Category Archives: sustainability

Messer’s Postings

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

What’s new in food and nutrition research and policy in the world, the US, and sustainability?

1. State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) 2019. This report, released in July 2019 (as contrasted with its usual October, World Food Day release date) gives governments and everyone much to ponder. Key findings indicate hunger numbers are increasing, not declining. Prevalence of undernourishment, the least exacting measure, affects close to one billion people; experience of food insecurity (not sure where your next meal is coming from) affects more than a billion more, including those suffering hunger in industrialized countries. This year’s themes, in addition to addressing conflict, climate change, and economic inequalities as causes of hunger, considered paths to recovery from economic downturn and the challenges of structural inequalities that lead to hunger. You can download the report, its executive summary, or in its entirety, here.  For a quick overview (especially to start off discussions in classes or presentations), access FAO’s (3+ minute) video, summarizing major numbers and themes here.

2. 2020 US Dietary Guidelines for All Americans (DGA) face substantial political challenges in the run-up to the Committee’s report. The White House administration has banned any discussion/recommendations regarding environmental impact (sustainable food systems), health impacts of red meat or processed meats, or ultra-processed foods and sodium. It has also disallowed reference to any research studies published before 2000, and reference to any non-USDA scientific studies (!). You can read the Washington Post summary here. My authoritative Tufts colleagues add: Nutrition scientists and policy makers need to change the term “plant-based” “foods or meat substitutes” to minimally processed plant foods, as many of the ultra-processed foods are plant-based!

3. Meanwhile, what’s new on the planetary health and diet front are new microbial “meat” substitute start-up’s (carbon footprints of these highly processed food operations still need to be scrutinized), and a report that the Swiss-based corporate giant Nestlé, along with other major food industry conglomerates, is taking steps to make its supply chains carbon-neutral by 2030. You can read more about the Nestlé’s initiative here or on the company’s website and more about the hype surrounding soil microbes and their potential to feed the world here.

4. Synthesizing discussion of all three above themes, Frank B. Hu (Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health) published a “Viewpoint” perspective in JAMA, pointing out the mixed environmental and health impacts of more or less processed plant-based foods that are meant to substitute for meat. An easily accessible interview on the major takeaways is here.

Reminder: SAFN members recently received an announcement from David Beriss regarding a new on-line journal, Nature Food, which is actively soliciting brief commentaries, opinion pieces, literature reviews, and original research articles from food professionals across many disciplines, including anthropology.  The editor-in-chief, Anne Mullen, intends to include anthropological materials of interest to a wider range of scientists in every issue.   You can find at more on the website.

Related Reminder from SAFN President David Beriss: If you are not a SAFN member and wish to receive our occasional updates via email, be sure to join the association, which you can do here. Once you are a member, you can receive communications via the new American Anthropological Association Communities communications system, here.

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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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Filed under anthropology, culture and agriculture, farming, food activism, food and health, food policy, sustainability

Food Systems Sourcebook

We often get requests here at FoodAnthropology for information on food studies programs and on other resources related to food and nutrition. The collective knowledge of SAFN members (a perk of membership is access to our association listserv) usually allows us to find the requested information, so we are always happy to get requests. However, we have recently been introduced to a new resource which seems like it might also provide people with quick access to information about degree programs (in all kinds of fields related to food and nutrition), conferences, consultants, funding for research and scholarships, publishers, and much more related to food systems.

This is the Sustainable Food Systems Sourcebook, which is published by the Thomas A. Lyson Center for Civic Agriculture and Food Systems. This is the same organization that publishes the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. The number of categories for items listed in the Sourcebook is impressive. Some areas seem to have many more listings than others, but they are just starting out. If you have a resource you want to list, you can have it included for free for a basic listing (or pay for something more involved).

As it develops, this could prove to be a very useful resource. We may have to get SAFN listed! Take a look.

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Postdoc Opportunity in Sustainability & Food Security

We have received notification from Katarzyna Dembska, BCFN YES! Coordinator, of the latest edition of their postdoc program in sustainability and food security. This is clearly a great opportunity of interest to SAFN members and FoodAnthropology readers. The announcement:

The Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation launched the seventh edition of BCFN YES! Young Earth Solutions, an international competition for PhD students and postdoctoral researchers under 35, from all over the world and from any educational background.

A maximum of three research grants of € 20,000 will be awarded in favor of innovative research proposals in one or more of the following areas:

  • Sustainable and healthy dietary patterns;
  • Sustainable agriculture;
  • Food security.

The research proposals can be submitted by individual researchers and multidisciplinary teams, until June 14th, 2018. More information on application material is available after registering on competition’s website: www.bcfnyes.com.

The authors of the ten best research projects will be invited to the International Forum on Food and Nutrition in Milan, on November 27 and 28, 2018. All travel and accommodation expenses will be covered by BCFN. Finalists will have the opportunity to present their projects in front of a panel of experts and the public of the Forum, and in this occasion, the three winning projects will be selected. You can have a look at the 2017 highlights here

The BCFN YES! Research Grant Competition is an ideal opportunity to create a new generation of sustainability experts. All finalists become part of BCFN Alumni, global network that brings together finalists of all the previous editions. The Alumni share resources and experiences, participate in workshops and events, and are in constant dialogue with other institutions to promote food sustainability and the active role of future generations within society.

Questions? Contact Katarzyna Dembska, bcfnyes@barillacfn.com.

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Sustainable Development Postdoc

The following announcement was received from Amy Trubek, who notes that there are several UVM Food Systems faculty affiliated with the Gund Institute. That, along with the fact that ending hunger is a sustainable development goal, ought to make this a great opportunity for food and nutrition oriented anthropologists.

POSTDOCTORAL ASSOCIATE, GUND INSTITUTE, THE UNIVERSITY OF VERMONT

The Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont (UVM) is recruiting Postdoctoral Associates for Fall 2018 to conduct research on major global environmental challenges.  We seek exceptional early-career scholars committed to connecting interdisciplinary research to real-world issues in environment and sustainability.

About the position:

Postdocs are expected to pursue rigorous, original research that spans traditional disciplines and contributes to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  Postdocs will be supervised by at least one Fellow of the Gund Institute at UVM as their advisor or co-advisor.  Co-advisors from different departments are encouraged. We expect postdocs to develop additional collaborations with other UVM scholars, and to participate actively in seminars, trainings, gatherings, and other events hosted by the institute.

These are two-year positions, given satisfactory progress in the first year. We offer an annual salary of $49,000 plus benefits, and a discretionary fund of $5,000/year to support research costs and travel. Postdocs will also have opportunities for professional development (e.g., media and communications training). Expected start date is September 1, 2018.

About the Gund Institute:

The Gund Institute is a newly expanded campus-wide center for interdisciplinary research, where more than 100 faculty, global affiliates, post-docs, and graduate students collaborate widely to understand the interactions among natural, social, and economic systems. Consistent with the mission of the Institute, we pursue projects that both advance research frontiers and address concrete environmental issues.

Eligibility and application:

Candidates must have completed their PhD by the expected start date, and no earlier than 5 years before it. Competitive candidates will have a strong record of success in their PhD program, a demonstrated commitment to interdisciplinary work, a keen interest in connecting research to policy and decisions, and high potential to become global leaders in sustainability.

If interested, first contact potential advisors from among the Gund Fellows to discuss your ideas. The best proposals are typically co-developed with potential advisors. Submit an online application by March 15, 2018, including a cover letter, CV, and research proposal.

Applications also require a letter of support from a proposed advisor. These should be emailed directly toJeannine.Valcour@uvm.edu by the applicant’s proposed advisor by March 15. Applications will be evaluated on scientific merit, potential for real-world impact, excellence of the applicant, fit with Gund Institute research themes, and feasibility.

About the University of Vermont:

The University of Vermont (UVM) is the only comprehensive university in the state and Vermont’s land-grant institution. UVM enrolls 13,000 students, including 1,500 graduate students, and attracts more than $138 million in research awards annually. The campus overlooks Lake Champlain, between the Adirondack and Green mountains, and is surrounded by the small, historical city of Burlington, perennially voted one of America’s best places to live. UVM is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer. Applications from women and people from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds are encouraged.

For more info: https://www.uvm.edu/gund/postdoctoral-fellows

 

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Review: Real Pigs

Real Pigs: Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork Brad Weiss. Duke University Press, 2016.

Neri de Kramer
University of Delaware

 

         This book is an ethnography of the various actors behind the local market for pasture-raised pork in North Carolina’s Piedmont region. It is based on fieldwork on farms, farmer’s markets, in butcher shops and restaurants. This impressive number of fields allows the author to describe the whole system of local pig production from the historic ancestry of the pigs in question to the eventual headcheese spread on crackers at the end. It offers a detailed account of the values, practices and networks that go into the creation of slow, local, food systems readers like us tend to appreciate.  

            The central objective of the book is to show how social actions and networks produce “real” pigs. To this end, the author explores all dimensions of the local pork production process (including the cultivation of the cross-breed, husbandry practices, butchery, marketing and cooking) and shows how they are connected in a network of producers and consumers and embodied by the pigs themselves in both a material and symbolic sense. This embodiment of practices and social relations is what makes these pigs real: more real than pigs raised in industrial confinement systems which are characterized by a fragmentation of history, place, animals, workers and consumers.

            The author’s ambitious theoretical approach is to combine political economic questions of production and consumption relations with phenomenological interpretations of the symbolic and embodied qualities of pastured pigs. While he does consistently show how the two are inextricably intertwined, relying heavily on Bourdieu’s theory of practice which roots the meaning of distinctive, class-affirming consumptive practices and preferences in social class position stemming from production relations, the book reads more as a phenomenological ethnography. It is important to realize this before reading this book, as it is written in dense discourse that may stump an unassuming reader. The emphasis on phenomenological interpretations might negatively affect the book’s accessibility to students and lay readers interested in the workings of local food systems.

            While the author is clearly personally invested in and enthusiastic about pastured pork in his home state, he thankfully does not romanticize or naturalize the system, the people, or the pigs in a Pollanesque way. At the same time, much as he wants to, the author is also not able to use his deep understanding of this local system to formulate a vision for a viable, revolutionary alternative to industrial hog farming confinement operations. He does show that the niche market for pastured pork emerged out of the conditions created by this system, which he describes in an historic overview in chapter 1, but this representation solidifies the distinction between the two systems rather than offering a hopeful view of the kinds of transformation that this niche market and their inspired actors might bring about in the broader system. Part of the problem is that what really motivated food activists to try to create an alternative to this system was not the working conditions and lives of the human growers and processers exploited by this system, but the environmental consequences and sustainability concerns of this way of producing food.  Weiss recognizes and honestly exposes this (unintended) racism and classism of the alternative food movement but ultimately offers no critique and no prospective solutions.

            Chapter two is about the construction of the local and describes how the networks of actors and their practices helped re-establish a connection between taste and place that was severed by the industrialization of pig farming and its reliance on enclosed confinement systems that got pigs “off the ground”. He shows in this chapter how raising pigs “on the ground” changes the meaning (and I would have added price) of the final product into local pork. In so doing, he denaturalizes the notion of terroir and shows how this is not some innate quality of a physical place, but actively constituted by the people at work in the local food system. He also describes how particular husbandry techniques help develop a distinctive taste in the pork, so that the pork from this system comes to taste of the way it was raised (“funky”, “like barnyard”): This is a lucid example of the way in which these heritage pigs embody social practices. The process of teaching consumers to discern this flavor, through branding, is also part of this and critically important, for if people could not taste the difference between industrial pork and local pork (and actually, not everybody in the book can) there would be less reason to buy it.

            Chapter 3 takes a similar denaturalizing approach to the notion of heritage. Weiss explains that it is not the actual genetic lineage of the Ossabaw Island Hog that establish its meat as local heritage pork, but the various practices, activities and discourse that give it this meaning. The meaning of this pork still stems from biology however, because certain husbandry techniques actually alter the genetic makeup of these pigs, which is another excellent example of the biocultural nature of the embodiment of practices and meaning in local pigs.

            Chapter 4 offers an ethnographic account of artisanal butchery programs that allow consumers to butcher parts of their own pig and thus gets a hands-on connection to the animal and the craft. These classes facilitate a bodily experience, not only of what it means to be an artisanal butcher, but also of the physical animal itself that is obviously missing from the experience of buying a piece of pork in a supermarket.

            Probably the most successful chapter in terms of combining political economy and phenomenology is chapter 5, which considers pork fat and how the experience of its taste motivates and gives shape to alternative modes of pig production and consumption. Though this sounds like a classic Mintzian story, Weiss delves deeper into how best to understand the sensory experience and perception of taste anthropologically, before showing how the taste of fatty pork inspired the production process that brings it into being and became an important foundation for the local market in pastured pork. He explains that taste is more than a personal and ephemeral experience, but also inherently social in nature, requiring memories, experiences, social networks and cultural capital to be recognized, appreciated, and communicated. Because of this social nature, taste can inspire social action and thus have political economic effects. He also describes how the taste of fatty pork came to stand in contrast to the industrial pork production system itself. We are reminded of the fact that many Americans do not seem to think of pork as a strongly flavorful meat, because of the way industrial pork production methods have changed pigs to yield lean bacon and long, lean tenderloins. This means that in this central North Carolina community, supermarket pork’s lack of fat has been turned into a visceral, sensory example of the inferiority of industrial production methods. By contrast, the abundant fat in pastured pigs is understood as a materialization of the superior local production process. The shared experience and appreciation of the taste of fatty pork creates and maintains these essential production and consumption networks that are vital to the success of the market, demonstrating neatly how phenomenological, as well as political economic qualities are expressed in pigs simultaneously.

            Chapter 6 describes how authenticity is derived from the way this local pork system re-establishes connections between producers and consumers with farm to fork production and between the various animal parts with snout to tail cookery. He describes how the culinary approach based on reconfiguring pork as a whole pig came about and how people and pigs are joined in production practices that incorporate the whole animal. The author also tries to describe the political economic implications of farm to fork and snout to tail activities and how these relationships are expressed in concrete qualities of local pastured pork that are appreciated by discerning consumers who thus become part of the authentic system.

            Each chapter ends with one or two profiles of people who participated in the project. They are essentially transcriptions of the interviews Weiss conducted with these people, which give the reader a sense of the author’s interpretation process. They offer an honest behind-the-scenes look into the ethnographic kitchen that typically remains hidden from view, adding transparency and giving the reader an opportunity to form her own opinions. The profiles repeat some of the information the author provides in the body of the chapter, but rather than feeling redundant they are helpful as there are a lot of details, facts, and developments to keep track of in this multi-sited ethnography.  

            Just as the history of industrial hog farming in North Carolina is illuminative of the wider changes in the American food production system, the story of local pig production in the Piedmont could be iconic of other contemporary efforts to reinvent food systems into slow, local versions. The problem is, as Weiss points out repeatedly, that this form of food provisioning is no solution to the vastness of the problems created and perpetuated by the industrial food system brought about by modern global capitalism itself. I do think that understanding local food as product of human actions and networks rather than as innate qualities of organisms or physical places offers hope, for this means local food systems could be introduced and constructed anywhere and by any group of people. I also think the methodical analytical deconstruction of human production and consumption relations, as Weiss has done here for this local food system, might be a promising avenue for exposing and challenging the nature of labor and consumption in industrial capitalist production systems today. Can what we have learned about the people in this wonderful local system help those trapped in the old industrial one?

 

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CFP: Food Insecurity in West Africa

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

The University of Ibadan, Nigeria

September 5 & 6, 2016

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

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

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

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

 

 

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