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Review: Food Anxiety in Globalising Vietnam

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Food Anxiety in Globalizing Vietnam. Judith Ehlert and Nora Katharina Faltmann eds. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 330pp. ISBN 978-981-13-0743-0

.Shao-Yun Chang (Tulane University)

In 2018, Vietnam battled outbreaks of African swine fever, a highly contagious disease that prompted concerns over poultry products especially from China. A Vietnamese coffee manufacturer reportedly used batteries and dust in its production. Food anxieties are rampant in Vietnam, reflecting concerns over national security and expressing worries in more intimate realms around health and consumption. Food Anxiety in Globalizing Vietnam addresses these issues by contextualizing rapidly changing politico-economic dynamic around food in the socialist state.

Food Anxiety in Globalizing Vietnam is divided into three parts: Bodily Transgressions, Food Safety, and the Politics of Food Security. The authors come from multiple perspectives, ranging across development studies, sociology, economy, history, and anthropology. This multi-disciplinary approach provides a comprehensive outlook on food anxiety, addressing both state-level policies and developmental projects, but they are also attentive to everyday practices and discourse. The three parts also follow a scaler approach, moving from micro-processes to the macro, from private realms to public sphere, and from Vietnam towards larger regional interactions with China and Southeast Asian countries.

In their introduction, co-editors Judith Ehlert and Nora Faltmann position food anxiety as processes of incorporating food into the physical body. These processes involve boundaries – boundaries between inside and outside and between the self and the world, emphasizing how anxiety reflects “questions of integrity in terms of material ‘realities’ but also regarding the transgression of discursive structures” (15). Food transgresses not just in the visceral sense as people ingest what they eat; it also transgresses boundaries of class, gender, and capitalist relations, especially in Vietnam where economic reforms or Đổi Mới have exacerbated people’s concerns with food because of the country’s rapid and compressed modernization. In this volume, the individual authors trace historical trajectories from the precolonial era to the contemporary period. They focus on recent state-level projects intended to ensure food security by integrating food production into the global capitalist system and welcoming neoliberal agricultural practices.

The first part, “Bodily Transgression,” situates class, gender, and familial dynamics in socio-political implications of food consumption across different historical periods. Erica Peters shows how in both precolonial and colonial periods, people with power and command were most prone to anxiety when their power seemed most vulnerable. For instance, Minh Mạng, the second ruler (1820-1840) of Nguyễn dynasty, established culinary methods to institutionalize wet rice cultivation, which alienated non-Việt practices. Anthropologist Nir Avieli depicts ambivalence of consuming jungle meats and goat meats in present day Hội An, showing how ritualized public killings are tied to asserting cultural intimacy. Judith Ehlert focuses on a gendered phenomenon – mothers’ food network and emerging public debate around child obesity. By focusing on discussions of food anxiety and motherhood, Ehlert argues food anxiety arise through women’s ambivalence with being caring mothers and feeding practices.

The second part of the volume, “Food Safety,” addresses the emerging and evolving power players of food production in Vietnam, including state, private sector, and the consumer. Muriel Figuié et al. lay the groundwork for understanding shifting food systems in relation to modernization processes in which consumers are now distanced from food production, generating anxieties around delocalized food and “unidentifiable edible object[s].” (145) Nora Faltmann dives deeper into the issue of distanciation by showing how the niche market of organic foods in Vietnam is still largely controlled by foreign corporations and governed by neoliberal logics. But citizens’ quest for organic and safe food is not limited to the niche market as Sandra Kurfürst shows in her chapter on urban gardening and rural-urban supply chains of food. She plays on the longstanding dichotomy between urban versus rural. Food anxiety disrupts the usual dichotomy of urban and rural, putting more trust in food from countryside as opposed to prevalence of polluted and alienated food in the city.

The final part, “The Politics of Food Security,” shifts towards national and transnational level of politics involved in food security. At the state level, Timothy Gorman examines Resolution 63, a legislative mandate targeted at food security and increasing rice production. Gorman shows the emphasis of food security is on food production instead of access to food. The fixation on the supply side intensifies agrarian transition, favoring large-scale mechanized production over smallholder farmers. In the last chapter, Hongzhou Zhang examines the dialectical relationship between Vietnam and China, a recurring theme in food anxieties discussed throughout the volume. In recent years, food security strategy in China has promoted imported foods and expanded overseas agricultural investment, giving rise to exponential increase in trade between the two countries. However, consumers are mistrustful of low-quality food from China, suspecting illegal chemical additives or containing gutter oil.[1] Interregional exchange further complicates issues of trust in food and edibility. Jean-Pierre Poulain closes the volume by foregrounding the idea of “compressed modernity” proposed by Kyung-Sup Chang, which describes evolving socio-economic dynamics happening in condensed time and space and pertinent to fast modernization of Asian countries such as Vietnam (303). The intensity of modernity threads together discussions throughout the volume, underscoring the evolving relationships in households, private and public sectors, and neoliberal logics in a socialist state through the consumption and production of food.

The volume provides multi-dimensional approaches for understanding food anxieties in contemporary Vietnam. Anxiety around food production, consumption, and exchange is neither a localized phenomenon nor situated outside of socio-cultural histories. Authors discern nuances at the individual level (should one consume goat meat which is rumored to provide aphrodisiac effects), the household level (what feeding practices make a good mother), the state level, and lastly, international projects of food security and organic production. The volume powerfully penetrates the surface of food-related outbreaks, which have dominated the news. Authors contemplate the multiplicity of relations involved in production and consumption, scrutinizing the implications of neoliberal governance and global capitalist structures specifically within food anxieties. However, several authors point towards food anxieties derived from the relationship between Vietnam and China. It would be interesting to see how food anxieties speaks to political tensions between two countries. Do issues of national security exacerbate food anxiety, particularly discourse around interregional exchange?

The volume will appeal to range of academic audiences. Authors speak to social scientists who are interested in understanding growing food anxieties in Asian countries that have experienced rapid modernization. The edited volume is also a great resource for classrooms to provide students insights into how neoliberal projects shape conceptions of food and how food is politicized in daily practices. Each chapter approaches food anxiety from a specific angle, presenting qualitative findings and interpretations on food anxiety in Vietnam.

[1] Gutter oil refers to sourcing oil from restaurant waste, sewages, and grease traps. Recycled oil is processed and sold as cooking oil.

 

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Asia, globalization, neo-liberal public policy, Vietnam

Review: Organic Sovereignties

Organic Sovereignties. Struggles over Farming in an Age of Free Trade. Guntra A. Aistara. University of Washington Press. 2018. ISBN: 9780295743110.

Laura Kihlstrom (University of South Florida)

Guntra A. Aistara has written what the foreword of the book describes as the ‘first sustained ethnographic study of organic farmers outside the U.S.’. Organic Sovereignties is a multi-sited ethnography placed in Latvia and Costa Rica, countries described as regional peripheries in the European Union (EU) and Central America, respectively. I approached this book with great interest, given the lack of multi-sited ethnographies in food studies, as well as the frequent focus of books on organic farming exclusively on North America.

 One of the fastest growing sectors of the global food industry, organic agriculture is now an 82 billion industry. While 90 % of all sales are made in the Global North, 89 % of all organic products are produced by farmers in the Global South, the industry reflecting longstanding inequalities in the food system. How are these contradictions solved among organic farmers in two countries? How do Latvian and Costa Rican actors in the organic agriculture movement negotiate, create, and maintain sovereignties while their countries promote free trade?

The backdrop to the book is Latvia joining the EU in 2004 and Costa Rica joining the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2007. Through utilizing a multi-sited approach, Aistara demonstrates how seemingly different localities are in fact part of a broader global neoliberal system, and heavily influenced by their powerful neighboring countries, whilst having their own unique agrarian and political histories in how organic agriculture has developed. Similar to the approach of Alyshia Galvéz in her book Eating NAFTA (2018), Aistara follows free trade agreements at the micro-level to deepen our understanding of food sovereignty. The result is a rigorously researched ‘ethnography of frustration and resurgence’.

Chapter 1 follows the personal stories of organic farmers and those involved in the organic agriculture industry in the two countries. While the practices of Latvian organic farmers mimic the country’s agrarian past through so called quiet sustainabilities on subsistence farms, Costa Rican organic farmers associate their actions with democratic ideals and principles of agroecology. Despite these differences, organic actors in both countries have asserted their sovereignty not independent from the state but in relation to it. And in both cases, small-scale farmers frequently share an experience of being perceived as impediments to progress and modernity by political elites in power.

Chapter 2 is an exploration into the events leading the countries to EU and CAFTA. In Latvia, reactions to a potential EU membership were built around a general narrative of correcting a Soviet history of collectivization and confirmed in a referendum in 2003. In Costa Rica, membership in CAFTA was resisted loudly and openly, and ultimately decided upon in a referendum. Eventually, both countries have had to deal with the built-in inequalities in the trade deals. In EU, eastern member states still receive fewer subsidies than member countries in the west. In CAFTA, Costa Rican small-scale organic farmers were up against an unfair advantage against farmers in the Global North, as well as wealthier farmers in the middle parts of the country.

Chapter 3 focuses on the symbolic importance of landscapes for organic farmers as sites of memory, pain, loss, but also resistance. For Latvian farmers, organic landscapes have been designed by drawing from the past to which they share a deep connection. In Costa Rica, organic landscapes can be seen as a means to protect biodiversity and as a response to the history of colonization in the region, which has resulted in deforestation and chemical-heavy farming of export crops. In both places, organic farmers develop new models for farming and assert their sovereignty through maintaining and altering landscapes.

Chapter 4 weaves together organic farming and biodiversity. Aistara challenges the notion of biodiversity as a list of species and re-conceptualizes it as something that can be both created and maintained by organic farmers. She uses the concept of networked diversities to describe new forms of diversity that emerge from interactions between organic farmers and nonhuman actors in lived landscapes. For example, organic farmers in Latvia use their informal social networks to diversify their livelihood options, such as by inviting tourist groups to the farm to see grazing wild horses in the adjacent meadows. The positive feedback they gained from this experience further encouraged them to protect the biodiversity on the meadows. In other words, networked diversities demonstrate that new forms of diversities do not always emerge from conscious action but from a combination of informal social connections and multispecies interactions In Latvia, diversifying has been a way to expand livelihood options, while in Costa Rica informal seed exchange networks have been a way to conserve agrobiodiversity as a means of political resistance.

Chapter 5 is an overview of the challenges that organic farmers have dealt with since becoming part of transnational trade deals. In both countries, the process of ‘harmonization of legislation’ in EU and CAFTA has challenged the sovereignty of farmers. In Latvia, organic farmers have been discouraged by a surge in surveillance and inspections on their farms, while in Costa Rica seeds that had historically been managed by farmers have risked becoming the property of a privileged group of breeders.

Chapter 6 focuses on the failed promises of trade deals for small-scale organic farmers and businesses. Rather than becoming managers of supply chains, both Latvia and Costa Rica have remained in the margins and continue to mainly produce raw materials for European and North American processors. Aistara explains this as the result of a process of conventionalization in which small businesses are taken over or grow into the organic industrial complex (Guthman, 2014). Farmers in both countries have had challenges in being able to afford the expensive certification process, in not being able to meet strict hygiene standards for export products, or not having the resources to increase the value of one’s products.

Chapter 7 focuses on the tensions within the organic movement itself. This chapter demonstrates that organic farmers are indeed not a homogenous group of people. In both Costa Rica and Latvia, within the movement, amateur and small-scale farmers have often been marginalized. At the same time, as the movement aims to achieve recognition as well as to produce enough food to meet the demands of the industrial food systems, organic farmers in both locations have shifted their focus from values and principles to giving primacy to funds and resources available for them.

Is it possible for organic farmers to maintain their sovereignties while being shaped by free trade agreements and globalization? The book Organic Sovereignties is an ethnographic exploration of the frustrations and agency of organic farmers in two countries that are considered regional peripheries. By following two countries, Aistara demonstrates that there are similarities in how organic farmers and actors become disadvantaged by free trade policies, while their acts of resistance and resurgence build upon each country’s individual agrarian histories, as well as forms of political or colonial oppression.

The book makes several noteworthy theoretical contributions. It challenges the concept of sovereignty and describes it as something that is not necessarily free of the state but exists in a dialectical relationship with it. Aistara also conceptualizes biodiversity not as something in juxtaposition with farming activities, but as something that may be maintained and created by organic farmers. She concludes that conservation efforts geared towards protecting biodiversity may be unsuccessful if they discount farmers’ knowledge on the topic. Third, this book highlights that organic farmers are not a uniform group of people but have different subjectivities which are affected by histories of colonization, oppression, class, race, and geographies.

My one critique for the book is that the multi-sited approach makes it difficult at times for the reader to remain connected to both localities. Focusing on a couple of characters in each chapter throughout the book might have made some of the book’s themes more digestible. I recommend this book to graduate students in the field of food studies, agronomy, anthropology, sociology, and political sciences.

References

Gálvez, A. (2018). Eating NAFTA : trade, food policies, and the destruction of Mexico. University of California Press.

Guthman, J. (2014). Agrarian Dreams : the Paradox of Organic Farming in California. University of California Press.

 

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, food security, food systems, Latin America

Review: Eating Tomorrow

Eating Tomorrow

Wise, Tim (2019) Eating Tomorrow. Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. New York: The New Press. ISBN 9781620974223

Ellen Messer, Ph.D.
(Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, Boston, MA)

This is a must read for economists, anthropologists, and consumers interested in the future of food, nutrition, and smaller-scale farming. Its distinctive focus is smaller-scale farmers, and their struggle to survive on their farms and to produce diverse, nourishing and affordable foodstuffs over and against Big-Ag and Big-Food in collusion with national governments. It represents the most recent entry in the “Food First!” themed books, which formulate the chief causes of world hunger to be “who controls the food system,” what crops are produced by what methods, and how available food is distributed. All center on questions of food access, not absolute shortage.

The individual case studies, covering Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA); Iowa in the US; Mexico in Latin America, and India in South Asia, respectively address hot-button issues like destructive impacts of foreign direct investment (AKA land-grabs, especially in SSA), and environmental pollution of water, soils, air, plant and animal species and communities, that singly and together wreck farmers’ lives and livelihoods in rural communities across the US and globalizing world. A related theme is erosion of traditional land races of crops, especially maize, by introduction of genetically engineered, corporate controlled seeds in the US, Mexico, and SSA. These corporate invasions discourage or prevent farmers from saving and planting their own locally adapted, open-pollinated seed or locally produced and traded hybrids, and from adopting regenerative farming methods that lower requirements to purchase inorganic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, thus reducing farm costs and raising farmer livelihoods.

The entire volume, and the Indian chapter in particular, voice a demand for change that will advance everyone’s human right to food over and against profits for a few. The related terms,“food sovereignty,” call for an end to dependency for farmers, farm communities, and nations and their governments, who should be attending more to “food security” and not subservient to corporate demands in setting food policies that demonstrably disadvantage small (and sometimes large) farmers and usually lower rather than raise production and income. Yet this is no mere political-economic diatribe savaging industrial, capitalist agriculture and showing the inevitable associated ills of globalized food systems. Instead, the ten chapters are based on four years of repeated research visits to the focal countries, where Wise interviewed and here effectively channels the voices of local food and farm activists seeking solutions to under-production and remedies to reduce corporate controls. These voices don’t always agree with each other, particularly around issues of organic practices and labeling, or the requirement for open-pollinated versus locally adapted and controlled hybrid seeds. But they share the common characteristic that they oppose world capitalist dominance of their seed selections and soil maintenance practices, which speaks to the overarching issue: who controls the food system? They oppose conventional high-input, business-as-usual agriculture or more advanced molecular breeding techniques because these approaches are dominated by mostly outsider, agribusiness interests that collude with governments to dominate food policy and constrain more self-reliant, resilient ways to farm and eat. These locally and nationally grounded researcher, producer, and consumer associations, in short, put people and democracy first, as they seek new ways to deliver new life to farming and farmers, and in the process, help their communities and nations regenerate healthier foodstuffs, diets, and livelihoods.

The book is superbly written; throughout it shows the influence of Frances Moore Lappe and politically progressive colleagues at the Small Planet Institute, a spin-off of Food First—Institute for Social and Development Policy, which contributed physical, intellectual, and spiritual space in the forms of dedicated research assistance and a constructive writing environment where Wise shaped his arguments. The results are ten carefully organized and well-documented chapters sewn into a unified whole that seamlessly adopts Food First’s World Hunger: Ten (Twelve) Myths format, without articulating the formal structural repetition of this myth-demolition rhetoric. Like Lappe and her team, Wise, a well-seasoned, food and development policy journalist, artfully practices the craft of activist research and advocacy. The text flows, enlivened by the individual interviewees’ voices, juxtaposed with clear, common-sense explanations of scientific-technological procedures like hybrid plant breeding and use of cover crops to nurture soil regeneration. As he illuminates Big Ag industry domination of state-run agricultural research and extension institutions in country after country, he renders these multi-disciplinary analyses and understandings easily accessible to the non-expert reader or consumer.

These essays, originally published in shorter form as blogs, present well-organized, first-person national food-policy case studies that combine interviews with farmers, scientists, policy makers, and business persons with national statistics showing the several ways un-democratic processes skew food production, choices, supply and demand. They make the book well worth reading and using for discussions of food policy not only in university classrooms but in social media and community venues more generally. In particular, I found chapter 6 on biofuels (“Fueling the Food Crisis”) a succinct history and political-economic account of this issue. Chapter 3, “The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Land Grab in Africa” exposes the multiple players, including China, who dispossessed small farmers in Mozambique. Farmers in this country (and elsewhere) have also fallen prey to predatory and ill-advised Jatropha plantings for bio-fuels. These are projects that failed to yield returns on investment to outsiders but never return land to grow food to the original subsistence and market cultivators, with the result that former cultivators and affected market consumers go hungry.

There are two energizing Mexico chapters, one on GMOs (especially corn) and the second on NAFTA’s impact on Mexico’s family farmers. In each case, activists sprouted around the country to make maize a unifying political cry for food security, food sovereignty, and the human right to food — Sin Maiz no hay pais!. At least in the short term, class action suits and court cases, plus political demands for change, kept GMO maize officially out of the country, and sought additional agricultural protections in re-negotiation of NAFTA terms. The conclusion foresees continual struggle of small farmers against big corporations, but hope’s edge (to borrow the title of Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe’s 2001 book) in democracy and the people’s mobilizations, which Wise has witnessed the world over, and the potential power of these food-related associations to change damaging courses of development.

These illuminations to one side, food anthropologists and other knowledgeable readers will likely identify, in each chapter, assertions that suggest Wise’s technical and social understandings are incomplete, and in some cases, elitist. Take the sentence “Everyone knows that Mexicans don’t want anyone to mess with their tortillas.” (p.192) It serves to drive home the theme of chapter 7, “Monsanto Invades Corn’s Garden of Eden in Mexico,” which is a carefully developed essay on the dangers GMO maize and transnational corporate dominance of food pose to traditional Mexican maize farmers, culinary practices, indigenous and other consumers of local cultural, maize-based diet, and maize biodiversity (because Mexico is a center of origin and diversity in that crop). Mexican anthropologists have managed to get the traditional maize-based Mexican diet classified and protected as a UNESCO cultural heritage of humankind. The original motivation for this UNESCO designation, however, was not merely GMO maize, but the widespread deterioration in the quality of tortillas even without these new varieties. The publicly subsidized corn products, machine made from inferior, cheaper, (sometimes imported) maize prompted low-income consumers to seek wheat alternatives, which the government also subsidized, as equally if not more palatable staple sources of cereal-grain calories.

Wise wisely shares with the reader the luscious, local indigenous-product based high-cuisine meal he enjoys at a top Mexico City restaurant (in the Hilton Hotel) run by a celebrity chef. His palate is delighted by traditional vegetables and sauces, accompanied by tortillas (it goes without saying) hand-made from top quality indigenous maize. But the food-insecure Mexican masses he cares about cannot afford to eat this way, and some of the details of the meal’s ingredients (cooked ant-egg sacs for specialty flavors and textures) reveal a tendency on the part of elite Mexicans to conserve as high cuisine traditional indigenous foods that most indigenous Mexicans, long suffering in the countryside, can no longer find or, as impoverished consumers in urban areas, afford to eat.

Among the SSA examples, the case of Malawi underemphasizes the role of government in collusion with grain-trader corruption relative to Monsanto (now merged into Bayer—how quickly the named, accountable identities of corporate boogey-men change). A key concern for democracy-watchers during one good harvest year was the government of Malawi’s non-transparent transfer of maize to Zimbabwe or other corrupt heads of state, who used this “food as a weapon” strategically to consolidate or maintain power. Such anti-democratic goings-on are not addressed directly — only in a phrase asserting that in one year maize production was sufficiently high to allow Malawi to export grain to hungry neighbors! The chapter on land-grabs in Mozambique, summarized positively above, lacks a fuller political contextualization describing the land-holding and farmer situations arising from the legacy (e.g., land mines, human displacement and dismemberments) of civil war (which is mentioned in passing).

But this is not to argue that Wise should or could completely address all relevant questions and contexts in a volume of less than 300 pages. Overall perspectives for further development include: “what role will (traditional) staple foods play in future food?” and “will people continue to farm mixed crops that include cereal grains, grain legumes, and vegetables, so that they maintain healthy traditional food patterns?”   These are questions that can be raised for Mexican, Central American, and other maize-eating populations, especially in SSA, but also for traditionally rice-eating nations, like Japan, who for decades have been consuming more wheat and other non-endogenous staple foods.

Such issues accentuate, and do not diminish, the value of this text, and the need for additional, ground-level case studies of local organizations, their results in measurable agricultural practice, and their influence on national food policies. From beginning to end, Wise hones his theme that ultimately all producers and consumers need and want healthy food products, clean water, and a food environment that will be resilient in the face of climate change: “All are striving for the same thing: the right of everyone to eat safe and healthy food today while ensuring that we steward our natural wealth so we can all eat tomorrow.” This message puts human beings, particularly small food producers, along with their soils, water, and seeds at the center of advocacy for healthy food, and makes everyone responsible for ensuring everyone’s right to food. He brings the discussion back, time and again, to the radical economist’s directive not just to follow the money but also investigate who benefits, which in these cases are transnational seed and chemical companies and their national co-conspirators who compel small farmers to buy these seed and chemical products or exit the land. The message, as ever, is timely and urgent, and calls for readers to gain greater exposure of those in the battle for food-justice on all sides and at all levels.

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Filed under Africa, agriculture, anthropology, food activism, food security, GMO food, Mexico, United States

Review: Organic Food, Farming and Culture

Chrzan, Janet and Jacqueline A. Ricotta, eds. Organic Food, Farming and Culture. An Introduction. Bloomsbury Academic. 2019. 332 pp. ISBN 1350027839, 9781350027831

Organic Food, Farming and Culture

Ellen Messer, Ph.D. (Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, and Boston University Program in Gastronomy)

On a recent walk through the Portland (Maine) lower port area, I happened upon a burger joint announcing its 100 percent organic grass-fed beef, ground and shaped into a patty that was broiled and served with any other number of “value added” ingredients. The place was relatively empty on this not yet high tourist season day and pre-dinner hour, so I initiated a conversation with the young man taking the orders. “What’s the simplest burger you have?” I asked. The answer was that the default option was with cheese and one sauce + relishes. If I wanted just a plain burger, I would have to specify “no cheese”.

“What about the sauces and toppings—are they all organic?” I asked. He honestly didn’t know. Were the buns organic? Someone else would have to check. From the consumer’s value-driven perspective, such limitations on the boundaries of organic foodstuffs are confusing, not to say, troubling, as concerned, values/ideology-driven eaters try to negotiate dietary intakes that are healthy, respectful of the environment, and caring regarding biological food sources; kind and committed to labor and justice issues, and also wary of contributing to local or larger world food and hunger problems. Local food and sustainable farming advocates, additionally, emphasize the dangers of transferring one’s nutritional loyalties and food dollars to non-local, transnational food corporations that access their ingredients or processed foods wherever they are cheapest and for whatever reasons, never mind injustice to labor or damages to the environment, so long as they don’t enter into the profit-accounting assessment.

These are the conundrums and issues that Organic Food, Farming and Culture. An Introduction. edited by Janet Chrzan (and anthropologist) and Jacqueline A. Ricotta (a professor of horticulture) seek to clarify. The reasonably well-organized volume deliberately begins with some history of organics and ends with an essay contrasting GMOs and organics. Sandwiched in between are short profile pieces by organic farmers, chefs, and consumers, juxtaposed with scholarly essays by academics, policy-makers, industry leaders, cooks or chefs, and other users.

Part One provides multiple “History” entries that succinctly explore the origins of organic food science and technology practices and the organic food movement in the US, Europe, and other places. Gene Anderson’s lyrical chapter on traditional foods as organic foods, with special attention to Chinese and Mexican food systems that are his main areas of ethnographic research, will serve admirably as a classroom basis for understanding the particulars of these histories, and could also be used to encourage students to write their own comparative chapters, based on other world places Anderson has not treated.

Part Two examines “Organics in Practice,” with separate chapters considering agronomics, markets and evolving monitoring standards all along the supply chain. The two-part “Consumers, Citizens, and the Participatory Processes on Organic Food: Two Case Studies from Denmark” compare and contrast bottom-up municipal organic food efforts with top-down Copenhagen government organic efforts and are well worth reading in any course dealing with comparative food-policy (or other policy), government-community relationships, and networking.

Part Three considers “Organic Food Values, Sustainability and Social Movements” reviews and updates evidence on the “Farming for Food or Farming for Profits” controversy. Simply stated: how can and do organic farmers manage to make a living, which starts with gaining access to land and then matching production to effective demand. Syntheses of the demonstrably incomplete and variably framed scientific evidence tying organic foods to (as yet unproven) superior nutrition and health benefits, or the additional controversy surrounding whether organic food-production has the capacity to feed the world, allow readers to access the evidence and draw their own conclusions. Particularly the organic food and “food security” issues suggest good research or exam questions on whether the evidence supports the “yes” or “no it can’t” point of view, and also what additional studies are necessary to move this debate forward.

The final section Four continues the examination of user understandings when choosing organic over non-organic or unmarked foods and “organic food culture,” that encourages eaters to associate with others who favor eating organic as a cultural identity. Here, chefs and academics together raise the usually contentious question— “Is there Really a Difference Between Conventional, Organic, and GMO?”. Here the authors agree in principle and practice with Food Politics blogger Marion Nestle, who advises: Much depends on which foods, which measurements, and which values make a difference. In their concluding chapter, authors Anderson, Chrzan, and Ricotta summarize the plethora of values and challenges facing food producers, processors, purveyors, and consumers in their multiple value-laden choices to eat healthy, environmentally sustainable, socially just, affordable, palatable, and culturally appropriate food. Take-aways, not surprisingly, are that people do not always act on their stated values; also, that chefs and consumers probably care more about the trusted relationship with the farmer who assures them that the produce they buy is farmed organically, and less about official (USDA) certification. Overall, it “takes a community” and reliable partners all along the food value chain to keep organic production viable and attract new entrants. From beginning to end, this book provides numerous examples of such growing relationships (multiple entendres intended), and encourages readers to seek and share more profiles and vignettes from their personal experiences. Unfortunately, readers like me will likely complete the historical, operational, social-organizing, and concluding chapters with no clearer answer to the question whether organic food can feed the world? I have never been convinced by conventional and GMO proponents that it could not, but most pro-organic examples, including those here, lead or leave me to wonder about the limits to livelihoods, dedicated labor and enterprise for most organic practitioners, however passionate.

Such ambiguities and ambivalence aside, students will probably enjoy the design and organization of the book, which includes brief profiles, personal stories, and inter-personal intersections among them. The wide-ranging subject matter, which touches on everything from minute technologies of soil regeneration to alleged spiritual values of eating or growing organic food, will appeal in places to particular readers, who can pick and choose to read what interests them. I agree with the glowing, collegial endorsements printed on the back cover that the volume’s “strength .. is the explicit connection of abstract food studies with the hands-in-the-dirt [or cooking pot] practices of living farmers, chefs, and purveyors” (Ken Albala, Food Studies historian). Also, that this book provides an “accessible source of information on the agronomic, nutritional, political, and economic dimensions of organic food and agriculture” (Lisa Markowitz, Anthropology, Culture & Agriculture), to which I would add social and cultural dimensions throughout.

Students will likely also relate very well to the repeated profiles, which show how a young organic farmer became engaged in this livelihood, who helped (him) along the way, energetic and continually evolving partnerships with chefs who value the rare and wonderful products he nurtures, and learn to appreciate how conservation initiatives are connecting new entry to retiring farmers, and helping young entrepreneurial farmers gain access to farmland while giving the older generation peace of mind that the farmland will be cared for in perpetuity. Anecdotes describing some of the difficulties, such as removing the organic slugs that also enjoy the pricey organic produce or figuring out ways to use abundant organic root and tuber crop deliveries from CSAs, some of which go to community operations that feed the hungry, add humanity to the mix, and put a human face on the numbers of hungry that organic food can potentially feed. The human faces of the profiled individuals, and partnerships between farmers and chefs, gardeners and their food products, are also presented in numerous photographs, which are not always in sharp focus, and in some cases, present multiple views of the farm, produce, or producer-chef relationship that could have been reduced to one.

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Review/Interview: Food and Animal Welfare

Food and Animal Welfare 

Food and Animal Welfare Henry Buller and Emma Roe. Contemporary Food Series, Bloomsbury Academic, London. 2018. ISBN 9780857855787

Sharyn Jones
(Northern Kentucky University)

Most people in Western countries eat meat and consume at least some form of animal products every day. Yet, pausing to consider the animal lives involved in our food systems and the complex web of human and non-human interactions that produce what we ingest is a rare occurrence. We have a long history of segregating food animals from our lexicon of items on the table and in the supermarket aisles. For example, cattle products are referred to by the generalized terms “beef” or “steaks”, or “burgers”; pigs are referred to as “pork”, or “bacon”, or “ribs”. One rarely notes that one is eating a “steer” or a “barrow” or “gilt”. Moreover, the way that animal food products and animal lives (their value and quality) are described, marketed, and sold reflects a distancing of living creatures from animal products and human consumption practices.

Henry Buller’s and Emma Roe’s new book, Food and Animal Welfare deals directly with this disconnect and the “de-animalization” of food animals from products and consumers. Buller’s and Roe’s central thrust, and their most fundamental argument, is that a concern for farm animal life and welfare is the critical link between consumption and production. Their text provides ample support for the assertion of essential human and animal interconnections and the prevalence of animal welfare issues which permeate our global food chains. I intentionally read this book slowly, digesting the details over several months and I relished every moment of it (as an aside it should be noted that my husband and I co-manage a humane, small-scale heritage hog and poultry farm, a fact which makes the subject of this book particularly important to me). After reading Buller’s and Roe’s book I had many questions for them. They generously agreed to share their thoughts with FoodAnthropology readers and I have included my interview with the authors below, following my general summary and impressions.

Buller and Roe, who are geographers, take a broad interdisciplinary approach to their subject, integrating information from economics, ethics, agriculture, politics, policy, animal science, animal studies, veterinary science, post-humanism, and ethnography. The perspectives presented in the text are primarily focused on the UK and Europe, however case studies from China, and Hungary are also provided and the authors often mention comparative situations in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. Importantly, the book incorporates narratives and participant observations from farmers, animal caregivers, and animal welfare specialists in the UK and China.

This dense yet compact text includes seven chapters and 222 pages. The first chapter focuses on the disciplines of food studies and animal studies and explores the idea of animal welfare as a link between these academic fields. Buller and Roe advocate for bridging the divide between production and consumption via recognition of animal subjectivities (their lives, realities, relationships, and roles in food systems). The second chapter explores three formal trajectories of concern and measurement for animal welfare, including: scientific, ethical, and economic. In the third chapter, Roe’s observational and ethnographic fieldwork on farms and with animal caregivers is shared. The fourth chapter is entitled, “Selling Welfare” and it addresses how animal welfare materializes into commodified, marketed, and consumed products. The fifth and sixth chapters take a comparative global view of the evolution of social interest in food-animal well-being as it relates to production and consumption. Finally, the last chapter returns to the idea of how producers and consumers might ethically engage with the lives of animals who become human food.

In general this book presents a case for the deep connection, affiliation, and mutual dependence between nature and culture, humans, animals, and our environments. The major strengths of this text are many, but several stand out to me personally. First, the authors’ skillful use of ethnography provides insights into the deeply empathetic and challenging relationships that animal carepersons have with farm animals. This approach contributes a provocative dimension to the research presented elsewhere in the book and it adds a great deal of detail about real life situations that animals and their carepersons experience. Roe worked with animal caregivers on a mixed-use farm in the UK for several weeks. In the process, specific on-farm practices of animal care, welfare assessment, daily maintenance, inter-species (or animal-human) communication, and decisions about animal killing were documented are described through participant observations and interviews. The day-to-day demands of caring for animals are explored in relation to how these practices are embodied in the animals themselves, and how they later translate into the value and quality of food products. Buller and Roe intentionally use the term “careperson” vs. “stockperson” in order to illustrate a shifting understanding of farm animals from mindless objects of property to sentient feeling beings. This ethnographic approach allows us to empathize and to better understand farm animals life on a daily basis.

Second, Buller and Roe masterfully incorporate massive amounts of data from many lines of evidence. At the same time, they succulently make a powerful case for valuing and thinking deeply about the relationships we all have with food animals as well as the materiality and sentient nature of these creatures. Third, the authors have a great deal of empathy and concern (both for carepersons and the animals for whom they care) which is clearly expressed throughout their work. In this way they straddle the line between being objective social scientists and humane, caring, real people. This approach has become increasingly common and it supports their case as well as enhancing their writing, making this book easy to read and enjoyable.

Appropriate audiences for Food and Animal Welfare include anthropologists who study food or human-animal interactions; scholars interested in post-humanist approaches; anyone who wants to understand the nuts and bolts of what processes and practices deliver animal products to the table; graduate students, and advanced undergraduates. I think this book, in all or part should be required reading for students of food anthropology, economics, animal science, biology, and food systems ethics. Somewhat less traditionally, individuals who are either directly participating in, or perhaps simply interested in the sustainable food movement would find this book to be extremely revealing.

As noted at the beginning of this review, Henry Buller and Emma Roe answered my inquiries about their text and work. Here are the questions that I asked them and their thoughtful responses regarding Food and Animal Welfare:

  1. In a couple sentences please explain your approach (multi-disciplinary and theoretical?) to studying human-non-human interactions.

“Our approach is to study the sentient materialities of animal bodies as they are mobilized by the agro-food supply chain, along the process of going from a living farm animal through to becoming a packaged and labeled food product which is then bought and eaten. We are interested in bringing attention to care practices in the supply chain from stockperson, regulator, retailer, consumer, that has developed the market in higher animal welfare meat and dairy products. We also bring our interest in studying the performance of how farm animal welfare is being known, made and performed by discussing the sociology of animal welfare science as it has developed to offer scientific credibility for a topic that has had considerable civil society concern that farm animals have feelings that matter to them.”

2 . What personal experiences motivated you to write about this subject and the issuescovered in Food and Animal Welfare?

Emma Roe – “My mum has always been passionate about caring for animals and to try to improve the quality of animal lives’. We had a pet rabbit when I was growing up that she felt was unhappy in its cage, it ended up running wild in our Norfolk garden and mating with a wild rabbit. For her it has been about putting quality of life before health and safety. However, her concerns were never directed towards farm animals when I was growing up. Meanwhile my dad was the village shop keeper and so I became interested in food retailing, and where our food comes from, from quite an early age. I remember him boiling a leg of ham in the back of the shop. Growing up in Norfolk the connection between the food we eat and what was growing in the fields and the hens/veg patch/fruit trees in our garden definitely made an impression on me.”

Henry Buller – “I have long been fascinated by the role of veterinary medicine and veterinary action in mediating forms of human/animal relations. My mum wanted me to be a vet but I couldn’t do the math. So I have returned to it, many years later from the angle of social science.”

  1. What has the response been to your book in the UK and elsewhere?

“Silence! Amongst the community with which we work, there has been some (though limited, response). The social science of farm animal welfare sits uneasily between disciplines and ideologies. Although that is a space we enjoy occupying, others find it problematic.”

  1. What research findings that you share in the book do you consider to be the most profound or surprising?

“The men and women who actually work with the living farm animals and who work to give them a better quality of life are often having to negotiate the cultural, social and personal challenges of improving the life experience of the farm animal whilst keeping within the constraints of what the food market is willing to pay for higher welfare farmed food and caring for their own sentient sensibilities. These people understand a lot about the animals they work with, they are sensitive to what the animals may be communicating through bleat/cheep/grunt or moo. The same is often true for those men that handle and manage the living animals in the abattoir. These folk are too often forgotten or represented as complicit if there are occasions of poor animal welfare.”

  1. Based on your research and experiences what predictions do you have about the future of animals as food in the UK and/or beyond?

“The growing momentum behind finding alternatives to animal-based protein to address the environmental damage that livestock production is doing to the planet coupled with the ongoing concern about the welfare of animals produced by the meat and dairy industry, offers the prospect of a future with a reduced number of farmed animals. It may take some time to get there however, currently meat consumption is steadily rising in China for example, despite high-profile adverts urging reduction primarily from links to non-communicable diseases. In the short term we wonder how the market in higher welfare meat and dairy products may be affected by ‘so-called’ ethical consumers opting to not eat, or to eat less meat and dairy and what the consequence will be for work to continue to raise welfare standards. Meanwhile there are many low and middle income countries in the world with still much work to address farm animal welfare and to meet UK/European animal welfare standards and where the western diet of high-meat and dairy consumption is an aspiration which at a planetary level seems deeply undesirable.”

  1. What do you think is the single most effective change that the average consumer of meat and animal products could make to improve some of the problems you have identified in the book?

“To always buy higher welfare meat and dairy products and to ask if something is not labelled – not only in the supermarket but also when you eat outside of the home whether fast food van, cafe or restaurant chain. And perhaps ultimately to eat less meat and dairy and if one does ensure it is from a higher welfare production system.”

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Filed under anthropology, ethics, farming, food policy, United Kingdom, United States

Food Without Borders

Food without Borders: Proustian Anthropology and Collaborative Storytelling with an Experimental Sixth-Grade Class in Paris

Dr. Christy Shields-Argelès, in collaboration with Beth Grannis

“Food without Borders” is a collaborative ethnographic film project that I, along with filmmaker Beth Grannis and students from the American University of Paris, carried out with a mixed bi-lingual/mono-lingual sixth grade class in Paris. In this blog post, I discuss the manner in which David Sutton’s work on food and memory provided a theoretical and methodological frame that allowed us to identify and use co-feelings related to the shared experience of displacement as both a platform for collaboration and a frame for storytelling. In the conclusion, I also discuss collaborative tensions that characterized the project and make suggestions for using the project’s films in food anthropology classes.

***

For the past six years, Maurice Ravel, a public junior-high school in Paris’ twentieth district, has been engaged in a civic experiment of sorts. At Ravel, bilingual students who test into an International Baccalaureate program in English (OIB) share all but their English literature and history classes with local sector students who follow the traditional French Baccalaureate pathway (OFB), and are therefore learning English as a foreign language. As such, these classes contain at least two groups of global youth: the OIB students, who generally travel across borders as the children of middle and upper class professionals, and the OFB students, who are often the children of working-class and immigrant families. Bringing these students together is done with the idea that working together will benefit all, and yet class participants also struggle to live and learn together in a context that is, of course, also shaped by wider social, political and economic structures and inequalities.

I am a food anthropologist and Associate Professor in the Global Communications department at the American University of Paris (AUP). Beth is a filmmaker and Deputy Director of the non-profit Filmmakers without Borders, and at the time of the project was also an MA student in AUP’s Global Communications program. During the 2017–18 school year, we designed and directed a collaborative ethnographic film project for the OIB-OFB sixth grade class at Ravel. AUP’s Civic Media Lab and Filmmakers without Borders provided support for the project. Over the course of several months, we led the class through a series of anthropology and filmmaking workshops, in French and English. Together, we produced a class film, which consists of twenty-eight ethnographic vignettes (one for each student), and is in four languages (French, English, Chinese and Italian). In each vignette, a child tells the story of a food or a dish that connects them to the past, a place, a people and a sense of belonging. The film’s stories were collected within reciprocal OIB-OFB interviewing pairs, and each student took a small camera home to film the preparation and/or consumption of their dish, using the filming techniques taught to them in class.

Working within the traditions of participatory filmmaking and collaborative anthropology, Beth and I aimed at privileging the sixth graders’ voices. We felt this to be particularly important in the current context. Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015, the centralized French education system became an arena of intense institutional reform. President François Hollande immediately instated mandatory “civic and moral instruction” for grades K through 12, and Emmanuel Macron’s government has followed suit with a series of important structural changes, including an overhaul of the central (and strongly symbolic) baccalaureate exam system. Within this context, OFB-OIB class participants are instructed on civic values like mixité (social mixing) and vivre ensemble (which might best be translated as “living together harmoniously”), but have little opportunity to speak of their own experiences and knowledge of living with difference, within their families, their communities and their school. Beth and I did not want to speak at these sixth graders, but help them to tell their own stories, and reveal the rich and dynamic identities and relations they are building within multi-lingual and multi-cultural environments.

From the onset, we designed the project as a collaborative process. We aimed to work in dialogue with community members (students, teachers, families) as well as encourage collaboration among the sixth graders, who had only just met four weeks prior to our arrival. We framed and modeled collaboration in a variety of ways. For example, as an anthropologist, I paid particular attention to language. I used folk concepts (like vivre ensemble) to create space for the discussion of different experiences and perspectives. Language was also central when teaching in-depth interviewing techniques. Are your words expressing judgment? Do you formulate open-ended questions so your partner can respond in their own terms? Beth relied more on movement and visual imagery. She drew from a Common Core curriculum developed by Filmmakers without Borders in 2014 for students who do not speak English. She adapted this pedagogy to the Ravel classroom. So, when teaching different camera shots, she stood in front of the class and called out technical terms, like “close up”, while framing her face with her hands. The children copied the movement, and repeated the term. They then worked in pairs, and moved around the classroom to practice the different camera shots with a partner. In such activities, a student’s literacy (in English or French) was not an issue, as they were learning together and working towards a shared goal.

 

Beth and the class gesturing a “close-up” shot.

Another important component of the project was getting AUP undergraduate and graduate students involved as “student-mentors”. AUP students are a decidedly international group (with over 100 nationalities represented in a student body of 1200 students). In this particular project, five students were American, one was Columbian, and another was French. They all spoke English (though two were non-native English speakers), had varying levels of French (fluent to beginner), and often spoke one additional language (including Chinese, German and Spanish). In the Ravel classroom, the AUP team modeled a multi-lingual and multi-cultural learning commons as well as positive, global identities. At the same time, however, AUP students learned a great deal from the sixth graders. The experience brought them to reflect on their own childhood experiences and encouraged them to formulate questions concerning the role of education or food in current debates and processes of change.

Collaboration was also built on “co-feelings” related to the experience of displacement. My understanding of co-feeling is inspired by the work of Renato Rosaldo (1989). He writes about how experiencing the death of a loved one – and, in particular, the rage that accompanies it for a time – repositioned him in the field, and allowed him to understand the people he was working with, as well as human death rituals, in a new manner. So, by co-feeling I mean that different people can share a set of feelings that result from a shared human experience. In this way, co-feeling can help form a bridge of understanding and empathy. Of course, this bridge must be built and navigated with care because emotion can also mislead in a number of ways. For thinking through the feelings associated with displacement, and then conceptualizing them as a platform for co-feeling within this project, I also drew inspiration from David Sutton’s work on food and memory in Greece. In what he calls a “Proustian anthropology”, Sutton theorizes the processes first described in Proust’s “madeleine” passage, drawing particular attention to the feelings of estrangement and loss that accompany displacement. He also examines how “foods from home” temporarily assuage these feelings by allowing for a ritual “return to the whole”, or a mutual tuning-in and sense of connection.

In France, sixth grade is the first year of junior high and so involves changing schools and sometimes neighborhoods, as well as changing rhythms and workloads. In addition, in this particular class, many students (and their families) had moved across (or currently lived across) national borders. So, French sixth graders in general – and this group in particular – can be a nostalgic bunch, in the midst of missing other places (e.g. old schools, other countries) and times (“when I was a kid”). We therefore hoped that this particular topic would be equally engaging and meaningful for all. We also hoped in this way to reposition the students away from all sorts of opposed identity categories that frame their daily interactions (e.g. OIB/OFB, English speakers/French speakers, good students/bad students) into a shared subject position of a 6th grader in a new school, who loved a tasty dish that connected them to people they loved.

“Madeleine foods” spoke to other project participants too. I have long included Sutton’s work in my AUP classes because my expatriate students are usually experiencing similar emotional difficulties, and are also toting suitcases filled with foods from home. Their ability to identify with the Greek migrants on this topic often spurs their interest and engagement in class. Within the frame of this project, AUP students tended to see the Ravel kids as fundamentally like them, in large part due to their similar experiences of displacement and food as a powerful vector of reconnection. This, I felt, was an important first step towards working collaboratively. Finally, this entire project took place in France, where “Proust’s madeleine” is a common cultural reference. In initial meetings, for example, when I explained to teachers and administrators that the project aimed at helping the children tell their own “madeleine” stories, this was instantly recognized as culturally and intellectually meaningful. It enabled teachers to become active participants from the on-set and develop, even before we had fully designed our own workshops, a series of related lesson plans.

Of course, it is one thing to use shared experience and feeling as a platform for mutual understanding and investment, but it is another to construct a story, or in our case a set of twenty-eight stories, with a common narrative form and force. Here I was guided by Sutton’s assertion that such “madeleine” foods help us “return to the whole”. I began the first anthropology workshop with a three-minute film Beth made for my Food, Culture and Communication class entitled “This place doesn’t exist anymore: Food and memory among Syrian refugees”. The film is focused on Saad, a Syrian refugee, who talks about his life in France through the lens of cooking and food, and speaks in particular about a dish he calls “rice with peas” in English. After watching the film, I wrote “Saad” and “rice with peas” in the center of the whiteboard, and asked students to share what they had learned about him in the film. Student responses were written on the board. After they were done sharing, I circled groups of words, and named each bubble: people, places, activities, objects/ingredients, time, senses, and emotions. I then gave students a worksheet with an empty “mind map” similar to the one I had just drawn on the board. There was a space for their name and their dish in the center and then bubbles around this center circle in a daisy pattern labeled with the descriptive category names. The AUP student-mentors and Ravel teachers moved around the class and helped individual students brainstorm their ideas and fill out the map. In this way, the first anthropology workshop was spent reflecting upon the self (though in relation to a Syrian refugee). In the second anthropology workshop, I turned to interviewing and drew on Spradley’s descriptive interviewing techniques in particular. I identified the same descriptive categories (people, places, etc.) as areas for which they could elaborate open-ended questions for their interview partners. In other words, the second anthropology workshop was focused on reaching out to another and encouraging him or her to tell their story. During the interviewing sessions themselves, which took place in a separate, longer session, OFB-OIB students, working in pairs, interviewed one another while an AUP student-mentor took detailed notes so as to help the students develop ideas for b-roll images to collect in their homes. B-roll provided a unique opportunity to layer sequences of images that evoked these same descriptive categories. In short, the twenty-eight vignettes in the final film are a product of a collaborative storytelling process that used anthropological perspectives to first frame self-reflection and then an encounter with an “other”.

The “mind map” used in class to help students identify and describe a memorable food.

The project was successful in many ways. In February 2018, when we turned on the lights after the community screening, parents, teachers and administrators alike were dabbing at the corners of their eyes. This suggested to us that co-feeling was extended to the audience as well (a topic to be elaborated in the future). “Build bridges not walls”, a phrase that quite unexpectedly became the project’s motto, found its way onto the cakes and into the mouths of participants at the final banquet. At a time when Trump’s border wall was all over the French media, this seemed a small but cathartic response. The sixth graders were rightfully proud of their production, and numerous friendships were formed which, I’ve been told, have endured. The class was also invited to present the project at the Premier Festival des Arts de la Scène et du Goût, organized in partnership with the French Ministry of Education and held at a Michelin-starred restaurant and theater, La Scène Thélème. Here the students were able to present their project to other Parisian students and teachers, as well as to the restaurant staff, who then gave them a guided tour of the kitchens and wine cellar. I also feel that the project played a small role in helping Ravel teachers and administrators imagine additional sorts of OIB-OFB collaborations: for example, this year, for the first time, joint OFB-OIB class trips were organized. Beth also went on to write a successful MA capstone thesis about the project, and AUP student-mentors developed a series of “field-based” questions, which some went on to examine in other contexts.

A cake made for the final banquet

However, to represent the project as singularly successful would be both disingenuous and counterproductive. In the future, I hope to also examine the multiple tensions at play in such collaborations. In a recently published article, Yates-Doerr (2019) writes of “awkward collaborations”, where participants use the same words, but mean different things by them. She develops the notion of “careful equivocation”, joining her voice to others who are examining the nature of collaborative work as not necessarily entailing unity of purpose. In the Food without Borders project, “Proust’s madeleine” functioned as both folk and analytical concept throughout, and certainly did not always mean the same thing to all participants. Likewise, as food scholars well know: foods and commensal practices both unite and differentiate. Such tensions were at play through out the project. For example, in an initial meeting, several children expressed the desire to work on crepes. In the final film, however, only a few speak of them. Who came to “own” the crepe stories was part of a negotiation that involved both individual choice and group pressure. The “crepe dilemma”, as we came to call it, could therefore be examined in the future as a space of tension and a process of negotiation. Finally, scholars have recognized the transformative power of emotion, but also examine the manner in which it can reproduce and normalize unequal power relations. What are the limits of co-feeling within such a project? Such questions have yet to be examined for this project.

 I’d like to end with an invitation to SAFN readers to view the project’s films and integrate them into their classes. These days, I assign them in a class on food, memory and identity, along with the readings that originally inspired them, including: Proust’s madeleine, Nadia Seremetakis’ The Senses Still, and Sutton’s Remembrance of Repasts. The class allows for a nice diversity of materials and, when including the films, the opportunity to discuss participatory filmmaking and collaborative anthropologies too. I also ask students to carry out a descriptive and narrative interview with a person they feel might share the experience of displacement (in time and/or space). Sometimes students also produce short films from these interviews (in the style of the Food without Border project), and sometimes they produce a story and a recipe, which we bring together into a kind of narrated and illustrated recipe book.

Finally, I am also curious as to how your students might view the class film. In September 2018, Beth and I presented the project to an audience outside of France for the first time (at a food and communication conference in Edinburgh). After spending so much time navigating complex identity questions among this group of sixth graders, who often do not feel entirely French – either because of their own travels or because others question their “Frenchness” – it was surprising to hear an Anglophone Canadian colleague exclaim after the screening: “I found the film to be sooo French! I mean look at all that cooking! And all those vegetables!” And so it goes in the world, I suppose, as we make sense of each other and our times, in an endless cycle of overlapping identification processes.

View English and French versions of project’s films here: https://www.aup.edu/academics/research-centers/civic-media-lab/food-without-borders

References:

Grannis, B. 2018. Food without Borders: A Collaborative and Participatory Ethnographic Film Project with a Bilingual Sixth-Grade Class in Paris. Capstone Thesis, M.A. in Global Communications, The American University of Paris.

Korsmeyer, C., ed. 2005. “The Madeline.” (excerpt from In Search of Lost Time, M. Proust) The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

Rosaldo, R. 1989. Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Seremetakis, C.N. 1996. The Senses Still. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Spradley, J. 1979. The Ethnographic Interview. Belmont, CA : Wadsworth Group/Thomson   Learning.

Sutton, D. 2001. Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory. Oxford and London: Berg Publishers.

Yates-Doerr, E. 2019. “Whose Global? Which Health? Unsettling Collaboration and Careful Equivocation.” American Anthropologist 121 (2): 297-310.

 

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, France, methods

Review: GMOs Decoded

GMOs Decoded

Krimsky, Sheldon. (2019) GMOs Decoded. A Skeptic’s View of Genetically Modified Foods. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. 161 pp. + 9 pp. References Cited. Forward by Marion Nestle. ISBN 9780262039192

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

“What risks are acceptable and at what cost?” (p.14). These are the motivating questions of scientist-philosopher Sheldon Krimsky’s latest writings on GMOs, for which his findings can be summarized: much remains “uncertain.” As a corollary, he questions the widely touted “scientific consensus” of the benefits and safety of GMOs, rejected by European publics and policy makers who resist more widespread GMO approval and usage in the absence of greater certainty. This short book considers what additional evidence must be supplied before he and other skeptics would join the consensus.

The book is well organized. In an eight-page introductory overview, Krimsky lays out recurring questions that characterize the debate pitting GMO proponents against opponents, then chapter by chapter clarifies the logic of the frameworks, arguments, and evidence favoring one or the other viewpoint. Chapters 1 and 2 define and explicate, respectively, “traditional” vs. “molecular” plant breeding, and chapter 3 evaluates the “differences … and their significance for evaluating crops”. The next four chapters consider the evidence for qualities and safety of “early products in agricultural biotechnology” (Ch.4) and Herbicide-Resistant, Disease-Resistant, and Insect-Resistant crops (Ch’s 5-7). He explains how initial products included Calgene’s high-solids content, delayed ripening tomato, which was produced by “antisense technology … a small step in the move toward genetically engineered (GE) crops. No new genes were introduced into the tomatoes: the gene for one enzyme was removed and inverted” (p.34). The selected agronomic traits, by contrast, were constructed by engineering gene-transfers into multiple crops. Krimsky’s critical risk assessment comparing and contrasting molecular versus traditional breeding encompasses all GE.

Chapters 8 and 9, “Genetic Mechanisms and GMO Risk Assessment” and “Contested Viewpoints on the Health and Environmental Effects of GMOs” systematically probe the many uncertainties that still surround these manipulations of plant biology, genetics, and transformations, after more than thirty years of scientific evaluations. Krimsky is selective in citing sources for his skeptical analysis; for example, he finds particularly useful three points raised by David Schubert, a geneticist at the Salk Institute: (1) the same gene introduced into two different types of cells can produce two very different protein molecules; (2) the introduction of any gene can change gene expression and phenotype of the recipient cell (and by extension, organism); and (3) enzymatic pathways that synthesize small molecules (e.g., vitamins) can interact with endogenous pathways and produce novel molecules. All serve to question whether “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) or “substantial equivalence” evaluations are adequate to judge identity and safety of GMOs (pp.69-70). Krimsky additionally uses Schubert’s uncontested scientific reasoning to argue that all products produced by molecular breeding, including gene editing that does not involve foreign gene transfers (GMOs), should be safety- regulated by method of breeding rather than final product. This is because molecular breeding entails potentially more unexpected changes in the new GE product; new molecules or enzymatic pathways resulting from genetic introductions or rearrangements may not be so easily recognized by the laboratory or commercial breeder who is not looking for such variants. U.S. and European authorities largely disagree on how to respond to all these uncertainties. U.S. regulators have moved more quickly in the direction of deregulation of additional plant varieties and products that involve processes and outcomes that have previously been judged GRAS or substantially equivalent to conventional products whereas European authorities have decided to withhold safety approval until risks, including GE procedures that do not involve foreign gene transfer, can be exhaustively evaluated. Such contradictory judgments call for additional chemical-component compositional and ecological analyses, animal feeding trials, or both.

There follow three short chapters summarizing: (10) the arguments for and against GMO labelling, (11) the carefully balanced evidence and concluding uncertainties of the largely pro-GMO 2016 National Academies Study on agricultural biotechnology, and (12) “The Promise and Protests of Golden Rice,” the one crop designed to meet micro-nutrient nutritional needs of low-income consumers in developing countries. Chapter 13 shows where “Science Studies” cultural-political arguments against GMOs diverge from the preceding science, and provides a good summary of the social issues in which conflicting views on GMOs are embedded. These public and social-science positions can be summarized that (1) there is no value-free science so “it is neither unreasonable nor irrational for there to exist disagreements because the value judgments are not premised exclusively on scientific authority”; (2) non-scientists appeal to religion, folk wisdom, family values, among other “non-scientific beliefs … “ in their judgments; and (3) “individuals who are inclined to follow scientific advice exclusively on matters of risk and health benefits may accept the knowledge claims or statements highlighting uncertainty by outlier scientists who(se) … views fall outside the mainstream.” (p.xviii). Krimsky throughout embraces the principle that “The history of science teaches us that minority positions sometimes become validated and should not be discarded at the outset, especially when questions remain unresolved.” (Ibid). Carefully and thoroughly, he shows how GMO proponents have done their best to squelch any negative findings reporting risks, either of gene transfers into non-target crops, health damages to experimental animals, or unanticipated gene products and outcomes.

The final chapter summarizes answers to his initial questions. Scientists and the general public and policy makers disagree with each other on the risks and implications of GMOs, he concludes, because they are asking different questions and framing the issues and requirements for supporting information in different ways. Critical public discourses are not based exclusively or mainly on authoritative science, but motivated by cultural and political-economic, including “food sovereignty” considerations and public opinion. It follows that “science-based” evaluations on the safety and advisability of GMOs in general or specific food-crops in particular, can never satisfy all scientists or the public at large.

As someone who began exploring agricultural biotechnologies in the mid-1980s, with the motivating question, “what opportunities might GMOs present for ending world hunger?” I found Krimsky’s presentation both lucid and frustrating. As scientist and philosopher, he carefully defined terms and analyzed ecosystem, organism, cellular, and molecular dimensions of transgenic processes and products in exquisite detail. These specifics showed the relative controllability of each step in the transformation process, and indicated how uncertainties arise in GE products, outcomes, and impacts. New transgenic seed varieties that have been extensively but not exhaustively tested are attractive to farmers because they promise higher yields with lower labor, chemical, and environmental costs, which potentially raise incomes. As anthropologists, among others, have shown, such alleged benefits appear to atrophy over the longer term, because the pests particular transgenics were designed to protect against develop resistance, or the introduction of new GE varieties paired with agricultural chemicals raise new ecological challenges. These foreseeable consequences put the farmers and the product developers on a dangerous treadmill that, in addition to making farmers dependent on additional products of ever more concentrated seed-chemical companies, may increase, rather than decrease, chemical loads, costs, and damages.

The thoroughness of his hypothetical questions and answers, however, offer the reader little guidance to answer the overarching questions. How much information is enough? Complete biochemical compositional analysis might be desirable; but would anything less suffice? Scientists and policy makers obviously disagree about how much uncertainty is tolerable, so what should non-experts think? For example, he insinuates that animal toxicity studies are always flawed. Yet his uncertainty assertions keep harking back to animal studies that indicated GMO toxicity, but which have never been replicated. Similarly, how valid are assertions that new allergens must always be considered a threat in GE products because the scientific community understands and has identified only a narrow range? Polarization on the dangers posed by known vs. unknown allergens continues; Krimsky gives no guidance on how to negotiate this divide.

Some arguments against GMOs, which Krimsky cites as worthy, can also be applied to non-GMO agricultural innovations. Changes in soil microbiome composition, for example, could be expected to accrue not only from GMOs, but from all new varieties and many of the new non-GMO seed dips, whose aim is to transform the microbial mix and benefit plant growth in expectable ways. Most frustrating, I wished that Krimsky had considered more carefully the management and monitoring issues. As a case in point, the virus-resistant papaya in Hawaii not only required development of protective seeding materials by molecular breeders, but also precise and vigilant management. Planting strategies kept ringspot viruses at bay by positioning more and less vulnerable and resilient varieties that successfully created buffers to virus co-evolution.

On balance, I finished the book with a clearer understanding of the debates, renewed skepticism about the scientific consensus, but the above frustrations. Ultimately, I think GE will be limited by the unsustainability of particular products and processes and farmer push-back against Big Ag industry strong-arm tactics and influence on farmer decision-making and management. In addition, health and environmental claims against the companies that produce GE seeds matched to ag-chemicals like glyphosate can be expected to multiply, along with damages connected to excessive, injudicious, wider-spread, and longer-term usage.

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