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Communication for Food Protection

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - COMFECTION (Communication for Food Protection)

Reporting period: 2020-01-08 to 2021-01-07

"Communication is essential to effective food protection policies: if healthy habits help reduce food-related diseases and disorders, communication can enable active and responsible consumers; but it might also lead to misinformation by promoting food ""myths” and narratives. In fact, news on “poisonous” or “miraculous” foods fill up the daily agenda of the mass and new media, through which they spread widely and are more likely to affect people’s perceptions of edibility and behaviours. While considerable efforts have improved food risk communication, extensive research addressing this increasing phenomenon was lacking: it is not sufficient to debunk food myths, but it is necessary to understand the textual and discursive strategies underlying them, as well as the effects of meaning deriving from such strategies.
The project “Communication for Food Protection” (COMFECTION) filled this gap by addressing some of the most urgent issues concerning food protection and its communication: (i) the genetic modification of foods and the risks and benefits associated with their consumption; (ii) organic farming techniques and principles, as opposed to the use of synthetic pesticides, vaccines, hormones, etc.; (iii) the risks and benefits associated with the consumption of meat or the abstention from the use of animal products; (iv) the recent spread of grain-free movements.
Implemented by means of a unique combination of theoretical and methodological approaches, and thanks to the collaboration of an experienced researcher, Simona Stano, and the support of two top-class academic institutions—New York University (US) and the University of Turin (Italy)—, the action allowed identifying effective tools for opposing food myths and promote food protection through communication. Moreover, it fostered both academic research and public engagement on crucial issues currently involving contemporary societies, as related to food and the domain of digital communication."
"Specialised training (in-class courses at New York University, online courses offered by the EIT Food platform in collaboration with the University of Turin and various universities, and participation in the Global launch of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health (UN), the Food Journalism Festival in Turin, and other relevant events), as well as structured phases of desk research, allowed us to gain appropriate interdisciplinary knowledge on the relation between nutrition and health and to gather and analyse secondary data on food and health-related issues, with specific reference to the analyses topics. Thus we could identify and study the main problematic aspects related to such issues, especially as regards their definition and general understanding, as well as the specific legislations regulating them. The applied research then allowed us to investigate the role of communication processes, and especially social media, in the creation and propagation of a series of so-called “food myths” (or, more generally, narratives) concerning such issues. More precisely, we analysed a series of relevant case studies of digital communication (mainly taken from Facebook and in some cases also Instagram, which proved to be the most relevant platforms for the research) to describe how specific food myths and narratives are generated and perpetuated. In order to ensure compliance with both the GDPR and local regulations on data protection, the analysis was limited to publicly available posts and comments. Moreover, data minimisation and anonymisation, as well as confidentiality of the collected information, were guaranteed.
On the theoretical level, special attention was devoted to crucial issues emerged during the research: the link between food and culture; the mythical discourse (in ancient times vs. in contemporary digitalised cultures) and the analysis of ideology; the “post-truth” society and digital communication; conspiracy theories; the concept of Nature and its textualisation; ""(post-)gastromania"" and food politics.
The main findings of the research were disseminated through the organisation of two international conferences (""Food for Thought: Nourishment, Culture, Meaning"", hosted by New York University, and ""Foodologies: Nourishment, Language, Communication"", hosted by the University of Turin), and active participation in several other symposia, congresses and academic lectures (in the US, Italy, Argentina, Peru, Bulgaria, Poland, China, Cyprus and Romania), as well as by means of academic publications (including various peer-reviewed papers and book chapters, two books of abstracts, edited volumes and a monograph—which have already been released or are in press). Furthermore, the results were communicated to society at large through a number of activities of public engagement (e.g. participation in the European Researchers’ Night 2019 and 2020, public presentations, infodays, activities with students, etc.) and media communication (project website, Facebook page “Communication for Food Protection”, interviews, articles, and publicity materials). Finally, consistent efforts were devoted to networking (between the involved institutions, and with other universities and non-academic entities and research consortia) and career development, as well as to providing scientists and stakeholders with effective communicative tools and guidelines to oppose misinformation and foster food protection."
"The desk research, consisting in the collection and analysis of scientific literature, international agencies’ reports and legislations, and other secondary data on the considered topics, pointed out a substantial indeterminateness characterising their definition and use, mainly due to the recurrent reference to the concept of ""nature"". Hence we problematized such an idea by comparing relevant sources in philosophy, semiotics, anthropology and sociology, highlighting its constructed and discursive character. The applied research then revealed its main connotations and thematic isotopies, as well as the textual strategies associated with its use in the considered issues. More specifically, we analysed the constructive function of both the verbal and visual language adopted in the considered examples, emphasising the processes of remix and remake that continuously reshape digital texts, and the effects of meaning deriving from them. This lead us to compare and further discuss the analysed cases in light of the most recent and relevant theories on digital communication (e.g. ""echo chambers"", group polarization, ironic discursive strategies), thus effectively taking part in today’s lively debate on food culture and communication, as well as on the broader issue of the role of the Web 2.0 in the emergence and spread of dis/misinformation and conspiracy theories.
As a result, we released a number of varied scientific publications and academic events of international relevance, as well as articles, interviews and publicity materials addressed to society at large. Specific efforts were also devoted to the involvement and training of primary and secondary school students and teachers, as well as of food and health professionals and stakeholders. Finally, several communication activities were implemented to further increase public awareness on the research topics, ensuring accessibility to the project results and their wide circulation within the academic field and beyond it."
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