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Review: Food Justice and Narrative Ethics

Media of Food Justice and Narrative Ethics

Food Justice and Narrative Ethics: Reading Stories for Ethical Awareness and Activism. Beth A. Dixon. Bloomsbury Academic. 2018 ISBN #9781350054561. 192 pp.
Megan B. Hinrichsen (Monmouth College)

In Food Justice and Narrative Ethics: Reading Stories for Ethical Awareness and Activism, Beth A. Dixon explores the paradoxes of our contemporary food system through the stories told about hunger and scarcity contradictorily coexisting with stories told about rising rates of morbid obesity. Her book covers the narratives constructing the collective understandings of contemporary food system and societal injustices that interest those studying the anthropology of food: food insecurity, the “voluntary” migration and naturalized oppression of farmworkers, and obesity. Each of these topics not only has a clear connection to food and the food system but is tied together through master narratives related to personal responsibility. Food justice narratives can undermine the power of these master narratives by positioning “us to make more accurate and nuanced appraisals of moral responsibility” about individuals who struggle with problems related to food injustices (113). Throughout the book, Dixon demonstrates how philosophical and ethical reasoning are activities that are deeply connected to everyday lives. Readers learn how we – philosophers and “ethical novices,” anthropologists or those in other fields, students and professors, experts and non-experts alike – can use the tools of ethical awareness to shape our knowledge of food justice and inform our activism.

Dixon’s goals for this work are clearly lined out. She presents case studies of food insecurity, farmworkers and farm labor, and obesity as representations of a narrative methodology informed by the concept of ethical perception. Ethical perception is an idea borrowed from Aristotle (and others) that conveys that ethical expertise has to be obtained in a developmental process, incrementally. Therefore, Dixon proposes that realistic narratives about our food system can guide readers to ethical conclusions that orient them towards activism. A compelling and precise food justice narrative “profiles individual people, social groups, or communities that suffer injustice and aims to make visible why we should classify their circumstances as unjust” (2). These are stories that are increasingly familiar. These stories tell us about who is hungry and why they go hungry. These are stories about our roles as consumers in an increasingly complex and hidden food system. There are stories about who is planting, picking, processing, and selling our food. There are also stories about the consumption of food and when it becomes problematic and marked as unhealthy. Dixon argues that the analysis of food justice narratives should position us to identify structural conditions that lead to some of these injustices. Dixon views these food justice narratives as “counterstories that correct the way in which master narrative implicitly disguise the identities and background circumstances of those who seek to nourish themselves” (9). Master narratives about the food system in the United States, according to Dixon, place an excessive burden on the individual person to bear responsibility for their position in society. She recommends that we adjust our “ethical lens” to focus on structural injustice and oppression that constrain people’s choices (10). The consideration of structural inequalities has been central in anthropology for decades, yet it remains an essential concept as we consider how people’s choices are constrained and opportunities are limited for individuals and groups of people in a variety of contexts.

We anthropologists and students of anthropology may be some of the ethical novices (defined as people who are developing ethical expertise on a topic) who can work to develop food justice narratives as counterstories that resist master narratives. Dixon argues that learning to “see food justice is part of a more general strategy for acquiring ethical expertise” (41). Dixon provides almost step-by-step instructions for how to develop narrative skill in the book’s second chapter. In one of the personal vignettes used to open and close the book’s chapters, Dixon describes working at a food pantry called Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard (MHC). In this section, the author herself explains how she began to acquire ethical perception as she volunteered at MHC and had to navigate the uncomfortableness of the situation of knowing a person using the food pantry and wanting to hide to prevent embarrassment for her acquaintance. Dixon described the situation, writing that “food insecurity is taking shape for me in a concrete way – individual people with faces and names, in a variety of circumstances, and with particular stories to tell about what they need to stand in line at the MHC food pantry” (59). Anthropologists accomplish a similar goal though applied research and through our teaching.

This book is especially beneficial for those of us who teach anthropology and food justice and want to develop the ability to see the structural conditions of society that create situations of food injustice without losing sight of the particular stories and circumstances of people who suffer these injustices. Dixon includes examples of constructive and destructive stories that can either disrupt master narratives or work to sustain them in our collective imaginations, respectively. Stories that attempt to show us “the faces of hunger” often represent a “complex tangle of moral concepts about accidental bad luck, personal responsibility, deservingness, and justice” can contribute a damaging master narrative about food insecurity as an individual character deficit or personal misfortune (61). People in the narratives are often cast as archetypes like the “pathetic victim” worthy of our sympathy or the “heroic victim” who is worthy of our praise for overcoming obstacles (66). These narratives create a high standard of “moral innocence and deservingness” that would be difficult for most people to meet (74). Anthropologists, philosophers, students, non-profit leaders, social workers, volunteers, and other professionals need to consider how the stories they tell either contribute to false master narratives or help situate the experience of food injustice in the context of systemic injustices that have generated and perpetuated experiences of poverty and inequality.

But how can we work to make sure our stories address these broader structural issues? Dixon answers this question throughout the second half of the book beginning with Chapter 4, entitled “Rewriting the Call to Charity.” This chapter argues that food justice narratives need to profile people who are food insecure and include descriptions of “social, political, and economic background” conditions (77). Using accessible and academic examples of good food justice narratives like the documentary A Place at the Table (Silverbursh and Jacobson 2013) and the ethnography Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies (Holmes 2013), Dixon demonstrates that good food justice narratives resist damaging master narratives and allow those that see them to identify the conditions that disadvantage certain populations of people. In these situations, food injustices are not accidents that befall people nor are they somehow justifiable due to a moral failing. Food injustices become social problems, not an individual misfortune or fault. Finally, an effective food justice narrative inspires “ordinary citizens to undertake individual or collective action on behalf of food justice by shaping our moral imaginations about what is possible” (89).

The food injustice issues that Dixon addresses are all situations in which we can find moral fault and suggest easy answers and simple solutions. The strength of this book is that Dixon not only explains what food justice narratives and narrative ethics are, she also explains why and how they should be developed to be accurate representations of people’s experiences within social structures and to motivate people to act. This is primarily a book about skill development, so it is especially relevant for educators and practitioners who want to educate about these issues and change the status quo. It would be a useful book for advanced students, researchers, practitioners, and academics interested in food justice issues in fields like philosophy and religious studies, anthropology, sociology, communication studies, and media studies. The creation, use, and understanding of food justice narratives should ultimately, according to Dixon, create a drive for more sustainable change rather than a call to charity alone. Though not specifically about anthropology, this book could be a valuable tool for anthropologists and social scientists who want to know more about narratives and ethics and how we can incorporate these ideas to refine our work. We, too, are storytellers. We tell stories in our classrooms, in our presentations, and in our written work about the people with whom we work. Food Justice and Narrative Ethics is a good reminder for us consider how we present these stories and who these stories serve. We should strive to write, tell, and pass on stories that aim towards increasing ethical awareness and food justice activism.



Holmes, Seth M. 2013. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Silverbrush, Lori and Kristi Jacobson, dirs. 2013. A Place at the Table. New York: Magnolia Pictures. DVD.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food activism, food education, food pantries, food systems, hunger, obesity

Review: The Way We Eat Now

The Way We Eat Now

Bee Wilson The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution has Transformed our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World.  Basic Books. New York. 2019. ISBN 978046509377

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Bee Wilson’s central message in The Way We Eat Now is that since most of the industrialized world now has enough food to eat, it can change its eating and cooking patterns to prevent health risks, particularly diabetes and obesity. She offers a comprehensive solution: eat more tasty vegetables, more complex starches, less meat, snack less food, eat less food overall and on smaller plates and drink alcohol in smaller glasses. And eat with other people as much as possible. A food historian and writer based in England, Wilson discusses these “modest proposals” in a lively and readable fashion for the average reader. She uses research drawn from experts in various fields, supplemented by interviews with other people and recollections from her past. Her analyses are multi-faceted, comprehensive, and provocative enough to encourage more discussion and research among anthropologists and other social scientists interested in all aspects of food.

We are in the fifth stage of food, Wilson argues, one where the average person has not only enough food but an overwhelming array of foods from which to choose. She notes that mega- supermarkets may contain up to fifty thousand items (p.201.) So many overwhelming choices that competing less-choice alternatives such as Trader Joe’s still offer four thousand items (p.210.) Moreover, many of the choices that the shopper confronts in the supermarket, Wilson argues, are filled with sugar and carbohydrates, dangerous nutrients that promote weight related issues in children and adults: “…billions of people across the globe are simultaneously overfed and undernourished: rich in calories but poor in nutrients [sic.](p.5.)” As she notes and as others have noted, there is an increasing risk of Type II diabetes because of these eating patterns (see, for example,

This all happened in the period since the end of WWII, in part inspired by Norman Borlaug’s “miracle wheat” (Wilson’s term) and “modern farm methods”, which allowed more people world-wide to be fed (p.3.) More food was more available–but at a nutrient and taste price. As with other food writers, Wilson also notes that as people became more “modern,” more attuned to international trendy food consumption patterns, they became more obese and more malnourished (see her comments on South Africa as one example: (pp.13-15.)        Furthermore, major international corporations used this opportunity to promote more sugary, starchy, and salty foods. Children are socialized to begin their consumption of these foods, often starting with cartoon characters on the cereal boxes. Chile, as Wilson notes, banned the use of cartoons in 2016 so as to stop what they saw as a slide to obesity (p.269.)

Wilson contends that many changes in food choices and in how we consume those food choices promote obesity and Type II diabetes. Many people snack more (p. 143, et seq),   and the snacks they eat are often salty high calorie and without much nutrient value. Parade Magazine, a color Sunday supplement available in American newspapers, ran the recipes for three “Slam Dunk Snacks” served in National Basketball Arenas in the country: Cheetos popcorn, Chicharonnes [Fried Pork Belly or Rinds] Nachos. and Crab Fries with Cheese Sauce, (Ashton 2019:14.) The article also featured a website for more “game-day snacks. (ibid.)”

Furthermore, many people have replaced regular meals with snacks (p.143 et seq.) They eat high calorie energy and/or granola bars. And they no longer sit down to a regular meal with family or friends, In Chapter 4, “Out of Time,” Wilson laments the loss of family and group meals and notes how many people squeeze in eating. Within two generations in this new world, people have gone from families eating the same foods to each person eating on her or his own schedule whatever she or he wants. The eating patterns and rituals that served to promote social solidarity have disappeared.

One snack example is instant noodles (ramen.) Wilson notes that despite their variety, they basically have the same ingredients –wheat, salt, and vegetable oil (pp.81-2.) As Han has noted, people in South Korea, especially children, often just eat the dry spices of the noodle packages and eat them alone, and they get them in convenience stores ( 2018:102.)

Of particular interest are some of the points Wilson makes about obesity. India has a diabetic epidemic. People there have experienced a speedup of time to becoming undernourished–within a single generation. Best put it in her words: “…[the thin-fat] babies grew inside their malnourished mothers with phenotypes for hunger but–thanks to the huge changes in India’s food supply between the 1970’s and the 1990s-found themselves eating an unexpectedly plentiful diet (p.57.)”

Similarly, people consume beverages that are filled with calories, often with no other food value. They may be alcoholic or non-alcoholic. They may be milkshakes or huge cafe lattes. Unlike food, these beverages do not satisfy any hunger. Wilson notes that in some countries, such as Mexico, bottled drinks are necessary because of the uncertain water supply. But “[w]ith certain exceptions, our bodies simply do not register the calories from liquids in the same way that we do with solid food (p.64.)”

As noted in the beginning, Wilson does offer both hope and concrete solutions to the problems of obesity and malnourishment. We should eat less meat, more vegetables, less or no sugar, drink more water, and eat more foods from a “traditional” past when possible. We should use smaller plates and glasses. We should eat more communally and snack less. And we should take the time to enjoy our foods. Her final chapter: Epilogue: New Food on Old Plates, sums it up best: “Try to relish a range of tastes that go beyond sweetness…Come to your senses (p.306.)”

This book is useful for undergraduates who would benefit from a comprehensive view of changes in world eating patterns. It is particularly useful for graduate students in anthropology, sociology, economics, nutrition studies, and public health, for the same reasons and for ideas for future research in all aspects of food and nutrition.





2019 Accessed Nov. 5, 2019

2019 Accessed Nov. 5, 2019


Alison Ashton. What America Eats: Slam Dunk Snacks. Parade Magazine. Oct. 20.:14.


Kyung-Koo Han. Noodle Odyssey–East Asia and Beyond. in Kwang Ok Kim, ed. Reorienting Cuisine: East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-First Century. Berghahn Books. New York. 91-107.


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Review: The Other Milk

The Other Milk

Jia-Chen Fu. The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China. University of Washington Press. Seattle, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-295-74403-2. 276 pp.

Juliet Tempest (SOAS, University of London)

Ambivalent Modernities

An historian by training, Jia-Chen Fu retells the story of soy in China—an account otherwise taken for granted. We may have been correct that soybeans enjoy a long presence in the region, but their forms and meanings in Chinese diet(s) have evolved over time. Fortified soybean milk became popular only following the efforts of Republican-era scientists, social workers, and producers, whom Fu calls “nutrition activists.” More than a readily digestible history of soybean milk, or doujiang—itself indigestible prior to the advent of modern processing technology—The Other Milk presents a case study on the drink as a modern, science- and nation-building enterprise for these nutrition activists. In so doing, it seeks, and, I would say, succeeds, to problematize narratives of Western science’s inevitable naturalization in China by revealing the context-specific development of Chinese nutrition science amidst dialogue with research abroad.

Propagation of soybean milk during the 1930s and 1940s as “traditional, modern, and scientific” epitomized this process, according to Fu (2018, 5). Nutrition activists employed scientific discourse to mobilize the materiality of such protein-rich “milk” to strengthen the population, as dairy was perceived to have done for the West. The author concludes that Chinese activists constructed the problem of population health in such a way so as to necessitate soybean milk as the solution, particularly in refugee aid projects. Yet the question of whether this discourse actually reached consumer-citizens on the ground, especially outside a Shanghai milieu, remains open. The Other Milk is thus a well-constructed and written resource on the biopolitics of soy and the epistemology of nutrition science for this period in China, even if it does not capture how the target demographic actually interpreted soybean milk messaging.

Bookended by an introduction and epilogue, each of the seven chapters builds towards Fu’s thesis—of an aspirational Chinese modernity as expressed in a homegrown nutrition science supporting consumption of soybean milk—by addressing an assumption underpinning it. Following the introduction, the book begins with anticipating the question of soy’s modern status through depicting the transformation of the Chinese soybean industry (Chapter 1). Such a development occurred in the wake of Western and Japanese economic growth and military defeats around the turn of the twentieth century, which Fu highlights to establish the latter’s national imperative to modernize, a project that manifested in both the development of domestic nutrition research and its application to “improving” individual bodies, thus the nation (Chapter 2). As for why diet became a site for intervention, Fu addresses this assumption just as nutrition activists did before: through portraying Chinese dietaries as the alleged key to unleashing the nation’s economic potential (Chapter 3). In extant diets, it was the lack of protein, especially animal-based, that compromised Chinese nutrition and bodies, which justified supplementation with “milk” (Chapter 4). Although preferable, cow’s milk was cost-prohibitive if not totally inaccessible for most, inspiring an alternative in fortified soybean milk marketed as a hybrid Western-Eastern product: a scientifically modernized version of traditional soy (Chapter 5).

The arguments of every chapter scaffold onto those preceding, with the exception of the fifth. There, Fu breaks away from discussing how nutrition activists conceived their object to analyze soybean milk advertisements. Fu explains this decision in terms of evaluating how producers theorized “the social” as a site of modernity negotiated for the public (111), but the link to nutrition activists discussed elsewhere remains tenuous. While soybean milk advertisers functioned as discourse-makers in addition to—and occasionally in cooperation with—nutrition researchers and aid workers, they did not operate in the same way or in the same field as these activists: in blending Daoist approaches to health with concerns about protein and hygienic manufacturing, the former treated biomedicine and Chinese medicine as “apparently complementary knowledge systems” (114) for the public; whereas the latter sought an epistemological break that would parallel and precipitate a new era of Chinese prowess that deprecated without vitiating earlier knowledge claims within the scientific community. Granted that such ambivalence characterized Chinese nutrition science in general and soybean milk advertisements in particular, this chapter implicitly shifts the scholarly gaze onto the public, about whose receptions to these communications and the products they advertised we can say little given the methodology.

I have interpreted this attitude among nutrition activists as characterizing their concept of “modernity,” this crux of Fu’s argument that is only ever defined indirectly, in relation to a “traditional,” “Chinese” identity. The equation of “traditional” and “Chinese” is in fact one assumption that Fu does not tackle head on, although the language nutrition activists employed substantiates this position. Similarly, Chinese society’s juxtaposition against the “modern” West remains implicit throughout The Other Milk, through references to “a polyphonic, hybrid modernity” that “combin[ed] elements from China and the West,” for example (110). On the other hand, that nutrition activists did not reject China’s capacity to become modern emerges from their choice of a soy product as the nation’s deliverance. Such complexity in their relationship to a modern, Chinese identity features within the tales of nutrition activists Fu tells. The lack of explicit definition of modernity, then, follows from Fu’s awareness of its situation in a unique context—that it is, indeed, a relative term. At risk of failing in the task that Fu smartly avoided, I take modernity in The Other Milk to mean nutrition activists’ aspiration for a stronger China in the future, modeled on the West’s and Japan’s perceived progress and so involving struggles with if and how to incorporate cultural aspects that have served as a source of national identity.

Compelling narratives about the work of individual nutrition activists culminate in a two-chapter discussion of Fu’s primary case: the efforts of the Refugee Children’s Committee to distribute soybean milk during the Japanese Occupation, and in the process promote a healthier, modern citizenry. Addressing why and how this aid organization focused on distributing soybean milk (Chapter 6) allows Fu to assert that technocrats like Nellie Lee and Hou Xiangchuan “situated nutrition as the crucial site for the dissemination of modern knowledge and values” (174; Chapter 7). Fu’s tone alternates between sympathy for and criticism of their sincere but misguided motivations, given the prevalence of hunger. The modern construction of hunger in Republican China paralleled developments abroad, where it also became quantified, hence solvable, in biomedical terms. The state’s historical obligation to feed the populace in times of famine (yangmin) consequently transformed into a responsibility to nourish, which nutrition activists like the medical researcher Wu Xian understood as seeking the “optimum” rather than the “minimum” (66). Consistent with denigration of Chinese diets for their “inadequacy” and backhanded compliments around their “potential to change” (179), that nutritional interventions were seen to offer the greatest return for economic growth continues as a mainstay in international development today (e.g. IFPRI 2016).

Such observations on cultivating modern subjects through self-governance recall the ever-growing literature on biopolitics in China. To wit, the anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh (2010) has documented the intersection between individual fitness and population governance in state policies. Although Greenhalgh’s research principally concerns socialist and post-socialist China, the construction of inferior diets as a “social problem” (Fu 2018, 60) and the promotion of soybean milk as the scientific and obligatory solution prefigures more recent debates—that also sometimes err disturbingly on eugenicist rhetoric—about raising low “quality,” or “suzhi,” at both the individual and population levels.

Although Fu does not reference Greenhalgh, nor for that matter Foucault, the author makes excellent use of anthropological literature on colonial medicine and diets in China (to which Fu thanks Judith Farquhar for having introduced her). In particular, interrogation of the epistemological privilege granted “biomedical” nutrition science in China “owes much to the work of medical anthropologists Arthur Kleinman and Margaret Lock” (220). Along with the historian Michael Worboys, these scholars demonstrated conflicting views on the comparability of foreign bodies and diets in medical research during the colonial era and since. Chinese nutrition activists seem to have variously and selectively appropriated these ideas for the purpose of recasting food, like soybean milk, as a mechanical input for nutrition. Fu can therefore argue that this ambivalence permitted the ontological flexibility requisite to domestication and exploitation of the science, to build a modern nation of citizens nourished scientifically with Chinese foods. Although undeniably a historical monograph, The Other Milk thus offers an example of how interdisciplinary research can tell a more complete version of the story.

Much still remains untold, however, particularly for this anthropologist-reviewer. For one, it is unclear to what extent Fu’s findings may be generalized outside of urban, coastal China, given how most Republican-era nutrition activists appear to have operated within Shanghai and its environs. To the extent these places served as a locus for building such scientific worlds, the focus of Fu’s study, the distinction may be moot. For another, Fu’s treatment of materiality alongside discourse, while admirable, nevertheless glosses over the sensory qualities of soy—and milk—and their effects on bodies, the site of these modernist aspirations and interventions. The book argues for soybean milk’s promotion as evidence of a uniquely Chinese nutrition science and identity, so then what of Chinese tastes? Fu alludes only once to taste as a criterion “distinct from economic supply and demand” (143), which must have played a role in soybean milk’s dissemination, particularly in comparison with cow’s milk; if it did not, that is something worth noting.

These critiques revolve around a desire for more information about how the public consumed soybean milk and ideas about it. As such, they are perhaps unfair, because addressing them was not Fu’s intention and would have required different kinds of data. Fu acknowledges this shortcoming: “it is not clear that nutrition science in early twentieth-century China achieved this same kind ideological hegemony over the ways in which Chinese people thought about food and eating [sic]” (9). The Other Milk is therefore an excellent resource for research on soy, vegetarianism, and scientist modernity in China, even if its authoritative scope should potentially be confined to urban areas of Republican China and to answering questions other than (albeit relevant to) the meanings consumers assigned to soybean milk. Notwithstanding these significant contributions, the methodological choices directing attention to elites’ discourse-creation in this process of nation-building—Fu’s subject—imply a specific directionality for the construction of modern Chinese identities, namely as top-down and not bottom-up.

The nutrition activists who constitute The Other Milk’s explicit concern are, indeed, often elites. They operate outside formal state organs, whose involvement in rice distribution makes the grain a more appropriate lens through which to study the state, Fu suggests (16; see also Ohnuki-Tierney [1993] on Japan). It is perhaps due to the state’s more tangential role with respect to soy that Fu does not adopt a Foucauldian framework to analyze—what I understand to be—the biopolitics of soybean milk; because Fu does not invoke the concept of biopolitics, it is therefore implicit to the author’s analysis as well as the activities of nutrition activists to which it refers. In this way, Fu’s treatment of soybean milk offers a novel approach to understanding how the discourse and resources of non-governmental organizations nonetheless intersected with state power: nutrition activists deployed scientific research, especially social surveys and controlled experiments, as the arbiter of truth to summon legitimacy for their interventions, which would improve the nation’s (nutritional) status.

It bears noting that these nutrition activists did engage with the state, however, just as Fu’s argument dialogues with the historian Mark Swislocki’s (2011) work on “nutritional governmentality” in late Imperial and Republican China. In fact, Fu situates the book as a response to a question that Swislocki posed elsewhere: “How did nutrition become ‘an authoritative idiom in China for understanding the relationship between food and health?’” (Swislocki 2001, in Fu 2018, 9). In providing “one answer,” Fu sets out to complement Swislocki’s excellent work on the Chinese state’s interest in improving nutrition. Though it begs the question of whether the choice to downplay the state’s role in The Other Milk is justified when Swislocki argues the opposite, albeit not for a specific food like soy. Besides researchers’ personal ambitions—to produce advanced science as much as belong to a modern nation (Fu 2018, 11)—it would seem important to consider the state’s influence on the development of a nutrition science, given the mutual imbrication of the public and private spheres in China that both Fu and Swislocki acknowledge.

Rather than nutrition science per se, The Other Milk is a book about ambivalent modernity. Not only were China’s nutrition activists navigating between two poles of scientific authority in the East and West, their strategies betray resistance to abandoning everything traditional for something modern. Fu suggests that “expediency” motivated the unique blend of considerations in the research, production, marketing, and distribution of soybean milk (181). To the extent we subscribe to Fu’s argument, which I do, it is important to reiterate that activists advocated soybean milk for nutrition not as a humanitarian end, but as a means of building up the nation, to vie with the West and Japan for “wealth and power” (121). Unfortunately, this discourse around China competing with the rest of the world possesses great salience today—at least from where I write in the US.

Lest we fall blindly into this ideological trap, let us end by paying attention to other constructive lessons from The Other Milk. The power of soybean milk—in terms of its nutritional discourse and materiality—testify to a long history of globalized trade in goods and ideas. Many of Republican China’s nutrition activists had trained in the US (Chapter 2). An increasing interest in consuming milk occurred almost simultaneously in the US and China; the Chinese did not always drink soybean milk, nor did Americans regularly consume cow’s milk before the twentieth century (Chapter 4). Just as “milk” had to become a part of modern diets, so too did soy emerge as a global commodity when China started exporting it to fill a 1908-1909 shortage of vegetable oils in Europe and North America (Chapter 1). Now China’s relationship to soy, once a famine food, has changed again, as production has shifted overseas and the population has grown wealthier, consuming more meat, at times imported from the US (Epilogue). We may thus all benefit from reflecting again on how ideas and practices we take for granted are historicized products of local and global trajectories. And given that industrialized foods are now pitted against “traditional” foodways in the opposite direction to what Republican-era Chinese nutrition activists imagined, perhaps we, too, ought to approach modernity with a bit more ambivalence.

Works Cited

Greenhalgh, Susan. 2010. Cultivating Global Citizens: Population in the Rise of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). 2016. Global Nutrition Report 2016: From Promise to Impact: Ending Malnutrition by 2030. Washington: IFPRI.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 1993. Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Swislocki, Mark. 2011. “Nutritional Governmenality: Food and he Politics of Health in Late Imperial and Republican China.” Radical History Review 110 (Spring 2011): 9-35. DOI: 10.1215/01636545-2010-024

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, China, Dietary guidelines, nutrition, public health

Review: Reconstructing Obesity

Reconstructing Obesity: The Meaning of Measures and the Measure of Meanings

Megan B. McCullough and Jessica A. Hardin, eds. Reconstructing obesity: the meaning of Measures and the Measure of Meanings. Berghahn. New York, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-78533-028-5. 245 pp.

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Megan McCullough and Jessica Hardin have compiled an excellent series of essays as to how different societies and professional groups define and evaluate obesity. Briefly, the writers of these essays, including the two editors themselves, make several points. First, measures of obesity are not standardized, nor are they reliably accurate. Second, people from different societies, for historical and contemporary reasons, do not define obesity as do many Western health professionals. Third, the implications of the aforementioned mis-measurement and varying definitions of obesity affect how people do or do not receive services and how they may come to think and feel about themselves regarding weight. Consequently, “erroneous measurement” and “stigmatization” may affect the health of individuals and groups of individuals. Lastly, an important strength of the book is that the literature on this subject is well-reviewed and ample.

McCullough and Hardin set the stage in their introduction, showing how cultural assumptions about health and obesity distort weight understanding and services provided. As with the other contributors, they deconstruct the cultural assumptions behind the characterization of obesity: “The underlying message from popular media and health studies argues that there are direct, easily identifiable links between obesity and ill health. (p.7.)” They conclude that “…[a]pproaches to obesity should expand the scope of health intervention, promotion, and intervention beyond the individual to engage deeply with culture to account for gendered dynamics, models of embodiment, histories, globalization, and a host of other factors. (p.17.)”

Part I concerns itself with the measurement of obesity.

Anne E. Becker details different “fatness” and “obesity” measures. These measures, she contends, are culture-bound to Western ideas of agency.. Weight loss programs, however, focus on what the person “should be.” Most important, and this is a recurrent theme throughout the book, health care professionals expect the “overweight” person to accept an overweight characterization and to address by herself prescribed “necessary” remedies to lose weight—often, despite cultural pressures to the contrary. (pp.31-2.) I specifically use “herself” here because more pressure is put on women than on men. As Becker and the other authors suggest, this way of proceeding generally causes failure to lose weight, with serious other consequences, both medical and psychological.

Emily Yates-Doerr reviews and critiques in detail the measures used by health professionals to characterize obesity. One example she offers is the use of the BMI. Yates-Doerr relates how public health professionals in Guatemala would subtract the weight of the outer garments the women wore from their measured weight. But they would vary in terms of how much they estimated those garments weighed (p. 52.) Consequently, the BMI measures can be seriously misleading. She concludes: “How are risk of morbidity and mortality determined; what remains unspoken and what concerns are not attended to by using weight as a key determinant of health? (p. 67.)”

Darlene McNaughton focuses on the relationship in terms of health programs between diabetes and obesity. She terms this focus “diabesity.” Drawing on feminist theory and other perspectives, she says: “Overweight and obese people are imagined either as diabetic or becoming diabetic. (p. 77)” McNaughton couples these perceptions with a generalized fat prejudice, particularly in countries like Australia—because “fat” is visible (pp.78-82.) “Fat” people thus are stigmatized and experience the consequences of that judgmental stigmatization.

Part 2 focuses on Histories of “Fat”

Hannah Garth looks at the history of food scarcity in Cuba after the Revolution . She cites a previous study by J. Alvarez from 2004: the Cuban government instituted a system of food rationing “…because of an increase in the need for food due to increased purchasing power and decreases in domestic food production resulting from the shift towards state ownership of farmland and food production enterprises (p. 90.)”   The collapse of the Soviet Union brought in the “Special Period,” where there was even less food than before. Many people remember when there was very little or no food. In the present, they feel insecure about the availability of food. Thus, any program that addresses dieting and obesity runs into difficulties because people resist changes to their food consumption and eating habits. As Garth notes about several of her informants, people eat when they find food available (p.98.)

Jessica Hardin explores obesity and disease in Western Samoa, analyzing how culture and cultural/religious contradictions affect obesity determination and health programs in the area. Western Samoa is often thought of as one of the most obese areas in the world.   In the past and in the present, many Samoans feasted at important family occasions, consuming large amounts of food. Moreover, higher status Samoans tended to eat more, and their size was a measure of their importance (p.110, et seq.) In addition, they tend to eat processed and fast food and other nutritionally deficient food. Trying to introduce dieting runs counter to this value and practice. Since many Samoans are Christians, many fast as part of their religious practice. They do so, however, in church, which contradicts family social practices and weakens family ties. Furthermore, fasting by itself is not necessarily healthy. Hardin concludes by saying that programs that focus only on a metric basis for health must be replaced by a more sophisticated understanding of the “…intersections of health and religious belief [are] critical domains for use in health interventions, but they may provide new ways for thinking about the multiple meanings o f health and alternative modes of measuring health. (p.125.)”

Part 3 Focuses on How Different Cultures Address “Fat”

Rochelle Rosen draws important lessons about caring for diabetes and obesity in American Samoa. To best address the two conditions, she contends that health practitioners must incorporate each society’s often multiple cultural understandings of both conditions. Otherwise, the focus is on the person or client’s individual agency and individual responsibility to change. In particular, she notes: “Where health is communal, interventions predicated on individual self-care may fail to help. (p.142.)” Anthropologists and behavioral scientists, she contends, should continue to elicit these behaviors from the “…emic perspective of the people who engage in them …(p.142.)” to be effective.

Sarah Trainer examines the ways in which modern women in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) think about the categories of “fat” and “thin”, nutrition, their concerns about them, and how to address these concerns. Emirati women, she says, are concerned about being ” thin, but not skinny” , using a variety of weight loss aids and exercise (pp.152-156.)   But the focus is not always maintained and consistent. In one of her studies, she notes “…sedentary patterns…coupled with nutritionally poor diets among the participants (p.156.)” Continuing with the critique of using standardized measurements, such as BMI and body fat percentage data, she says that “…none of these possible threats to health, nor the verbally expressed stress of many young women, would be obvious…[from the aforementioned data.] (p.156.)” As a result, public health, she contends, is not getting better (p.162,), despite increased governmental surveillance–because women want to be thin, regardless of many of the consequences of doing so (p.162.)

Tracey Galloway and Tina Moffat explore the efficacy of school-based childhood obesity preventions in Canada. Many of these programs originated in the United States. They are largely behaviorist based, and often very strict. Children’s self-reports included the following: not being allowed to get up when eating, having to eat at one’s desk, and having food inspected and “unacceptable” items removed, to be returned at the end of the day (p.174.) Furthermore, girls and boys differed both in their perceptions of foods and the restrictions placed upon themselves.   Girls saw more restrictions on what they should and should not eat, while boys saw more restrictions on where they could move within the classroom (pp.174-5.) Galloway and Moffat go further: “…very few of the rules, restrictions, and rewards around food and beverage consumption in schools are related to nutrition or health…But it is surprising that these [positive] messages about food [issued by the Ontario Ministry of Education] are largely absent from the children’s perceptions of the rules and regulations governing their lunch and snack times (p. 178.”) They also note that children are rarely consulted in the design of programs. In addition, children’s privacy itself is invaded in the program process. Following the above genderization of food programs, they cite a previous study which shows that “…teachers socialize girls early into the idea that boys should be fed to satiety while girls should exercise restraint (p.183.)” Nevertheless, according to relatively recent research on school diets in Canadian schools, children are eating more healthy foods (

Lisa Rubin and Jessica Joseph examine what it means to be “fat” or “thin” in the United States, among girls and women, and especially among African American women. Starting with the statistics on being overweight and obese, they note the result—a “war” on obesity (p.200.) The programs that have developed to address these issues focus on individual action and on “…biomedical intervention or surgery” (p.201.) This focus persists despite the evidence they cite from earlier researchers that suggests “…poverty, stress, and discrimination contribute significantly to the onset and maintenance of conditions often associated with obesity (p.201.)” Reviewing the literature on African American women, they note that these women saw that attempts to redress their weight and obesity issues were “…’part of an effort to diminish black [sic] womanhood.’ (p.209.)” They conclude that “…[m]ore research is needed to examine concerns about eating disorders, overweight, and obesity among Black women from their own perspective. Rather than one imposed by a dominant medical, or eating disorder establishment P. 211.)”

Megan McCullough starts off her essay this way: “I am a fat anthropologist and not an anthropologist who is fat. (p. 215.)” She then stated that if someone had seen her, that person would have decided that she was fat or obese (p.215.)   McCullough put out this preface because she will then take us through her experience with her pregnancy as she encountered the medical establishment’s treatment of her. She felt stigmatized, judged, misjudged, and shamed by medical personnel throughout. She quotes a nurse who said to her: “’I don’t have any extra large robes in here so you will have to make do with this and a sheet…’ (p.213.)” As a result of these experiences, and acknowledging that there are dangers in terms of obesity, McCullough raises larger questions: “ What kinds of care are obese African-American or Hispanic women receiving?   What about obese lesbian mothers? P.230.)”

Stephen McGarvey, in his Afterword, restates the central concern of these essays—mismeasurement, stigmatization, medicalization, focus on individual agency, and a failure to address historical and cultural circumstances. What he proposes is that attention must be paid to the effects all of these have on research, program, and treatment (pp.235-237.) The Afterword’s and the whole book’s focus on individual agency is itself of particular importance because ” A survey of more than three hundred international policy makers found that 90 percent of them still believe that personal motivation-a.k.a.–willpower–was a very strong cause of obesity. (Wilson 2019:21.)” McGarvey intends to have the issues he delineates addressed in a more sensitive and successful fashion.

As I have noted, the book is an important contribution to addressing what is a significant concern in the understanding of weight issues. I would like to address the issues raised from a somewhat different angle, hoping to add to future research, program, and treatment. In terms of my background, I am an anthropologist. I am also a psychologist. One of my specialties is that I assess clients who are going to get gastric bypass, laparoscopy, gastric band and gastric sleeve surgeries. The stated purpose of these surgeries is to enable a person who has had significant difficulties in losing weight to lose weight. These clients have tried diets, often to no avail. They are at risk for Type II diabetes and other medical problems, including heart conditions, etc. The purpose of the assessment is to make sure that the client has no underlying psychopathology or substance abuse that would prevent her or him from understanding the nature of the surgery and following the doctor’s post-operative orders.

My role is to assess, not say whether the surgery itself is indicated. Generally, the population I see for gastric bypass surgery is severely [ the preferred term] obese, even considering the issues of mismeasurement raised by many of the essay writers. The laparoscopy and other surgeries population is severely overweight, but not necessarily severely obese. Laparoscopy and the other mentioned surgeries is a less invasive surgical procedure, which is why it is used for this condition. All the patients I have seen have had difficulties with different diets. Approximately 70% have Type II diabetes. About 60% have either been molested or raped, equally across categories of their gender, sexual identity, or sexual preference.

The surgeries for severe obesity are often successful for reducing the presence and risk of Type II diabetes (see, for example, The site offers a useful description of the measures used to determine severe obesity and the different types of surgeries considered.) The surgeries do entail risks, including rupture of the surgery area. The person must be careful in following all the post-operative instructions, including changing long-term eating patterns. Those receiving gastric bypass surgery can no longer drink carbonated beverages and must eat very small portions of food.

The physicians for whom I do the surgery assessments run support groups for their patients. Many of their patients have talked to family and friends who have had the surgery and they get ample visual and written material as well. As noted above, my “sample of clients” shows a high level of being sexually abused. Rarely have they gotten therapy for that abuse. I do recommend that they see a therapist. Depending on the circumstances, I may set this as a precondition of the surgery. My statistics may be slightly higher than other studies, as, for example:” Obesity rates were not different across groups in childhood or adolescence. By young adulthood (ages 20–27), abused female subjects were significantly more likely to be obese (42.25%) than were comparison female subjects (28.40%). Hierarchical linear modeling growth-trajectory analyses indicated that abused female subjects, on average, acquired body mass at a significantly steeper rate from childhood through young adulthood than did comparison female subjects after controlling for minority status and parity. (” Other researchers have also seen the link between being sexually abused as a child and obesity, as, for example:

There may be other co-occurring [the preferred term] conditions that may require stronger interventions than dieting and/or exercise. I also treat clients from Workers Compensation or with disabilities from non-work-related accidents. Many of them can no longer move easily and are often depressed as well. They often gain large amounts of weight, some moving into the category of severely obese. One client was hurt on the job so that he could not walk or move easily. Before the accident, ironically, he had the gastric bypass surgery, because he weighed 350 pounds. After the accident, he could barely move. Furthermore, his weight climbed to 450 pounds. He did not want to take medications and he did not want to come to therapy, either—even after the risks were explained to him. I offer details about these cases because I think the book should help further address how to best address populations with these kinds of issues.

Some of the essays specifically concern how weight issues affect African American women.      The American Psychological Association issued a report on ideas and changes that should be made concerning this population:

As the book recommends, more research should be done and greater sensitivity should be shown to this population and to similar ones as well (2014: 14.) Often, however, external factors, such as no place to exercise, family dysfunction for some, lack of money—cannot easily be addressed in programs.

In sum, this is an excellent, well-written book that is useful for anthropologists, public health and policy makers, and practitioners working in the field of obesity. It would also be useful for graduate students in these same areas.



2019. Bee Wilson. The Way We Eat Now. Basic Books: New York. 2014 (Accessed August 26, 2019.) 2019 (Accessed August 27, 2019) 2011(Accessed August 26, 2019 2019 (Accessed August 27, 2019) 2007(Accessed August 26, 2019)




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Thesis Review: Food in the Making

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A cook has shaped  a daily bread dough and is sprinkling semolina grains on top so it doesn’t stick when she places it under a cloth to rise before she brings it to the nearby public oven for baking. (Photo: Katharina Graf)


Food in the Making: Food Preparation, Material and Social Change in Urban Morocco. Katharina Graf. PhD/MPhil Thesis, SOAS University of London, London, UK. 2016.

Maria Carabello (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA)

In this thesis, Katharina Graf engages with and explores the daily acts and rhythms of food preparation in lower income households in Marrakech, Morocco. Taking a phenomenological approach to ethnography, Graf assumes the role of an active apprentice in the homes of three Marrakchi women (Fatimzahra, Rachida, and Aicha). She uses her position and the multi-sensory experiences it affords to pursue two central aims—first, to understand the embodied knowledge and processes of reproduction that underlie daily acts of Marrakchi cooking; and second, to probe and expose the changing material and social context of an urbanizing Morocco. Thoughtful in approach, rich in description, and insightful in its analysis, her work contributes meaningfully to the increasingly intersectional fields of food and gender studies, and to the anthropology of knowledge, learning, and the senses, within and beyond Moroccan borders.

In pursuit of these stated aims, Graf leans upon the ethnographic experiences of provisioning, processing, cooking, baking, and sharing meals with her research participants, as well as several key strands of social theory that lend both depth and context to her research. For example, using Ingold’s (2001) concept of an education of attention to frame the process of learning to cook as multi-sensorial and continuous; bringing in Bourdieu’s (1977) notion of habitus to recognize how repetitive practice gives rise to internalized structures that guide acts of Marrakchi cooking as they unfold as a dialogical exchange between cook, food, and environment; and engaging with Sutton’s (2006) view of cooking as a skillful practice, which helps to bridge the materiality of food production with the social nature of its consumption. By weaving together these and many related anthropological, sociological, and philosophical concepts Graf provides a sound theoretical foundation from which to present her empirical work, and effectively recalls key ideas throughout the thesis to note areas of resonance and distinction with her own findings.

The thesis itself is structured around five central chapters, which loosely track the natural sequence of food preparation—from provisioning and processing, to cooking and baking, to sharing and eating food. At the same time, they also follow Graf’s own experiential trajectory from a novice cook primarily tasked with provisioning at the market to an expert entrusted with the preparation of full dishes. The body chapters are bookended by an introduction which lays out the aims of the thesis and introduces its theoretical foundations, and a conclusion framed around the case study of Ramadan—“a month when boundaries are made and unmade and both continuity and change asserted” (p. 228)—that is used to tease out the main findings from her fieldwork. Although innovative and largely effective, an extended conclusion would have afforded an opportunity to remind readers of the key findings from earlier chapters and to also reflect more deeply on the ways in which this thesis confirms and challenges prior research. Graf also artfully intersperses each section of the thesis with a series of six reflective interludes derived from her fieldnotes, providing a nice contrast to the analytical passages of the thesis while also effectively underscoring its phenomenological methodology.

In the first chapter, Graf introduces the historical and geographic context of her fieldsite in Marrakech, using the preparation of bread to illustrate how the city’s foodscape is made (and re-made) through the movement and interactions of cooks and ingredients. In Chapter 2, she shifts her focus to the economic dimensions of cooking, and explores how cooks make decisions about how to source and process ingredients that are good for themselves and their families in a largely unregulated and unstandardized food environment. She articulates two vernacular indices of quality that cooks and consumers in Marrakech use to categorize food items; beldi (‘from the country’) and rumi (‘foreign’). However, origin alone is not the sole criterion evoked by Marrakchi consumers when they make use of such terms. What makes food good (or, beldi) in Morocco involves “a cook’s multi-sensory and ethical assessment . . . relate[d] to taste, provenance, context of production, health and well-being, safety and food security (p. 117).” While this may call to mind similar concepts such as “taste of place” (see: Trubek 2009), Graf argues that a beldi designation is more contingent on personal context and evaluation. For example, a woman would be likely to judge meat from her hometown as beldi even if other products with similar, or even preferable, sensory characteristics were available closer to her current location. In this way, it can be seen that Moroccans have come to rely on a deeply personal and sensory-based evaluation schema for what constitutes good food and good cooking in the absence of externally imposed standards and regulations, thus posing a challenge to the possibility of a shared social context for quality designations.

Chapters 3 and 4 constitute the core of Graf’s thesis and interrogate, in turn, what constitutes cooking knowledge and how girls and women in Marrakech come to acquire and hone it. These explorations give way to Graf’s central argument, which is that cooking and taste knowledge are inherently multi-sensory and synesthetic, and thus learning to cook entails a tactical education of all the senses. These findings largely resonate with Sutton’s (2014) ethnography of home cooking on the Greek island of Kalymnos, yet Graf notes an intriguing difference in the circumstances by which Marrakchi and Kalymnian women learn to become cooks. While older female relatives often coached along young cooks in Kalymnos, the Marrakchi women underwent a “lifelong multi-sensory immersion” yet only truly metamorphosed into active cooks when called to replace the lead food preparer in the household. While the two contexts clearly afford women different opportunities to enact—and thus, embody—their cooking knowledge, the basis of that knowledge in both cases is rooted in continuous exposure to the sensory, material, and social culture of preparing and sharing food.

In this thesis, Graf provides a detailed and multi-dimensional study of Marrakchi home cooking knowledge and its reproduction, while also recognizing the window this topic provides into a changing, urbanizing Morocco. As Marrakchi women increasingly have the opportunity to study and work outside the home to gain financial independence, shifts in the constitution of an ideal family have begun to veer away from larger multi-generational households towards more intimate conjugal dwellings. While Graf suggests that young Marrakchi women still derive a deep sense of identity from preparing food for their families, it stands to question whether this will continue if they struggle to balance the independence achieved from working outside the home with the dependence now placed upon them as the primary food preparers for their immediate households. This study alone cannot provide any certain resolutions to such questions. What this work provides instead is a clear indication that so long as Moroccans continue to value the preparation of foods in the home, there will continue to be people in those households that rise to the occasion of making the meals that are so central to their social and material lives.


Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1977.

Ingold, Tim. “From the Transmission of Representation to the Education of Attention.” In The Debated Mind: Evolutionary Psychology Versus Ethnography. Edited by H. Whitehouse. Oxford, UK: Berg. 2001: 113–153

Sutton, David E. Cooking Skill, the Senses and Memory: the Fate of Practical Knowledge. In Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture. Edited by E. Edwards, C. Gosden, & R. Philipps. Oxford, UK: Berg. 2006: 87–118.

 Sutton, David E. Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill, and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island. Oakland, UK: University of California Press. 2014

Trubek, Amy B. The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir. Berkeley, CA: University of California. 2009.

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Review: Food Anxiety in Globalising Vietnam


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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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.


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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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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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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