Interview with Malte Rödl
Anna: Before we start to talk about your job at MISTRA EC project, let’s start by the early beginnings of your academic career at all. When did you start to profile as an academic? And has there been any concrete situation that determined you to dedicate your research to the environment?
Malte: I felt like an ‘academic’ my whole life. I always liked learning and finding things out. But the determination to do research, more generally, began about halfway through my Master’s degree when I realised that the things that I could learn were are infinite. Then I did a research internship and was hooked to the idea of becoming a researcher.
You passed the PhD study at the University of Manchester last year where you studied meat alternatives and specifically - as you described yourself - concerning how eaters and makers of meat alternatives negotiate relationships to meat as an established and popular foodstuff and cultural entity. What brought you to this area of research?
It was really an accident. I wanted to do a PhD. And Frank (Prof Frank Boons, Professor of Innovation and Sustainability - note of editor) who I still knew from my Master’s degree had advertised a PhD position. The Sustainable Consumption Institute at Manchester University then was interested in the use of energy and food from the perspectives of people’s everyday lives. I chose food, because I had worked on energy a lot before then, and wanted a new challenge.
And it was non-meat nutrition...
For some reason, I ended up studying meat alternatives, as an "alternative food culture". At the very beginning, we wanted to study its emergence, but that never happened in sufficient detail because my curiosity took me a different way.
Have there been some critical, primal thought of you that pushed you into this project of meat alternatives concretely?
Generally, I wanted to understand why people consume these meat alternatives. Why do people want to eat something that tastes like something they don’t want to eat? I was really curious about the seeming contradictions that appeared connected to meat alternatives.
And why do you think they are so popular?
It depends... We have to separate historical periods when meat alternatives were popular from the current times. For example, during the First World War, or the Second World War, people could not easily afford meat or were asked not to eat as much for the sake of food security. At least then, this meant a lower protein content in the diet, and so ‘meat alternatives’ were quite popular, albeit not always very appealing. And then even after World War II, in the 1960s and 1970s we see connections to food security again, but this time global food security. Large-scale research programmes tried to make ‘meat’ or dense protein from plants, algae, or bacteria. If meat alternatives are connected to scarcity today, it is the scarcity of planetary resources on the long term. But more than that, nowadays we find an intersection of ethics, environmental, and health aspects that drive people to these.
So, as you describe it, it sounds like you studied an overarching discourse there. We as humans keep in mind even what we liked even though we try to change what we eat.
Yes, exactly. You can see that quite well in some concrete examples. For example on Youtube, where people do ‘taste test videos’, that is somebody filming themselves while eating some food they have never tried before. Because of many motivations... Some just want to try it, are curious... Others have a vegan partner, or would like to eat vegan or vegetarian themselves... There are two examples which struck me most concerning how we relate to our food. In one case, a person tries a number of meat-free sausages, but when discussing their taste they suggest that they want to find something that tastes like ‘pork sausages’. Curiously, this person ends up really liking some differently flavoured sausages, and something that does not taste much like a sausage but they still enjoyed for its good taste. In another video, a person tries a meat-free sausage, and they say something like: "as a sausage, it is quite bad, but as a hot dog, it is good." On the packaging it says sausage, but does this now mean the person likes this or not? And through these examples, the research needed to combine the discursive elements of taste with the elementary material connotations of "what is a sausage", and "what is the difference between a sausage and a hot dog".
And leaving the form at the moment, and moving into to content of the product... Which meat alternatives was the most surprising for you during your research and have you found something not so popular, that gained over your heart and became the regular part of your alimentation? Does the research change you?
I have to admit I hardly ever eat alternatives. I stopped eating meat in my childhood, so I have no craving or memory for these things. Actually, this is why I was interested in studying this topic, because I just don’t understand it. However, unlike before my PhD, I think I am okay now happy to eat meat alternatives. But I enjoy more those things that are the "traditional Asian" foodstuffs which sometimes are called meat alternatives, like tofu, seitan, and most importantly, tempeh. A delight!
You have very interdisciplinary background: you have an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering, a MSc degree in Industrial Ecology (in an Erasmus Mundus programme), and then did your PhD in a Business School... In your research, did you connect the material science, engineering and social sciences? Could you describe how all these areas can match altogether in the task of meat alternatives?
I do not think that they do fit well together. At least not in my PhD research. But they still make sense together. I see myself as broadly affiliated to science and technology studies, which is a social science branch studying how engineers and scientists create knowledge and stuff, and —what I am more interested in— how that stuff then becomes meaningful and has its own life beyond the original intentions of the engineers. But certainly, having a technical background, I have a considerably easier time talking with engineers and scientists than most other scholars in the social sciences. Specifically, that was helpful in my PostDoc at Manchester, where I studied and supported research on plastics.
And can they all match during your current work on MISTRA EC or some of these are left behind, and participation on MISTRA EC pushed you towards new challenges?
It is certainly a new challenge that I am really looking forward to. But I don’t have to leave everything behind, because the multitude of insights and experiences I gained throughout my education all shape how I think and how I research. I am - for example - very interested in using computers to help me analyse data. And since I am going to study social media, I think there is plenty of data readily available for me.
You moved to Sweden in September for a job in at SLU’s Environmental Communication division. You will be working in MISTRA Environmental Communication as the researcher who is responsible for WP5's thematic area of social media. What were your first thoughts about the project?
I thought it was really interesting. First of all, I think the magnitude and the inter-project connections within MISTRA EC are great. And then also, I think studying social media is very interesting because it is so fast-moving, and because it provides a glimpse into the minds of somewhat ordinary people. I like the flat hierarchies of social media, and I think I will have a lot of fun with this project. I am also excited about working with and learning from everyone else in WP5, I think we will be a good team!
Have you ever cooperated on a similar project (thematically or structurally)? If yes, how different the MISTRA EC project is?
I suppose - in some way - parts of my PhD project were similar. I also used social media discourses to understand the relationships between people and their food. Exchanging food with the environment will give it a different dimension, but I can certainly see overlaps. And social media are such a rich data source! Structurally, I do not think I have worked in something as big and collaborative and long. My PostDoc project in Manchester was somewhat similar in structure, but the project duration was only a bit longer than one year, and therefore it was rather meant for scoping than for actual research. And I was not a member of any group, but responsible for connecting everyone.
After living in Manchester for several years, is it a huge change to move to Uppsala, Sweden?
Yes. Huge changes. I really like my new work environment, my new colleagues are all great, and the campus is so green. And all the new challenges require me to manage my time quite differently. But I love being so much closer to nature. In Manchester, I needed to take a train to be somewhere where I could feel like I was out in the wild. Here in Uppsala, you just take your bike to any of the amazing nature reserves around town. I sometimes find myself missing the red brick industrialness of Manchester, and the vibrant food culture though.