Defining a controversy

In this course we will be covering a sample of the many current controversies in the food system. But what is a ‘controversy’ after all? Is it the same as a scandal? Can we also call it a crisis? A controversy, a scandal and a crisis are three terms often used loosely and interchangeably and frequently shade into each other. A crisis or scandal can help to surface a more fundamental controversy about the many ways in which people and companies interact and perhaps disagree about issues in the food system.

In the media - whether in print, on the radio, television or online - sensational headlines fight for our attention daily, making it hard to distinguish between fact and fiction, and difficult to see whether there is a prolonged, systemic issue underlying a particularly contentious piece of news.

So, before we start digging deeper into some of today’s food controversies, let’s establish what we mean by each of these terms:

Crisis: a situation in which people are acutely affected by one or more very serious problems, for instance, contamination in food that needs to be addressed and remedied immediately.

Scandal: an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage or a public feeling of shock and strong moral disapproval. The increasing reliance in the UK of many working families on food banks is regarded by many as scandalous.

Controversy: a prolonged public disagreement or dispute over a matter that is important to many people; a dispute marked by the expression of opposing and sometimes intractable views, with two or more sides contesting a matter that is characterised by uncertainty and even divergent value systems. Even if addressed creatively, controversies can generate unhelpful stalemates and undermine public cohesion.

A graphic example explains our distinction:

A lorry carrying cattle to the abattoir overturns on the motorway, and injured cattle are strewn all over the road, causing grave danger to motorists and to themselves. The crisis to be dealt with immediately would be to ensure the safety of motorists and of the animals. The scandal would be that large numbers of mature cattle are transported in huge lorries at speeds that are difficult to control if the animals become agitated and start to move around in the trailer. The controversy might be about why animals need to be transported in such conditions many miles to the closest abattoir for slaughter, indicating a serious flaw in the system. If this system is subjected to closer scrutiny, it may lead members of the public to consider modifying their diet so that things are done differently in the longer term, with animal welfare becoming a more central part of people’s dietary considerations.

Activity

Using the explanation provided here on how we define food controversies in this course, we would like you to provide an example of a food controversy from your country.

Remember, the controversy could stem from a particular food scandal, but is more protracted and systemic, with divergent views on its nature and its potential resolution, without clear and easy solutions.

Please share your examples in the comments section below.

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This article is from the free online course:

Engaging with Controversies in the Food System

EIT Food