Author Archives: foodanthro

AFHVS 2016 STUDENT RESEARCH PAPER AWARDS

We have received the following announcement from the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society. Please note that students cannot apply for both this award and the ASFS awards, which you can read about here.

DEADLINE: March 18, 2016

To encourage participation by undergraduate and graduate students and to recognize scholarly excellence, the AFHVS invites submissions to the 2016 AFHVS Student Research Paper Awards. Awards will be given in two categories: graduate and undergraduate.

An eligible AFHVS paper in the graduate student category must meet the following requirements: 1) be sole-authored by a student or co-authored by two students; 2) be on a topic related to food or agriculture; 3) employ appropriate research methods and theories; and 4) be an original piece of research. It is expected that the winning graduate student serve on the AFHVS student research paper awards committee the following year.

An eligible AFHVS paper in the undergraduate student category must meet the following requirements: 1) be sole-authored by a student or co-authored by two students; 2) be on a topic related to food or agriculture; and 3) employ appropriate research methods and theories.

Final versions of the papers must be submitted to the student paper award committee by 5pm (Central Time) on Friday, March 18, 2016. Soon-to-be-graduating students must be students at the time of submission in order to be eligible. A paper submitted to the AFHVS paper competition may not also be submitted to the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) student paper competition. Published papers or papers that have benefited from formal peer review (through a journal) are not eligible, however those under review are eligible.

Papers should be no longer than 20 pages of double-spaced text (data tables, bibliography, and notes may be additional) using Times New Roman (12 pt), Arial (11 pt), or similar. Papers do not have a particular required format or bibliographic style. Winners are expected to present their paper at the AFHVS conference within two years of winning the award, and a space in a panel is guaranteed. Each award includes: one-year membership to AFHVS, a $300 cash award, conference fees for the AFHVS Annual Meeting, and a ticket to the conference banquet.

Papers submitted to AFHVS should be e-mailed to Shawn Trivette (shawn.trivette@gmail.com). The email must contain the following information:
1. Paper title
2. Full name
3. Full postal address
4. E-mail address
5. Academic affiliation
6. Student status (i.e., undergraduate or graduate)
7. An abstract of the paper
8. A statement that the paper is not published, has not received formal peer review, and was not also submitted for the ASFS student paper award
9. The name & e-mail address of the faculty member or other academic supervisor who has been asked to verify eligibility.
10. Attached to the e-mail message the complete paper in MS Word, PDF, or RTF format.

Evaluation: The AFHVS Student Paper Award Committee will judge contributed papers on the requirements outlined above, relevance to the interests of AFHVS (see details below), and their scholarly excellence, including quality of original research, methods, analytical tools, rhetorical quality, and flow (see detailed rubrics below). The committee will select up to one undergraduate student and one graduate student to receive awards. Notification of awards will be made by April 18, 2016. Members of the committee for 2016 include: Jenifer Buckley, Jill Clark, Douglas Constance, Melissa Poulsen, Shawn Trivette, Evan Weissman, and Spencer Wood.

Opportunity for Publication: Based on the recommendation of the Student Research Paper Award Committee, the winning graduate student paper may be forwarded to the journal of Agriculture and Human Values for review for possible publication. Note that papers submitted for the student paper competition do not have a particular required format or bibliographic style. To be submitted for publication, however, papers will need to be formatted as specified by the journal.

Topics of interest to AFHVS: AFHVS is dedicated to an open and free discussion of the values that shape and the structures that underlie current and alternative visions of food and agricultural systems. The Society is most interested in interdisciplinary research that critically examines the values, relationships, conflicts, and contradictions within contemporary agricultural and food systems and that addresses the impact of agricultural and food related institutions, policies, and practices on human populations, the environment, democratic governance, and social equity. Recent award winning student paper titles include: “Cultivating citizenship, equity, and social inclusion? Putting civic agriculture into practice through urban farming”; “Problems with the defetishization thesis: The case of a farmer’s market”; “The rise of local organic food systems in the US: An analysis of farmers’ markets”; “Building a real food system: The challenges and successes on the college campus.”

For more information please visit the websites below.

Rubrics for assessing paper submissions:

Basic Eligibility Requirements:
1. Sole-authored or co-authored by two students?
2. On a topic related to food or agriculture, relevant to the conference?
3. Employs appropriate methods and theories?
4. Presents original research? (graduate students only)
5. Approximately 20 pages of text or less? (excluding tables, figures, bibliography)
6. Double-spaced and appropriately formatted?
7. Submission includes all required information?

You may download a pdf version of this announcement, along with a review rubric that indicates how the papers will be evaluated, here: AFHVS_2016_CFP_student_papers

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Genetically-Engineered Crops and Sustainability: Controversies and Commentaries for 2016 (Part 2)

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

(Part 1 of this 2 part series is here.)

As a possible antidote or balance for someone seeking ways ag-biotech might contribute to sustainable agriculture and food systems, I searched not the web, but local university library shelves, and located a 2012 edited volume that promised to fill out this more positive bill. In this essay collection, The Role of Biotechnology in a Sustainable Food Supply, eds. Jennie S. Popp, Milly M. Jahn, Marty D. Matlock, and Nathan P. Kemper (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), I sought updates and possible answers to the role of biotech coverissues raised in The GMO Deception. Peggy Lemaux’s chapter, “Genetically Engineered Crops Can Be Part of a Sustainable Food Supply,” was the most likely candidate, but did not provide completely satisfactory responses. A multi-authored interdisciplinary project paper on Healthy Potatoes for Wisconsin was similarly discouraging on major issues, such as outlooks for social equity and renewable soils. From beginning to end, issues of equity, or shared prosperity, were also concerns.

Lemaux’s chapter was an update of her 2008 Ann. Rev. of Plant Biology 59:771-812 article: “Genetically Engineered Plants and Foods: A Scientist’s Analysis of the Issues. (Part I)” It briefly reviews and dismisses many of the safety questions raised in GeneWatch reports, which were collected in the edited “Deception” volume. Some of her analyses effectively blunt well-publicized anti-GMO concerns. For example, no food plants GE’d to express anti-freeze fish genes have ever been released or approved for human consumption. Lower nutrient contents found in some comparative studies of GE versus conventional food-plant varieties are within the normal range of variation found in conventional food-plant products. Higher than expected nutrient values that are purposely introduced by GE must be so labeled. There are many and more diverse food-safety studies on GE foods than GeneWatch editors would lead one to believe.

But other cases remain troubling. For example, “Were potatoes engineered to produce a lectin unsafe to eat?” The studies she cites, with respect to Pusztai’s findings, don’t accurately settle the matter whether it was the lectins or GE process that introduced damaging toxins into the small number of laboratory rats that consumed the lectin-containing potatoes. If the pro-GMO community was so concerned about the negative outcomes and publicity, why didn’t anyone reproduce the study with clearly presented, standard methodologies and proper controls?Analogously, why are there not more rigorous studies countering the possible toxic implications of Roundup Ready soybeans on reproductive outcomes, as asserted by Irina Ermakova of the Russian Academy of Sciences, whose laboratory methods were also said to lack proper controls, and whose work was not subjected to rigorous peer review? Lemaux’s treatment of allergen issues similarly suggests the need for more diverse testing of Bt corn varieties. Finally, it would appear to be a no-brainer that GE of plants as pharmaceutical delivery vehicles should avoid common food crops, in order to prevent any possible contamination and unintended entry of pharmaceuticals into the food supply chain. Even “The Grocery Manufacturers of America urged the USDA to restrict plant-made pharmaceutical production to non-food crops” (Lemaux 2012:131). Her conclusions, that “In deciding whether the crop should be grown in the field the focus should be on possible consequences of such mixing” can be taken to suggest that this focus is not yet implemented. Her final point, on global production of GE crops, also raises alarms: “The potential use of a wider range of organisms as sources of genes to introduce new traits and the creation of GE crops and foods by countries with less rigorous regulatory structures present new identification and safety assessment challenges for foods” (p.133).

Then there are the “who benefits?” and “who takes the risks?” questions. A multi-disciplinary Wisconsin case study of Healthy Grown potatoes, which use GE traits to lower needs for chemical inputs and thereby lower toxicity scores admits: “The economic advantage to the grower, packer, or other parts of the potato industry is uncertain.” The researchers assume “Transformed varieties will certainly incur license fees for seed and other potential costs.” In addition, if pest-resistant potatoes raise production through greater efficiencies, this likely would cause prices to fall, with no certainty that consumer demand would increase to make up the difference. This would decrease profitability, although one might argue, on the positive side, that reduced expenses for inputs, and reduced exposure to pesticides are pluses. (p.207) (All these points are taken from the chapter: Bussan, Alvin J., Deana Knuteson, Jed Colquhoun, Lary Binning, Shelley Jansky, Jiming Jiang, Paul D. Mitchell, Water R. Stevenson, Russell Groves, Jeff Whyman, Matt Ruark, and Keith Kelling. Case Study. Healthy Grown Potatoes and Sustainability of Wisconsin Potato Production. Pp.192-211.)

Loss of biodiversity in major food crops is also a persistent issue recognized among proponents. Whereas in the US, within less than a decade, Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant, Roundup-Ready (RR) trait had been inserted into more than 1,100 local varieties of soybean, which had been selected by farmers and breeders over the years to “optimize yields and other product properties specific to local conditions,” such rapid GE breeding facilities are not routinely available in developing countries, where “When a transgenic trait is not available in a local variety, a farmer must switch to a generic variety in which the trait is available. This switch is likely to result in yield and other losses. Farmers trade off gains from the trait with losses from the generic variety.” Only where the proper “incentives” are available will “seed supplier … add the transgenic traits to local varieties” ; that is, “where the necessary genetic materials are available at low transaction costs and where there is sufficient technical capacity to backcross or modify local varieties at relatively low cost” (p.256) Although these conditions may be met in large producing places, such as the US, China, and India, “Concern regarding lack of technical capacity may lead to the introduction of only a few generic transgenic varieties in Africa, unless that capacity is upgraded.” Such observations are consistent with GeneWatch reports indicating pressures on seed stores to sell transgenic varieties and concerns about reductions in biodiversity. (p.256). Concerns about co-evolution of pests, including Bt-resistant insects and glyphosate-tolerant weeds are also acknowledged as management challenges that emerge in the proliferation and expansion of GE crop plants (p.257). All these points are raised in the chapter by Graff, Gregory D. and David Zilberman (2012) “Agricultural Biotechnology. Equity and Prosperity”, pp.252-266.)

Hopefully Lemaux will continue to explore and communicate new findings on the ways GE crops can be part of sustainable food systems. (Lemaux, Peggy G. (2012) Genetically Engineered Crops Can Be Part of a Sustainable Food Supply. In The Role of Biotechnology in a Sustainable Food Supply. Eds. Jennie S. Popp, Milly M. Jahn, Marty D. Matlock, and Nathan P. Kemper. Pp.122-140. New York: Cambridge University Press.) Her frustrations at being unable to commercialize products that she has developed in the lab, are chronicled in a 2014 Berkeley Science Review interview (Gadye, Levi (2014) GM to Order). This journalist’s piece identifies new breeding technologies, including CRISPR gene-editing techniques, as possible solutions, which can circumvent corporate intellectual property rights and high patent and licensing fees that keep university scientists from moving useful, targeted products to market. These innovative gene-editing techniques take GE products out of the hands of Monsanto and a few other domineering corporate conglomerates and potentially have wide applications across a range of crops. Targeted species include vegetatively propagated crops such as cassava that have proved more difficult to genetically-transform and regenerate consistently to deliver traits of interest.

But these innovative techniques continue and possibly raise the risk-monitoring concerns that currently constrain university and other scientists and technologists, whose reasoning will not automatically dispel public distrust and questionable understandings of science. High profile GE salmon and Campbell Soup’s recent decision to label all GMO ingredients should contribute to a flavorful and simmering stew for 2016.

 

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Genetically-Engineered Crops and Sustainability: Controversies and Commentaries for 2016 (Part 1)

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

GMO deception cover

Krimsky, Sheldon and Jeremy Gruber, eds. 2014. The GMO Deception: What You Need to Know About the Food, Corporations, and Government Agencies Putting Our Families and Our Environment at Risk. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.

This collection of short essays, most taken from the anti-GMO watchdog newsletter, GeneWatch, provides a thirty year documentation of the wiles of Big Ag agrochemical and seed operations, which now dominate US agriculture and increasingly, the rest of the world. GeneWatch and its Council for Responsible Genetics, a nonprofit non-governmental organization, since 1983 have been dedicated to monitoring biotechnology’s social, environmental, and ethical consequences. Here you can read and reflect on their evidence and arguments, and draw your own conclusions, which the editors intend should replicate theirs, which assert that past through current developments in ag-biotech are a credible threat to future food, environment, and society in the US and the world.

If you enter these readings with a mind-set already made up that Monsanto and its corporate competitors and co-conspirators are untrustworthy, you will find all the reference points to document your positions. If you were pro-GMO and have been following the controversies, you will encounter studies, like Hungarian-Scottish scientist Arpad Pusztai’s claims that selected lectin (protein) from genetically-engineered potatoes sickened laboratory rats, that you probably questioned, because you wondered at the methodology and the conclusions, which were announced prior to view or vetting by peer scientists. But you will also engage troubling essays that compellingly argue that there needs to be much more holistic analysis of genetically-engineered products in wider and longer-term farm, field, dietary, and nutritional contexts. Martha Crouch’s “Patented Seeds vs. Free Inquiry” clearly documents Monsanto’s unwillingness to let independent scientists run experiments to determine biological values, such as levels of glyphosate in pollen and nectar, from fields sown with their Round-up Ready (herbicide tolerant) soybeans. Probing questions of “who benefits?” versus “who bears the risks?” pervade most of these essays, which strongly support the views that corporations predominantly enjoy the rewards whereas the considerable risks are borne by the farmers, seed stores, and consumers who cultivate, sell, or ingest their products.

If you were resisting polarization on the issues, and trying to find ways to make genetic-engineering science and technology more friendly and compatible with agroecological methods, these essays, as a set, will prove discouraging. Their individual and overall messaging indicate that corporations, led by Monsanto, deal in deception. These large seed-chemical conglomerates, furthermore, control government regulators; as lobbyists, they write most of the legislation and regulations. More fundamentally, most of these essays argue that it is unrealistic to expect genetic engineering (GE) to help solve agricultural and ecological problems because GE science-and-technology is simplifying. Seed-chemical constructions seek one or a few stacked genes at a time to resolve what are complex moving targets and agricultural challenges. Although GE experimental research can help pinpoint genes, biochemical processes, pathways, and gene-products of interest, the resulting information and materials are best applied through marker-assisted breeding, where the pleiotropic effects, or unanticipated consequences for the whole plant-in-ecosystem, can be more completely studied and controlled. This is as close as proponents get to a “middle” path that spans the arguments on both poles.

Personally, as someone who favors a middle path, I did not come away convinced that GM foods are unsafe or unhealthy for people or livestock to eat, which is the argument of the essays in “Part 1: Safety Studies: Human and Environmental Health”. But I already endorse arguments for labeling (Part 2), think that much more should be written about GMOS in the Developing World (Part 3), worry about the risks of corporate control over agriculture and associated limitations on more holistic research (Part 4) and corporate dominance of regulation, policy, and law (Part 5). Essays on “ecology and sustainability” (Part 6), some newly written for this volume, and the ethics of GMOs (Part 7) are thought-provoking, especially for those who challenge ungrounded assertions that genetically-engineered plants and animals are critical for eliminating world hunger. World hunger is largely caused by social, economic, and political factors, and not amenable to a technological fix, which ostensibly threatens to increase local to global inequalities. These ethical debates spill over into Part 8, “Modifying Animals for Food”.

The editors of this volume, philosopher Sheldon Krimsky, and environmental (legal) activist Jeremy Gruber, would like to relegate the future of genetically-engineered food to the dustbins of history. But this is unlikely to happen because there are so many economic and political investments in biotech industry profiting from deceptive claims and promotions. An appendix of “Resources: What You Can Do About GMOs” lists 23 research and advocacy organizations that will make sure the polarization continues and ten lively, but by now outdated volumes on perils of genetic technologies. The Foreword, by seasoned consumer advocate Ralph Nader, sets these essays firmly in his “consumer take action” camp.

Sheldon Krimsky has just published a meta-analysis of the health consequences of genetically-engineered foods. He finds no consensus, as alleged by proponents, that GMO products are safe. This is the next chapter in his “GMO Deceptions” writings. The editors are also updating the paperback edition of the book, which contains new links to activist organizations.  (Krimsky, Sheldon 2015 An Illusory Consensus Behind GMO Health Assessment. Science, Technology, and Human Values, pp.1-32. Sage.)

 

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The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the obfuscation of measurement

Andrea Wiley
Indiana University

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) were finally released on January 7 2016 to the Secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA).  The long delay between the DGA Advisory Committee Scientific Report completion (February 2015), the end of the public comment period (May 2015), and the announcement of the 2015 DGAs in January 2016 suggests a protracted period of lobbying by various food industries that ultimately produced particularly vague and timid DGAs that state that American diets need only be “nudged” by small “shifts.”  Most of the press has been appropriately cynical about these, and there is no need to belabor the role of food industry lobbyists and their insidious negative impact on the process of developing useful guidance and related policies that could actually enhance the health of Americans.  Most notably, the Scientific Report had highlighted sustainability as an important consideration for dietary guidance for the first time, and it specifically recommended that Americans reduce their consumption of red and processed meats.  Neither made it into the DGAs.

Instead, the 5 key messages of the 2015 DGAs are:

  • Follow a healthy eating pattern across the life span.
  • Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount.
  • Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake.
  • Shift to healthier food and beverage choices.
  • Support healthy eating patterns for all.

What is one to make of such a set of bullet points?  The only one that seems even remotely more than sloganeering is the third, and there is a curiously large gap between limits on nutrients and the overall DGA emphasis on whole eating patterns.   The third bullet point requires some knowledge of where items might be found, since nutrients, rather than foods, are its focus.  What are the main sources of added sugars?  Sodas!  Saturated fats? Red meat and cheese! Sodium?  Virtually all processed foods!

Marion Nestle has already pointed out that “eat less” messages in the DGAs are couched in terms of nutrients, while “eat more” messages encourage foods (e.g. lean meats).  The cmp_slideshow_plateMyPlate translation of this guideline is: “Drink and eat less sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars”.  These are not obvious items to avoid on grocery store shelves, nor do their food sources come with bold messages: High in Added Sugar! High in Sodium!

But an additional area of obfuscation in the DGAs specifically and nutrition labeling more generally, is quantification. The first two should make up<10% of total calories (a unit most of us struggle to comprehend), and sodium should be <2300 mg. Given American’s longstanding rejection of the metric system, it’s curious that nutrients are listed on food labels or referenced in the DGAs in metric units.  In science, these are standards, but from the perspective of metric-illiterate American consumers, they are utterly useless.  For example, a 12 ounce can of soda (note use of the U.S. customary weight measure for food) has 33 grams of sugar.  How much is 33 grams? A gram seems like such a tiny unit, so this must be a minuscule amount.  Measured in more familiar units, 33 grams of sugar is over 6 teaspoons (2 tablespoons or 1/8th of a cup).  In contrast, 2300 mg of salt seems like a lot, but it is in fact only 1 teaspoon (or 2.3 grams, which makes it seem like very little!).  The teaspoon unit appears only once in the DGAs, in the recommendation for oils (to replace solid fats).

There is much more to say about the 2015 DGAs as a lost opportunity to take a strong stance on diet in relation to Americans’ high risk of diet-related chronic diseases and the long term viability of our food supply.  As it stands, it continues a long history of vague dietary guidance that will have little impact on American dietary patterns.

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The Flint Water Disaster: A Perfect Storm of Downplaying, Denial, and Deceit

Gregory V. Button

Flint, Michigan, the city portrayed as the embodiment of a rust belt city abandoned by deindustrialization in Michael Moore’s allegorical documentary, Roger & Me, has recently become a morality play of a different sort as it captures national headlines highlighting a controversial series of decisions creating a major public health crisis that threatens the health of Flint’s children.

After numerous complaints of the rising costs of the City of Detroit’s water and sewerage system, which the city had been dependent on for decades, the City of Flint’s controversial, non-elected, state appointed emergency manager decided in 2013 to switch from Detroit’s water system, and obtain water for the city from the Flint River until an alternative source could be developed.  The decision insured, if nothing else, that banks and bondholders to which the city is indebted, would be paid.

The decision ended up being a tragic mistake of major proportions. After the switch was made in April 2014 problems soon developed because the Flint River’s water proved to be highly corrosive, releasing lead from the old plumbing fixtures in Flint’s homes, factories, and schools. The water was so corrosive that the local GM engine plant switched their plant’s water system to another supplier because the automaker was concerned that the Flint River water would corrode their auto parts.

Tragically, the situation could have been avoided if the state had followed the EPA mandate to install corrosive preventative measures when lead levels in drinking water exceed recommended levels.  State officials further undermined the state’s integrity and the public’s confidence by claiming they were not required to install mandatory corrosive controls.

As lead levels rapidly rose to levels far exceeding the U.S. EPA’s recommended lead levels in public drinking water, Flint residents complained of malodorous, darkly colored water flowing from their home faucets, hair loss, headaches, and itchy eyes. Eventually some residents, including children, were diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Local officials downplayed the residents’ complaints and insisted that the water was safe to drink. For over a year, during which a series of mind-baffling decisions were made by the state, officials continued to downplay and deny the existence of a crisis. In an effort to avoid the scrutiny of the public, researchers, and federal authorities, state officials seemed to have chosen state and bureaucratic interests over and above the public good, creating a vortex of uncertainty and unnecessarily and inexcusably prolonging the crisis. The river water increased the exposure of Flint residents to lead, a potent neurotoxin that crosses the brain’s barrier and can adversely affect nearly every system in the body. Lead endangers the health of both children and adults causing slow growth, learning disabilities, anemia, and hearing problems. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of lead.

As evidence continued to mount that there was a serious public health problem, local and state officials continued to downplay the situation, deny that there was a problem, and deceive the public even when scientific evidence emerged contradicting their claims .  Residents were stunned when documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) revealed that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and state public health officials had, in an effort to deceive the public, altered documents contradicting the officials’ claim that the water was safe to drink.

In the ensuing months as state officials continued their denials and cover-ups local residents and independent public health researchers accused officials of hiding data, misleading the public and ignoring solid scientific research that clearly demonstrated the public was at risk. Independent researchers from the University of Virginia provided robust evidence demonstrating that lead levels in sampled city water exceeded 100 parts per billion.

This was a staggering finding: the EPA allows only 15 parts per billion in drinking water and, in reality, there is really no level that is considered to be safe. Additionally, a team of physicians and public health researchers published a report that showed that elevated lead blood levels increased after the water switch from 2.9% to 4.9% and in some neighborhoods rose as high as 6.3%.

Residents were further shocked when it was eventually revealed, through yet another FOIA request, that city, county, and state officials believed in the aftermath of the water switch that a deadly Legionnaire’s disease outbreak, resulting in the death of ten people, may have been attributable to the switch of the city’s water to the polluted waters of the Flint River.

Outrage continued recently when it was revealed that top administrators in the EPA’s regional Midwest office were aware, as long ago as last April, of Flint’s failure to install mandatory corrosion controls and the potential for adverse public health effects. Instead of informing the public of their concern, they delayed releasing the information to the public for several months while they battled with the state over EPA’s legal authority to enforce the federal mandate requiring Flint to install corrosion controls.

Over a year and a half after the crisis began, the state finally relented. Governor Snyder tardily apologized for the tragedy to the citizens of Flint, declared a state emergency, called out National Guard troops to distribute bottled water, and eventually asked President Obama to declare a national emergency, which would enable the state to receive federal assistance. On January 16, 2016 President Obama declared a ninety-day federal emergency, thereby qualifying the city of Flint to receive bottled water, water filters, filter cartridges and other items. Unfortunately, the declaration does not provide the state of Michigan with an estimated $600 million dollars necessary to replace Flint’s deteriorating water system, which may be the only way to fully alleviate the problem in the long-term.

Local and national media coverage of this tragic event has garnered considerable national attention resulting in calls ranging from a demand for a federal investigation to the arrest of Governor Snyder (a man whose corporate approach to government and reliance on unelected, state appointed emergency managers is thought by many to undermine local democracy). There are even some people who embrace a conspiracy theory that the children of Flint were poisoned intentionally.

Outrage has been propelled not only by what some believe to be gross malfeasance but also because of the fact that Flint, one of the poorest municipalities in the State of Michigan, has long suffered from racial discrimination, and ranks at the bottom of the state in rates of childhood poverty – as well as the glaring fact that 41.5 % of its residents live below the poverty level and nearly 60% of Flint residents are African American (see  Hanna, A. J. Le Chance, R.C. Sadler, A. C. Schnepp. 2015 “Elevated lead levels in children associated with the Flint drinking water crisis: A spatial analysis of risk and public health response.” American Journal of Public Health. Available online: http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2015.303003); all of which, even upon initial observation, makes a compelling case for a  morality play about structural violence.

The author has been investigating the Flint water crisis since its inception and is currently writing a journal article and a report on the ongoing crisis. He can be reached at gregvorybutton@mac.com and 734-417-3371.

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Southern Provisions

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

southern provisions cover

Shields, David S. (2015) Southern Provisions.  The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Did you ever wonder where Carolina Gold Rice and other southern rices come from? Or what kinds of beans and peas, root vegetables and herbs, were typical of these “lowcountry” cuisines, and how these products were introduced and integrated?  Do you care about regional U.S. cooking and revivals, and the place of culinary history in such constructions or reconstructions?  Then this is the book for you.  The author, who is the principal of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, which provides the seeds for this Carolina Gold Rice and southern culinary revival, has done exhaustive research.  He documents how scholars and food professionals and amateurs interested in rediscovering the flavors of traditional southern dishes worked from cookbooks, gardening records, and other historical culinary documents to create the historical “table” of 18th and 19th century southern cuisine, and then went about the arduous but ultimately rewarding tasks of finding the food varieties that farmers could plant and harvest to make these reconstructions possible.  This reversal of the usual “farm to table” mantra is supremely effective as an organizing tool, as the first half of the volume describes the history, institutions, concepts and methods, and the second half charts, crop by crop, the findings, which allow the understanding of cookery, gardening, field crops, and meals to inform the recovery of seeds, soil and water conditions, that revive the historical flavors and values of these foods and combinations.  The sheer diversity of plant materials is daunting.  In the earlier chapters, Shields lists the historical seed sources for 31 different varieties of beans, 37 different varieties of peas, 24 different kinds of turnips, ten different broccolis (white, purple, and green), and so on, although he finds evidence of only one potato and and a single tomato variety.  The seeds for these various crops came from Europe, the Northeast (NY) or in some cases, fellow southerners.  But the point is to recover and revive the foods, not only the seed sources.

I was particularly interested in Carolina Gold Rice, which must be distinguished from the modern GMO Golden Rice prototype, where the golden color permeates the edible seed. Using modern genetic mapping technologies, scientists have now traced Carolina Gold’s genealogy to a variety in Ghana, although the route by which this rice reached the Carolinas is open to interpretation.  The Carolina rice’s husk is gold, as are the (unhusked) seeds.  After reviving this variety, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation also revived an aromatic Charleston Gold Rice, which is similarly attractive in basic characteristics and adds scent.  Alongside these varieties, Shields sorts out the many European, Asian, and African sources that contributed to the South’s seed selections; their agronomic (productivity) and flavor (all sensory) profiles, as these influenced the rice preferences of producers, cooks, and consumers.  An indication of the precise, sensory-rich, detailed writing is the description, that “Gold seed yielded more per acre than the Piedmontese rice, exceeded it for pearly translucence,and surpassed it in lustrous mouth feel and wholesome taste” (p.237).  Knowledgeable cooks could furthermore distinguish the particular places or farms that produced their rice, which carried the very distinctive flavors of their soils and river-water of origin.  The reader also learns that this rice must be produced organically; additional enrichment of soils with chemical fertilizers will cause the rice vegetation to grow weedy and the seed heads plus stalks to lodge and fall over.  The reader also learns about weedy rice pests, especially red rice, which effectively competes with the cultigen, and the low-tech ways farmers must distinguish rice seed with lower or higher weed seeds by visually sampling and inspecting their contamination, or later invest significant manual labor in weeding.  Numerous historical supply notes and recipes indicate that white rice, as a staple food, was often paired with hominy (corn grits) and pulses (peas or beans). Rice furthermore served as a major ingredient in breakfast foods, in addition to later-day meals, at a time, prior to the technology of puffing rice for breakfast cereals, when the first major meal of the workday demanded hearty fare.  Additional chapters give similarly detailed histories of sugar cane, sorghum, oil, and peanuts, with a final concluding chapter returning to the distinctive taste of the south’s distinctive white flint corn.

Reading these descriptions in the wake of Mark Schatzker’s illuminating accounts of the subtle chemistry of flavors (The Dorito Effect., NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015) helps add to understandings of the agronomic as well as genetics of rice varieties and their sensory attributes.

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King Cake!

whole king cake UNO

King cake, New Orleans style

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

I ate three pieces of cake on Wednesday. All in the name of research, of course. I took pictures, just to prove how hard I was working. Three pieces of cake is somewhat more cake than I eat on an average day. But Wednesday was Epiphany or Kings Day and in New Orleans that signals the start of Carnival season. And that means we eat king cake.

Piece of cake, CC's coffeehouse, New Orleans

Piece of cake, CC’s coffeehouse, New Orleans

Mardi Gras is, of course, a day (Fat Tuesday is February 9, this year). But at least in New Orleans, Carnival is a season that starts with Kings Day and ends in ashes, on Ash Wednesday. The opening day of the season is marked by a few parades, including the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc in the French Quarter and the Phunny Phorty Phellows riding the St. Charles streetcar line. We also have an abundance of local and seasonal foods at this time of year. Crawfish are already available all over town, for instance and strawberry season kicked into gear a few weeks ago, so there are plenty of those to be had in the markets. There is great Louisiana citrus around as well. It may seem a little odd, but I would like to suggest that king cake should also be considered a local and seasonal food in New Orleans.

Local and seasonal usually refers to plants that are grown by local farmers and gardeners, especially those plant varieties that are native to the region. Or to species of animals traditionally raised in a region or that are native to the region, including, for instance, heritage cattle or those crawfish I mentioned. Of course, as with many cultural categories, when you look closely, such things can become hard to define. This is true about heritage pigs in North Carolina or about traveling plants like okra or potatoes. The thing, in the end, that makes a food local is that it is important to local foodways. I would subscribe to the idea that if people say something is local, then it is. I realize that this logic can lead to thinking about things like McDonald’s French fries as a local food in Moscow. But why not? As Melissa Caldwell so aptly demonstrates, it is the way in which people lay claim to the food that is interesting.

Piece of cake, faculty reception, UNO

Piece of cake, faculty reception, UNO

The same sort of thinking certainly applies to king cakes in New Orleans. The king cake tradition here is clearly related to practices in France, Spain, Italy, and other countries. Long before I lived here, I was introduced to the French galette des rois. The French version I am most familiar with is a puff pastry cake with an almond paste filling and a little figurine hidden inside, most often consumed exclusively on Epiphany (although bakeries make them available for a few weeks before and after that day). The person (usually a child) who ended up with the figurine also got a paper crown. There are several varieties of cake found in different parts of Europe, as well as in Central and South America. Like other globalized foods and traditions, each place makes the practice their own.

French king cake piece

Piece of French style king cake

King cakes in New Orleans can be found in some stores starting a week or so before Epiphany, but I suspect that most people wait for the official start of the season to get one. They are most prominently featured in a kind of ritual exchange tradition in work places. One person brings a cake to the office to start off the cycle. Cakes are supposed to come with a plastic baby hidden in them (or a bean, or another figure, but a plastic baby is the most common item). The person who gets a piece with the bean is then supposed to bring the next cake to the office. And this exchange goes on until Mardi Gras, after which the cakes disappear for another year. King cake consumption is not, however, limited to the workplace. People bring them to parties, for instance, and the number and variety of cakes on display at even small gatherings seems to increase geometrically as we approach Mardi Gras itself. Sometimes it seems like the entire repertoire of New Orleans cuisine is reduced to king cake and beer during Mardi Gras season, especially for any event involving float decorating, costume making, and parade preparation (for many, Popeye’s fried chicken often adds much needed variety to the typical New Orleans Carnival season diet). And of course, king cake and beer is probably the breakfast of choice for many on Mardi Gras day (one may replace the beer with a Bloody Mary if it is breakfast). King cake consumption really comes to stand for the entire Carnival season, as this advertisement from one local bakery (which I am not endorsing, but they do make very pretty cakes) illustrates with an impressive array of iconic Mardi Gras types.

When I moved to New Orleans, the first king cakes I ate came from McKenzie’s, a now defunct chain of local bakeries that might best be described as a chain grocery store bakery, without the rest of the store. Natives of New Orleans of a certain age can be deeply emotional about the loss of McKenzie’s, which they see as a sign of the passing of those things that made the city unique. The store’s king cake, which I remember as a dry brioche with a modest amount of sweet icing in Mardi Gras colors, was relatively austere (my wife, who remembers these cakes fondly, tells me I am being too harsh). King cakes in this style are still to be found around town and many of my native friends and colleagues claim to prefer them to the over-the-top garish cakes that have come to dominate the market in recent years. Despite the annual protests by nostalgic natives, cakes filled with everything from cream cheese to bananas and peanut butter are everywhere and very popular. The amount of decorative sugar involved is rivaled only by the amount of glitter people in New Orleans use each year on their costumes. These cakes are a long way from the French galette des rois. And they make people very happy.

Galette des rois, from La Boulangerie, in New Orleans

Galette des rois, from La Boulangerie, in New Orleans

People here are very self-conscious about the king cake tradition. There are annual evaluations of the best king cakes by our leading food writers. There are stories about the evolution of the cakes, about the entry of different ethnic groups into the tradition, or about the ways in which particular pastry chefs innovate to create cakes that are always more dazzling. There are strange variations on the king cake theme, including king cake vodka (I really don’t think this is a good idea, but maybe you will like it) and the king cake smoothie (from Smoothie King, of course). You can get the French style king cakes around town too – the one pictured here comes from a local bakery that also makes cakes in the New Orleans style. You can now order one to be delivered by Uber, in case you don’t want to leave your house or office. If you don’t live here, bakeries will be happy to FedEx one to you. And there is even king cake satire, including a series of advertisements from the fake Ragusa Brothers Bakery, done in perfect working class New Orleans “Yat” accents, that skewer king cakes and a whole lot more. You can watch the first one, from 2011, below. You have until Ash Wednesday to eat some cake. After that, you should wait until next year.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, New Orleans