fact, I observed that Chinese people are very much like “us” and many traditions stand as occasional social decorum, not daily practices. That’s true with foods. I realized that there are few differences in spite of various specific cultural traits. My work reinforced my conviction that our relationship with food is socially constructed on common biological traits. In what is acceptable or not to eat, our disgusts and preferences, there are many common drivers. Like people in the Western world, the Chinese like to eat and to eat together, identify themselves through food, get pleasure from preparing foods, and eat sweets even though they might say they don’t because those are perceived as causing “inner heat.” Interestingly, this principle looks like a culturally-created counter-force to the excessive consumption of sweets in their diet. I may be wrong, but I think that there are cultures where gastronomical and gustative pleasure is less present. In Northern Europe, my impression is that cuisines seem more about function than culinary art because they respond primarily to basic physiologic drivers (sweet, savory, fat). The environmental pressure is such that there is not much room for the building of a culinary culture that goes beyond that. With -25˚C outside, fat and sugar are musts.

EuropeNow Has there been in Europe, like in the US, an accentuation of society’s concerns about food? How do you explain the current level of anxiety vis-à-vis the food supply?

Nicolas Godinot Food is definitely increasingly talked about. Look at everything circulating: from culinary blogs to food and cooking TV programs, or private food classes. That all started in the US twenty-five to thirty years ago with things like the Food Channel. The concept has since globalized. We witness a real appropriation of gastronomy and cooking by mass media. It helps people be more curious about food, as well as more critical. For example, the dichotomy between small-holders and large industrial companies emerged. In recent years, we have observed a crystallization of these oppositions: the good vs. the bad, “Big Food” vs. the peasantry. This concern appears clearly when we interact with museum visitors.

From my readings, I hypothesize that it’s part of a general increase in some level of anxiety towards everything – something called “low grade anxiety,” in reference to “low grade inflammation” now popular in biology. It is just a working hypothesis, so I welcome an open discussion. In Western Europe, we have reached a comfortable level of development and become aloof to the daily risks we faced just fifty years ago, including risks linked to food (such as poisoning from ingesting decaying foods) or war. But we somehow still feel a malaise. Sometimes unaware of our advantages, we feel a risk of loss, for example, in the economic realm (jobs…). The neoliberal environment feeds this low grade anxiety, because the responsibility of development falls onto individuals who are now responsible for their happiness, health, life, or mortality. So, if something happens or there is a risk, individuals themselves must react to counter the perceived possibility of loss. This social organization means that each person is under pressure to solve problems, feels accountable if the problem persists or worsens, and cannot easily blame society (valid or not, blaming alleviates guilt). Food is one thing that individuals feel they can influence. They feel autonomous about food through consumption choices (within the constraint of what is commercially available).

The “incorporation principle” is also part of the explanation. It basically denotes that what I eat will become me. Symbolically, eating something pure makes me pure, and something impure makes me impure. Through incorporation, I can use food intake to have control over my life – and having this control is a way to lessen anxiety. People sometimes forget that over the last century, the industrial food sector has implemented far-reaching safety systems for food quality. Today, comparatively, there is little chance that anything dire will happen to us when we eat. That also means that we may forget about reasonable reflexes in food storage or preparation. Overall, we feel secure about our food supply, so when something doesn’t function in the system anymore or communication lacks, especially on a large scale, it becomes a crisis. There have not been many food crises, but they were highly visible because of their industrial scale and the fact that the public was receptive. Mad Cow, contaminated milk, etc., all pointed to centralized industrial food systems. That enhanced the tension against “Big Food” – a tension I feel is much stronger than for “big oil/car” or “big IT,” probably because of this incorporation principle, which makes food a part of ourselves. Compared to the US, Europe is a favorable terrain for a movement against big business in general, leading to the food production system being really called into question when it is carried out by large companies.

EuropeNow Do ecological, ethical, or philosophical preoccupations about the food supply necessarily lead to exclusive diets, like veganism, vegetarianism, and others? Will food systems adapt to these rising trends in eating habits? What response should we expect?

Nicolas Godinot A general answer to the first question seems to be yes. Before, religions provided sets of beliefs and value judgments to go by even in food-related acts. Today, certain diets, which “include” or “exclude,” dictate rules that we can easily follow to rid ourselves of anxieties. To exclude some foods means that we made a choice, and that’s empowering – whether the rationale for exclusion is evidenced-based or not. Yes, I think that food systems will have to change, and that they will, simply because a major factor driving our economies is offer and demand. If everybody wants more organic foods, the agrifood sector will produce more organic foods. Now, will the idea of not exploiting animals at all flourish? Vegan ideals are radical for our societies, so they will likely have to be diluted to be adopted more widely. Vegan principles will probably permeate society in ways that will initially lead to an increased rate of vegetarianism, which has existed around the globe for a very long time.

In Europe, what could modify our habit of eating animal protein? I see two main drivers: ecological and nutritional. The ecological driver is about the low sustainability of meat production: producing meat, especially beef, has a significant impact on ecological systems. The combination of the foreseen increase in world population and increased meat consumption in developing countries will make meat production a very significant issue. This is supported by data that drives national and international organizations’ meat consumption recommendations. However, this reasoning is based on something that is quite removed from the body and direct health-related risks. The second driver is the belief that not eating meat is good for the body. This nutritional discourse is based on personal risk assessment and incorporation principles. Overall, people care less about the planet than about their bodies, so the second driver should resonate more strongly. Truthfully, the ecological discourse has struggled to make itself heard in the last forty years. It’s through the notion of individual risk, mostly based on a nutritional discourse, that the ecological view is now increasingly considered, paired with that of public health. Ultimately, I think -and hope- that food consumption will converge towards more vegetarianism, leading to changes in food production, for the sake of ensuring an ecologically sustainable food supply.

EuropeNow The Alimentarium is partly funded by Nestlé. Some may find it ironic, perhaps perplexing, that a food museum be supported by an agribusiness giant. How do you address that tension and tackle potential critiques? Moreover, how could agrifoods be part of the solution to the problems we discussed?

Nicolas Godinot The Alimentarium museum was created in 1985 in the old Nestlé headquarters in Vevey out of the desire to showcase large agricultural machines Nestlé had in its factories. Afterwards, the Alimentarium Foundation was established to administer the museum. From the start, its mission has been to explain to people what food production entails and create a center of knowledge on food and human nutrition. In that sense, we are an actual museum in line with the conventions of the International Council of Museums and we accomplish a heritage preservation mission through our collection. The Foundation is an editorially independent structure with a Board of Trustees constituted of equal parts Nestlé representatives, community leaders (local, regional and federal) and academics. The Foundation is obviously subjected to the critique of conflict of interest because of Nestlé’s financial support. We are transparent about it and open to discussing any concern. Like any museum, our role is to share established knowledge that is scientifically accepted, whether in social or physical sciences. That information helps visitors better grasp food debates and controversies. Some may find that we promote Nestlé or its products because our collection includes a number of ancient Nestlé artifacts. However, since Nestlé is one of the biggest food producers in the world, it would be difficult not to talk about it at all in a food museum, especially in Vevey. Nonetheless, we take caution, especially because things are getting tenser around the business of food. We strive to bring messages that reflect the state of knowledge as objectively as possible. And, unless emanating from international organizations like the World Health Organization (such as what constitutes a healthy diet), we don’t put forward or promote specific recommendations. Plus, there is plenty to say about food that is unrelated to business: food habits, cultural and historical aspects, nutrition, how our senses or digestion work…

EuropeNow How could agribusiness be reconciled with good nutrition and ecological preoccupations emerging around food production systems?

Nicolas Godinot Your question is multi-layered. Agribusiness has been very efficient in the last century at optimizing the food supply in terms of safety and cost, allowing most of us to have access to safer and more affordable food. Let’s remember that the global population rose from 1.6 billion at the end of the nineteenth century, with many still undernourished, to almost 8 billion today. Food production has been optimized to improve safety, availability, affordability, and to some extent, convenience – which have been major consumer concerns. However, drawbacks have emerged. I evoked the ecological impact of food production and the need for more sustainable approaches. Now, in terms of nutrition, it is mainly the effect of over-consumption and unbalanced diets, which, linked with lifestyle changes, contribute to increased rates of overweightness, obesity and related metabolic disorders. So, food production systems must optimize there too. I believe agribusiness will address these challenges. Consumer concerns drive demand and political and regulatory bodies will react accordingly. Actually, from small-scale producers to large corporations, this has already started, driven by governmental incentives and regulations and the understanding that this significant trend in demand builds positive prospects for sales and long-term sustainability of the business itself. Ultimately, we need “agrifoods” because we must optimize production for very large food quantities. That often means seeking economy of scales. Not everyone grows fruits and vegetables for personal consumption. We go to the supermarket to buy foodstuffs that are produced more intensively, often by agribusiness firms, which feed much of Western Europe and Northern America, notwithstanding a sizable production by smaller local farmers.

On “reconciliation,” especially in terms of consumers’ nutritional and ecological preoccupations, plenty can be done through information. Many of us don’t know much about food, or are wedged in belief systems that sometimes simplify things inaccurately. Getting truthful information is probably not sufficient, but necessary to gain knowledge. For example, on the hot issues of pesticides and GMOs, information is key to lessen anxiety. One should be on alert to those questions, but not viscerally afraid. So, it’s essential to support and cultivate trust in those international organizations (FAO, WHO, EPA, EFSA…) that address issues rationally and scientifically, inform the public, and develop recommendations and paths for regulation.

However, relying solely on information often doesn’t fully work, because it calls on the cognitive realm, whereas food taps into emotions. Scientists indeed find it difficult to provide a discourse that speaks to emotions effectively. Most people in the food sector, whether industry or academia, working on production, economic, or nutritional aspects, are scientists, engineers, technologists, economists. Not “artists.” They have little experience in “speaking to the heart.” Only marketers and communicators use those skills, and yes, sometimes very efficiently in all sectors of the food industry. But, this is where popularizing science helps, through structures such as museums.

EuropeNow What are the major food debates and challenges of the future?

Nicolas Godinot We will have to confront the need to feed two more billion humans in 2050. We already addressed successfully such a challenge in the past. However, we now measure the environmental damages this has caused in the last hundred years. It would be unsustainable to continue doing things exactly as we have done. How will we produce food sustainably in large quantities? There are different and complementary approaches.

First, we waste a lot. Estimations are that one third of the food produced globally is lost -wasted in some way (during production, storage, distribution, consumption…). We might better absorb population growth by minimizing waste. Individuals waste food. But food is also lost in fields to bad storms or inadequate harvesting equipment. For instance, one to five percent of wheat grains are left behind during harvest. Although not completely lost because they contribute to the ecosystem, they are wasted as food to be consumed. Shouldn’t we do something to reduce this type of waste? The industrial food sector can optimize techniques, especially if it is shown that agricultural waste also has a financial cost, or that profit could derive from “waste” valorization. Scientific investments in resources and waste management will provide a proper understanding of what is being wasted, when and how, and develop ways to valorize waste or byproducts.

Secondly, the environment will be further damaged if we continue to apply 1950s food production principles. We should at least adapt those, perhaps leading to radically new means of production. Organic agriculture proposes alternatives. One critique of organic agriculture is that it’s partly based on beliefs that are not systematically evidenced-based, i.e. grounded in scientific facts. For example, its absolute rejection of synthetic molecules is rooted in the viewpoint that by definition only “natural” solutions are good, or not harmful. This requires a clear definition of what “nature” and “natural” mean. Moreover, the belief that “nature is good” triggers other debates. Furthermore, the distinction made is not supported by toxicological or ecotoxicological science since many “natural” molecules are very harmful to the environment, and many synthetic compounds would be of lesser impact. Clearly, when done properly, organic agriculture doesn’t use those natural yet harmful compounds in excess. Nevertheless, it deprives itself from using new solutions that could be more efficient and not harmful either. It is about the science used to back up the use or disuse of substances in agriculture. This is probably an important element preventing organic agriculture from being very productive. It can be efficient for fruits and vegetables, with yields equivalent to those in classic production, but this is not true for cereals. Switching to all-organic could lessen the detrimental impact on the planet, but so far we know that it won’t allow for sufficient food production unless we significantly increase the cultivation area (through deforestation) as well as the number of people working in fields. A positive aspect of the organic trend is that it challenges the way we have produced food. Challenges help us think creatively. I am optimistic that future research will focus on how to make organic agriculture productive enough to reach needed yields. But, I personally think it is a mistake to exclude from the toolkit the possibility of working with animal or vegetal genes or synthetic pesticides that are selected to be the least impactful on the environment. What we call “responsible farming”, “agriculture raisonnée” in French, might succeed because it is less reluctant than organic agriculture to use a wider range of tools. In short, the right path is multi-directional and involves more science. Future discussions will be about scientific output, new ways of producing food (think about “meat in a dish”, i.e. cultured cells) and “new” foods (anyone for insects?).

Finally, we eat differently today than a few decades ago. Portions have gotten bigger, first in the US, and then globally. It is now out of the social norm to take long lunch breaks. People work a continuous day and eat in front of their computers, with smaller and more numerous “eating occasions” during the day. We don’t really know whether, all things being equal, splitting intake into multiple eating occasions is better, but there is a greater chance that we will reach for on-the-go foods, i.e. foods developed as snacks outside the meal context and often energy-dense but not necessarily nutrient-dense. I foresee the agrifood sector working on developing a supply of more balanced on-the-go foods. Presently, food intake has been de-structured, but foodstuffs have not adapted. Food producers and manufacturers can be part of the solution through product creation, if there is demand.

EuropeNow Ultimately, are you optimistic about the future of the food supply and our relationship with food?

Nicolas Godinot This is a difficult question. I envision significant ups and downs in food supply leading to population movements and political turmoil. Political crises or revolutions are often triggered by crises of food availability. The biggest threats may come from our relationship with energy – relying on non-renewable fossil fuels – and our reliance on very efficient but extremely interconnected economies, in which crises spread very far very fast. Both can have a profound impact on our food system. But overall, in the long run, I am optimistic for the human species, because it finds solutions. I am convinced this is not a crazy belief, as long as collaboration and exchanges of ideas can be nurtured so we find solutions together. What does worry me today is that discourses around many topics are tense, with people stuck on their positions. That makes dialoguing, constructive criticism, or advances in research much more difficult – at a time when we probably most need them. Thus, I hope our engaging museum activities alleviate tensions by explaining as well as de-dramatizing and de-nutritionalizing discourses. We remind people that the act of eating is also a social act, focusing on producers and their savoir-faire and the history of foods and foodways. We hope that people leave here less scared about the food supply because they have learned the why and the how and better grasp risks and production systems, understanding both “agrifoods” and small-holders, because both play a role. The nutritional aspect of food is important but it’s not the only one. By re-contextualizing food, we widen people’s horizons into economic and social realms, allow them to make up their own minds about food issues, and lead them back to the pleasurable sensory experience of consuming foods.


Nicolas Godinot has been Head of Content and Curator of Natural Science at the Alimentarium since 2016. He received a PhD (1999) in Neuroscience from the University of Lyon (France) and worked as a research scientist specializing in sensory and behavioral sciences for International Flavors & Fragrances in NY and the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne (Switzerland).

Hélène B. Ducros is Chair of Research and Pedagogy at EuropeNow. She holds a law degree and PhD in geography from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Her latest publication in the Journal of Place Management and Development looks at the role of food festivals in place-making.



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