Category Archives: agriculture

Review: GMOs Decoded

GMOs Decoded

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

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Message(s) In the Bottle (or Keg)

Amy Trubek with Elisa Ascione and Manuel Barbato

Why am I in Umbria spending time with craft brewers and tasting beers such as an American Red Ale and a Porter infused with Coconut? There are any number of reasons this seems absurd. First, I am not an enthusiastic drinker of beer, let alone a connoisseur. Second, Umbria is one of Italy’s wine growing regions, with two internationally known Designation of Controlled Origin Guaranteed (DOCG) wines, Sagrantino di Montefalco and Torgiano Rosso Riserva, as well as other well-known wines. Personally and professionally, a visit to the wine regions of Torgiano or Montefalco and a conversation with the owner of Lungarotti or Terre Margaritelli vineyards, is much more in my wheelhouse. Third, I live in Vermont, one of the hubs of the American craft brew movement, where hipsters and bros from New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts will drive up and wait in line for hours to purchase growlers of beer made by Hill Farmstead (named the World’s Best Brewery for the past five years)– or to hunt down the elusive Alchemist’s Heady Topper.

I had never researched beer, anywhere– until my colleagues, Elisa Ascioneand Manuel Barbato, asked me to join them in a research project. Both live in Perugia, work at the Umbra Institute (a study abroad program with a Food and Sustainabilityconcentration), and study the regional food and drink culture. They have witnessed a growing interest in craft beers among the younger generation of Italians, both those who want to produce them and those who want to go out for an aperitivo and choose from more than the long-time standards of Peroni, Moretti and Heineken. Who am I to say no? I am here for a short time and my knowledge is thin; theirs is thick and intimately connected to people and places.

Local beer is increasingly important to the culinary culture here. Umbria has local histories of making and drinking beer but these are not part of the food, drink and cultural heritage narratives crucial to the identity of the region, especially in relation to tourism. Those narratives celebrate Umbria’s wines, DOP olive oil, farro long grown in the region (which now also has protected denomination), and, of course, the salumeria and cheese. But, in the past 15 years, over twenty craft breweries have opened in region. When you go to a bar, trattoria or ristorante in the city of Perugia, there are now featured lists of local beers, almost an impossibility, in, for example, the late 20thcentury.

So, why is this happening? And what is the significance?  These are our questions. For us, anthropologists with previous research on culinary culture, cultural heritage, the connection to place and concepts of authenticity and quality, Umbrian craft brewers and craft beer are not reproducing or replicating other powerful narratives orpractices of this locality. The region is part of the identity, but it is not the primary inspiration. This is an intervention into a globalcraft beer culture, a transnational network of young people (primarily men) with a vision that integrates identity, quality, conviviality and a certain rebellion. One young man learned about craft beer during his European and American travels as a professional snowboarder. Another, a journalist by trade, realized that there had been a small brewer in the city of Perugia and wanted to bring that connection back to his home town. No one comes from multi-generational families of brewers. Only some cultivate and source their hops and malt from the region. Everyone wants to provide an alternative to the ubiquitous industrial beers. The shared zeitgeist concerns the scale first, the locale second, and tradition close to last. Foremost, the tastes of the beer involve the expression of the brewer.

Birra Perugia

We are in the preliminary stages of our research, but there is a shared sensibility between the craft brewers we have talked to here in Umbria and those studied in the United States. The current generation of craft brewers desire a connection to ‘somewhere-ness.’A beer that is generic or homogenous seems empty – of meaning, of calories, and of taste. Giovanni of Birrificio San Biagio, for example, talks about terroir in beer, referring to the health properties of the water of Nocera Umbra used for his beers. He wishes that, just as it happened for wine, regional beers could have geographical indications as a source of distinction in the growing craft beer market, even if parts of the ingredients are sourced from abroad. Antonio of Birra Perugia, connects his production to the history of the city, referring to the documents and pictures that he found about a city brewery that existed in the city center at the end of the 19thCentury. Interestingly, they all want to [literally] make the link between the beer and place, even when for now it does not really exist; in Umbria these brewers are not drawing upon a continuous peasant tradition, but rather a virtually connected community (for example, Instagram is a tool for both inspiration and information).  They rely on what anthropologists and sociologists call ‘networked ecologies.’ Many further questions arise that we intend to pursue: Does it matter that the narratives and practices for wine and beer are so distinct in Umbria? What does the fact that younger Italians prefer making beer over making wine bode for the future? Can you make the taste of Umbrian beer unique by slowly encouraging local agricultural production of hops and barley? So, although I continue to prefer a glass of vino to a pint of birra, in collaboration with Elisa and Manuel, I certainly see the message(s) in the bottle!

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, Authenticity, globalization, Italy

Review: Against The Grain

James C. Scott Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. ISBN #: 9780300182910

David Sutton
Southern Illinois University

With his 5 decades of writing on questions of local resistance to state control and state planning, James Scott has been anthropology’s favorite political scientist. In groundbreaking books including Weapons of the Weak, Hidden Transcripts, Seeing Like a State, and The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott traces an approach that suggests the many ways that ordinary people evade the mechanisms of power, rather than submitting to hegemonic structures. And he explains why scholars have largely ignored these acts of resistance and hidden transcripts, indeed precisely because they are meant to remain “under the radar” of official accounts and practices of accountability. Scott’s “ordinary people” often refers to peasant life and agriculture. In his first book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant, Scott first develops arguments and critiques of the concept of false consciousness in the context of looking at peasant relations with land owners and the “moral economy” of traditional definitions of acceptable subsistence and peasant calculation of acceptable risk and reward.

So Scott’s work has a particular and longstanding relevance to food studies scholars. Perhaps all the more so with his most recent book. Against The Grain, which enters into what has become a popular discussion in venues such as The New Yorker of the so-called Neolithic transition to agriculture and its implications for human health and well-being. This discussion has reached popular consciousness in anarchist circles and in debates about the “Paleo Diet,” and recently the discovery of 14,000-year-old “bread-like” substances at a hunter gatherer site, made, it seems, from wild grains and tubers, sparking another round of popular discussions of “the diet of our ancestors” and its implications for contemporary health.[1] Popular or scholarly, this ongoing debate concerns the implications of grain agriculture in the story of human history. Scott’s contribution in some ways adds weight to the critique of the development of grain agriculture as human staple, but in other ways adds considerable complexity to how we might approach such questions. Scott wants to blur boundaries of institutions and processes that have been thought to imply each other. Scott separates the state form both from domestication of agriculture and livestock and the former two from sedentism. Sedentism could arise without domestication, as Scott shows with multiple examples of niche construction, and exploitation of diverse food sources in rich, wetland environments. This often involved niche construction through fire and other techniques of sculpting the environment.  He notes, ““Unlike optimal foraging theory that takes the disposition of the natural world as given and asks how a rational actor would distribute his or her efforts in procuring food, what we have here is a deliberate disturbance ecology in which hominids create, over time, a mosaic of biodiversity and a distribution of desirable resources more to their liking” (40). Major sculpting was not always necessary, however. In the Southern Mesopotamian alluvium wetland marshes would have provided “an exceptionally rich riparian life” which drew all kinds of animals “preying on creatures lower on the food chain” (50), thus making sedentism perfectly feasible in the absence of agriculture. Many of the practices of hunter-gatherer-forager-pastoralists, as Scott sees them, were not inherently different in conception than agriculture, insofar as they involved planning for “delayed returns”—from landscape sculpting to preserving through drying and fermenting. Thus, the introduction of small-scale agriculture did not necessitate the creation of different “kinds of people,” another blurring that Scott suggests: “To treat those engaged in these different activities as essentially different peoples inhabiting different life worlds is again to read back the much later stigmatization of pastoralists by agrarian states to an era where it makes no sense” (62). Indeed, Scott argues that evidence suggests a common shifting between different subsistence strategies “along a vast continuum of human rearrangements of the natural world” (71).

Scott also argues that the shift from this situation to the Neolithic Revolution in which agriculture became predominant in some communities held many disadvantages. While it allowed for greater concentrations of human and animal populations in smaller spaces, it at the same time encouraged the possibility of zoonoses, all the diseases transmitted to humans and domesticated animals from agricultural pests of various kinds and from the concentration of human waste. The literal meaning of “parasite,” Scott is pleased to point out, is “beside the grain,” and most human infectious disease developed in this context beginning 10,000 years ago, thus playing into the pun in Scott’s book title. The Neolithic Revolution also, in Scott’s view, led to a vast deskilling of human populations, as the flexibility and knowledge that was part of shifting subsistence strategies was lost in the specialization of agriculture. Indeed, he intriguingly suggests, but does not develop, the notion that among the de-skillings that he associates with the Neolithic Revolution, we should include ritual life: “let us at least say that [the Neolithic revolution] represented a contraction of our species’ attention to and practical knowledge of the natural world, a contraction of diet, a contraction of space, and perhaps a contraction, as well, in the breadth of ritual life” (92). This is because of what he imagines as the centralization or funneling of ritual around the harvest (and eventually its centralized control by elites), as opposed to the multiple tempos, and presumably multiple localized rituals, of shifting subsistence. As suggestive as this is, one wishes that Scott further developed these ideas, and suggested what evidence we might want to see for them. All of these problems of concentration make up one of the reasons why agriculture does not lead to states in some inexorable way as old evolutionary theories might have argued. Rather agriculture (and sedentism) were necessary but not sufficient conditions for the development of states, and that is why there tends to be a time lag of hundreds or thousands of years between the development of agriculture and of states in different parts of the world.

Scott sees grain as key, however, to this eventual development, because it afforded certain possibilities that other crops did not. Without cereal grains, Scott notes, one might get sedentism and urbanism in certain alluvial, well-watered areas, but not the state.  In particular, the fact that cereal grains ripen at the same time and above ground was crucial for early state building, as it made them assessible, measurable, and thus taxable. It is here that Scott’s argument in Against the Grain intersects with much of his best-known work on the state as constantly attempting to produce legible populations for the purposes of surveillance and control.[2] He thus sees that the development of writing was first and foremost a technology of tax assessment and accountability, making possible the measurement, storage and rationing of resources. Scott also seems aware of the functionalist and determinist sound of some of these arguments, and so includes questions, such as why couldn’t lentils or chickpeas have been bred for simultaneous ripening (133)? This is a question which he doesn’t attempt to answer. Scott’s insistence on blurriness of social categories for long periods of human history also dovetails with recent formulations that argue that different pre-state social arrangements are better seen as temporary collective projects rather than different types of fully-formed “societies” (Graeber & Wengrow 2015).

As to the issue of why anyone would want to live in a state (aside from those who controlled it), Scott’s book is in essence a dismissal of long-held arguments that states provided more security, better health, or better amenities than non-states. In the latter chapters of the book, Scott describes the fragility of the early state based on the notion that many people would have simply fled from its exploitative and dulling routines. Slavery was thus a key aspect of shoring up the state, as slaves, according to Scott, would have been a key source of the state’s agricultural labor force, (while not, of course, being absent from non-state societies). This also means, in Scott’s narrative, that the “Barbarians” living outside of state control were as likely to be refugees from state-making processes as much as they were pristine primitives living untouched by the state (231-2). Those groups living outside the boundaries, but on the margins of states, might often have various interactions with states, from trading, to creating protection rackets with particular states, to selling captured populations as slaves to states to fill labor needs.  Scott suggests that in shoring up states in various ways, these “Barbarian” polities may have eventually been squeezed out, contributing to their own demise, though one that happened over a very long time span.

As noted, this work fits into Scott’s larger project of questioning the top-down, synoptic and abstract mechanisms of control and categorization that he argues are at the base of state projects.  In Against the Grain, Scott once again suggests that scholars contribute to such views by favoring the legible, in this case, the fact that early states, as opposed to non-state groupings, left many more records for historians to ponder. The bias for “civilization” over “Barbarians”, then, reflects the fact that, winners and losers aside, we read history from the point of view of the writers, or in this case, the states (even if some of this “writing” took the form of stone monuments).

Scott always hedges his claims, though, not arguing that non-state societies were some kind of utopias and that writing and abstraction represented a “fall of mankind” as in the works of some anthropological primitivists,[3] even if everything in his argument suggests that life must have been substantially better for non-state peoples. Thus, Scott offers up only “Two Cheers for Anarchy,” in a recent collection of essays which includes thoughts on the petite bourgeoise,[4] which he sees as potentially resistant to state control and the forces of organization, abstraction and modernity. This comes alongside a plea for generalized everyday rule-breaking, or what he calls “Anarchist calisthenics” (2012). And Scott is eager to dispel the idea that his work should give comfort to Libertarians in their critiques of the state, even if the Libertarians at the CATO institute seem to disagree and offered a published volume in his honor (Scott n.d.).

In terms of offering a final answer for the question of why states arose, given the factors Scott arrays against them, readers may not be satisfied with the lack of a tidy solution. What he suggests, as discussed above, is a combination of force and chance which led to the possibility of states being successful given the degree of human exploitation, disease and general misery that they imposed. So Against the Grain doesn’t directly address questions of how inequality might have arisen, although Scott’s approach typically, in giving credit to the understandings of the oppressed, tends to suggest less of a role for hegemony (in the sense of consent of the governed) or false consciousness (thought not, as noted, unintended consequences).

The value of Against the Grain, then, lies not in its providing radically new theories or new data on the old question of the origin of the state. It is rather Scott’s synthesis of current existing materials and approaches that food studies and other scholars may find most useful. In particular, Scott reveals how these materials can be read in terms of the critique of state abstraction processes, and the lengths many people have gone to avoid or to thwart them—themes he made famous in his earlier work.[5] The focus on abstraction and legibility is certainly all the more relevant to the monocultures and general commodification of agriculture that we are familiar with from the legacy of the Green Revolution and the ongoing demands of contemporary capitalism.[6] Against the Grain helps us to see this as also part of a broader struggle of the very long durée.


Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Scott, James C. 2009 The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Scott, James C. 2012. Two Cheers for Anarchy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Scott, James C., et. al.  n.d.. Seeing Like A State: A Conversation with James C. Scott. Cato Unbound Series. Cato Institute.

Wengrow, David, and David Graeber. “Farewell to the ‘Childhood of Man’: Ritual, Seasonality, and the Origins of Inequality.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21: 597-619.

Wilson, Peter Lamborne. 2016. “Abdullah Ocalan.” In Dilar Dirik et. al (eds). To Dare Imagine: Rojava Revolution, pp. 33-42. New York: Autonomedia.

[2] This is where Scott’s argument can also be seen in relation to neoliberalism and its regimes of audit and assessment which he explicitly critiques in education (see Scott 2012)

[3] See, e.g., Wilson (2012) which draws a line from Ancient Sumer to contemporary anarchist movements in Northern Syria.

[4] In which he includes small farmholders and artisans.

[5] Scott 1998, 2009

[6] Themes that he has also explored in Seeing Like a State.

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, anthropology of food, archaeology, Origins of the State

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, January 26, 2019

David Beriss

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to or

Let’s start with a cheery report that argues, as we often do here, that whatever you are doing to improve the planet is probably not enough. Sorry. In this article, from The New Republic, Emily Atkin looks into companies (Hungry Harvest and Imperfect Produce) who send out boxes of damaged produce directly to consumers, as an alternative to the produce being destroyed or left in the field. This seems like a great way to prevent waste in our food system, which is a huge problem. Atkin, drawing on her own research and on analyses from a few food activists, shows that these companies may not actually be helping. This is not a simple story, however, so read it before you drop your subscription to one of these services.

Apparently many citizens of rich countries are worried about getting enough protein. Which seems truly weird, given the amounts of meat people consume, but what do I know? In this article from the Guardian, Bee Wilson writes that “anxiety about protein is one of the things that drives a person to drink a flask of vitamin-padded beige slurry and call it lunch.” Gah! Seriously, however, Wilson’s article explores this situation from a lot of angles, from debates about faddish nutritionism, to the dietary needs of athletes, to people with protein obsessions, and even a strange store called Protein Haus. This could be a really useful article to spark a fad diet discussion in a class!

As something of a corrective to the above fad, the medical journal the Lancet has recently published an article that looks at food systems and healthy diets around the world. They note that “unhealthy diets pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than does unsafe sex, and alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined.” Which is impressive. By the way, this article is a product of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, whose web site you should visit for a lot more interesting content of this sort.

The debate about cultural appropriation and food has been raging for a long time now, on multiple fronts, at least in the U.S. In this intriguing blog posting, food historian Ken Albala raises some questions about the relationship between ancestry and the right to cook particular foods. If you are keeping a list of relevant public debate pieces on this topic, then this is another one to include. The big question, which is not addressed here, is what the debates about food and cultural appropriation are actually about. Probably not food, really.

But wait, there is more. Writing in Eater, Sara Kay draws on her studies of thousands of Yelp reviews to argue that those who comment on the authenticity of restaurants are often writing in support of white supremacy. She writes that “the word ‘authentic’ in food reviews supports white supremacism, and Yelp reviews prove it.” She is pointing to a wide range of expectations that focus mostly on restaurants associated with immigrants or with specific ethnicities (Mexican, Chinese, other Asian cuisines), that build on stereotypes about food and people and that reinforce a kind of casual racism. She is also pointing to a hierarchy of cuisines (with Euro cuisines at the top) that reflects U.S. social structure. This is an important observation and worth making. However, I wonder if the term “white supremacy” is what we should be using to describe this. I admit to having used it myself to describe the massive system that has kept structural racism in place in the U.S. for centuries. But in a moment in our history when the far right—people who explicitly call for and support white supremacy—is resurgent, perhaps we want to be more careful. It is one thing to call attention to and even denounce structural racism (the hierarchy of cuisines) and those who support it (perhaps these Yelp reviewers), it is quite another to associate those reviewers with the people who marched in Charlottesville. Unless you believe that the only ideological positions possible are “woke anti-racist” and “Nazi,” maybe we should use slightly more nuanced language.

Or perhaps invoking white supremacy requires building a more detailed argument. Writing in Civil Eats, Megan Horst looks into the reasons why farmers of color seem dramatically underrepresented in agriculture today. She explores the history of farming and land access in the U.S., discusses policies supporting different kinds of farming, notes the history of slavery and other forms of exploitation, and puts this into the broader context of the challenges faced by farmers today. Horst considers all of the history and policies together to form a kind of actually-existing white supremacy, which seems distinct from the far-right ideologues in the media of late. Perhaps juxtaposing these two uses of the concept would generate an interesting debate.

Returning, briefly, to those Yelp reviews: the stereotypes that associate the foods of certain non-European groups with both cheapness and a problematic “authenticity” have been the object of a lot of criticism recently. In scholarly work, Krishnendu Ray’s writing has contributed significantly to focusing the debate. Diep Tran’s piece on NPR raised the question of cheapness in 2017. And this has had an impact, I think, on the discourse about food. In the Washington Post, food writer Tim Carman has recently announced that he is dropping the title (“the $20 diner”) because it does a disservice to the restaurants he writes about.

Switching topics: Airport food is generally awful. It helps, when traveling (at least in the U.S.) to have low expectations. I don’t know if Tortas Frontera, a chain of restaurants owned by Rick Bayless, located mostly in O’Hare Airport in Chicago, is any good, but the story of the pork they use is itself quite interesting. Writing for Fooditor, Michael Gebert describes the steps that turn pig into sandwich, most of which occur on a farm owned by Greg Gunthorp, in Indiana. This is not only farm-to-table airport food, but also a very inspiring story of challenging the industrial food system. Maybe the story makes the food taste better too. Let us know if you happen to go through O’Hare and try it.

We toss around theories of race, class, and gender in the social sciences and often forget, I think, that non-academics do not think about these things in the same way. Take, for instance, this very odd yet alluring article on Waffle House “rockstar” short order cooks. The author, Theodore Ross, appears to be an experienced, thoughtful, veteran journalist and, also, a white guy (he says so in the article). The article is a meditation, often laced with pop psychology references, about masculinity, race, and class, all while observing and talking about (and somewhat with) Waffle House short order cooks in Atlanta. Ross really does not understand academic discussions of gender, as this quote demonstrates: “Yet men do exist — or they don’t, and masculinity is “socially constructed,” as is more generally thought these days, which is likely true but has no bearing on the embedded concepts about manliness that sway my perceptions — and these ideas about ourselves exist, if not intellectually then emotionally.” Ross may have some insights into the contradictory nature of work in places like Waffle House. Students could have great fun critiquing this piece, I think. Also, if Mr. Ross should read this: yes, the “embedded concepts about manliness” you refer to are socially constructed and that does in fact matter for your analysis. Socially constructed is not the opposite of real. Trust me on this.

Let’s finish this opinionated digest with a drink. If you have been to Louisiana, you may have been astonished by the garish neon slushy drinks available all over Bourbon Street, as well as the drive-through versions of the same that we have elsewhere in the state. My late lamented colleague, historian Michael Mizell-Nelson, wrote a rather amusing history of these drinks, which may have been invented at the Wilmart (that is not a typo) Liquor Store in Ruston, Louisiana, which is closer to Arkansas then to New Orleans. The complete story of this invention, which Mizell-Nelson (a Louisiana native) referred to as an example of “the less well-documented genius of Louisiana” will amuse and delight you, probably more than the drinks themselves. You can read the first part here and the second one here. I recommend drinking something else, maybe a Sazerac, after you are done.

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CFP: Agricultural History Society Meeting, June 2019

Having received this call for papers twice in two days, it seems necessary to share it here. As the CFP below notes, the Agricultural History Society is interdisciplinary, so contributions from anthropologists would be, we assume, welcome.

Call for Papers

Agricultural History Society Annual Meeting

Washington, DC

June 6-8, 2019

Power in Agricultural History

The 100th anniversary meeting of the Agricultural History Society will be held in Washington, DC, an appropriate location to address the theme of “Power in Agricultural History.” Power, in its multiple guises—whether political, social, economic, or physical—is embedded in every aspect of agricultural production, food and fiber marketing and consumption, and rural society and culture. The organizing theme is meant to encourage historians who refuse to accept that the current and future conditions of farms, food systems, and rural society and culture are the result of autonomous logics. It is worth remembering that among the founders of the Agricultural History Society were rural sociologists and agricultural economists who sought to influence public policy by developing their insights through historical research. The 100th anniversary meeting offers an opportunity to celebrate and extend the interdisciplinary sensibility and public mission of the society, no small matter given the challenges that confront rural citizens and agricultural policymakers in our own time. Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • the political power of farm organizations, electoral processes, policymaking institutions, for-profit firms, and third-sector and nongovernmental organizations
  • social power in rural societies as enabled and/or constrained by gender, class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or religion
  • dynamics of power in rural landscapes, rural and urban ecologies, and between humans and non-human organisms in agricultural systems
  • the application of animal, mechanical, or fossil-fuel based power sources to the production and distribution of agricultural goods
  • historical analysis of economic power imbalances in rural society and agricultural markets
  • theories and processes of modernization and rural development as exercises in power across national boundaries
  • modes of cooperation and conflict, trust and mistrust in rural culture, society, and political and economic institutions
  • social movements that have sought to transform the balance of power in rural environments

As befits the society’s inclusive approach we especially encourage contributions from emerging scholars and researchers covering understudied geographical regions or time periods, and as custom dictates we will also support significant contributions that do not directly address the conference theme.

Information on submission:

•         The Society takes a broad view on what constitutes rural and agricultural history. Topics from any location and time period are welcome.

•         The AHS encourages proposals of all types, including traditional sessions with successive papers and commentary, thematic panel discussions or debates, roundtables on recent books or films, workshops, and poster presentations.

•         If you will need video projection technology for presentations, please indicate this in your proposal.

•         The program committee prefers complete session proposals, but individual papers will be considered.

•         The AHS extends a special welcome to graduate students and has a competitive travel grant for students presenting papers.


1. Session proposals should include a two-hundred-word abstract for each paper and a one-page CV for each panel member (in MS Word).

2. Individual paper proposals should consist of a two-hundred-word abstract and a one-page CV (in MS Word).

3. All proposals should be submitted electronically in Word format. Submit all proposals to the Program Committee by email at: <>.

Deadline for submissions is September 28, 2018.

Questions may be addressed to Shane Hamilton at <>

Program Committee Members: Shane Hamilton, University of York (Chair); Prakash Kumar, Pennsylvania State University; Sarah Phillips, Boston University; Maggie Weber, Iowa State University; Nicole Welk-Joerger, University of Pennsylvania.

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AAA CFP: Time and Power in Agrarian Environments

CFP: AAA 2018

American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, November 14-18, 2018

San Jose, California


Natalia Gutkowski (Harvard University) and Ashawari Chaudhuri (MIT)

Time and Power in Agrarian Environments

Time has emerged as a locus of critical theoretical inquiry in anthropology over the past three decades. Nancy Munn’s influential essay “The Cultural Anthropology of Time” published in 1992 not only circumscribed the production of time as opposed to time as an already established constant, but also opened the floodgates of thinking about time and temporality as seats of power. This panel explores the imbrications and juxtapositions of time in/with agrarian environments. While producing and managing agrarian environments have often been tied with control of spatial and human resources (land, water, labor), in the era of growing social-environmental precarity, agrarian environments are becoming a matter of temporal control as well.  Recent scholarship reflects on the time of uncertainty, anticipation and preparedness that are bound with agro-environmental politics and power in cases such as GMOs, climate modeling, time techniques in land grabs or the state of finitude of resources and species extinction. Horizons of future are, however, one way of formulating relations between time, agriculture, and the environment. Papers can be about the following: How time is read and told among communities of practice, tools of time-reckoning and what remains and what gets submerged in these tellings, seasonality and the constant techno-scientific attempt to push its limits, and rhythm of the market and the state in understanding the past and future of agriculture and environment.

Finally, the panel will explore the multiple uses of time as a technique of power and social control in agrarian environments. We ask, how can we better understand political processes and power relations in the agrarian environments when time is added to our analysis? How does it change a social dynamic when we understand the different temporal imaginaries that various actors hold? What, if anything, can be learned anew about agrarian environments through a focus on their temporalities? 

Please send abstracts (250 words max) to both Natalia Gutkowski ( and Ashawari Chaudhuri ( by the end of the day on Tuesday, April 3. Please include your name, affiliation, title of paper, and email.

We will notify authors by Sunday, April 8. Session participants must be registered AAA members and registered for the meeting by April 16.

Dr. Natalia Gutkowski, PhD | Environmental Anthropology

Academy scholar| Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies| Harvard University

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Robert M. Netting Best Student Paper Prize

Check out this opportunity for money and publication from our friends at the C&A section of the AAA’s for their student paper competitions. Feel free to apply or pass onto to your students!

The Culture and Agriculture section of the American Anthropological Association invites anthropology graduate and undergraduate students to submit papers for the 2017 Robert M. Netting Award. The graduate and undergraduate winners will receive cash awards of $750 and $250, respectively, and have the opportunity for a direct consultation with the editors of our section’s journal, CAFÉ (Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment), toward the goal of revising the winning papers for publication. Submissions should draw on relevant literature from any subfield of Anthropology and present data from original research related to livelihoods based on crop, livestock, or fishery production, forestry, and/or management of agricultural and environmental resources. Papers should be single-authored, limited to a maximum of 7,000 words, including endnotes, appendices, and references, and should follow Chicago format style.

Papers already published or accepted for publication are not eligible. Only one submission per student is allowed. Submitters need not be members of the American Anthropological Association but they must be enrolled students (Note: students graduating in the Spring or Summer of 2017 will also be eligible). The submission deadline is September 1st, 2017 and all submissions should be sent to Nicholas C. Kawa via email at


If you would like to post a CFP on the blog, please contact Ruth Dike.

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