Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeSpecial Issues: from thematic wor...S5The environment overlooked?

The environment overlooked?

The role of environmental concerns in organic food discourses
L’environnement est-il négligé? Le rôle des préoccupations environnementales dans les discours sur l’alimentation bio
Jesper Lassen and Sara Korzen


This paper addresses the way ordinary people talk about the food they eat and in particular to what extent, and how, such discussions include arguments about the environment and organic products. In contrast with the numerous studies demonstrating public concern over food and food production, the study reported here shows that in an exploratory set-up, where Danes were invited to discuss food and food production, environmental arguments played an insignificant role. This can be explained in part by the emergence of a new societal discourse that downsizes the importance of environmental problems, and in part as an effect of an ongoing trend in which individuals increasingly are concerned about their personal well-being.

Top of page

Full text


1This paper addresses the way ordinary people talk about the food they eat and in particular to what extent, and how, such discussions include consideration of the environment and organic products. The focus, then, is not on what people do in the kitchen or at the market, but on the discourses connected with those activities, and on the role the environment plays in those discourses. The paper examines these discourses in a relatively exploratory set-up.

2As a first point of departure we note that in most western countries environmental concerns have given rise to public debate and policy issues since the late 1960s (Hajer 1995; Jamison et al. 1990). Food and food production have had changing importance within this environmental discourse, just as the arenas for action have changed over the years. This is also true in Denmark, the case country in the present study. During the 1970s environmental problems developed into a major concern for the Danish public; at first public concern was expressed by the appearance of a social movement institutionalised as environmental organisations of considerable size and political influence. Against the background of this social mobilisation, environmental policies were developed and regulatory and institutional frameworks were set up to handle the new challenges. Although these early years established vital and lasting environmental discourses, they mainly addressed environmental issues within a frame of industrial and agricultural production, and household waste. Beyond refraining from consumption, individual options to fight pollution were scarce; instead the principal drivers of environmental action were located within the political sphere.

3During the 1980s this picture changed, however, as what has been characterised as ‘ecological modernization’ took place (Hajer 1995, p. 25–26). This phase was characterised by the core idea that existing political, economic and social institutions were capable of handling the environmental problems. As Hajer points out, one of the most important aspects of this development was the framing of environmental problems within a discourse that united natural science and economics. Hence environmental problems, like other risks of modernity, opened up a new area of business (Beck 1992). This resulted in the emergence and growth of a comprehensive sector of entrepreneurs offering environmental advice, technical facilities designed to control pollution, and green technologies developed as substitutes for polluting technologies. This, in turn, resulted in extensive marketing of ‘environmentally friendly’ products, such as organic products; and in due course the marketplace materialized as a new arena for the expression of public concern over the environment.

4The increasing importance of the environment is part of a general change, occurring in the last decades of the twentieth-century, in the issues to which consumers ascribe importance in assessing food quality. Irrespective of whether these developments are described using concepts such as material versus immaterial qualities (Peri 2006) or intrinsic versus extrinsic qualities (Bernues et al. 2003), this development denotes a qualitative shift in perceptions of food quality. With this shift, consumers are increasingly seeking information about the circumstances under which food is produced, alongside more traditional quality aspects like taste and texture.

5On the one hand, this new perception of food quality, covering issues like the environment, animal welfare, and social aspects, as well as GM foods, can be seen as a reaction to emerging side-effects in the risk society (Beck 1992). Since most of the new qualities share the characteristic of not being directly apparent to, or easily assessed by, the consumer, trust is an increasingly pressing issue – and by this we mean not just consumer trust in the actors (Shapiro 1987) involved in production and distribution of foods, but also more general, diffuse trust in the systems (Luhmann 1979, p. 66–69).

6On the other hand, the development can be characterised as reaction to the productivist regime (Harvey, 1989; Burton, 2004) that has governed food production. Within this perspective, food and agricultural policies in the years after Second World War, and thus food production, were driven by a desire to maximize volumes to handle post-war food shortages. The result was an increasing industrialisation of food production, leading, among other things, to larger (often multinational) enterprises, product standardisations and ever-longer distances separating producers and consumers. In response to this development, which has been characterised as an ‘artisanal reaction’ (Murdoch & Miele 2004, Fernandez-Armesto 2001), consumers turn to food products perceived to be the result of less complex and more natural production and distribution systems. All in all, the food system, it has been argued, departs more and more ‘from being natural’ (Goodmann & Redclift 1991, p. 250–1). The departure from naturalness is often seen as a key element in the critique of modern food and food systems, and it has been demonstrated in studies of public perceptions of, for example, GM foods (Gaskell et al. 2001) and farm animals (Lassen et al. 2006).

7These trends have opened a window of opportunity for products from organic and other alternative production systems. Such products allow consumers to express their concerns. Organic products represent an alternative to existing agricultural products inasmuch as they are more environmentally benign and better for animal welfare and the human health. Using fewer pesticides, medicines and additives, they are perceived to be a materialisation of the sought-after naturalness (Torjusen et al. 2004, p.149 ff.).

8The Danish market for organic products –and hence the organic sector– was of marginal importance until the early 1990s. However, following an agreement between the organic producers’ organisation and COOP-Denmark, sales began to grow. In 2007 organic products accounted for as much as 6% of the domestic food sales in Denmark (Christensen et al. 2008). In 2007 the Danish retail turnover of organic foods amounted to 480 million EUR. The most important food groups are eggs and dairy products (200 mil EUR), bread and cereals (62 mill EUR), vegetables (61 mill EUR) and meat (41 mill EUR) (Danmarks Statistik 2009).

9In the light of this, one aim of this paper is to explore the importance of environmental concerns compared to other concerns in ordinary people’s discussions about organic products and other foods.

10The second point of departure for this paper is the observation that human practices (that is, sayings as well as doings) are contextual. Boltanski & Thevenot (1999) have argued that humans move, throughout the day, between different social spaces (e.g. market, domestic, civic and so on), and that these spaces are characterised by different logics. Their argument is that, depending on the social space, different orders of worth function as guiding principles as to what is right and what is wrong. Following this line of thought, we would expect different arguments about food and food production to be more or less relevant depending on the social space – or context – food is being debated within. Empirically this expectation is supported by a qualitative study of perceptions of pork, showing that arguments about animal welfare were almost absent when participants discussed pork within the everyday context of food provision, preparation and consumption (Lassen et al. 2006). By contrast, when they were asked to discuss pork as a result of a production process, participants treated animal welfare as the dominant theme. Studies of perceptions of risk have similarly observed that risk perceptions depend not only on the context the risk appears within, but also on the context of the individual (Slovic 1999). Within economics, contexts have also been presented as part of the explanation of observed differences between stated preferences and actual behaviour. Nyborg (2000), for example, has argued that individuals have different roles including a role as consumer and a role as citizen. Depending on the role, different preference orderings will prevail. In the citizen role individuals are preoccupied by subjective social welfare, whereas in the consumer role they are preoccupied by personal well-being.

11This constitutes the basis for the second aim of this paper – namely, to explore whether, and how, arguments about the environmental and organic products depend on the context food is discussed within.

Data production

12Since the aim of the study was to determine the importance of environmental arguments in lay discussions of organic and other foods and to examine to what extent such discussions depend on context, a qualitative and exploratory set-up was chosen. Focus groups were chosen as the data production method, because they offer a qualitative exploratory set-up allowing the researcher to study whether an issue like the environment is important in assessments of food. This contrasts with more structured, quantitative investigations where the researcher introduces the issues.

13The data analysed in this paper comprise parts of six focus group discussions carried out in Denmark as part of a study of perceptions of meat quality and safety. These parts were designed to take a highly exploratory approach, as the discussions of quality departed in the way the participants talked about their food and meat. During this part of the interviews an interview guide introduced two discursive contexts which prompted the participants to talk about food and meat. The first context – what we call the everyday context – focused on daily food practices. This context was introduced by asking the interviewees to reflect on what they had for dinner yesterday and why. Afterwards the notes were presented and discussed in plenary sessions, where the moderator after a while asked the participants to focus on the role of meat in their everyday consumption.

14The second context – the production context – involved a changed discursive frame. Participants were reminded that all of the food and meat they had been discussing is the result of production and distribution processes. In this second context the participants interviewed each other, two-on-two, about what thoughts the following statement gave rise to: “Now we’ve talked about the meat, but then if we think about the fact that the meat comes from somewhere, there is an agricultural sector that produces the meat and a food industry that works on processing the meat.”  Following this discussion the participants were prompted to brainstorm and list aspects of meat quality.

15The six focus group interviews had between five and nine participants; they were carried out during May 2006 in rural as well as urban settings. Participants were recruited by a professional recruiting company using their participant panel and random telephone number generator. Recruitment was carried out according to the following inclusion criteria: over 18 years of age; not living with their parents; sharing or having sole responsibility for food shopping in the household. To avoid discussions being dominated by especially knowledgeable individuals, persons who were, or had in the past been, occupied professionally in food production were excluded. Each group was composed to ensure variation in age, gender and educational background. The groups were composed to obtain variation in the perceptions and arguments put forward by the participants. The focus groups were moderated by the researchers.

16All interviews were transcribed verbatim. Transcriptions were coded thematically using the software Atlas.ti. The coding – and the subsequent analysis of perceptions – was intended to uncover the content of, and arguments used in, references to the environment and organic products. The codes were subsequently categorised and different positions were identified and reconstructed as generalised arguments. The analysis of the arguments was based on Stephen Toulmin’s argumentation model, where an argument, in its most simple version, includes three items: a claim, data or backing (i.e. the ‘facts’ that sustain the claim) and a warrant (the ‘logic’ that connects claim and backing) (Toulmin 2003).


17In the analysed sections of the interviews a difference between themes taken up in the everyday context and the production context is apparent. When placed in the everyday context, participants were preoccupied with meat and other foods as a part of their daily life. Thus the everyday context was dominated by discussions of food as something you demand at a market, prepare in the kitchen and subsequently eat. What discriminate good food from less good food, here, is its ability to meet the challenges of these situations. Organoleptic quality – that is the taste, smell, texture and other characteristics relating to the way the food is sensed when it is eaten – is a predominant theme. It is a theme followed by concerns about convenience (i.e. how easy the food is to obtain, or prepare); how well it goes with different social situations; health issues connected with, for example, fattiness and additives; and finally, but to a lesser extent, questions about animal welfare were also discussed.

18When the context changed from everyday to production, the focus of the discussions also changed. Now participants tended to leave behind their concerns about food in their daily life and move to a discussion of food (here, first of all meat) in a wider, societal context. This can be observed as a new line of discussion in which consequences of food production for society at large are taken up and become dominant. An important theme now is animal welfare, followed by concerns about trust, fraud and control, and to a lesser extent environmental issues and questions of safety.

19Just a few issues are common to both contexts. Among these are additives, animal welfare, organic status and price. However, this does not imply that common themes are debated in the same way in the two contexts, nor that, quantitatively speaking, they occupy the same amount of room in the two kinds of discussion. Animal welfare, for example, is primarily mentioned in passing in the everyday context, whereas it is a central theme, often opening up for further elaboration, in the production context.

The environment

20Environmental concerns are common in neither the everyday nor the production context, and when they do arise it is most often in relation to organic products. Within the everyday context only three of the six groups (the two urban and one provincial) referred explicitly to the environment – and none of the arguments were elaborated in detail or resulted in further discussion. Rather the environment and nature are mentioned in passing. One interview covers a concern about overexploitation of resources; and in another there is just a general reference to environmental concerns as important: “It has a lot to do with animal welfare and of course the environment, but it is also important that the food is delicious”, as the participant stated when summing up what was important to her.

21This picture does not change radically in the production context: here only two groups pursued arguments about nature and the environment. Again, expressions of environmental concern are scarce and never cause any lengthy debate within the groups. Although the arguments are slightly more elaborate, they do not refer directly to the environmental impact of, for example, husbandry or meat processing. Instead they take up general agri-environmental issues. Some involve general concerns about agricultural production causing pollution by releasing substances into environments where they do not belong: “The question is how you balance it, so [the fertilizer] doesn’t end up in the stream or everywhere else it doesn’t belong. No one will benefit from that”. Others construe, or re-express worries about environmental issues as health problems, referring to artificial fertilizer or pesticide residues polluting the drinking water future generations will depend on; and yet others mention a concern about over-exploited resources.

22Different types of ambivalence about environmental problems emerged during the interviews. Some articulated a general societal ambivalence related to the fact that, on the one hand, the environment should be taken care of, but, on the other hand, modern agriculture is industrialised and intensive and therefore must use artificial substances and will inevitably cause pollution. The question is how we, as a society, find a balance between environmental concerns and the necessary side-effects of an industrial agricultural production system. Like the findings in other studies, ambivalence also appeared at a personal level, where the individual is caught in a tension between desire and control vis-à-vis the environment (Halkier, 2001c). In these cases participants felt trapped between environmental and other concerns. Finally, ambivalence was also expressed in a tension between respondents’ environmental concerns and structural barriers. Here participants felt challenged by the mismatch between a genuine desire to purchase environmentally friendly products and the experience of being unable to act this desire out in a consistent purchase of green products.

23In general environmental issues were given particular attention in neither of the contexts, although the discussion tended to be a little more detailed in the production context. Where environmental arguments were more prolonged and elaborate, they most often involved an anthropocentric perspective; hence the environmental consequences of food production were viewed as problematic because they in some way caused problems for humans. Over-exploitation of resources and the pollution of drinking water were among the problems taken up. Other, less frequent, discussions expressed concern over the pollution of nature in general. In no case was the relationship between food production and the landscape or conservation taken up.

The organic

24Although the theme of organic produce was addressed much more often in both contexts, it was by no means important or dominant in the everyday context: in two of the provincial groups organic products were not mentioned at all; and in one of the other provincial groups they were mentioned in passing. Only the two urban groups and a group in one of the provincial towns entered into discussion of organic products. In the production context discussions of organic issues became more frequent, and – with the exception of one of the provincial groups – the issues were taken up on more occasions. Furthermore, the arguments here tended to be more elaborate than they were in the everyday context.

25Across the contexts, organic products were taken up in two essentially different ways. On the one hand, organic products came into the foreground for the simple reason that they are organic. Here the notion organic was neither explained nor related to other issues or concerns, but treated simply as a quality in itself. This can be seen in the following quote, where the participant laments the unavailability of the desired quality (organic) in suitable portions: “I don’t eat meat very often. I eat a lot of fish and vegetables; in fact I would like to eat more meat, but I want organic meat and you can’t get less than 500 gm in my supermarket” [and I don’t want to buy that much]. Despite making this clear statement in favour of organic meat, the speaker never explains what it is she likes about it: it is just preferable. On the other hand, organic was also – and relatively often – used as a proxy for other qualities. In these cases organic is a cue for different, connected qualities. It is often used as a simple and manageable way to ensure that other quality criteria that are considered important are met. In the following section we shall present the most frequently discussed themes, relating organic products to other qualities.

Organoleptic quality

26All but one of the provincial groups took up questions about the relationship between organic products and organoleptic qualities in either the production or the everyday contexts. Taste was the most frequently discussed organoleptic feature. A typical argument was that there is a close and positive relationship between organic products and taste: “If you buy an organic carrot and compare it with one of those [conventionally grown], then you can taste the difference!” It was striking, however, that in the everyday context the reverse argument – that when it comes to the taste conventional products are as good as organic – was just as common:

“S: I have no preferences for organic food. I can get it cheaper in Fakta [a discount supermarket]

D: That’s how I feel too…

S: I have more money now, because I have regular employment... I can feel that I have a little more money for quality – but I don’t buy quality because it’s organic. It is first of all because it is better. Has a better quality. It is not because I feel sorry for the animal – that’s not very important to me. It is first of all because it tastes better.”

27Note that in this quote S reduces quality to taste. On the one hand, he does not reject organic products: if the taste is good, he might buy them. On the other hand, he would never buy them just because they are organic, because whether or not a product is organic is not a relevant consideration given his prime interest: taste. By comparison, similar reservations are only put forward once, in an aside, in the production context.

28Another difference between the two contexts was the degree to which arguments about taste were elaborated. In the everyday context, those seeing a positive relation between taste and organic products most often simply stated this as a fact without any argumentative backing. It was quite different in the production context, where claims about superior taste were explained with reference to, for example, animals having access to outdoor facilities or a slower production process on organic farms that allows the vegetables or animals to develop taste and juiciness. This was stated in the following remarks by a participant, who gets his pork from a neighbour. The neighbour raises pigs which, according to the participant, are not certified organic:

29“… [they] are more organic than organic pigs. I will claim that you can taste the difference. I can taste the difference, because an organic pig by definition has to live a little longer, and that’s good for the pig. Just like the [organic] vegetables [growing a little more slowly]...”

30Such arguments seem to reflect the view that organic production is more natural, in the sense that it does not apply many of the technologies of industrialised agricultural production, and is therefore closer to natural processes.

Animal welfare

31With the exception of just two statements, made in one of the urban groups, praising organic meat for its association with improved animal welfare, this issue was not taken up in the everyday context. The only other hints as to a possible relation between animal welfare and organic production came in some descriptions of organic production systems using methods generally associated with poor animal welfare – such as battery hens. Compared to this low representation, animal welfare was taken up in all groups in the production context. The issue, however, occupied more space in some groups than in others, with most debate occurring in the two urban groups.

32For some participants animal welfare was the most important, and for a few indeed the only valid, argument for organic products. In a few cases this resulted in the view that organic principles are only relevant for animal foods such as meat, eggs or dairy products. Again, a common statement was that there is a simple and positive relationship between organic production and better animal welfare. This was either backed with reference to the organic rules and regulations that producers have to conform to, or based on a perceived relationship between animal welfare and size of farm, or asserted on the basis that organic producers have a higher moral standing:

“My first priority is that the meat is organic. And then I want to know if the animals have had it as good as possible, and then [the meat] should be as fresh as possible... Nearby we have some organic farms, if you go there you can see what animals they have and buy them... I recognise that farmers have to make money, and that the meat industry also has to make money, but I am confident that the organic farmers have higher moral standards compared to other farmers.”

33It was a common opinion that meat should be produced in accordance with high animal welfare standards, and some participants saw organic products as one way among others to secure this. Organic meat, it was recognised, meets high welfare standards, but so do other alternative meats. This position sometimes went hand in hand with a critique of industrialised production systems, where welfare standards, it was argued, are low. By contrast organic production systems, like other alternative systems and small-scale systems, are generally associated with more acceptable animal welfare.

Health and safety

34Questions of health and safety in relation to organic products were taken up in both contexts. As was the case in connection with animal welfare and environmental issues, these discussions were slightly more frequent and elaborate in the production context, where they were taken up in three of the groups. The issues were only discussed at any length in one of the groups in the everyday context; they were merely mentioned in passing in another group. In line with the general discussion of health and safety aspects within the everyday context, which was the one occasion on which it was taken up in relation to organic products, the argument was that organic products are better for our health because they do not contain additives or medical residues; safety issues related to zoonoses were never mentioned.

35Concerns of the following sort, about the presence of chemical or medical residues, were deployed as an argument for organic foods in the production context:

“It’s a question of worldview – whether you want to support the one or the other. Personally, I don’t want to spend my money supporting large agricultural enterprises getting EU funds by the gross; being paid for fallow fields and pesticides and penicillin in the meat… There are so many estates getting support for nothing! That’s unfair, I think, and that’s why I only support organic production. It is not only because it’s healthy, but also because of all the unnecessary additives and the antibiotics added to the feed to make it keep longer”.

36In this context, however, the statements were added to arguments about organic products as a means to avoid zoonotic problems like salmonella. As in the quoted remarks above, such arguments were sometimes put forward with reference to the atrocities of industrial production systems. Here a participant, after referring to an incident of salmonellas she once suffered, explains her strategy to avoid becoming sick again:

 “…I eat less meat than I did before, and I prefer organic products. But for economic reasons, I cannot always afford organic. But then I eat some lamb, for example… I believe they are not kept in a stable, but they are at pasture. That’s cheaper for the producer and you can be confident that it is proper quality”.


37Trust in organic products was widely discussed in the production context, but only briefly touched upon in the everyday context. It appeared first of all as a general trust in organic farmers. Here the thought was that organic producers can be trusted to treat animals better and not manipulate or adulterate food products. This view was for some grounded in the perception that organic producers have higher moral standards – implicit here was the assumption that organic producers’ activities are controlled by economic considerations less than those of conventional producers. The opposing view, that organic producers, just as conventional farmers, are above all concerned to make money was, however, also present. According to this view, there is no reason to expect that organic farmers are less inclined to cheat. The genuineness of certified organic products was also questioned: “That is why I am sceptical, because there is also money in organic farming. It’s not only the others that do it to make money; [that’s also what motivates] organic farmers”.

38Those defending the view that organic farmers, and hence organic products, are trustworthy often appealed to a contrast with the large, industrialised and conventional production systems. Those operating these systems were portrayed as unscrupulous and guided by a desire for profit, with undesired consequences for animal welfare, food safety and organoleptic quality. By contrast, organic produce was preferred mainly because of its smaller scale and perceived (or experienced) proximity to consumers: together these factors generated a feeling of transparency. This was, for example, stated by the following participant. She is criticising large-scale industrialised production, which she sees as worrying because “…of the way they treat animals. It has to be large, it has to be rational. It scares me. You keep hearing terrible stories about things they put into the food and that they don’t live up to current regulation.” Later when she sums up the discussion in the group, she points to organic as a trusted alternative to the mistrusted industrialised food system: “... we have no confidence in the Danish food industry. We all agreed that we would prefer small-scale agriculture … smaller units, allowing you to be in better control – and more products from organic producers.”

Organic food as appropriate and convenient

39The notion that organic products are more suitable on some occasions than they are on others was expressed a few times in the everyday context, but never in the production context. The following participant, who was relatively sceptical about organic products, ended a lengthy monologue by stressing pros and cons of organic as follows: “…my roommate is preoccupied by the idea that everything has to be organic. I am not! That’s why we have two different kinds of milk in the fridge [everybody laughing]. I feel different! But then, of course, if it must be really good, and I date a girl, then I will buy organic [everybody laughing].”

40Another theme that was taken up in the everyday context, yet virtually absent in the production context, concerned the economic and practical availability of organic products. Here participants were concerned about the costs of organic products – often with specific reference to their limited household budget. Some referred to limited supply, and to the fact that they were sometimes forced to visit various shops to find organic products.


41Although there are differences between the ways environmental issues are taken up in the two contexts, the discussions about this is limited in our data and it would be bold to conclude that our evidence verifies the hypothesis that there is a qualitative difference between the environmental considerations entertained in the everyday and production contexts. Rather a key result is that environmental issues are of only secondary importance in the analysed discussions of food and meat. This is, however, a somewhat surprising result, since, as we argued in the introduction, environmental concerns have for decades been an important item on the public agenda, and the link between the environment and food production/food products is well established. Public concern over environmental issues in Denmark is monitored in annual surveys. These surveys show that, on average, worries over pollution in the period 1993–2003 were exceeded only by worries over violence and crime (Institut for Konjunkturanalyse 2004). Furthermore, qualitative studies have shown that environmental concern addresses not just industrial pollution in general, but also the environmental impacts of food consumption (e.g. Halkier 2001a; Halkier 2001b).

42This difference between the present and the previous studies may partly be explained by different approaches. The present study pursued an exploratory strategy. It did not set environmental issues as themes during the interviews. The studies that more clearly link environmental concerns to food products ask, in one way or another, directly about the environment. We would argue that this should, however, be regarded as more than just a methodological issue, since the disclosed differences may also reflect a real difference in awareness of the environment. When environmental arguments are found to be rare in relation to food and food production in our data, the implication is that these concerns are not among the most relevant when people discuss food and meat within the two contexts. By contrast, it can be argued that environmental issues have such a high moral status that, today, when people are asked directly about food and environment, it is hard to ignore them. In most social situations it simply does not make sense to say that one is not concerned about the environment.

43Another result of the study is that in discussions about organic food, the participants seldom referred to the environment in support of their preferences for (or rejection of) the organic. Instead beliefs about organic foods – depending on the context – were backed by data about taste, health, safety and perceived (or experienced) taste. In one way, this is contrary to other studies, which have found that environmental issues, alongside concerns about animal welfare, health, and the like, inform preferences for organic products (e.g. Jensen et al. 2008). Nor does it reflect the political promotion of organic products, since environmental concerns have been an – if not the most – important political argument for developing organic products. This is borne out, for example, by the Danish act regulating organic production, where it is explicitly stated that the aim is “… to increase the diffusion of [organic products], ensure consumer trust in these products, further develop the [organic] methods in order to ensure the environment, animal welfare and preserve resources …” (Fødevareministeriet 1999).

44The scarcity of environmental arguments for organic meat in our discussions may to some extent reflect the fact that organic meats, by comparison with other organic products, are relatively expensive; and the connected fact that the organic meat market has historically been smaller than other organic markets, such as those for vegetables or dairy products. In terms of market share, organic meat products amounted in 2007 to only 9% of the entire retail market for organic products (Danmarks Statistik, 2009). The missing environmental arguments could, therefore, reflect limited public exposure to organic meat products, which in turn might have resulted in limited awareness of the product as such, and thus environmental aspects of organic versus conventional meat production. If this is right, the picture may change in the future. Organic meat sales rose by 265% in 2003–2007. No other organic product had a greater growth in sales in the period. In the organic market as a whole the growth was 170% (Danmarks Statistik, 2009).

45To fully understand the low incidence of environmental concerns in arguments for organic food produce, it may be helpful to look at general developments in food consumption as well as some recent political and discursive changes.

46At the level of general developments in food consumption, for example, Deborah Lupton has pointed to changes in food consumption and the symbolic meaning of food emphasising increasing awareness of the health implications of dietary habits (Lupton 1996, p. 74). The still growing focus on obesity and overeating is a recent example of this turn towards personal well-being. This trend helps to explain the presence of concerns relating to taste, health and safety in organic discourse; but it does not appear to explain the almost total absence of the environmental reflection.

47As was stressed in the introduction, the political and discursive focus on the environment has changed substantially since the green issues entered public debate in the late 1960s. By comparison with many other European countries, Denmark had somewhat greater success during the 1980s and 1990s in introducing environmental ideas into industrial production (Jamison 2001, p. 117). At the political level, the emergence of a so-called green majority was a consequence of this – a development that forced the conservative-led minority government to pursue a more progressive environmental policy than they might have otherwise done. During the 1990s, following a shift to social democratic-led government, green elements in Danish politics increased. Hence efforts were made to integrate environmental concerns in all aspects of society. By 2001 the picture had changed dramatically, as government was taken over by the Liberal Party. One result of this political turn was a down-scaling of environmental activities at the political and administrative level. By, for example, replacing funds sustaining environmental activities with a funding of an institute for environmental assessment, headed by the controversial Bjørn Lomborg, the government not only influenced public environmental discourse by framing environmental issues mainly within an economic logic, but also successfully downsized the environment as an important societal problem (see e.g. Jamison 2004). It is within this societal context in 2006, in which minimal attention is given to environmental problems, that the interviews presented here were carried out. Given this background, it is perhaps not surprising that we found environmental concerns to be of inferior importance.

48By way of comparison, it is worth mentioning that interviews, carried out in 2001, designed to assess public attitudes to pork revealed a more serious concern about the environment than we report here – though environmental issues cannot be said to have played a major role in the 2001 interviews (Lassen et al. 2002). The difference here might be ascribed to a difference of focus (pork and pigs in 2001; meat and animals in 2006). However, it cannot be ignored that the interviews in 2001 were carried out in a discursive context within which the environment was still an important issue.

The authors want to thank the Danish Food Industry Agency, Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries for providing financial support for the research on which this paper is based.

Top of page


BECK, U., 1992, Risk society. Towards a new modernity. Sage, London.

BERNUES, A., OLAIZOLA, A. & CORCORAN, K. 2003, « Extrinsic attributes of red meat as indicators of quality in Europe: an application for market segmentation » Food Quality and Preference. 14(4): 265–75.

BURTON, R. J. F., 2004, « Seeing through the ‘good farmer's’ eyes: Towards developing an understanding of the social symbolic value of 'productivist' behaviour » Sociologia Ruralis 44(2) pp. 195–215.

BOLTANSKI, L. & THEVENOT, L., 1999, « The Sociology of Critical Capacity » European Journal of Social Theory 2(3): 359–377.

CHRISTENSEN, F., JENSEN, K. L. & CHRISTENSEN, T. S. (eds), 2008, « Agriculture » in Denmark: Facts and Figures 2008. Danish Agriculture and Danish Agricultural Council.

DANMARKS STATISTIK, 2009, Turnover of Organic Foods in Retail Shops by Unit, Commodities and Time.

FØDEVAREMINISTERIET, 1999, Bekendtgørelse om økologilov. Lov nr. 118 af 3. marts 1999.

FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO, F., 2001, Food: A History. Macmillan, Basingstoke.

GASKELL, G., WAGNER, W. & KRONENBERGER, N., 2001, « Nature in disorder: the troubled public of biotechnology » In GASKELL, G. & BAUER, M.W. (eds): Biotechnology 1996–1999: the years of controversy. Science Museum Press: 80–95.

GOODMAN, D. & REDCLIFT, M., 1991, Refashioning Nature. Food, Ecology and Culture. Routledge, London.

HAJER, M. A., 1995, The politics of environmental discourse. Ecological modernization and the policy process. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

HALKIER, B., 2001a, « Consuming Ambivalences. Consumer handling of environmentally related risks in food » Journal of Consumer Culture 1(2):205–244.

HALKIER, B., 2001b, « Risk and food: environmental concerns and consumer practices » International Journal of Food Science and Technology 36(8): 801–812.

HALKIER, B., 2001c, « Risk and food: Environmental concerns and consumer practices » International Journal of Food science and Technology. 36: 801–12.

HARVEY, D., 1989, The Condition of Postmodernity, Blackwell, Oxford.

INSTITUT FOR KONJUNKTURANALYSE, 2004, Danskerne 2004,Institut for Konjunkturanalyse.

JAMISON, A., 2001, The making of green knowledge. Environmental politics and cultural transformation.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

JAMISON, A., 2004, «  Learning from Lomborg: or where do anti environmentalists come from? » Science as Culture 13(2): 173–195.

JAMISON, A., EYERMAN, R. & CRAMER, J., 1990, « The making of the new environmental consciousness » Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

JENSEN, K. O., LUND, T. B., ANDERSEN L. M., CHRISTENSEN, T. V., KRARUP, S., CHRISTENSEN, T., DENVER, S., BOSSEN, H., HINDBORG, H., ROLAND, T. & ØLLEGAARD, G., 2008, « Hvorfor køber forbrugerne økologi? » ALRØE, H. F. & HALBERG, N. (eds.), Udvikling, vækst og integritet i den danske økologisektor. [2], 91–130. ICROFS.

LASSEN, J., KLOPPENBORG, E., & SANDØE, P., 2002, Folk og svin. Frederiksberg, Center for Bioetik og Risikovurdering.

LASSEN, J., SANDOE, P. & FORKMAN, B. 2006. « Happy pigs are dirty! Conflicting perspectives on animal welfare. » Livestock Science 103(3): 221–230.

LUHMANN, N., 1979, Trust and Power. Wiley.

LUPTON, D., 1996, Food, the body and the self. Sage Publications, London.

MURDOCH, J. & MIELE, M., 2004, « A new aesthetic of food? Relational reflexivity in the ‘alternative’ food movement » In HARVEY, M et al. (eds), Qualities of Food. Manchester University Press: 157–175.

NYBORG, K., 2000, « Homo Economicus and Homo Politicus: interpretation and aggregation of environmental values » Journal of Economic Behaviour & Organization 42(3): 305–322.

PERI, C., 2006, « The universe of food quality » Food Quality and Preference. 17(1–2): 3–8.

SHAPIRO, S. P., 1987, « The social control of impersonal trust » American Journal of Sociology 93(3): 689–701.

SLOVIC, P., 1999, « Trust, emotion, sex, politics, and science: Surveying the risk-assessment battlefield » (Reprinted from Environment, ethics, and behaviour, pg 277–313, 1997). Risk Analysis 19(4): 689–701.

TORJUSEN, H., SANGSTAD, L. JENSEN K.O. & KJÆRNES, U., 2004, European Consumers’ conceptions of Organic Food: A Review of Available Research. Professional report no.4 – 2004. SIFO.

TOULMIN, S., 2003, The uses of argument. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Jesper Lassen and Sara Korzen, « The environment overlooked? », Anthropology of food [Online], S5 | September 2009, Online since 10 September 2009, connection on 07 March 2021. URL : ; DOI :

Top of page

About the authors

Jesper Lassen

Department of Human Nutrition, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Copenhagen,

Sara Korzen

Top of page


Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search