Category Archives: culture and agriculture

Review: Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia

Media of Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia

Carole Counihan. Italian Food Activism in Urban Sardinia: Place, Taste, and Community. Bloomsbury Academic. 2019. Pp. i-176. ISBN 9781474262286 (hardback) 9781474262309 (epdf)

Abigail E. Adams (Central Connecticut State University)

This review of the book by SAFN’s own Carole Counihan, based on her decades-long work in Italy’s Sardinia, is overdue but perhaps timely as we keep in mind the Italian people in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

Counihan has helped me “ethno-graph” more deeply my own engagement in urban New England food justice and agriculture movements during a period that overlaps with her 2011-2015 research, and with a similarly necessary focus on the 2008 worldwide Great Recession. She writes of Italy’s marginalized south and islands, whose residents value their agro-pastoral economies, histories, traditions and who struggle “against competition from increasingly globalized foodways manifest in expanding distribution networks and high density of supermarkets” (2019: 1).

After her introduction, she structures chapters with case studies focused on particular places and communities of “food activists, food advocates and food rebels” (2019: 3). She draws throughout the ethnography on three themes signaled by her book’s subtitle (Place, Taste, and Community): the significance of place, territorio; the appeal of taste as a strategy for action; and the goal of forging community (2019: 1). Another unmentioned but valuable theme throughout the book is the local impact of state policies and practices.

I came into anthropology’s food studies from the social justice angle, rather than our discipline’s nutrition or even embodiment subfields. Counihan’s book put these two approaches together for me, demonstrating how people and communities can re-claim their experience, standards, and senses from the crazy-making gaslit maw of industrial food and agriculture. Her book was a form of “taste activism” for me, a term Counihan coins to express how “the social, sensual bodily engagement with food can be a wellspring of civil society participation” (2019: 65). And even her coining observes territorio, as it is grounded in the insight of Sardinia’s native son Antonio Gramsci about the vital “movement from knowing to understanding to feeling and vice versa …you cannot make history and politics without passion” (cited 2019:66).

Counihan sustains a close focus on cross-class interactions, alliances and solidarities among the region’s middle-class, its farmers, other food producers, processors, and purveyors, teachers and elementary school children, starting with the book’s first case study—of a Slow Food chapter or condotta — to one of the closing studies about the “teaching farms” and its elementary school partner.

In Chapter Two, “Middle-Class Activism and Slow Food,” Counihan takes on the elitism charge leveled against Slow Food and explores how the members of Cagliari’s condotta promote access to “good, clean and fair food.” She describes these as middle-class activists, “those with financial means, interest, and critical thinking to make consumption choices towards more sustainable and equitable food” (2019: 10)—but the members are from all walks of Sardinian life, including farmers and butchers; she encounters no food snobs in their midst. They are an active group, have just established two new “food communities between consumers and producers around regional varieties of capers and watermelons. A butcher member radically changed his meat ordering business to promote small and local meat producers. But they feel the disconnect between their efforts and the sharp decline in their region’s small-scale farming, as well as their own struggles to maintain the founding passion of their movement.

In Chapter Three, “Food and Territorio,” a study of three agricultural “communities of resistance” (citing Pratt 2007), Counihan’s top concern is whether these groups have spurned exclusionary reactionary “defensive localization” while aiming for food sovereignty, celebration of territorio, and self-reliance. The first of the three communities is Domusamigas (English: “house of women friends), a women-led group focused on local self-sufficiency, re-skilling and teaching, local varieties, and women producers). The second group is working through AGRIS (the Sardinian Regional Agency for Research in Agriculture) to recognize Sardinian bean varieties on the official government list of traditional species. The last community is gathered around the Cagliari urban garden whose creators restored an abandoned quarry/dumping ground using permaculture techniques developed in Japan and Spain. The Domusamigas founder defines territorio as follows: “You have a place in the world, you are part of something” (2019: 25) and Counihan finds that all three groups welcome newcomers, new ideas and techniques to “have a place.” For example, the urban gardeners want to qualify for social agriculture, the “catch-all name for farming used to provide work and social integration to ex-convicts, troubled juveniles, disabled people, or immigrants” (2019: 37).

In Chapter Four, “Resistance Farming and Multifunctionality,” Counihan uses four case studies of “resistant” farmers to explore the contributions of alternative agriculture to food democracy: a wine cooperative, caper farmer, organic olive oil producer and teaching farm. Each of these producers aimed at making a living for themselves and others in agro-ecological (even organic) farming of historically important crops often on re-territorialized farmland. Each of the farms appears to be a success in resilient small-scale farming, successes perhaps best defined by the caper farmer: modest income, hard work, but satisfaction. Three of the case studies featured those Italian new young farmers whose 35% increase in numbers over the previous year lifted hopes for “a sustainable new peasant economy distinctively different from entrepreneurial and capitalist agriculture” (2019: 64).

Chapter Five, “Taste Activism and the Emotional Power of Food,” features another stakeholder in food democracy, the consumer. Three “tasting” events sponsored by the organizations and producers met in earlier chapters include a Slow Food caper tasting, the wine cooperative’s wine tasting, and a tasting of the organic olive oil farmer’s product through a thrice-weekly outdoor market sponsored by the Cagliari GAS (Solidarity Purchase Group). Although a shorter chapter, this is one of the more “ethnographic,” as Counihan explores the interactions among the producers, taste event “hosts,” and tasting participants. The strategy of these events is to recruit new activists by “grabbing them by their senses.” At each event, she documents how tasters develop their own critical conscious pleasure and experience of the flavors they sample .aThey thereby cement their commitment to local producers; no one is pushed to conform their palates to some imposed “universal” standard.

Chapter Six, “Restaurants,” shifts to full-time sites of “taste-making” with interviews in three restaurants: a high-brow white linen establishment, a vegetarian buffet, and a deli or gastronomia. The owner/chefs are militant supporters of local food and small farmers, innovators who introduce or resurrect new or forgotten tastes; two of the owner/chefs are younger returnees to their Cagliari birthplaces.

Chapter Seven, “Critical Food Education: Place, taste, and community” (perhaps my favorite chapter) is a tour of Sardinia’s “teaching farms” (an official designation!). Both the teaching farms and the participating primary school principal she interviews are guided by the mantra, “If I hear I forget; if I see I remember; if I do, I learn.” The principal wants her pupils to develop as critical citizens and consumers.She modeled this critical awareness for me when she discussed both her plan to achieve zero food kilometers for her school lunch program but also raised her concerns about the impact on her pupils, many of whom are immigrants, of an exclusionary assumption of localism that residents of the same locale share the same culinary culture (2019: 108-109).

Counihan’s final topical Chapter Eight, “Commerce and Activism takes us to those Sardinians directly confronting global capitalism. She introduces us to owners of three Cagliari organic food businesses including a producer coop, a store, and a home-delivery business. While she cites Heather Paxson’s economies of sentiment (2013), these owners use the explicitlypolitical solidarity economy concept. These are not “boutique” entrepreneurs claiming organic’s niche market, subsidies, and higher prices. These are alternative democratic merchants who use Sardinia’s Sardex alternative currency, promote territorio through local products that yield slim to no profit margins, and struggle to eke out a meager living in a region with Italy’s highest per capita supermarket saturation (2019: 125). They leave prestigious well-paying jobs in Italy’s metropolises to undertake these ventures; while the coop opened in 1982, the other two businesses were established by young returnees in 2003 and 2006. And the obstacles are considerable; the home-delivery service closed during Counihan’s research.

The Conclusion, “Italian food activism and global democracy” briefly summarizes her key points placing Italian food activism in the broader context of global efforts to promote food democracy.

This is a delightfully well-written volume, with generous and almost treasure-hunt-like literature reviews in each chapter as Counihan engages with colleagues for the terms and approaches that best help us understand what Sardinia’s activists accomplish in taste activism, food justice and participatory democracy. She lifts up the voices of the activists and so comes close to achieving one of the definitions of food democracy she cites, which is to represent “all the voices of the food system” (Hassanein 2003: 84, from 2019:3)).

Some of the chapters are driven by interviews rather than interactions and participant observation ethnography. For example, patrons and ethnography of dining are missing in the chapter on the restaurants . The strongest ethnographic chapter is Chapter Four about the tasting events. Other missing voices are those of Sardinia’s most marginalized—those “ex-convicts, troubled juveniles, disabled people, or immigrants” served by Italy’s social agriculture (2019: 37). Given that so many of her interlocutors are returnees (in other words, Sardinians coming from a core Italian “immigrant” experience), returning to an island that is the first soil that scores of Middle Eastern refugees and migrants set foot on, I (along with Chapter Seven’s wonderfully woke elementary school principal!) would have liked more attention to immigration, territorio, and community.

The Italian immigrants living in the poorest neighborhood of New Britain, Connecticut, where I researched the flourishing and failure of an urban organic farm, transformed their tiny urban yards into vertical and horizontal horticultural miracles–in the midst of general blight. While carrying out research, I co-founded an urban food justice non-profit (New Britain ROOTS http://www.newbritainroots.org) and so I mined nearly every paragraph of Counihan’s book for more ideas for our work and with longing that our public schools were supported by critical pedagogical principles and principals. And teaching farms! Counihan adds new concepts to my activist vocabulary, such as Italy’s social agriculture, the teaching farms and the CSA variant, “your garden at a distance.” COVID-19 and quarantine coincided with Spring here, and a record run on gardening supplies. It’s not clear yet what industries and commerce the pandemic will pruned or clear-cut; perhaps we can transplant some of Sardinia’s alternatives and challenges to the global agro-food industrial complex.

For a recent video interview with Carole Counihan about her career in food anthropology, see:

https://foodanthro.com/2019/11/19/i-remember-the-day-i-said-okay-ive-read-everything-an-interview-with-carole-counihan/

References:

Gramsci, Antonio (1975) Quaderni dal cacere, vol. 1. Turin: Einauldi.

Hassanein, Neva (2003) Practicing Food Democracy: A Pragmatic Politics of Transformation. Journal of Rural Studies 19: 77-86.

Paxson, Heather (2013) The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pratt, Jeff (2007) “Food Values: The Local and Authentic,” Critique of Anthropology 27(3): 285-300.

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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: Burger

Media of Burger

Burger (Object Lessons): Carol J. Adams. London: Bloomsbury. 2018. 174 pp. ISBN 9781501329463

 
James P. Verinis
Anthropology and Sociology
Roger Williams University

Along with personal stereo and veil and egg (part of a Bloomsbury series recently reviewed in the SAFN blog by Leslie Carlin), burger is a lesson in human material culture; the second to last page suggests a subtitle- “the everyday object of burgerness”. As such, it is also a lesson in the symbolic practice of burger-making and burger-eating, burger-buying and burger-selling… the living of our burger-lives. Part commodity chain analysis and part poetry, there is something for most everyone in the object[ive] of this series, which also fits in an average back pocket (the books are as portable as many of the items they are concerned with, which is certainly no coincidence).

Most everyone familiar with the anthropology of food or with critical food studies of some other form is familiar with Carol Adams. I’ve long enjoyed re-deploying her provocative statements about the “sexual politics of meat” in my classrooms. While the conspiracy against women vis-à-vis beef is hard for some to swallow whole, few can deny either the power of her prose or the truth she speaks to powerful foods. burger is, like The Sexual Politics of Meat, a powerful work, if less overtly provocative or confined to the gender of things. At a few slightly awkward points Adams seems to be unsuccessfully reining her rant in, as she drops sharp lines like “cheap animal flesh on a bun” or “flesh-eating democracy” at the end of otherwise objective or bland sections on nutrition or U.S. history. Mostly the book is a superb invitation to contemplate both the pathetic lack of human imagination which drives contemporary burger innovators to simulate eating experiences that consumers assume are simply the results of primal human desires as well as the marvelous potential these same innovators see to further manipulate these cultural predispositions to accomplish such feats as reversing climate change.

Adams begins with the fetishization of cow flesh (as opposed to pig or deer) in the Old Testament and amongst the Romans, for example, before reviewing what is argued to be its most creative and monstrous form and the Americans who have conceived it. Our hands get greasy from eating burgers at county fairs and lunch wagons and car hops. And whether we like it or not we’re stunned, as the animals themselves are stunned and killed, by the systemization of the animal market in flesh. The numbers of cows killed annually today, miles of fencing, acres of annihilated space, and tons of growth hormones and antibiotics that have been required to produce cattle at hyper-industrial scales are altogether mindboggling, as is the spectrum and percentage of environmental damage that can be attributed to it all. The reader weaves through popular literature such as that by Eric Schlosser and more scholarly foundations erected by the likes of William Cronon, mainstream movies and surreal art. It’s kind of a perfect pocket book, and yet Adams also asks questions I’ve never heard anyone ask, such as why no grand narrative of violence associated with killing bovines has ever been deployed to further celebrate the myth of masculinity vis-à-vis hamburger meat.

The answers to this and other questions lie mostly in the histories of Western “technologies of violence”. Second to barbed wire fencing as perhaps the next most embodied form of structural violence in this story is the meat grinder, which “macerates and camouflages”. The resulting “whoppers” and “chubby boys”, as euphemisms for male erections, extend sexual dominance so far that perhaps there really is no need to also hone in on the specific violence perpetrated by mankind upon bovines. Mission accomplished.

We move through semiotics and “interspecies history” in this way to biochemistry and politics and law to other disciplinary techniques used to reveal or conceal the scope and power of meat. One hamburger contains the DNA of more than a thousand cows. Ag-Gag laws and the “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act” protect animal cruelty from acts of civil disobedience by conflating transparency on factory farms with terrorism.

In this book Adams also seems to create perhaps the definitive history of the non-meat/veggie/in-vitro meat burger. While some of these sections may have less oomph than those previous (certainly reflective of the disinterest most of America has long seemed to have in non-meat patties), together they foreground the incredible point the country seems to be at in terms of the “cognitive dissonance” surrounding burgers. The founder of one promising non-meat burger company, Beyond Meat, suggests we think about meat in terms of composition and not whether it comes from an animal. As he says of his plant-based protein burger, “At the end of the day, what we are trying to do is getting meat to people.” Is this really the precipice of a new frontier in burgers? Yes and no I guess. We’re only human after all.

That’s what we’re working with here in the end- our vast yet limited human potential, in terms of our relationship with animals, what we’re willing to put in our mouths, our capacity to understand the ways we follow capitalism’s lead and distract ourselves into not thinking about it, and what this all has to do with the Anthropocene. Adams lays out the bare bones as well as the myths we tell ourselves about burgers with unsettling and inspirational style. In so doing, she provides the uninitiated student and the casual consumer as well as the expert in critical food studies a handbook for the new burger age.

Adams, Carol. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Continuum International, Oxford: Polity Press, 1990.

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, colonists, and the ecology of New England. Hill and Wang, 1983.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The dark side of the all-American meal. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

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Review: The Story of Soy

 The Story of Soy. Christine M. Du Bois. London: Reaktion Books, 2018. 266 pp. + References and Index. ISBN 978 1 78023 925 5.

Jacket Image

Ellen Messer, (Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy and Boston University Gastronomy Program)

Anyone interested in global diet and agriculture should be interested in soy because it is by far the most grown oilseed and fourth most cultivated crop in the world (after the cereals maize, wheat, and rice) (p.223).  As a major source of plant protein, it sustains the diets of humans and livestock, and has contributed the world over to agricultural livelihoods and nutrition.  That said, this voluminously documented volume takes care to situate soy in its diverse historical and contemporary contexts. It shows how soy in each era paradoxically created conditions to sustain life, including fixing nitrogen for agricultural ecosystems, but also to destroy environments and societies through relentless and sometimes violent pursuit of food and wealth based on soybean cultivation, processing and distribution.

The opening chapter, “Hidden Gold,” introduces readers to the long-term history of soy, as a food, feed, and industrial crop, and to major flash points, like the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, which made soy loom large in political-geographic history. Chapter 1, “Asian roots,” speculates about soy’s original domestication and diffusion as a significant food that was processed to facilitate and extend its nutritional reach. Chapter 2 documents the European history of soy, including war-related developments that expanded soy’s nutritional potential to feed hungry populations that could afford little meat.  Chapter 3 turns to United States adoptions and genetic and agronomic improvements for food, feed, and industrial purposes. Chapter 4, “Soy Patriotic” returns to Asian soy as a war and post-war crop.  Here the stories include post-World War II innovations, like citric acid processing that removed off flavors, and utilization of stainless steel processing equipment that prevented contamination. These stories include how soy became implicated the development of the defoliant, Agent Orange, which drew botanists into ethical and political opposition to the Vietnam (American) War after military scientists used their basic research understandings of crop maturation to de-forest Vietnam and expose fighters’ hiding places.

Chapter 5, “Fattening with Feed” covers developments of inexpensive, soy-based animal nourishment, which transformed and enabled concentrated poultry and pig production the world over.  Like all the other chapters, this one opens with a human, personal-interest story, then opens out onto implications for larger scale economies, social units, and national, regional, and world diets.  In this case, the human-interest story tells how “chickens dramatically changed the destiny of a rural woman, thirty-year-old Amal Ismail, as well as the lives of millions of her fellow Egyptians:

“Since the 1950s, both beneficial and injurious aspects of the mass feeding of soy to animals have powerfully shaped our world, thanks to the export of American techniques for livestock production.  Mrs. Ismail and her chickens serve as a humble yet revealing entry into a far larger story.  Our survey of soy and livestock will include a chicken-blood cookbook, giant economic aid programmes, airlifted hogs, corporate treatment of animals, antibiotics, wild-bird diseases, obesity, fecal river pollution, drowned hogs and more.” (p.93)

Positive and negative consequences pile up, as the world population in aggregate gains greater access to healthy protein, either directly by eating processed soybean products or indirectly by consuming more and cheaper soy-fed animal meats.   But this expansion, particularly of the soybean feed industry has not been without environmental destruction, covered in Ch.6, “Soy Swoops South” which scrupulously documents deforestation, erosion of land and biodiversity, and violence against the people who were already living there.  Country by country, soybean livelihoods demonstrably increased soy-related household, provincial, and national incomes, but also pitted subnational private soybean interests against state desires to establish and use soybean taxes and revenues to pay for national infrastructure and human development programs.  All also proved vulnerable to multi-national (biotechnology) seed and chemical companies, which imposed their will as they sought ever greater control over farmers and national agricultural regulations. Ch. 7 continues these discussions of corporate control over seeds, toxic chemicals, and water and land use.  But again, outcomes need not prove pre-determined.  As the author summarizes in the conclusion to this chapter,

‘           ’Growing soybeans and other crops poses many actual and potential challenges to environments, including habitat loss, monoculture, genetic modification, toxic chemicals, climate change, erosion, and depletion of fresh water.  But fatalism is misguided: the destructive effects of farming can (emphasis in the original) be mitigated through careful research and ingenuity.  No-till cultivation, pest control through organic methods or chemicals with reduced toxicity, effective penalties for environmental rule-breakers and a reduction in meat eating that drives so much agriculture can each make a genuine difference. The question is how much effort we will put into protecting our natural world. This is our only world. There is no other planet for us. There is no ‘escape hatch’ from our responsibilities—or from the consequences of our actions.” (p.172).  Readers here get a sense of the author’s ambivalent sensibilities, which are also passionate, and draw on a complete range of pro- and anti- technology advocates.

The book could have ended here.  But wait, there’s more.  The two-sided approach continues, in subsequent chapters on nutrition and international business and trade. Ch.8, “Poison Or Panacea” discusses the positives (accessible protein) and negatives (anti-nutritional and allergenic factors) associated with soy nutrition, and also certain health issues, like relationship between soybean consumption, female estrogen levels and male sperm counts, and a range of possible risks and benefits associated with more extensive genetic engineering of soybeans for food and medicine.  There are also added discussions of soy in disaster relief and food aid. Chapter 9 examines “Big Business”, which is largely under the control of a few very large agricultural production, processing, and trading firms, like ADM.  In this chapter, readers can follow the journey from mid-western farm to global feedlot or food processor.  The author adroitly unpacks the abstractions and workings of commodities futures contracts, including the thought processes of hedgers and speculators, winners and losers. (There’s even a reference to the 1983 hit movie, “Trading Places” and FBI investigation of fraud on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (pp.226-232)).  There follow the dynamic mergers and acquisitions among leading seed (biotechnology) companies competing for markets, the politics of managed markets and subsidies in industrialized, developing, and transition countries; and finally, the land grabs that have characterized soy-growing areas especially since the world food price crisis of 2007-2008.

These business and environmental concerns spill over into Chapter 10, on “Soy Diesel”, which continues country-by-country discussions of soy strategies such as  efforts to recycle soy oil in order to cut down on pollution and waste in Brazil and Indonesia.  In all these developing country stories, however, the reader sees the downsides, as small operators inevitably lose access to food and energy resources when world prices rise beyond their control.  The book ends with an “Afterword” about Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which harbors some 27,000 varieties of soy. This short chapter ends with a rehash of the individually grounded, cultural stories that show promise and peril inherent in soybeans, which are used as a “lens for new perspectives on our very selves.” (p.266).  Readers can decide whether they appreciate and want to use these reflections to structure discussions of additional, non-soy domains.

As I was preparing this review of Christine Du Bois’s comprehensive, The Story of Soy  (London: Reaktion Books, 2018) I happened to read an “early view” of Andrew Ofstehage’s (2018) “Farming Out of Place,” which describes “flexible farming” modes of production by a younger generation of mid-Western US farmers, who buy up and farm South American lands after they have been priced out of the land market in their home places of origin.  I also read and reviewed Gerardo Otero’s Neoliberal Diet, which covers some of the same territory from a quantitative, larger-scale agricultural and nutritional perspective, focusing in part on the huge growth of plant fats in global diets.  To cover community cultural and the “big” political economic picture, I’d recommend that readers and instructors in food-studies and anthropology of food, nutrition, and diet courses use all three sources together.

Finally, as someone who has followed Du Bois’ work on soy (Messer 2009, 2016), and also as someone trained in ethnobotany, I particularly appreciated Du Bois’ exhaustive dedication to exploring the entire range of relations between this economic and nutritional species and the human populations that have used and will continue to use it.  I look forward to reading comparative studies on other oilseeds based on the excellent research presented here.

References cited:

Messer, Ellen (2009) Review of: The World of Soy, by C. DuBois, T-C. Chan and  S. Mintz, Gastronomy 9,4:101-103. Access at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2009.9.issue-4

 

Messer, Ellen (2016) Remembering Sid Mintz. Food Anthropology, 4 January 2016. Access at: https://foodanthro.com/2016/01/04/remembering-sidney-mintz/

Ofstehage, Andrew (2018) Farming Out of Place: Transnational family farmers, flexible farming, and rupture of rural life in Bahia, Brazil.  American Ethnologist 45,3: 317-329

Otero, G. (2018) The Neoliberal Diet. Healthy Profits, Unhealthy People. University of Texas Press.

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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 nckawa@gmail.com

 

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

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Review: Sacred Rice

Davidson, Joanna. (2016). Sacred Rice: An Ethnography of Identity, Environment, and Development in West Africa. Oxford University Press. (249 pp.)

Reviewed by Mark Dailey
Green Mountain College, Poultney, VT

In Sacred Rice: An Ethnography of Identity, Environment, and Development in West Africa, anthropologist Joanna Davidson presents a nuanced and in many ways classically holistic ethnography of rice production and the way this key crop ripples meaningfully through all aspects of West African Jola society. Rice is much more than a major food crop for the Jola of Guinea-Bissau: it is also the key idiom and central metaphor through which they express and negotiate household, community, gender, ritual, religious, political and economic relationships. This reality, which Davidson compellingly explores in thematically focused chapters, is all the more compelling given its contemporary unraveling due to climate change. Rice is central to Jola agriculture and identity, yet declining rainfall in the region is increasingly rendering adequate rice production impossible. Davidson’s book therefore revolves around two key questions: How does the centrality of rice production mediate social reality among the Jola; and in Davidson’s words, “what happens when this changes? How does something so totalizing unravel and disentangle itself from spheres of social, cosmological, moral, economic, political, and familial life?” (8) She draws equally on theoretical literature and on details of villagers’ lives to address these questions, and in so doing presents a rich ethnographic portrait of agricultural and social transition.

The book’s initial chapters frame these questions in some detail, convincingly emphasizing both the “sacralization” of rice and its material centrality. Chapter One provides a useful and interesting overview of the history of rice, drawing attention to the underappreciated endemic diversity present in West African varieties. The following chapters serially explore the role of rice in mediating dimensions of social life: we learn how rice production is gendered, how rice becomes a ritual ingredient of cosmological significance at spirit shrines, how its productive requirements filter through family and community relationships, and how the very bases of knowledge and morality cannot be construed without rice. Her treatment of rice’s mediating centrality of all things social is anthropologically familiar, recalling, for instance, Herskovitz’s “East African cattle complex” and Evans-Pritchard’s study of witchcraft among the Azande. Unlike these foundational studies, though, her portrait captures motion and transformation: by drawing upon fieldwork in 2001-2002 and a return visit in 2010, she shows us Jola lives in transition, struggling with outmigration, changing family norms, and even the key moral values that tell them “who they are.” We richly sense what is happening and become acquainted with significant trends, but like Davidson and the Jola themselves, we cannot see with certainty what the future will bring. (Although she acknowledges global trends of deruralization and agricultural modernization, a richer comparative basis would have been welcome.)

As an anthropologist, Davidson does several things very well, eschewing convenient tropes and easy essentialisms at every turn. Her constructivist caveats about African environmental studies, gender, the basis of knowledge, and the concept of “sacred,” for instance, subtly but critically remind us to avoid thinking through easily derived categories. The wealth of community-level data makes this possible, and pleasurable: she weaves together the lives of key informants with her own experiences in compelling ways. Her authorial presence is ample enough to humanize and ground her ethnography in rich and instructive stories, but they do not overtake the wealth of empirical data and theoretical contextualization that provide the book’s broadest foundation. We meet and hear the stories of real Jola individuals, and watch as their lives are clearly contextualized within macro-level data on climate, economics, demography, and national politics. The perceived value of “hard work” begins to unravel in the face of diminishing agricultural returns; families slowly turn to institutional educational opportunities versus subsistence production-oriented lives; and parental authority negotiates the new realities of unwed daughters returning pregnant from city schools.

One shortcoming of the book is more likely due to an editorial miscasting than to any deficiency by the author. The book is part of Oxford University Press’s “Issues of Globalization: Case Studies in Contemporary Anthropology” series, but there is precious little globalization here—and in fact, there needn’t be. As anthropologist Ted Lewellen has pointed out, globalization too often becomes a totalizing perspective, the default analytical frame of reference, when the phenomena we seek to explain are often best addressed by local, regional, and national levels of analysis—with globalization simply offering another level of context. And so it is with Davidson’s exploration of Jola lives. Given the theoretical contexts the author offers throughout the book (Chapter Four on the role of secrecy among the Jola, and between Jola and outsiders, is as fascinating as it is theoretically rich!), the paucity of scholarly attention to globalization studies is noticeable. Her book feels shoe-horned into Oxford’s series on globalization studies.

Nonetheless, Joanna Davidson’s scholarly presentation of the interesting, holistic, and changing world of Guinea-Bissau’s rice-farming Jola is impressive ethnographic work, and useful for environmental anthropologists, development experts, agricultural and social policy makers, agricultural and food historians, and both undergraduate and graduate audiences. For anyone interested in the multiple and inextricable ways that social lives and material production are mutually embedded, in fact, this book provides clear evidence, good story-telling, and a case-study that continues to unfold.

 

 

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Romanian shepherds at the baracades

shepherd

Shepherds protesting in Bucharest. Photo EPA.

Everyone once in a while I read a news headline that makes me do a double take: “Romanian riot police fire tear gas at protesting shepherds” caught my attention in the December 15 issue of the British newspaper the Guardian. What is going on in Romania and why are shepherds, generally not a highly politicized group, being teargassed in Bucharest?

Over a thousand angry sheep herders gathered outside the parliament building in the Romanian capital to protest a new law limiting the number of sheep dogs they can use and forbidding the grazing of sheep during the winter. Politicians argued that Carpathian sheep dogs kill deer and wild boars, favorite animals among hunters, and that grazing sheep in the winter is not environmentally sustainable.

This new law was proposed by a group supporting hunting, an elite pass time that the former communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu made popular. Hunting in Romania still retains its association with aristocracy and privilege. In contrast, sheep farming is a central agricultural activity and an important part of many local economies in rural areas. There are an estimated 10 million sheep and 1.5 million goats in rural Romania.

Images of shepherds in their wooly capes standing in front of the capital building initially made me think that this was a story about conflicts between tradition and modernity, and resistance to a changing way of life in rural areas à la Slow Food. However, there is little that is modern here. What was at stake were two age-old conflicting uses of land–pastoralism and hunting. This riot reveals the imposition of power on the part of elites to protect their interests and the rural population’s pushback.

What is truly incredible is the political response of shepherds and the success of their protest. Some traveled more than 300 miles to join the protest in Bucharest. Although the protest turned ugly as riot police teargassed the angry sheep herders who were rushing the barricades, the outcome was that the government temporarily lifted the bans and promised to find a permanent solution. While being interviewed on camera, one shepherd defends his right to graze his sheep on the land he owns. Another shepherd munching on a sausage, holds up a piece of cheese and declares the deliciousness of their cheese. Perhaps the cornerstone of this defense lies with taste.

 

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Culture & Agriculture Tech Fellowship

A note from our colleagues at Culture & Agriculture about an intriguing opportunity:

The Culture & Agriculture Section of the American Anthropological Association aims to expand its on-line and social media presence. We wish to highlight the research and policy engagements of our members as well as to promote our peer-reviewed section journal, Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment (CAFE), within and beyond anthropological audiences. To this end, C&A has created a position for a tech savvy, anthropology scholar/practitioner to manage our site and, in conjunction with the Board and the CAFE editors, initiate new forms of electronic outreach. We envisage this position as particularly appropriate for an Anthropology doctoral candidate or new PhD with interests in agrifood systems, the environment, and digital media, but encourage anthropologists at any stage with appropriate background, skills, and predilections to apply. The position carries an annual award of $1500.00, with a possibility for renewal. Application materials: Please send a current CV with names of at least two referees (both academic and work-related preferred), and a letter of interest outlining relevant skills and experience. The letter should include suggestions for digital projects or activities to heighten and extend the appeal of C&A and CAFE. Examples of previous work are also invited. Please send materials to Lisa Markowitz (lisa.markowitz@louisville.edu). Deadline for applications is September 15, 2015.

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