Category Archives: Africa

Review: Eating Tomorrow

Eating Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Stirring the Pot

 

Cover of 'Stirring the Pot'

Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine. James C. McCann. Ohio University Press. 2009

Mary B. Sundal
Washburn University, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

As part of the Africa in World History series, Stirring the pot: A history of African cuisine by James C. McCann focuses on ingredients, meals, cooking, and cuisine as expressions of cultural identity. Contrary to popular (mis)conceptions about African foodways as a constant source of economic struggle, McCann explores food in African history “as a creative composition at the heart of all cultural expressions of ourselves as humans” (p. 2). To do so, McCann relies on primary historical resources, and work from geographers (e.g., Judith Carney), anthropologists (e.g., Audrey Richards), and novelists (e.g., Chinua Achebe) to provide readers with the rich sensory experience of African food. Furthermore, he weaves in contemporary recipes, and not just those found in cookbooks but “recipes” he collected from African cooks. Women described the basic ingredients necessary for a particular dish and the sensory experience of cooking and tasting. “She uses onomatopoeia (tuk tuk) to suggest the sounds made by the bubbling stew when it reaches its proper consistency. She uses her hands to indicate amounts and how to stir or to taste. In other words, to tell you how to make the dish, she has to show you using sounds and gestures. Written words convey little of the true sense of how to cook shiro wet sauce” (p. 85). It is in these descriptions that I found McCann’s illumination of the cultural aspect of food and cooking to be the most effective.

Stirring the Pot covers a hefty array of food related topics, which proves to be both the book’s strength and weakness. In part one, “basic ingredients,” McCann describes the availability of ingredients during precolonial and colonial times to show how these foodstuffs became staples in African cooking pots. Chapter two provides a great resource—one that could easily be incorporated an Anthropology of Food or Peoples and Cultures of Africa university course—on the cultural importance and environmental requirements of starchy staples including African grains such as finger millet, teff, and indigenous yams as well as New World grains, mostly importantly maize.

Turning away from African foodstuffs broadly, part two traces the development of Ethiopian highland cuisine to a specific event:  Queen Taytu’s feast in 1887. “The feast was thus one of the first acts that presented the new center of the Ethiopian state and its assertion of a site from which Menilek (and Taytu) sought to build a new political culture and claim a new national identity” (p. 71-72). McCann convincingly argues that Taytu’s feast was the point at which a national cuisine emerged in Ethiopia. While I truly enjoyed reading part two—especially the detailed descriptions of Taytu’s role as a female cook, household manager, and political leader—this section seems a bit disjointed from the rest of the text and could have been expanded into an entire text on its own.

The third part of the book, “Africa’s cooking: Some common ground of culture and cuisine” returns our attention to the history of West Africa, the central and southern maize belt, and maritime coasts. McCann argues that unlike in Ethiopia, the rest of sub-Saharan Africa does not have clear national cuisines but “broader patterns of cooking and signature foods the connect regions” (p. 107). Through a description of the cultural variation of starchy food preparation and consumption, McCann effectively shows how cultural diffusion—through intra-continental trade, the Atlantic slave trade, and colonialism—altered food habits and daily sustenance but did not eliminate core characteristics of West African diets. Much of the data for McCann’s argument comes from two female anthropologists, Margaret Field and Audrey Richards, who examined women’s contributions to daily sustenance by recording (and publishing) the oral traditions of food preparation. The second section in part three details the influence of culture contact on local women’s interpretations of diet throughout the maize belt. McCann here tackles how maize became the “food of choice” replacing sorghum, millet, and rice in African cooking pots. In addition, McCann categorizes the various relishes, or vegetable sauces, African women used to complement maize porridge. Again, McCann relies quite heavily on anthropological sources for these accounts, making part three particularly attractive for use in anthropology courses.

The final part of the book examines diaspora cuisine as two waves of culture contact:  the Atlantic slave trade and African emigration to the New World since the 1970s. McCann provides a host of recipes to compare African American, Creole, Brazilian, and Caribbean cooking to their West African counterparts. In this section McCann also returns to the thread of a national cuisine as Ethiopian fare appears to be the most popular African cuisine (re)produced in the New World.

Stirring the pot: A history of African cuisine is an informative book and is suitable for a diverse audience, including anthropologists interested in food preparation and consumption both across the African continent and in the diaspora. While the underlying theme of food as a living history of culture change is evident throughout the text, the four parts of the book have a very broad focus making the text more episodic than a thorough examination of one topic. However, the diversity of topics adeptly meets the African in World History series’ goals of making African history accessible to secondary students, university students, and general readers to “stimulate further inquiry and comparison” (p. xi).

 

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Filed under Africa, anthropology, anthropology of food, cooking, cuisine

CFP: Food Insecurity in West Africa

Multidisciplinary approaches to food security, public health and governance: Emerging research for sustainable development in West Africa

The University of Ibadan, Nigeria

September 5 & 6, 2016

The West African Research Association (WARA) and the University of Ibadan Office of International Programs announce a two-day symposium at the University of Ibadan. The symposium will showcase innovative research in food security, public health and governance taking place in the region. It will be an opportunity for scholars, especially WARA grantees, to share research strategies, findings and projects with colleagues at University of Ibadan and other institutions in West Africa.

The WARA Travel Grant program promotes individual and collaborative research across national and linguistic boundaries. Since 2000, WARA has awarded more than 100 travel grants to West African scholars working in a wide range of disciplines.

We welcome proposals for paper, panel, and poster presentations on themes of food security, public health, and governance. We especially encourage former WARA/WARC Travel Grantees to participate. The deadline for receipt of abstracts is March 31, 2016. Late submissions will not be considered. All proposals must contain a 500 word proposal and a CV and should be submitted here by March 31, 2016.

Abstracts will be reviewed by a panel of scholars from WARA and UI. Successful applicants will be notified by May 15, 2016. Up to 24 papers will be selected.

 

 

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Filed under Africa, anthropology, Call for Papers, CFP, sustainability

Book Review: The Ju/’hoan San of Nyae Nyae and Namibian Independence

BieseleJu

Biesele, Megan and Robert K. Hitchcock (2013) The Ju/’hoan San of Nyae Nyae and Namibian Independence. Development, Democracy, and Indigenous Voices in Southern Africa. Berghahn, 2011, 2013.

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

Biesele and Hitchcock offer a probing and insightful multi-decadal account of social and cultural change among an African people, including critical discussion of the roles of anthropologists and other outsiders in constructing external and internal trajectories of change. Mainly a political analysis, with very thorough discussions of changing cultural and national political institutions and their interactions, this volume should be required reading for any international development, education, food and environmental policy course. It also should be required reading in business school, organization and management courses, which increasingly incorporate ethical discussions. All chapters contain facts and institutional analysis by outsiders and insiders, and feature indigenous voices responding to internal and external challenges. The topics are the most important topics for the twenty-first century, namely, on what or whose terms will peoples be integrated into multi-national states, or be able to move fluidly across international borders? Who will make these determinations, and what kinds of education and political ideology will inform transitions from local to community and trans-local, and finally national or transnational identities?

Social scientists tend to throw around word-concepts implying that “development” and “democracy” are universal goals, without specifying who evaluates them or what paths get people closer to what the international community asserts are universal human rights. Here  indigenous voices illustrate how such ideas conflict with traditional cultural values, and how basic democratic concepts such as “representation” simply do not work routinely in traditional situations undergoing change. Instead, so-called democratic processes introduce new pathways and structures of social, economic, gender, and age inequality and violence, pitting young against old, male against female, and the few privileged individuals and strategically politically-geographically positioned and connected families against everyone else.  Millennium Development Goals suggest important narrative themes, rather than numerical targets.  Certainly poverty- and hunger-reduction, employment, child survival including reductions in malnutrition and improvements in education and health, access to water, health care, and hygiene, and environmental management and conservation are on the agenda, as are more productive connections between localities, developing country governments, and international agencies and agents of change. But such processes do not proceed without conflict at multiple levels, which the authors try to present from contending perspectives.

The most illuminating material here is on conflict-fraught activities of community-based and non-governmental organizations, whose large numbers and interactions are supremely important, ideologically and instrumentally, in shaping this people’s history, their historical communities, and the emergent independent nations who claim and seek to regulate them as citizens.  Given the long and multi-layered anthropological engagement with the San, the authors tell a story that is not entirely upbeat; for example, they witness young educated males learn and integrate less attractive aspects of modernity into their practices and ideas of the good life. These negative traits include gender violence and discrimination against both younger and older females. Educated males may also embrace increasing inequality and concentration of resources and power among their privileged few. As institutions of cultural change scale up, they consequently may benefit some few families over most. The historical ethnography furthermore raises the question of acceptable or unacceptable anthropological advocacy influences, as the narrative uncomfortably showcases some questionable actions and selective reporting on the part of anthropologists, such as John Marshall, whose films record a remarkable history of contacts and interactions with San over three generations, but then stops short of providing a reliable testimony about current politics and future implications.

Such caveats do not in any way distract from the seriously critical record of local cultural participation in the San’s forging their transitions into modern statehood identities, and of the shifting politics of NGO activities, relative to the real politics of states and international agencies. From my “anthropology of human rights” perspective, this is the only volume I know that discusses rights AND responsibilities in a multi-leveled, multi-dimensional, and coherent fashion, and successfully bridges “needs-based” and “rights-based” analysis of changing social structure and content, while incorporating local voices every step of the way.  Let it serve as a model for what is possible and desirable, and inspiration for so many Africanist colleagues, who otherwise choose to tangle, or remain hopelessly entangled in tropes.

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Filed under Africa, anthropology, book reviews, development, economics, food security, history