Category Archives: food policy

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, February 13, 2017

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 dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

Where else to start but with the outlook for nutrition and agriculture policy in the new administration? This account from Civil Eats of a recent panel discussion on the 2018 Farm Bill gets to some of the essential questions: what will happen to farm labor? What is going on with SNAP? Any reason for optimism? Probably not. But this could be a good read to start a discussion with students about setting U.S. policy priorities.

For additional perspective on where the Trump administration may be going, listen to this interview that Evan Kleiman conducted with Helena Bottemiller Evich, from Politico. From Sonny Perdue’s background, to crop policies in the Farm Bill, SNAP, to soda taxes, food safety and regulation, immigration, and even the White House garden, there is a lot here. The same author has written about President Trump’s personal relationship to food here. This is a pretty detailed take on Trump, his family, and their history with food and well worth reading.

Hearings on President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, fast food executive Andrew Puzder, have been scheduled for later this week, but the debate about his qualifications seems to be picking up steam. In this Washington Post editorial, a long-time Hardee’s employee discusses wages and working conditions in Puzder’s company. Meanwhile, Senator Elizabeth Warren persists in her efforts to raise important questions about Trump cabinet nominees. In this case, she has written a very long list of questions about Puzder’s qualifications that you can read about here.

As you may have heard, since the U.S. presidential election, George Orwell’s novel “1984” has returned to the bestseller lists. If you want to stoke the fires of your own paranoia, read this article, in which the very serious New York Times examines the strange deployment of military grade spyware (the kind deployed by agencies like the NSA) into the phones of soda tax activists and scholars in Mexico. Someone is taking food studies scholarship very seriously. At least in Orwell’s novel, everyone knew they were being watched all the time.

How do climate change, coastal restoration policy, indigenous foodways, community organizing, folk wisdom, seafood, food gardens, and tribal recognition all come together in one disturbing story? Read this article by Barry Yeoman, which uses a holistic perspective to examine how native people in south Louisiana are trying to save their communities and foodways as the Gulf of Mexico rises and destroys their land. Yeoman may not be an anthropologist, but this article would really be useful in any number of anthropology classes. Read it.

This piece by Nina Martyris on the NPR food blog examines the role of hunger in the lives of enslaved Americans. She draws on the work of Frederick Douglass, who wrote extensively about how desperate he was for food as a child. Yet Douglass also ended up using food in order to barter for literacy. This is a good piece for teaching about the use of food and hunger tools for controlling people.

From Lucky Peach TV, food science writer Harold McGee narrates this video on the relationship between pollution and the flavor of foods. He starts with the story of how a flavor scientist in LA became a major researcher and activist on smog, then looks at more recent work by folks from the Center for Genomic Gastronomy (yes, that is a thing) and the blog Edible Geography that use the concept “aeroir,” and “smog meringues” to get at the taste of cities. Quite a lot is packed into this little five minute video – show it to your students and you can discuss it for hours.

It turns out that mushroom hunting can be quite dangerous, but not because people end up eating poisonous mushrooms. Rather, it seems that people are themselves the danger, for a variety of rather disturbing reasons. Read this article, from Joshua Hunt on Eater.com for the details. Foolish behavior, murder, mayhem, and more. None of which is the fault of the mushrooms. Have the Cohen brothers made a movie about this yet?

Who invented Nutella and why? This seems like the sort of question that you could easily answer by visiting the web site of the company that makes the stuff (https://www.nutella.com/en/us, if you must). But this article, by Emily Mangini at Serious Eats, argues that the company’s story is missing details. She provides them in the article and refers determined readers to this blog, for an even more in depth examination of the subject.

If you are interested in the history of the restaurant business in the United States, then looking into fast food is unavoidable. From Andrew Puzder (see above) to Ray and Joan Kroc and, of course, to all the activists and workers struggling for decent pay and working conditions (also see above), it is hard to underestimate the importance of the industry to American culture. The success of The Founder, a film about Ray Kroc, provides at least one fascinating perspective. This interview, in which Russ Parsons talks with Lisa Napoli, author of the book  “Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away” (Dutton, 2016) is equally interesting.

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Fast Food Labor Secretary?

David Beriss

In the weeks following his election, President Donald Trump announced the nomination of Andrew F. Puzder to lead the U.S. Department of Labor. There has been much discussion and commentary on this choice. Mr. Puzder is the CEO of CKE Restaurants, Inc., which owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast-food chains. Because of this background, much of the commentary on his qualifications has come from the restaurant industry, including the National Restaurant Association (which favors the nomination) and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (which opposes his nomination). There is also this commentary, which suggests that nominating Puzder is a way of overturning the entire history of the Department of Labor, leaving in its place conditions for workers that resemble “The Jungle” (the author of the commentary appears to be in favor of this outcome).

Hearings on his nomination are scheduled for February 2, 2017.

If confirmed, what sort of job will Mr. Puzder do? The Department of Labor’s mission statement is remarkably succinct:

“To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.”

Perhaps the most famous Secretary of Labor was Frances Perkins, who served from 1933 to 1945. She was the first woman to hold a cabinet position (and a sociologist!). More importantly, she was instrumental in creating President Roosevelt’s New Deal, she wrote the Social Security Act, and fought for minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws. The Department of Labor’s headquarters building is in fact the Frances Perkins Building. This is where Mr. Puzder will work, if he is confirmed.

Will Mr. Puzder “foster, promote, and develop the welfare” of American workers? Or would he do more to promote the interests and welfare of industry? Are these necessarily opposed? One of the reasons people have raised questions about Mr. Puzder’s ability to fulfill the Labor Department’s mission is that his positions on many of the issues are well known. He has written and spoken a great deal about working conditions, wages, and benefits in the restaurant industry. Here are ten questions that seem worth addressing prior to Senate approval of his nomination:

  1. Wages: The call to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour has been led by fast food workers, the industry where Mr. Puzder works. The current minimum wage is $7.25/hour and has not changed since 2009. Some states and cities have raised their minimum wages locally, but there are also states that have no minimum wage, so unless the federal government raises it, they will stay at $7.25. The minimum wage is not a living wage for most American families. Mr. Puzder, who reportedly makes more than $4 million annually, opposes raising it. Is there a societal interest in making sure workers are paid enough to support themselves and their families or should wages be set strictly by the market?
  2. Overtime: The Obama administration tried to update overtime pay rules that define which employees should be paid overtime when working more than 40 hours per week. The salary threshold below which workers can receive overtime pay has not really changed much since 1975, which means that millions of people are essentially working longer hours for free. Puzder argues that they prefer this freedom over higher wages and thus opposes the new rules. He has also argued against California rules requiring rest and meal breaks for workers. Who benefits more from workers “flexibly” working longer hours for no pay: the workers or the companies?
  3. Sexual Harassment: Puzder has been criticized for his company’s advertising, which has featured bikini-clad women eating hamburgers. Certainly, there is nothing especially unusual about using sex to sell all kinds of products. Yet at least one recent report suggests that sexual harassment is significantly more frequent at CKE restaurants than elsewhere in the fast-food industry. What will Mr. Puzder do at Labor to insure that workers in all industries have a harassment-free environment?
  4. Health Care: Puzder has argued that the Affordable Care Act has driven up health care costs and triggered a restaurant recession. The existence of this recession is disputable (see this and this), but access to health insurance and health care is certainly an issue for restaurant workers. What will he do to help restaurant and other workers in food-related industries get access to affordable health care?
  5. Sick Leave: Paid sick leave is not a common benefit for workers in the restaurant industry. Food service workers often work when sick or injured. Legislation has been proposed in the last few congresses to allow all workers to earn paid sick days. This seems like an important way to improve the welfare of American workers. As Secretary of Labor, would Mr. Puzder support paid sick leave for all American workers?
  6. Immigration: One of Mr. Trump’s signature campaign issues was immigration: he promised to build a wall and deport millions of undocumented people. The restaurant industry uses a lot of immigrant labor, including undocumented workers, and Mr. Puzder has been a supporter of immigration reform initiatives that include a path to legalization. This position has caused much concern on the right. The National Restaurant Association supports immigration reform and argues that the industry needs immigrant labor. Will Mr. Puzder support immigration reform of the sort endorsed by the NRA or will he choose instead to support Mr. Trump’s policies?
  7. Unions: The Department of Labor has long worked with unions to protect workers in the United States. Mr. Puzder is on record as opposing unions and unionization, especially in the fast food industry (the unions, of course, oppose Puzder’s nomination). He has opposed efforts by the National Labor Relations Board to make both franchisees and corporations jointly responsible for wage violations and, as noted above, he opposes the $15 minimum wage, both of which are strongly supported by unions. One analyst has suggested that he might use his powers as Secretary of Labor to undermine unions, rather than support workers. Can an anti-union Secretary of Labor work to support the interests of workers?
  8. Tipping: In many restaurants, tipped workers receive hourly wages that are far below the already low minimum wage. They rely on tips to make up the difference. For some, this results in unpredictable and low wages. For others, this means that front-of-the-house workers get paid relatively well, while wages for cooks remain low. There have been efforts by activists and restaurateurs to address these issues, but it is unclear where Mr. Puzder stands. What would Mr. Puzder do as labor secretary to ensure that tipped workers and other restaurant workers are able to count on a reliable wage?
  9. Statistics: Measuring society in order to determine public policy is one of the key missions of modern government. Yet during the election, candidate Trump often cited statistics, including the unemployment rate, that seemed unrelated to any numbers produced by government agencies or anyone else with real data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, an agency of the Department of Labor, collects data and produces reports on everything from employment to prices. Will Mr. Puzder work to insure the continuity and reliability of this data? Or will he use the BLS to create “alternative facts” that support assertions made by the President?
  10. Experience: Puzder argues that increasing wages and improving working conditions in fast food will result in more automation and fewer jobs for people. But there is a lot more to the restaurant industry than corporate-run fast food chains like those led by Mr. Puzder. In 2016, restaurants employed 14.4 million people, with about 3.7 million in fast food. 70% of restaurants are single units, not chains. For most restaurants, the connections between customers and workers are an essential part of the business. Can Mr. Puzder advocate for workers—in the restaurant industry or in other industries—if his view of them is framed only by experience in large corporations?

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Review: Sorting the Beef from the Bull

Sorting the Beef from the Bull. The Science of Food Fraud Forensics.  Richard Evershed and Nicola Temple. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Media of Sorting the Beef from the Bull

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

Evershed, Richard and Nicola Temple (2016) Sorting the Beef from the Bull. The Science of Food Fraud Forensics.  New York: Bloomsbury Sigma.

This book systematically covers the categories of food fraud that pervade global food systems and trade.  It carefully explains the biology, chemistry, and physics of food, as well as the tools that have been constructed to test authenticity of species, political-geographic origin places, and toxic dangers of additives. These later include dyes and preservatives, and substances and substitutions added to extend the quantities of shelf lives of particular products.  The first three chapters introduce “Food Fraud 101” and the major categories of falsification, with special emphasis on eggs and poultry.  The next six chapters cover specific adulterations and efforts to detect them in the major food categories: fish, red meat, dairy, spices and condiments, beverages, fruits and vegetables.  There is plenty of fraud to go around with values-based items (organic, ethically sourced) which may not originate where their values claim they do. The final chapter, “thoughts for digestion” reviews main points and technologies available or in the pipe-line for individual consumer, food-processor, retailer, or other institutional detection of misrepresentations.  This chapter also summarizes guidelines for real food sourcing that are quite similar to Michael Pollan’s principles: select whole rather than processed foods, sourced locally or from trusted sources, thereby shortening the food chain with its possibilities of fraud.  Be skeptical of deals that are too good to be true; they usually involve deceptions.  Be willing to take the time and pay a fair price to get the story and connect with the people behind the foods you eat.

These chapters are packed with food biochemistry and clear explanations of the sleuth work that goes into detecting fraud and its harms.  There is particular attention to adulterations that produce life-threatening or -ending allergens, such as peanut or dairy that purposely or inadvertently have been added to products that should not contain them.  The major motivation is greed, although some shelf-life expanding technologies claim they are fighting world hunger and local food insecurity, and reducing waste.  Cases of Chinese, then Indian and Bangladeshi adulterators are most frequently cited, but there are plenty of U.S. and European culprits or co-conspirators eager to profit from food falsification, even where this process introduces human health risks.  There are also some simple guidelines to detecting common frauds in common foods.  Individuals can use their senses (smell, taste, touch, visual observation of cooking properties) to detect products that are not what they claim.  E.g., does the spice mixture in the package or the coffee or tea smell and behave the way it is supposed to? Does the fish fillet unexpectedly fall apart (in which case it is probably a cheaper species, not pricey cod)? Does the unbelievably cheap egg have a membrane inside the shell? If not it is a counterfeit, which in quantity yields huge criminal profits for the manufacturers who operate in many countries.

Surprisingly, the EU up to the time of publication had no official definition of food fraud, in contrast to the US, which defines “the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain” (cited on p.262).  Throughout the substantive, food-category based chapters, the authors cite legal cases but bemoan the lack of inspection and regulators, even where the legal framework is in place.  They should also bemoan the lack of time dedicated to food shopping and eating, the “convenience” factor that expands food chains and distances consumers from the sources of their food.  Such distancing layers risks of fraud and harms at every level, and also reduces the consumer’s pleasure, knowledge, and connections to food and to other human beings all along the food chain.  Thin and incomplete government or food-industry oversight of food quality and truth, combined with consumers’ appreciation of convenience foods, are challenges unlikely to be resolved by greater knowledge in food forensics.  The outstanding technical perspectives also raise additional conflicts in values.  Given the emphasis on reducing food waste, should we, the consumers, prefer the apple that rots? Or the apple that, with the application of food technology, stays or appears to stay fresh an unnaturally long period of time? In a world of industrialized foods, can individuals be trained to prefer a natural strawberry to the industrialized fake flavor?

You can use the examples in discussions of traceability, hazard analysis, biochemical and flavor diversity in foods, and other food-system topics.  The book also contains a good refresher course on basic food biochemistry, with helpful chapter by chapter summaries of the major chemical bonds and reactions in an appendix.

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Review: Two Books on Hunger and Food Security

De Schutter, Olivier. and Cordes, Kaitlin Y. 2011. Accounting for Hunger: The Right to Food in an Era of Globalisation. London/New York: Hart Publishing (288 pp).

Timmer, C. Peter. 2015 Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger is So Hard Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (240 pp).

Jo Hunter-Adams
University of Cape Town

Accounting for Hunger and Food Security and Scarcity offer complementary pictures of food accounting for hunger coversecurity and hunger, one from the perspective of economics, and the other from a broader rights-based perspective. As an edited volume, Accounting for Hunger allows for several fine-grained analyses of specific dimensions of food security. In contrast, Timmer’s Food Security and Scarcity draws global lessons from the history of food security, and offers market analysis as a basis for recommendations to economists and policy planners.

In Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger is So Hard, Timmer lays out the complexity of global food security in seven chapters. Each chapter builds on a set of key assumptions about economic policy. Timmer focuses on the need for pro-poor economic growth, in particular structural transformation or urbanization, with decreased labor on farms. He asserts again and again that, “historically, the structural transformation has been the only sustainable pathway out of poverty.” (p113, see also xii, p4, 9, 29, 37, 56, 85, 95). Beginning with this premise, he spends much of the analysis looking at ways that such structural transformation takes place (and very briefly on the consequences when such a transformation fails). Not being trained as an economist, I did not understand some of chapter 3, which lays out specific models for balancing control of the market while allowing competition. My own shortcomings as a reviewer aside, a major strength of this book lies in its scope, suggesting some of the ways that the food price stabilization can be achieved at a global level, and not shying away from the complexity of such a feat (i.e. achieving “a guaranteed nutritional floor for the poor” and “secure availability and stable prices in food markets” p31.)

food security coverAlso to the book’s credit, Timmer does mention failed agricultural transformations, where populations end up in growing urban slums rather than gaining momentum to move out of {material} poverty. Timmer also mentions the lack of transparency of market transactions and large-scale food purchases, and the slowdown of new agricultural research.

However, the assertion that structural transformation is the key route out of poverty is worthy of critique. While Timmer is up front about the Asian bias present in the book, he is less introspective about the potential issues this bias brings to the analysis. That is, without defining the boundaries and exclusions (geographical and historical) of successful structural transformation, I found it difficult to be convinced in favor of “pro-poor” structural transformation. Past successful structural transformation cannot, taken alone, predict the future; climate change and the declining availability of fossil fuels surely opens up the possibility that the future may be different from the past, and that new routes towards food security will be necessary. Narrow conceptualization of material poverty and hunger also masks historical power imbalances, where economists may feel empowered to make far-reaching policy based on their assessments of hunger, without considering the exploitation that has facilitated inequality. This critique notwithstanding, the book offers a good introduction for non-specialists (undergraduate and graduate) into the issues and complexities of global food security.

The editors of Accounting for Hunger begin by offering a summary of the challenges and relationships between urban food supply and rural agriculture, emphasizing the need to consider the imbalances of power in food systems, with particular attention to farmers. Thereafter, the book is divided into two parts. The first focuses on power imbalances in food systems, with three chapters focused on agribusiness (Cordes), food retail (Cowan Schmidt) and Biofuels (Cloots). The second part focuses on the role of trade and aid in creating an international environment that promotes the right to food. De Schutter begins with an overview of the policies that govern international aid and the ways that these tend to overlook their role in promoting the right to food globally. In the three chapters that follow the authors focus on rich-country agricultural subsidies (Mersing), the legal recourse in relation to the WTO (Konstantinov) and recommendations for food aid (Moreu).

Rather than review each chapter, I would like to highlight a few chapters as good potential assigned reading for particular issues in food security. In chapter three, Cordes offers attention to the relationships between biodiversity, mono-cultures, and trade agreements. She also weaves in studies of GMOs, farmer suicides in relation to debt, and the need for transparency in agribusiness. Schmidt offers key insights into the disproportionate burden borne by smallholders and small farmers when forced to compete on global markets. Cloots’ chapter on Biofuels offered a very helpful introduction to the ways that biofuels shapes the commodities market. She argues that the current orientation of the biofuels market tends to infringe upon the realization of rights to food in developing countries, and deepen the bargaining disadvantages of low-and-middle income countries. Cloots effectively weaves the relationships between food security, land use, climate change, energy needs, and biodiversity. In chapter 6, Mersing considers the complexity of phasing out rich country agricultural subsidies without increasing hunger amongst the very poor. Here is where the complexity of artificially low prices for commodity food is juxtaposed with the need for these low prices given low wages and unemployment in low-and middle-income countries. The final chapter guiding food aid recommendations is clear and concrete, and lays out the intersections between food aid, the agricultural decline of recipients, and the muddy waters of motivations of the nations providing aid.

Points of intersection

In recent years, the focus on global hunger has shifted towards at least some consideration of local food environments and framing food security in terms of healthy foods—not only caloric sufficiency. The complexity of intersections between obesity and hunger deserved at least some consideration, as it has important implications for policy, including health policy amongst the growing populations of urban poor.

Both books frame hunger as primarily an issue of poverty, rather than an issue of agricultural production (though Timmer believes agricultural research and improved yield is a key part of food security in the future). Both books also highlight small-scale farmers

SmallholderNetBuyers revise

Illustration by E.B. Adams, http://ebadams.com/.

in the effort to improve global food security. One concrete point highlighted by Timmer is that farm sizes should increase somewhat to facilitate greater food security. Rather than advocating for large commercial farms, his argument is for moderately larger family smallholdings that would allow for more efficient household production and better local supply. This is consistent with chapter 3 of Accounting for Hunger, where Cordes highlights the ways that smallholders and small-scale market farmers currently shoulder disproportionate burdens of risk. However, while Timmer represents the market as a neutral force, the authors of Accounting of Hunger are much more willing to delve into the ways that powerful corporations may stack the odds against smallholder farmers. Both volumes highlight that higher food prices would not serve smallholder needs, as most smallholders are net buyers of food, and are at most risk for food insecurity, symbolizing the complexity of creating more equitable food systems.

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What FoodAnthro Is Reading Now, May 18 Edition

A selection of items from around the internet of possible interest to readers of FoodAnthropology. If you have items you think our readers should read, send a note to LaurenRMoore@uky.edu or dberiss@uno.edu.

Historian and food writer Rien Fertel has just published a new book about whole hog barbecue culture and history. You can read his moving chapter on the life, smoking traditions, and fate of Ricky Parker, one of the pitmasters, here.

It turns out that the lobbying groups/boards that represent commodities like pork, milk, beef, eggs, etc.—do not think they should have to reveal information about their activities to the public, despite being quasi-governmental organizations (overseen by the USDA).

So it should not surprise anyone that a cartoonist (and farmer) who did political cartoons for Farm News was fired after apparently being too critical of Big Ag. The New York Times covered this here. A more in depth analysis from the Columbia Journalism Review is here.

What happens if Congress changes the way it measures community eligibility to serve free meals to all school students? We may soon find out.

Does industrial chicken processing count when people say they want more manufacturing jobs in America? If so, they may want unions and health regulation with that, because otherwise they may need to wear diapers to work. Health conditions and bathroom breaks in the poultry industry, as reported by Oxfam.

Is urban agriculture the key to sustaining and reviving our cities? Here is a useful interdisciplinary overview of studies on urban agriculture from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Want to struggle with the nature/culture divide? Or do you prefer watching the FDA and NPR do the heavy lifting? Read this.

How did food studies become respectable? And why? An overview from Australia, in which anthropologists are recognized for having led the way.

At some point, we need to write something here about food related museums. But while we wait, here is an overview of the International Banana Museum, which is improbably (or maybe not, given the sort of museum it is) in California.

Last item for today is either indicative of the next paranoid health trend or is merely absurd, but in any case cries out for research by anthropologists. Getting your microbiome sequenced, because…well, you might find out something useful. Probably not, but you might. (Meanwhile, check out the American Gut Project, which is doing crowd sourced science related to your microbiome.)

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ASAP 2016 Graduate Paper Prize

An award announcement from the Association for the Anthropology of Policy, of possible interest to graduate students:

The Association for the Anthropology of Policy (ASAP) invites submissions for the 2016 Graduate Paper Prize. ASAP awards a prize of $250 annually for the best graduate student paper on any aspect of the anthropology of policy.

Papers must be based upon original ethnographic fieldwork. A committee of three ASAP board members will read and assess the papers based upon the originality and depth of their empirical research and their contribution to the field; organization, quality, and clarity of writing; and cogency of argument. A condensed version of the winning paper will be published in the ASAP Anthropology News column and linked on the ASAP website.

Manuscripts should be sent to Jennifer Hubbert (hubbert@lclark.edu) as MS Word files, double-spaced, with one file for the text itself (with author’s name removed) and another file for the cover page (see details below).

General eligibility criteria:

  1. Students must be in a degree-granting program (including MA or PhD) at the time of their submission.
  2. Students must be members of ASAP.
  3. Paper must be the original work of the student and previously unpublished.
  4. Paper must have been written in the current 2015-2016 academic year (i.e., since August 2015)
  5. Limit of one submission per student.

Manuscript format criteria:

  1. All manuscripts must be typed and double-spaced.
  2. Maximum length for the body of the text 7,000 words.
  3. All submissions must follow the standard anthropological format for citations, endnotes, and “References Cited” as outlined in the American Anthropologist style guide.
  4. Authors must include a title and an abstract of 250 words or less on the first page of the paper.
  5. The author’s name, mailing address, e-mail address, telephone number, university affiliation and academic status (MA or PhD) should appear typed on a cover sheet separate from the manuscript. The author’s name should not appear elsewhere on the manuscript.
  6. The paper must be submitted to Jennifer Hubbert by April 30, 2016. No late entries will be accepted and submissions will not be returned. Outside of the award itself, comments on the papers will not be provided to authors.
  7. Entries that do not conform to the above requirements will not be considered.

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Slow Fish Report: On Value Chains, the Privatization of the Seas, and the Food Movement

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Last month I wrote about the existence of the food movement, which a Washington Post writer had suggested did not really exist. I can now confirm that the movement exists. I saw it myself.

A few weeks ago, I participated in “Slow Fish,” a conference organized by Slow Food. This had all the trappings of a movement. My name tag said that I was a “delegate,” as if I was attending some sort of seafood United Nations. It sort of felt like that, or perhaps like a revolutionary assembly of food activists. Slow Fish takes place every two years, historically in Genoa. This year was the first time the event was held in North America. Participants, including fishers, fish mongers, fish transporters, fish processors, chefs, activists, scientists, and students came from all over the world, but the majority seemed to be from the U.S. and Canada. They were there to discuss the state of the world’s fish and fisheries, as well as the environmental, economic, political, and cultural context that turns fish into food for millions of people.

I did not think of myself as any kind of fish expert going in, however I live in New Orleans, where fish and seafood are central to our culinary life. One of our local restaurants has the slogan “friends don’t let friends eat frozen fish” and devotion to local seafood is serious.

Fish Devotion, New Orleans

Fish Devotion, New Orleans

Of course, I also know that our local fishing industry has been in trouble for a long time. Competition from imports, conflicts over environmental regulations, disasters like the 2010 BP spill, coastal erosion, and more are making it increasingly difficult for fishing families to make a living. We don’t like to acknowledge it, but even in New Orleans, there are restaurants and grocery stores that sell mostly imported seafood.

These contradictions are probably a good reason for holding Slow Fish here. But it is easy to get caught up in our local debates and to lose sight of how the issues we confront are similar to problems elsewhere. I went to the event in search of the kind of global perspective that Slow Food could provide.

That slogan about friends and frozen fish, for instance, could probably use some revising. The point, for the restaurant that uses it, is to assert the value of eating local fish. So I was surprised to hear Slow Fish delegates argue for eating fish—often frozen—from hundreds of miles away. This was part of a discussion of “value chains,” a concept used to focus attention on the entire process of catching and distributing fish. My relationship with a fisher at the Crescent City Farmer’s Market means that I can be relatively certain of the origins and quality of the seafood I purchase there. I can also assume that the fishing family I buy from is receiving most of the revenue from my purchase. That relationship is a value chain, albeit a rather short one, in which I can have confidence because the participants—the fishing family, the market managers, and, of course, me—are all people I trust. But these chains can be longer, with processors, distributors, and retailers between the fishers and the customers. The value chain, however, only works as long as information and relationships involve actual people. Rather than put one’s confidence in the supposed efficiencies of the anonymous market, the value chain concept suggests that we should only trust seafood that comes from and through people we trust, people who can assure that the food meets the Slow Food standards of “good, clean, and fair.” This emphasis on the relationships between people, rather than on the product, makes perfect sense from an anthropological perspective. And hearing the discussion at Slow Fish reminded me of related anthropological research, perhaps most notably Susan Andreatta, Barry Nash, and Gretchen Bath Martin’s work on seafood distribution in North Carolina.

Along with rethinking distribution, Slow Fish challenged my ideas about the source of fish—the sea itself. I had long assumed that the world’s oceans were open territory, where fishers roamed more or less at will in search of their catch, limited mostly by the territorial rules of governments and environmental regulations designed to preserve fisheries. It turns out, however, that some of those regulations have led to a kind of privatization of the seas, through which a combination of corporations and environmental organizations have managed to reshape regulation and control of fisheries. Some of the most intense discussions at Slow Fish focused on “catch share” programs. Although details seem to vary, the central characteristic of these programs is the regulation of fisheries by establishing quotas for different species, which are divided up among fishers, boats, or organizations (another term for this is “individual fishing quotas”), who can then catch the species. These systems are often represented as an efficient way to protect fisheries while also limiting some of the more dangerous aspects of commercial fishing. Catch shares are sometimes available for sale, lease, or trade, so fishers may opt to sell their rights and temporarily or permanently leave the business. Environmental organizations, like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy, are supporters of catch share programs, as are promoters of free market solutions for social issues, who see this as a way to bring market efficiencies to an environmental problem. NPR’s show “Planet Money” did a piece in 2015 that explains some of the reasons why people may support these programs.

Among the fishers at Slow Fish, however, opposition to catch share programs was fierce. Criticism focused on the idea that catch shares were leading to a sharp reduction in the number of people who could make a living fishing. They insist that this market-oriented model is leading to a corporate takeover of the seas. Instead of individual fishers or boat owners each fishing a share, the shares have, in some fisheries, been bought up by owners of fishing fleets, or by corporations. In some cases, fishers are hired to fish leases for those corporations, creating what was called a kind of fishing “serfdom” at Slow Fish. There have been some recent scandals involving owners of large numbers of catch shares. The displacement of local fishers, the transformation of fishers from small business owners into fishing sharecroppers or deckhands on corporate boats, and the disruption of efforts to eliminate bycatch (species that are caught accidentally, often perishing before they can be returned to the sea) were among the many questions raised about catch share programs. This article from The Bay Citizen provides a detailed analysis of the programs and of the criticism leveled at them (and cites anthropologists Carolyn Creed and Bonnie McCay, who have published work related to these issues).

One of the main themes at Slow Fish was the idea that small scale fishers, processors, and distributors should be able to make a living. Establishing value chains was presented as one way to achieve this goal, while resisting the privatization of the seas was another. It is worth noting that the fishers and activists at Slow Fish did not oppose all regulation or even all the catch share programs. Rather, they were more concerned with making sure that such programs focused on creating situations that allowed a human—as opposed to corporate—scaled commercial fishing industry to thrive.

There were, of course, many other issues discussed and questions raised at Slow Fish, more than I can account for here. Fish farming, aquaponics, fishing gear and related regulations, conflicts with sport fishers, efforts to popularize so-called trash fish, stories of fishing families, fish processing, fish politics, etc., were all on the program. On some deep level, of course, the event was not really about fish—it was about humanizing the relationships between producers and consumers of food in ways that challenge a system that is otherwise dominated by anonymous markets and large corporations. And this, it should be clear, is what a food movement looks like.

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