Category Archives: culture and agriculture

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.

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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

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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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