Dr. Katharina Graf (firstname.lastname@example.org), who recently received her DPhil in the Anthropology of Food from SOAS-University of London, will be joining SAFN as Associate Book Review Editor for the Blog. Katharina’s immediate project is to begin soliciting reviews of recent dissertations in the Anthropology of Food. So if you have written a recent thesis or would like to review one, you can contact her directly.
Author Archives: dsutton20
Bitter and Sweet: Food, Meaning and Modernity in Rural China. Ellen Oxfeld. University of California Press, 2017.
David E. Sutton
Southern Illinois University
The residents of Moonshadow Pond, a village in the Guandong province of southeastern China, care deeply about their food. Food procurement, preparation, sharing and eating is a constant topic of everyday conversation, both for its pleasures and its stresses and strains. Indeed, bitter and sweet are not just important flavors balanced in the local cuisine, they represent embodied metaphors of proper and improper ways of engaging with food. In this book, Ellen Oxfeld, who has conducted research in the predominantly Hakka village of Moonshadow Pond since the early 1990s, sets out to describe the food based worldview of this community in order to understand the interlocking ways that rural villagers enact social relations, experience migration, generational change and the changing aspects of life in contemporary China. Bitter and Sweet consists of an introduction, five substantive chapters and a brief conclusion. In each chapter, Oxfeld lays out a key theme in understanding the foodways of Moonshadow Pond: Labor, Memory, Exchange, Morality and Conviviality. Food, here, as in other recent works such as Jon Holtzman’s Uncertain Tastes or Anita von Poser’s Foodways and Empathy, provides a way in to exploring contemporary social life in a small community. Indeed, it is not just because it is so highly valued in Moonshadow Pond, but also because food seems to demand an understanding of questions of labor and economics, gifts and exchange, consumption and morality, history and memory, that it makes an ideal vehicle for giving new life to classic anthropological concerns with continuity and change at the local level.
“Labor” describes villagers’ changing relationship to the production of food and how that production is conceptualized as younger generations potentially leave agricultural labor behind or migrate to cities for jobs. Traditionally labor is thought of as gengtian, or “tilling the soil.” Moonshadow Pond has seen changes over time from periods of polycropping and animal husbandry to periods (especially in the collective era) of almost exclusive focus on rice (prepared plain or as congee, a porridge dish). The collective era (from the Revolution till around 1980) was also unusual in that agricultural labor was shared between men and women. Typically, women are primarily responsible for agriculture, while men’s labor is more oriented toward wages or other market activity. Since the reform era, the younger generation has increasingly moved away from agriculture, as “peasant” identity can be a stigma. While a primarily female older generation does much of the agricultural labor now, older women often make demands for aid during harvest or at other times on the younger generation, and such agricultural work and family provisioning is seen as providing security against the uncertainties of work in cities. While the distribution of agricultural labor in families can be a source of tension, gengtian is also a powerful symbol of “work for the family.” As Oxfeld notes, “’Eating one’s own rice’ is still highly valued, even if the reality of the younger generation’s work lives is making this goal more and more difficult” (53).
Oxfeld’s discussion of food labor does not end, as it so often does, with tilling the soil. The labor of food production equally demands shaohuo, or “tending the kitchen fires.” The labor of cooking in Moonshadow Pond is less divided by gender and generation. Although older women take the primary role, men and the younger generation are also comfortable in the kitchen, both in terms of everyday cooking and the extra labor involved in preparing celebratory banquets or special holiday treats (nianban). This is strikingly illustrated in Oxfeld’s description of being the only adult on a trip to a local mountaintop with a group of 20 6th graders:
After arriving [at the mountaintop], the students unpacked their knapsacks. They had pots and pans, cooking oil, cooking implements, and basic ingredients—cut up pieces of meat and vegetables, a bit of soy sauce, and fish sauce. At the top of the mountain these sixth graders, boys and girls tougher, started a fire and with a rice pot and wok proceeded to work together to cook lunch for the entire group. Imagining a similar situation in the United States, I was quite certain that the children would have taken sandwiches and bags of potato chips out of their backpacks instead (61).
This last comparison is telling because it underlines Oxfeld’s larger argument in this book that despite some inroads, food has not been commodified and subject to the forgetting of its sources that we see elsewhere, or even in more urban environments in China. As she sums up: “…the labor of food production within the village is still mainly incorporated into ongoing relationships based on social obligations, memories, and notions of moral debt” (71). It is to these topics that the subsequent chapters are addressed.
In her chapter on memory, Oxfeld explores the way food is made to stand for different periods of time. For example, in the “recall bitterness meal” during the Cultural Revolution, people were enjoined by the government to eat a paste made of bitter vegetables and rice chaff to remember their suffering during the pre-liberation era, and the sweetness of their current lives. Such memory practices could turn anti-hegemonic, as older villagers told Oxfeld that the meal brought to mind the recent experience of the Great Leap Forward rather than pre-revolutionary times (79-80). One of the intriguing things about Oxfeld’s approach to food memory is that she organizes it around different key foods and what they stand for. Thus, congee vs. rice can stand for the difference between times of poverty and relative plenty (when you didn’t need to stretch out rice by adding water), but also can be associated with the food of your childhood. Whereas eggs, which lend themselves to distribution within families, evoke memories of family diplomacy and conflict, as well as being associated for some with bribery in simpler times—times in which a party cadre might pay off his mistress with a simple egg! (89). Food memories also lend themselves to comparisons between tradition and modern times in terms of sociability—even periods of dearth and famine might be recalled nostalgically for their sense of solidarity, as opposed to the more plentiful, but atomized experiences of the present day.
The theme of sociability is explored in subsequent chapters as well. In analyzing food as “exchange,” Oxfeld explores both market and gift exchange. Within market exchange local markets remain preferable to larger, anonymous markets, precisely because they retain a certain transparency about the origins of their products that is lost in more advanced commodification. Local foods taste better and are healthier, as residents of Moonshadow Pond seem to resist the allure of the foreign and the “modern.” “’ You just shop in the market if you have no alternative,’” one woman underlines (102). While food is the subject of much informal, everyday exchange, Oxfeld pays more attention to the formal exchange that happens at banquets, describing in detail some of the key types of banquets held in the village, as well as typical recipients of banquet hospitality, which include not only family and neighbors, but other village presences, including gods, ghosts, ancestors and beggars. Indeed, an extended description shows how the role of beggars in contemporary feasts parallels that of ghosts in some traditional religious feasts: as a force that must be placated or dispatched in some way to insure ongoing health and harmony. Overall, Oxfeld takes a “circulatory perspective” (126) on exchange, echoing the classic insights as to the changing biographies of things as they pass through different social roles and undergo various value transformations.
Oxfeld’s chapter on “morality” gives considerable attention to proper “moral” exchange relationships within families, and how they have been impacted both by changing politics and economics. If sharing food and caring for children and elders defines family morality, these values have been tested during different time periods both by the dearth of famine and by the greater self-sufficiency of the contemporary period. During the Great Leap Forward, for example, attempts to collectivize cooking led to the destruction of family kitchens—key symbols of family unity, while at the same time the state attempted to encourage collectivization by using metaphors of “large families” to which people should transfer loyalties. In the reform era care for elders is still an ideal, but not unquestioned, as younger people juggle multiple considerations in their relationships with parents and parents-in-law. Oxfeld traces the nuanced moral discourses people use to negotiate particular circumstances in which exchange is used to create as much as to reinforce moral expectations, and “elderly women are trying to engender a new sense of obligation that was not assumed in the past” by cooking for married daughters.a Oxfeld also looks at the ways that food discourses are used as moral discourses, in which “eating” is always a morally-charged expression with the potential to suggest taking more than one’s share or “gobbl[ing] up” public resources (146). I found this similar overlaying of social practices of food sharing and metaphorical uses of eating in Greek people’s conceptualization of their current economic crisis in which the ubiquitous concept of solidarity is often instantiated in food sharing, and in which the question of who “ate” during the good times and who did not make tangible and visceral discussions of blame and responsibility for current predicaments (Sutton 2016).
The final chapter, on “conviviality,” brings these themes together again through examining the pleasures of eating together and the sense of sociability that so often accompanies shared food. Here Oxfeld introduces two key concepts: rarity (nande) and “red hot sociality” (renao). Rarity is the appreciation and celebration of circumstance that allows for the bringing together of people for a far-flung family reunion, or even simply everyday opportunity for socializing that is extended through food (“You came just in time for my eggplant fritters!” (162)). Renao is a concept that combines emotions, social relations and sensory stimulation, a kind of Chinese version of collective effervescence, which allows for a celebration of social connection. Renao can be extended through food, but also through substances such as alcohol and tea—when deployed and managed properly. Banquets and family celebrations are typical settings for the production of renao, which can encompass both hierarchical banquets and more intimate and egalitarian gatherings. Similarly, gatherings need not be sumptuous nor expensive to achieve renao, simply socially convivial, which “’is constitutive of living in a socially meaningful way’” (161). Oxfeld’s stress on memorable meals as at the heart of proper conviviality and sociality put me in mind of my own research in Greece. During the past six years of the Greek economic crisis, the question of living with “dignity” has centered around issues of reproducing a life where meaningful social relations involving food sociability are under threat. Spending time in a coffee shop with friends, or finding alternate ways of enjoying scaled-back food celebrations which still can produce the Greek version of “red hot sociality,” have been ongoing themes in contemporary life under crisis conditions.
Bitter and Sweet is a rich and detailed ethnography that makes a convincing case for following food through its transformations as it is created, exchanged and consumed to reveal myriad themes of contemporary social life, what I would call a “gustemological” approach to culture. Though Oxfeld doesn’t discuss this explicitly, I think that her book is an excellent reminder of the ongoing importance of a holistic approach based in deep knowledge of a particular place that incorporates both historical and ethnographic perspectives. This book would make for an excellent choice in courses on food and culture, as well as for any scholars interested in a window onto contemporary China and its recent historical transformations as seen through the lens of food discourses and practices.
Gauri Anilkumar Pitale
Southern Illinois University
This original ethnographic work studies the meanings and practices surrounding metabolic functions in the everyday life and diet of contemporary urban Indians. Set in the city of Mumbai, the author challenges the reader to question the notion of “globesity”. Such terms loom important in the epidemiological considerations about the sudden increase in obesity and type 2 diabetes in India in the past few decades. Solomon provides the readers with detailed ethnographic vignettes that render his interlocutors as real people with problems and issues connected to city living, the same problems that affect their bodies in turn. Using the concept of ‘absorption of illness’ as the central theme of the book, the author states, “I consider how people make connections between food and urban life to explain that absorption is taking hold as the ground for experiencing and making sense of chronic illness” (Pg. 5).
The book begins with a discussion of the ‘thin-fat’ Indian phenotype, used by scientists to comprehend the current rates of obesity and diabetes in India. Trying to attack the concept of metabolic syndrome from many perspectives, the author generates an ethnography that takes into consideration the problem of obesity and diabetes from several different directions. He carefully begins this book by discussing the Indian thin-fat phenotype. This phenotype, typical of Indians, results in the Indian people having a high amount of central adiposity (abdominal fat). A phenotype resulting from the environment of the womb (connected to the thrifty phenotype theory), this theory suggests that Indians are more susceptible to metabolic disorders. Diabetes and obesity are therefore developmental in origin. Giving us an account of his visit to Dr. Yajnik’s clinic (Dr. Yajnik is one of the two authors who proposed the theory of the thin-fat Indian phenotype), he reports Yajnik’s opinion that there is a need to address the underlying susceptibility of Indian bodies to being afflicted by metabolic disorders, rather than focusing purely on the treatment and prevention of the diseases themselves. Talking to householders and the other people that he encountered throughout his fieldwork, Solomon plots the changing perspectives in relation to food and the body. He considers the conception of both the food and the body from the viewpoint of doctors, epidemiologists, scientists, nutritionists, housewives, street food servers, and manufacturers of processed food products.
Tracing the historical perception of the problem of diabetes in India, Solomon brings forth the idea of “tenshun”. “Tenshun”, that mental stress which his interlocutors claim, afflicts the mind and predisposes people to obesity and diabetes, is at the heart of the epidemic that plagues contemporary Indians. Hinting at the ever-shifting discussions about bodies, he brings to light the many terms that people use to refer to overweight and obese bodies. This is important because people in India are showing signs of obesity. The words used range from mota (Hindi for fat) to the usage of the English word “healthy” to allude to overweight or chubby bodies. Diseases too are referred to with specific names. Diabetes could be referred to simply as sugar and cardiovascular disease as blockage. Solomon’s aim in discussing these terms is to imply that metabolic disorders have become common enough to form a part of the daily conversations of Mumbaikars. The threat of being afflicted with diabetes or obesity is real and looms large in their minds. This brings us back to the idea of “tenshun”. Through the course of this book, Solomon brings to light his interlocutors’ claims that merely living in Mumbai makes one’s body absorb the stresses of living, in turn creating diseased bodies that suffer from metabolic problems. Every discussion about obesity and diabetes gave way to deliberations pertaining to stress. His participants assert that the stresses of city living affected their diets, the development of their illness, and their body’s responses to such health conditions.
Solomon weaves the chapters of his book together using interludes. These interludes, tangentially connected to the general theme of illness absorption that is so central to this book, are heavily fleshed out ethnographic vignettes about the city of Mumbai. These detailed descriptions talk about the mango madness that endangers the carefully prescribed diets given by exasperated nutritionists. They tell us of the struggles of Manuli (Manuli is that suburb of Mumbai where Solomon carried out household research) locals in attempting to have the governmental authorities take note of their troubles over accessing their share of food owed to them through the state’s ration card. These vignettes transpose the reader to the site of the study. They render Mumbai as a city of multiple communities and provides the reader with a multi-faceted understanding of Solomon’s field site.
The strength of this ethnographic work lies in its multi-pronged approach. Not only does he interact with housewives, so well known as the domestic gatekeepers of Indian households, he also studies and interviews food corporation researchers and marketing heads, whose aim is to float “functional foods” that these very housewives will allow into their homes. By considering the struggle between the concerns about adulteration (milawat) which his respondents focus on intensely, the author discusses the newest fad of “functional foods” which are becoming popular in Indian households. Functional foods are foods created by food companies to render everyday staples healthier. Functional foods promise “extra benefits” because they are enriched with vitamins and minerals. They espouse to function categorically by aiding in the prevention of metabolic disorders. Fast gaining popularity in India, functional foods claim to assure buyers that they will alleviate their health problems. In such a manner, everyday staples such as wheat, rice, flour, and milk become functional foods. In the face of fears about adulteration and metabolic problems, the author demonstrates why and how functional foods are gaining traction in India.
Solomon pushes the envelope on the famous concept of ‘gastropolitics’ put forth by Appadurai and studied by many food scholars since. Using the example of the famous Mumbai vada-paav, he connects street food to the very identity of urban spaces. Focusing on the vada-paav, referred to as the “lifeline of Mumbai” by some of his interlocutors, he pushes forward the concept of gastropolitics to demonstrate to the reader that street food can be reflective of politics, power, and class dynamics within a city. Attempting to trace the origin of the vada-paav, its usage, and its attempted standardization by both political parties and food corporations, the author states, “By moving beyond the confines of street food as a bounded entity, it is possible to map the reaches of gastropolitics into livelihoods, community injuries, dreams of urban renewal, and transnational enterprise” (Pg. 75).
In the latter half of the book, Solomon focuses on the clinical therapies and gastric bypass surgeries taking place in Indian hospitals as the site to study the discussions pertaining to metabolism. While early on in the book he deliberates on the ever-blurry food-drug boundary, in the latter half of the book he acknowledges the necessity of looking at diets as therapy. Shadowing clinical dietary therapists and nutritionists, he demonstrates the daily struggles of both the clinicians and the afflicted when it comes to nutritional therapy. In a clinician’s office where metabolism is being treated as a site of problem, multiple medical epistemologies collide. As Harris states, “These counseling visits illustrate the power of diets to coordinate the uncertainties of the metabolism” (Pg. 160). In these clinics, the onus is not only on the patient’s metabolism but also on their compliance. Dieticians insisted that patients’ compliance or non-compliance was what affected the result of dietary therapy. The dietician’s office was also a place where functional foods were prescribed to ailing patients. Such clinical therapies involved first measuring the patients’ bodies, both outwardly and internally. Weighing and measuring bodies went hand in hand with blood sugar, cholesterol, and hormonal level test. Through his ethnographic vignettes, Solomon manifests that the Ayurvedic concept of food as medicine is significantly overlapping with biomedical treatments for metabolic disorders. The result is a medical landscape that is vastly varied but one where food takes the center stage when it comes to health and disease.
Solomon concludes the book by considering the idea that “as metabolic illness increasingly occupies global health interest and investment, what is needed is a perspective on metabolisms and their disorders different from one grounded in concerns about overconsumption” (Pg. 228). By tracing the historical food flows, the current shifting foodscape of Mumbai, the food standardization attempted by corporations, the author demonstrates to the readers that metabolic diseases are firmly entangled in social, political, gendered, and historical processes. Harris claims that through his work he approaches the concept of metabolism ethnographically. He states, “My principal concern in this book has been to develop an ethos of absorption at the interfaces between food and living” (Pg. 227).
A wonderfully evocative ethnography, Solomon’s book makes one reflect on the very nature of metabolic syndrome. How does one address the solutions to a health problem that is so closely connected to food? The very food and eating which are sacred, political, social, and emotional. Metabolic syndrome renders food as a focal point. Food can be addictive, rendering one’s body diseased, or it can be therapeutic, cleansing one’s body from the inside. Through this book, Solomon relays and reflects on this problematic relation, challenging medical experts to consider a multi-layered approach to solving the issues of obesity and diabetes that plague contemporary India.
Real Pigs: Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork Brad Weiss. Duke University Press, 2016.
Neri de Kramer
University of Delaware
This book is an ethnography of the various actors behind the local market for pasture-raised pork in North Carolina’s Piedmont region. It is based on fieldwork on farms, farmer’s markets, in butcher shops and restaurants. This impressive number of fields allows the author to describe the whole system of local pig production from the historic ancestry of the pigs in question to the eventual headcheese spread on crackers at the end. It offers a detailed account of the values, practices and networks that go into the creation of slow, local, food systems readers like us tend to appreciate.
The central objective of the book is to show how social actions and networks produce “real” pigs. To this end, the author explores all dimensions of the local pork production process (including the cultivation of the cross-breed, husbandry practices, butchery, marketing and cooking) and shows how they are connected in a network of producers and consumers and embodied by the pigs themselves in both a material and symbolic sense. This embodiment of practices and social relations is what makes these pigs real: more real than pigs raised in industrial confinement systems which are characterized by a fragmentation of history, place, animals, workers and consumers.
The author’s ambitious theoretical approach is to combine political economic questions of production and consumption relations with phenomenological interpretations of the symbolic and embodied qualities of pastured pigs. While he does consistently show how the two are inextricably intertwined, relying heavily on Bourdieu’s theory of practice which roots the meaning of distinctive, class-affirming consumptive practices and preferences in social class position stemming from production relations, the book reads more as a phenomenological ethnography. It is important to realize this before reading this book, as it is written in dense discourse that may stump an unassuming reader. The emphasis on phenomenological interpretations might negatively affect the book’s accessibility to students and lay readers interested in the workings of local food systems.
While the author is clearly personally invested in and enthusiastic about pastured pork in his home state, he thankfully does not romanticize or naturalize the system, the people, or the pigs in a Pollanesque way. At the same time, much as he wants to, the author is also not able to use his deep understanding of this local system to formulate a vision for a viable, revolutionary alternative to industrial hog farming confinement operations. He does show that the niche market for pastured pork emerged out of the conditions created by this system, which he describes in an historic overview in chapter 1, but this representation solidifies the distinction between the two systems rather than offering a hopeful view of the kinds of transformation that this niche market and their inspired actors might bring about in the broader system. Part of the problem is that what really motivated food activists to try to create an alternative to this system was not the working conditions and lives of the human growers and processers exploited by this system, but the environmental consequences and sustainability concerns of this way of producing food. Weiss recognizes and honestly exposes this (unintended) racism and classism of the alternative food movement but ultimately offers no critique and no prospective solutions.
Chapter two is about the construction of the local and describes how the networks of actors and their practices helped re-establish a connection between taste and place that was severed by the industrialization of pig farming and its reliance on enclosed confinement systems that got pigs “off the ground”. He shows in this chapter how raising pigs “on the ground” changes the meaning (and I would have added price) of the final product into local pork. In so doing, he denaturalizes the notion of terroir and shows how this is not some innate quality of a physical place, but actively constituted by the people at work in the local food system. He also describes how particular husbandry techniques help develop a distinctive taste in the pork, so that the pork from this system comes to taste of the way it was raised (“funky”, “like barnyard”): This is a lucid example of the way in which these heritage pigs embody social practices. The process of teaching consumers to discern this flavor, through branding, is also part of this and critically important, for if people could not taste the difference between industrial pork and local pork (and actually, not everybody in the book can) there would be less reason to buy it.
Chapter 3 takes a similar denaturalizing approach to the notion of heritage. Weiss explains that it is not the actual genetic lineage of the Ossabaw Island Hog that establish its meat as local heritage pork, but the various practices, activities and discourse that give it this meaning. The meaning of this pork still stems from biology however, because certain husbandry techniques actually alter the genetic makeup of these pigs, which is another excellent example of the biocultural nature of the embodiment of practices and meaning in local pigs.
Chapter 4 offers an ethnographic account of artisanal butchery programs that allow consumers to butcher parts of their own pig and thus gets a hands-on connection to the animal and the craft. These classes facilitate a bodily experience, not only of what it means to be an artisanal butcher, but also of the physical animal itself that is obviously missing from the experience of buying a piece of pork in a supermarket.
Probably the most successful chapter in terms of combining political economy and phenomenology is chapter 5, which considers pork fat and how the experience of its taste motivates and gives shape to alternative modes of pig production and consumption. Though this sounds like a classic Mintzian story, Weiss delves deeper into how best to understand the sensory experience and perception of taste anthropologically, before showing how the taste of fatty pork inspired the production process that brings it into being and became an important foundation for the local market in pastured pork. He explains that taste is more than a personal and ephemeral experience, but also inherently social in nature, requiring memories, experiences, social networks and cultural capital to be recognized, appreciated, and communicated. Because of this social nature, taste can inspire social action and thus have political economic effects. He also describes how the taste of fatty pork came to stand in contrast to the industrial pork production system itself. We are reminded of the fact that many Americans do not seem to think of pork as a strongly flavorful meat, because of the way industrial pork production methods have changed pigs to yield lean bacon and long, lean tenderloins. This means that in this central North Carolina community, supermarket pork’s lack of fat has been turned into a visceral, sensory example of the inferiority of industrial production methods. By contrast, the abundant fat in pastured pigs is understood as a materialization of the superior local production process. The shared experience and appreciation of the taste of fatty pork creates and maintains these essential production and consumption networks that are vital to the success of the market, demonstrating neatly how phenomenological, as well as political economic qualities are expressed in pigs simultaneously.
Chapter 6 describes how authenticity is derived from the way this local pork system re-establishes connections between producers and consumers with farm to fork production and between the various animal parts with snout to tail cookery. He describes how the culinary approach based on reconfiguring pork as a whole pig came about and how people and pigs are joined in production practices that incorporate the whole animal. The author also tries to describe the political economic implications of farm to fork and snout to tail activities and how these relationships are expressed in concrete qualities of local pastured pork that are appreciated by discerning consumers who thus become part of the authentic system.
Each chapter ends with one or two profiles of people who participated in the project. They are essentially transcriptions of the interviews Weiss conducted with these people, which give the reader a sense of the author’s interpretation process. They offer an honest behind-the-scenes look into the ethnographic kitchen that typically remains hidden from view, adding transparency and giving the reader an opportunity to form her own opinions. The profiles repeat some of the information the author provides in the body of the chapter, but rather than feeling redundant they are helpful as there are a lot of details, facts, and developments to keep track of in this multi-sited ethnography.
Just as the history of industrial hog farming in North Carolina is illuminative of the wider changes in the American food production system, the story of local pig production in the Piedmont could be iconic of other contemporary efforts to reinvent food systems into slow, local versions. The problem is, as Weiss points out repeatedly, that this form of food provisioning is no solution to the vastness of the problems created and perpetuated by the industrial food system brought about by modern global capitalism itself. I do think that understanding local food as product of human actions and networks rather than as innate qualities of organisms or physical places offers hope, for this means local food systems could be introduced and constructed anywhere and by any group of people. I also think the methodical analytical deconstruction of human production and consumption relations, as Weiss has done here for this local food system, might be a promising avenue for exposing and challenging the nature of labor and consumption in industrial capitalist production systems today. Can what we have learned about the people in this wonderful local system help those trapped in the old industrial one?
Editor’s Note: This is the second of two reviews of this book, with a rather different perspective. For the first review by Ellen Messer, link here
What’s So Controversial about Genetically-Modified Foods? John Lang. Reaktion Publishers. 2016
Robyn Flipse (Nutrition Communication Services)
If you want to write a book about a controversy, putting the words “genetically modified food“ in the title should help sell it. Genetic modification of food involves altering the genes of a seed to improve the traits in the plant. It is a difficult technology for most people to understand, and even harder for them to accept when used on what they eat. A recent Pew Research survey on the risks and benefits of organic and genetically modified (GM) foods found 75% of those who are deeply concerned about GM foods say they are worse for one’s health than other foods, and 79% do not trust information about GM foods from food industry leaders. Is reading What’s So Controversial About Genetically Modified Food? going to allay their fears? Maybe not, but the book does fill a gap in the literature by providing entry to a discussion of how GM foods are just one part of a complex and consolidated food system that has made the global food supply more nutritious, affordable and plentiful than at any other time in history.
Author John T. Lang states his goal in this work was to move towards a more productive model of agriculture based on better policy and investment choices. He effectively uses the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO) as a proxy for the failures of the current food system. The handful of companies that make GM seeds and agrochemicals serve as a more tangible target than the elusive international policies and trade agreements that have restricted land ownership and blocked investment in infrastructure, warehouses, distribution facilities, centralized markets, and other farm supports needed for local food production to succeed in many parts of the world. Instead, readers are given an unfolding narrative of how the interconnectedness of the global food system created the need for the consolidation of agribusiness companies so they could operate more efficiently, standardize their products and meet the food safety requirements of their trade partners. These multinational companies were then able to use their vast resources to invest in the research to develop the GM crops that are now being blamed for a breakdown in the religious, social, cultural and ethical meanings of food.
Astute readers will find it difficult to accept this tradeoff. The more important message about this technology they will gain is that it is simply another tool for farmers, like the plough or tractor, both of which were controversial when first introduced. Readers will come to appreciate that farming is a business, whether done by conventional or organic methods, and it faces the same problems of scale as any other business that tries to expand. And like any other tool, GMOs can be replaced by ones that do a better job at solving a problem, so working with the companies that develop new technologies is the best way to have an impact on the design of the new tools. A poignant example of this is concept is found in this critique of sustainable agriculture by Tamar Haspel for The Washington Post.
Lang’s focus on GMOs as a surrogate for a broken food system also provides an expedient way to illustrate how central trust is to our relationship with food today. As Lang explains, fewer and fewer companies control every aspect of our food from “gene to supermarket shelf,” and the path our food travels is a “maddening, impenetrable maze.” He says the food system has become so complex and entwined that it’s “almost impossible to ascertain the true origins of any given foodstuff.” Is it any wonder the public finds it difficult to trust all of the players in the food chain, especially when they view companies, regulators, and policy makers as having their own vested interests? This “trust factor” is further compounded by the indeterminate nature of scientific knowledge and the uncertainly and unintended consequences that go with it. Can we really say GM foods are safe? Can we say any food is safe? It has become easier for people to trust complete strangers to be their Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts than to trust government institutions and big corporations to protect the food supply.
The book provides a broad view of the issues that must be considered when discussing GM foods and the global food system and an opportunity to expand research into several key concepts introduced, such as risk-tolerance, the precautionary principle, and how the “technology treadmill” impacts industries trying to grow and compete. Intellectual property rights and patent laws are also briefly covered, but could be explored further as they apply equally to GM, non-GM and organic seeds and to all of the research conducted at public and private universities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and international agencies, not just private industry.
The discussion on labeling of GM foods in Chapter 3 opens up multiple channels for continuing research and debate. Questions to consider in a classroom setting include, Is GMO labeling about inalienable rights of consumers or personal preferences? Are GM foods different in any measurable way? Can we verify the use of GM seeds in the foods we eat? At what thresholds can GMOs be detected? Who will monitor adherence to labeling requirements and at what cost? Should we have international standards for labeling? Do laws requiring the labeling of GM foods mean we agree we should sell GM food?
Chapter 4 moves beyond the symbolic battle over GM food to expose the complicated way people actually make decisions about what they eat. Compelling classroom discussions could be generated by asking students why people say they are concerned about putting GMOs into their bodies, yet there is a global epidemic of obesity and its co-morbidities due to the poor food choices people make every day. Why do people say they do not believe the scientific evidence demonstrating the safety of GM foods that has been reviewed by international food safety authorities, yet accept the conclusions of those same authorities about the nutrient content of foods, absence of bacterial contamination and truth in labeling of ingredients? Why don’t people want to change their own eating habits to reduce food waste, eat less animal protein and consume fewer processed foods, but want the way food is grown and marketed to change?
Lang says these contradictions will not be resolved by providing people with more information on how GM foods are made since they view GMOs as tampering with nature, but that misperception needs to be addressed. A discussion of the 2015 PEW Institute study that exposed the problematic disconnects between the public and the scientific community regarding the safety of GM foods would have been instructive here. Resistance to new technology is a well-documented human response, as chronicled in Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies (Oxford University Press, 2016), so Lang’s suggestion of “stronger safeguards and regulations” is not necessarily the answer.
My interest in the book stems from my work as a registered dietitian nutritionist and consultant to Monsanto, as well as my work as a cultural anthropologist focused on hunger and food waste. Its classroom effectiveness depends on how it is introduced and what additional readings are assigned, but it should be an effective tool to prompt discussion in undergraduate courses in agribusiness, anthropology, biotechnology, dietetics, ecology, environmental science, food science, horticulture, investigative journalism, nutrition, public health, and sociology. This book is also recommended for any casual reader with questions about the role of science and technology in producing our food.
Funk, Cary, and Brian Kennedy. 2016. “The New Food Fights: U.S. Public Divides Over Food Science.” Pew Research Center website, December 1. Accessed January 3, 2017. http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/01/the-new-food-fights/
Haspel, Tamar. 2016. “We need to feed a growing planet. Vegetables aren’t the answer.” The Washington Post website, December 15. Accessed January 3, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/we-need-to-feed-a-growing-planet-vegetables-arent-the-answer/2016/12/15/f0ffeb3e-c177-11e6-8422-eac61c0ef74d_story.html?utm_term=.1a4263e3eb3f
Funk, Cary, and Lee Rainie. 2015. “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society.” Pew Research Center website, January 29. Accessed January 3, 2017.
Juma, Calestous. 2016. Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Ellen Messer (Tufts University)
French historical studies centered on food can teach anthropologists a lot about gender, food habits, and class-based notions of a “proper meal”. This special issue of French Historical Studies offers some delicious readings of particular interest for food and gender courses or lectures. For appetizers, the introduction by the editors contains a good working bibliography on food-history and food-studies source materials in this amplifying field. For a main course, food anthropologists can choose from a menu of five historical articles (four in English, one in French; with excellent abstracts in both languages). The first is a cultural history of coffee. The second (in French), on seventeenth through early nineteenth century notions of gourmet food product “terroir” and associated political-geographic connections with gourmet markets and tastes is very well crafted, and provides a good historical reference point from which to compare later conceptual and historical writings on this topic. The third, on Parisian workers’ lunch away from home during the 19th and early 20th century, and the fourth, on female garment workers’ “Midinette” (lunch) behavior, describe in great detail the eating establishments that served workers, with their menus and prices. Together, they communicate from nutritional and sociocultural perspectives the plight of the undernourished working girls, who were often hungry for small luxuries (a fashionable accessory) that competed directly with food. Particularly the literary evidence suggests that these slender and allegedly “coquettish” maidens, who were probably very hungry, sometimes put moral reputations on the line in order to grab a bit more mid-day sustenance offered by enticing male companions. These articles provide excellent discussions and supporting evidence regarding what constituted “proper meals” and what substitutions were made (or which foods were eliminated) under conditions of financial duress.
Continuing this theme of expected multi-course meal structures and comparative duress, the final article documents the menus, food-sourcing regulations and circumventions, clientele, and politics of Black Market Restaurants during World War II. It documents how the politically connected and influential French elites, as well as German officers, dined extremely well, despite food shortages, official rationing, and horrendous hunger among the French masses. It adds to a growing literature on food and war.
Returning to the initial case study as a beverage course, anthropologists can use this history of coffee and its associated class and cultural entailments in France as illustrative of a holistic approach, which uses a wide range of primary political, economic, medical and nutritional, periodical, and literary sources. Anthropologists might be frustrated, however, that the evidence-filled article does not get around to discussing coffee’s (medical) humoral value(s) until near the end.
As a set these papers effectively demonstrate the ways studies of food are contributing to new historical and anthropological understandings. In the words of the editors’ introduction: “People’s hunger for any kind of food under conditions of deprivation or for more appetizing dishes when times are better provides a new angle from which to view questions of nationalism, global networks, gender, race, ethnicity and class.” A 16 page compilation of recent writings on French food history completes the volume.
Sorting the Beef from the Bull. The Science of Food Fraud Forensics. Richard Evershed and Nicola Temple. Bloomsbury, 2016.
Ellen Messer (Tufts University)
Evershed, Richard and Nicola Temple (2016) Sorting the Beef from the Bull. The Science of Food Fraud Forensics. New York: Bloomsbury Sigma.
This book systematically covers the categories of food fraud that pervade global food systems and trade. It carefully explains the biology, chemistry, and physics of food, as well as the tools that have been constructed to test authenticity of species, political-geographic origin places, and toxic dangers of additives. These later include dyes and preservatives, and substances and substitutions added to extend the quantities of shelf lives of particular products. The first three chapters introduce “Food Fraud 101” and the major categories of falsification, with special emphasis on eggs and poultry. The next six chapters cover specific adulterations and efforts to detect them in the major food categories: fish, red meat, dairy, spices and condiments, beverages, fruits and vegetables. There is plenty of fraud to go around with values-based items (organic, ethically sourced) which may not originate where their values claim they do. The final chapter, “thoughts for digestion” reviews main points and technologies available or in the pipe-line for individual consumer, food-processor, retailer, or other institutional detection of misrepresentations. This chapter also summarizes guidelines for real food sourcing that are quite similar to Michael Pollan’s principles: select whole rather than processed foods, sourced locally or from trusted sources, thereby shortening the food chain with its possibilities of fraud. Be skeptical of deals that are too good to be true; they usually involve deceptions. Be willing to take the time and pay a fair price to get the story and connect with the people behind the foods you eat.
These chapters are packed with food biochemistry and clear explanations of the sleuth work that goes into detecting fraud and its harms. There is particular attention to adulterations that produce life-threatening or -ending allergens, such as peanut or dairy that purposely or inadvertently have been added to products that should not contain them. The major motivation is greed, although some shelf-life expanding technologies claim they are fighting world hunger and local food insecurity, and reducing waste. Cases of Chinese, then Indian and Bangladeshi adulterators are most frequently cited, but there are plenty of U.S. and European culprits or co-conspirators eager to profit from food falsification, even where this process introduces human health risks. There are also some simple guidelines to detecting common frauds in common foods. Individuals can use their senses (smell, taste, touch, visual observation of cooking properties) to detect products that are not what they claim. E.g., does the spice mixture in the package or the coffee or tea smell and behave the way it is supposed to? Does the fish fillet unexpectedly fall apart (in which case it is probably a cheaper species, not pricey cod)? Does the unbelievably cheap egg have a membrane inside the shell? If not it is a counterfeit, which in quantity yields huge criminal profits for the manufacturers who operate in many countries.
Surprisingly, the EU up to the time of publication had no official definition of food fraud, in contrast to the US, which defines “the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain” (cited on p.262). Throughout the substantive, food-category based chapters, the authors cite legal cases but bemoan the lack of inspection and regulators, even where the legal framework is in place. They should also bemoan the lack of time dedicated to food shopping and eating, the “convenience” factor that expands food chains and distances consumers from the sources of their food. Such distancing layers risks of fraud and harms at every level, and also reduces the consumer’s pleasure, knowledge, and connections to food and to other human beings all along the food chain. Thin and incomplete government or food-industry oversight of food quality and truth, combined with consumers’ appreciation of convenience foods, are challenges unlikely to be resolved by greater knowledge in food forensics. The outstanding technical perspectives also raise additional conflicts in values. Given the emphasis on reducing food waste, should we, the consumers, prefer the apple that rots? Or the apple that, with the application of food technology, stays or appears to stay fresh an unnaturally long period of time? In a world of industrialized foods, can individuals be trained to prefer a natural strawberry to the industrialized fake flavor?
You can use the examples in discussions of traceability, hazard analysis, biochemical and flavor diversity in foods, and other food-system topics. The book also contains a good refresher course on basic food biochemistry, with helpful chapter by chapter summaries of the major chemical bonds and reactions in an appendix.