Category Archives: sustainability

Foodways and Urban Change in Latin America and the Caribbean: AAA 2013 Panel!

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by Aeleka Schortman and Amy Lasater-Wille

Please consider submitting paper abstracts for our proposed panel on Foodways and Urban Change in Latin America and the Caribbean (see full panel description below). While we focus on urbanism, we encourage the submission of research based in rural or urban areas, so long as it speaks to issues of urban change, planning, development, and the like in Latin America or the Caribbean.

We further encourage non-anthropologists and applied researchers with similar interests to submit, especially as this year’s AAA meeting theme is “Future Publics, Current Engagements.”  This theme encourages us as anthropologists to engage with scholars in related disciplines as well as with issues of pressing social, political, and economic significance.

Working Title: Foodways and Urban Change in Latin America and the Caribbean

Panel Abstract:

This panel addresses food and foodways in Latin America—here, including the Caribbean—to understand the processes, practices, and politics of urbanization and urban change in that region. Exemplifying worldwide trends, Latin America is growing increasingly urban, a transformation frequently associated with: land and resource consolidation, deepening inequalities, mounting security concerns, and growing involvement in—and dependency upon—globalized, industrialized, and inequitable agro-food systems. Today, historically unprecedented numbers of people, and city-dwellers, in particular, draw needed sustenance from novel and rapidly-changing food procurement and preparation networks. Changing metropolitan foodways present urban residents and visitors with new ways and places in which to consume, produce, or sell foods, and in which to (re)assess and (re)make the meanings of such practices. Providing far more than sustenance, food has social, symbolic, economic, and ideological value. Thus, participating in—or, alternatively, abstaining or being excluded from—eating, shopping, or laboring in urban markets, restaurants, kitchens, or informal locales can have profound social, symbolic, and economic significance. Moreover, changes in urban foodways frequently involve rural transformations, as both urban and rural residents engage with—and create—the production and distribution networks that characterize, and quite literally feed, the region’s growing cities.

Food is central to survival, daily life, and the webs of meaning, and power, that color human existence. Consequently, studies of food and foodways offer exceptional entry points through which to explore and engage with pressing issues of our time, including, here, urbanization and urban change. Latin America’s centuries-old involvement with inequitable, uneven, and increasingly globalized political-economies and agro-food systems makes the region a particularly alluring place for contemporary food-related research and scholarship. Moreover, despite great internal diversity, present (and historical) patterns of socioeconomic development, and inequity, unite portions of Latin America and the Caribbean, offering interesting fodder for both food-related analyses and discussions of regional trends. These include patterns of: foodway and demographic change; neoliberal development (and its alternatives, or backlash); deep, persistent (and frequently-racialized) socio-economic divisions; uneven/inequitable integration into regional/global political-economies; and tourism- and/or corporate-led development (amongst others).

Here, then, we explore food to shed light on the challenges, promises, and dynamic processes of urbanization and urban change in Latin America. In so doing, we engage with themes and issues of critical importance in the theory and practice of anthropology and related fields including: economics, social geography, sociology, urban planning/development, socio-economic policy, and nutrition/health. More precisely, individual panelists may address questions including: (How) are patterns of urban change—or development—implicated in shifting food acquisition, production, distribution, and consumption systems? Who benefits, or fails to benefit, from local, regional, and/or (trans)national food-related policies, programs, practices, and/or discourses? How do urban residents conceptualize and negotiate food-related constraints and opportunities, including potential paradoxes of food/nutritional scarcity amidst seeming abundance? How are Latin America’s urban foodways colored by long-entrenched (or newly emerging): socio-economic inequalities and patterns/practices of socio-economic, political, and/or spatial (geographical) exclusion (or inclusion)? And, how do people perpetuate or resist such inequities? How (and why) do city-dwellers ascribe particular meanings, or values, to specific food-related practices, policies, discourses, and/or symbolic representations? Moreover, what can studies of urban food and foodways tell us about changing—or newly emerging—economies, political systems (or visions), social movements, or global interconnections in Latin America, both urban and rural? What might studies of food reveal about the social, economic, political, and/or nutritional consequences—or implications—of existing economic models, socio-economic policies, or development programs?

DEADLINES (and Related Information):

Abstract Submission for Consideration in the Panel: Please submit proposed paper abstracts by Saturday, April 6th, 2013. All submissions should be sent to BOTH: Amy Lasater-Wille (ael337@nyu.edu) and Aeleka Schortman (schortman@uky.edu). We will respond to all interested parties by Tuesday April 9th (4/9/13) at the latest. We kindly ask that everyone abide by the April 6th deadline so that we may respond to all potential participants in a timely manner and assemble a full panel in time for the AAA abstract submission deadline (April 15, 2013).

AAA Submission Deadline: All accepted panelists must submit their own abstracts electronically to the AAA by April 15, 2013. (We will email instructions regarding how to do this.) Please note that participants must register (and pay) for the 2013 AAA meetings by that deadline as well.

Meeting Information: This year’s American Anthropological Association (AAA) Annual Meeting will be held at the Chicago Hilton in Chicago, Illinois on November 20-24, 2013. The meeting theme is Future Publics, Current Engagements.

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Filed under AAA, AAA 2013 Chicago, anthropology, Caribbean, CFP, foodways, Latin America, sustainability, urban

Behind a Forager, the Pickers: Wild Food Production’s Other Side

mushroomprices

Wild food harvesting is piece-work.

Foraged foods from the wilderness are this year’s hottest trend in natural, ethical eating. They’re lauded as more organic than organic: after all, they grow in the wild, where there aren’t just ‘approved’ pesticides and fertilizers, but none whatsoever. Growing of their own volition, these native species don’t need a farmer to tame them—and perhaps warp their purity, sapping them of taste and nutrient value.

Wild food is also, paradoxically, celebrated as the most local of foods, though the wild was once upon a time the most remote and alien of places. This sense of locality arises in the figure of the forager, the man (and almost always it is a man) whose profile makes up most media reports on wild food; the man who goes deep into the woods and brings its bounty back out, directly to you. Like the family farmer he’s wholesome, connected to the soil and its seasons. And in this way wild food becomes small-scale, fair trade, a way of supporting local economies. There aren’t any intermediaries, and no 2 500 miles, just a quick jaunt out of the city, into your local wilderness.

Who is this forager? He’s a character drawn at first glance from our collective imagination of the mushroom picker. A solitary and vaguely European, upper- or at least middle-crusty sort with a walking stick and wicker basket, perhaps accompanied by a well-trained hound that can sniff out the prey, he knows the secret patches where these sorts of things grow and will take their locations to his grave. And in this latest incarnation he’s also become a lay botanist, conjuring names and identities out of the tangle of green, bringing us closer to the miracles of nature we city-dwellers forgot from want of exposure: our plant-loving, Earth-loving Adam. With that basket he spreads the seeds and spores, helping the foods grow. At the same time, with his compass and his technical outwear and the shimmering blade of his knife, he also takes reasonable precautions in light of the animals, the elements, of getting lost: all our vague urban fears of the wilderness handily dispatched.

A commercial mushroom buyer's shack.

A commercial mushroom buyer’s shack.

But the fact of the matter is that while this man really exists, is who he says he is, and does what he appears to do, hidden behind him is a whole society of other men (or almost as often women, elders and families) who we never seem to hear about. They are the pickers. Like fruit pickers and vegetable pickers on farms, they’re often marginalized and poor, working a physically demanding and dangerous job to make ends meet the only way that seems possible. They confront the cold in threadbare sneakers and jeans they bought at Walmart, pick into a plastic bag that last held groceries or a six-pack of beer, and don’t need a compass because they know these woods well, as anyone who worked them day after day, year after year would. Their dog is a burly one designed to take on a bear, and if they carry a weapon it’s a rifle, because their knife is a tool, meant to cut stalks and stems as quickly, numerously and profitably as possible: they’re paid by the piece, and the profit always seems less than it should.

In Canada these people are most often refugees from ruined local resources economies: from shuttered sawmills and denuded oceans, from blighted reserves. In the United States they tend to be refugees of another sort, Laotians, Hmong, Vietnamese and Cambodians fleeing the still-rippling violence of the Vietnam War. In other words, the people who produce the vast majority of wild food aren’t foragers but pickers, resource workers displaced by machinations of power they did little to cause but do much to suffer. They struggle to survive in capitalism’s precarious hinterlands by gathering raw materials for the profit and use of someone more powerful. Someone somewhere else: someone in the city.

It’s hardly fair to blame anyone involved for this. The media are interested in a hot new trend; they want to find a local business that’s engaged in it, to tell about it. The owner, the forager who sells wild foods to chefs or at farmers’ markets, really is a forager; that’s why and how he is in this business. Although obviously one man is not enough to supply all of a city’s restaurants, some of the product comes from their own forays in the bush, and when the press comes knocking, they take them to the place they both love the best: the woods. They believe in wild food, in its value and uniqueness, in its healthfulness, in its superiority to the products of the global industrial food system. And in many ways, they’re right. For instance, unlike many agricultural workers, the Canadian pickers at least love their work: love being in the woods, the freedom and excitement of it all; love being their own bosses instead of working a soul-crushing job with an overseer who treats you like dirt.

Mushrooms packed in standard baskets for shipping.

Mushrooms packed in standard baskets for shipping.

What they don’t love is having all the risk and few of the rewards: having nothing to eat when nothing grows to pick; ending up stranded at the end of the season, having spent all their money on gas that’s gone, 1 000 km from home—if they have one. They don’t love trying to break into urban markets on the other side of the continent. Failing to negotiate the cultural and class differences, they are turned away at the airport when they try to ship their product because of their lack of credit and their soiled clothes. They are turned away at the restaurant for fears of contaminated or misidentified mushrooms. And so the contradictions of contemporary capitalisms gain another foothold. Once again, and this time in the realm of the most natural, most ethical, most plainly good product yet, the true nature of production and the difficult circumstances of the producers are well-veiled. The wild, that place that seemed so newly close to home, at end remains so very far removed.

Dylan Gordon (@KnowWildFood) is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Toronto, researching the ethics and economics of wellbeing in the Canadian trade of wild food products. (www.dylangordon.ca)

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Filed under anthropology, foodways, sustainability, Wild foods

Diet for a Big Storm: Reflections on Food, Waste and Hurricane Sandy

Post Storm Trash, Manhattan. Photo by Diana Mincyte.

Diana Mincyte
Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow
Center for European and Mediterranean Studies
New York University

One of the most fascinating articles on food that has been circulating in post-Sandy New York was the New York Times piece that introduced the concept of the “Sandy 5”, referring to 5 lb that the inhabitants of the Eastern seaboard are said to have put on as they grappled with challenges and losses brought about by the storm. This was due to the larger than usual amounts of food acquired and consumed before and during the storm. Not an avid blogger myself, on the day of the storm, I obsessively followed food blogs, Twitter and Facebook where my food loving friends reported how they poured themselves into preparing elaborate meals, from boeuf wellington to home made pasta to Brasilian quindin. Even more interesting was to hear about the indulgence in alcoholic drinks, ranging from the obscure mid-nineteenth century cocktails to cheap wine, a phenomenon that was evidenced in the empty shelves at wine and liquor stores across post-Sandy Brooklyn. As the storm descended upon the city, our kitchen counter too became a non-stop food assembly line, churning out new dishes every hour or so. When the winds calmed down and left behind a devastated landscape, interrupted lives and severed power lines, many shared stories of rushing to the fast food chains to eat “fast” and “bad” foods in search of comfort. As the aforementioned New York Times article documents, the power-have-nots acted “like post-apocalyptic survivalists,” compensating for losses, stress, cold and darkness.

But these stories of indulgence, abundance and over-consumption also have a darker side. They reveal a complicated relationship that our modern societies have with food and waste management infrastructures. In this sense, what Sandy did is expose a particular organization of social and economic relations as well as render the material infrastructures that support these relations visible. It threw into sharp relief the unequal distribution of risks when repair and service teams were sent to the most affluent areas, while the people who manned these teams came from the places that were ravaged and destroyed by the storm. Many in the most devastated communities waited for weeks for the power to come back, and without power there was no water, no heat, no refrigerator, and in many cases, no stove. Stepping up full force, the Occupy movement with its anti-establishment critiques and mutual aid principles brought fresh blood and organizational skills into coordinating relief efforts and delivering food, water and other resources, propelling the questions of justice, morality and responsibility into the public discourse.

Sandy also showed that the early fears of mass food shortages were unfounded. In this sense, drinking water supply and food deliveries seem to have worked surprisingly well. With an exception of several larger supermarkets, most notably in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the low-lying areas of Manhattan, Staten Island, the Rockaways, Queens, and parts of New Jersey that were badly damaged and flooded, food markets opened without major delays and were well-stocked and capable of continuing service.

But while Sandy’s impact on food and water deliveries signaled the resilience of New York’s food delivery infrastructures, it is the removal of waste and recycling materials that stalled. Walking in post-Sandy New York meant not only maneuvering around fallen branches, displaced household objects and crushed cars, but also around the garbage and recycling bags filled to the brim with cans, bottles, milk cartons, food delivery containers and pizza boxes. The first picture I include here was taken from my office window in Manhattan exhibiting a line of black trash bags next to the clear recycling bags on the street curb. Classified as a potential hazard to public health, waste collection was considered a priority and garbage was picked up within two to four days after the schedule. It should also be noted that garbage pick-up trucks were out and collecting garbage even as the storm started in earnest in order to prevent it from flying away.

The second picture is of a street in a Brooklyn neighborhood capturing the

Recycling, post-Sandy. Photo by Diana Mincyte.

ubiquitous piles of recycling materials that accumulated after the storm. These recycling materials are here because the city workers and vehicles were diverted to work on other, more pressing tasks. After missing just one pick up of recycling, the piles of recycling materials often reached four or five feet in height in front of every residence and business.

It is these delays in collecting waste and recycling due to Sandy that made the wastefulness of the post-industrial consumer lifestyles acutely visible. While the city has one of the oldest and best organized recycling infrastructures in the country with the recycling rate between 16% and 18%, the issue that begs the question is just how much food packaging is necessary. As Susanne Freidberg, Julie Guthman, David Goodman, Melanie E. DuPuis, Zsuzsa Gille and Andrew Szasz, among others have shown, “freshness,” “hygiene” and “quality” have reshaped the ways in which food is produced, transported and distributed, leading to the increased reliance on elaborate and costly packaging technologies. And then there are the water bottles, soda cans, disposable cups, shopping bags and a wide range of produce such as grapes, tomatoes and zucchinis sold in styrofoam trays covered with plastic to make them into fresh-looking display items.

In addition to the packaging materials, a large proportion of food has been wasted. An earlier post on this blog by David Giles, tells us a story of recovering through dumpster diving. And even the city recognizes it as a problem. A study sponsored by New York City finds that almost 18% of all residential refuse is food and food scraps. Another recent study by Kevin D. Hall et al.  shows that one quarter of the total freshwater consumption goes for the production of food that ends up in the trash can.

As we reflect on the piles of waste and recycling materials that dotted New York City after the storm, it becomes clear that the abundance and diversity of food culture that makes this city into a thriving culinary center cannot be understood without the work that goes into maintaining its infrastructures and the large footprint that it leaves on the environment. In this sense, it is ironic that the storm that transformed several New York neighborhoods into a heap of trash was itself fed by the wasteful culture of post-industrial consumer society that defines this city. To put it differently, the sophisticated gourmand and consumer culture and a dizzying array of delicacies available in New York are also its worst enemy that makes it vulnerable to the changing climate.

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Filed under anthropology, disaster, Food Studies, Food waste, garbage, protest, sustainability

Smokin’ Fish, Smokin’ Culture

by David Beriss

Is it possible to be an authentic Indian in a society overrun with tourists who want to buy bits and pieces of Indian culture? Are those bits and pieces authentic if they are manufactured in Asia? How can people maintain their traditional foodways if the government forbids them from catching enough fish? Can a balance be found between the needs of native fishers and public policies designed to preserve fisheries? Is there room for any kind of distinctive cultural identity in a globalized, touristic, heavily regulated society like that of the contemporary United States? Also, are salmon some sort of deity?

Cory Mann. Photo from Native American Public Communications.

These are the kinds of questions raised by the fascinating film “Smokin’ Fish.” The documentary is the result of a collaboration between Luke Griswold-Tergis and Cory Mann. Having finished an undergraduate degree in anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, Griswold-Tergis set off to Alaska, where he met Mann. Mann is just the kind of person who makes it hard to define culture. He is Tlingit and an entrepreneur with a business designing tchotchkes based on native Alaskan designs. His products are manufactured in Asia for resale in Alaska. Yet even as he pursues his global efforts at mass marketing native culture, he is also deeply engaged in exploring his own cultural identity. The collaboration between Griswold-Tergis and Mann has produced “Smokin’ Fish,” a documentary that explores the connections between native culture, global capitalism, colonialist exploitation of indigenous people, the environment, sustainable fishing and entrepreneurialism. Oh, and smoked salmon. And bears.

Smoking Fish. Photo from Native American Public Communications.

Mann seems to be quite a dynamic entrepreneur, pursuing several different business ventures at any given time, most with some sort of tie-in to Tlingit culture. But for a few months each summer, he closes things down in Juneau and heads back to Klukwan, where his extended family lives. There he works with members of his clan to catch and smoke salmon. The fish, both alive and smoked, are central to the film’s story. Mann asserts at various points that Tlingit worship the fish. The smokehouses they build seem central to their foodways. But this is not all about subsistence fishing. Some Tlingit engage in what appears to be commercial fishing. The smoked fish are also used in trade with other native Alaskans.

The film subtly weaves in the kind of ethnographic details that highlight what is distinctive—and unexpected—about contemporary Tlingit life. Mann explains that his mother took him to San Diego as a small child, where they lived what seems like a counter-cultural kind of life, more hippy than Indian. He never knew his father, who was white. At some point an aunt retrieved him and brought him back to Alaska, where he was raised by a large group of female relatives. This makes sense since, as Mann points out, the Tlingit are matrilineal. It is that kind of detail, along with discussions of clans and houses (Mann is a member of the Eagle Thunderbird Clan) and about the ways in which people build and maintain relationships (by helping build and maintain smokehouses, for instance), that remind us that even in a society heavily dominated by Euro-American values, groups like the Tlingit retain at least some aspects of cultural distinctiveness.

At the same time, the Tlingit continue to struggle with their relationship with non-native authorities. They must deal with the limits on fishing imposed by the state of Alaska, including both licenses and limits that would make it impossible for them to catch enough fish to meet their needs (these are very much ongoing debates, if recent news out of Alaska is any indication). The conflict here surpasses any kind of stereotypes about native relationships with the environment vs. rapacious outsiders. The Tlingit are presented as complex people with interests in salmon that are both traditional and commercial, not as natural environmentalists. Mann also must struggle with federal tax authorities, who do not seem to understand the unusual way in which he runs his business. He has to deal with border officials, as he goes to visit and trade with other natives in nearby Canada. I should note that he does all this while displaying a wry sense of humor and while using an astonishing array of vehicles, all of which appear to be in dire need of repair.

Filmed mostly in Alaska, much of the movie is quite breathtaking. Mann does his fishing from a canoe, in areas of stunning natural beauty. There is an amazing number of eagles flying around the region, as well as both brown and grizzly bears competing with the people for the fish. In addition, members of Mann’s extended family provide a wide range of additional voices, commenting on the history of native/nonnative relations, the exploitation of Tlingit lands, and the challenges they face in maintaining any kind of attachment to their heritage.

The movie is currently traveling around the U.S. Details on where it may go next can be found here. The filmmakers have a Facebook page as well. “Smokin’ Fish” would make a very useful addition to a variety of anthropology courses, including any food and culture course, as well as introductory cultural anthropology classes, courses on indigenous cultures or even on globalization. It can be used to start discussions on food, kinship, identity and, of course, culture. I recommend, however, making sure you have some smoked fish on hand when you show it. The audience will be hungry.

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Filed under Alaska, anthropology, culture, economics, film, fish, food security, hunting, indigenous people, media, seafood, sustainability

Hunting for Anthropologists: Deer Hunting and the Local Food Movement

By Elizabeth Danforth, MPH PhD, Iowa Food Systems Council

picture by Elizabeth Danforth

The average hunter is white, rural and male.  His father hunted, and he likely hunts close to home.  This description perfectly describes my husband, although he also tracks the mileage of his meals, knows more about local microbrew seasonals than field dressing a deer, and is married to a nutritional anthropologist.  This weekend, for the first time ever, he’s joining his dad and uncles in Iowa’s early shotgun deer season.  My husband is part of a slowly growing segment of the local food movement which has begun to explore hunting as part of the larger local food movement.  As of yet however, this movement has been reticent to embrace hunting as an integral part of sustainable eating.  Authors such as Michael Pollan have ventured into hunting to provide anecdotal examples in popular media, but the concept has been largely ignored elsewhere, most notably by anthropologists.  A quick search of recent anthropological articles related to hunting supplies a multitude of articles related to Inuit groups, Amazonian small land holders, and indigenous Nicaraguan communities. However, anthropologists have provided virtually nothing related to the 12.5 million people who currently hunt in the United States (US Fish and Wildlife Service. 2006. National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation).  In one of the few ethnographies of American hunting culture, Marc Boglioli highlights the traditional anthropological division between the ‘noble savage’ and the ‘ignoble Westerner’.  Researchers and the public-at-large celebrate animist spirituality of indigenous hunting and traditional subsistence patterns in the ethnographic other, but run from the modern American hunting industry and “you might be a redneck if…..” jokes.  (You might be a redneck if…..you’ve even been involved in a custody battle over a hunting dog.)

Despite the lack of anthropological interest in modern American deer hunting, it has the potential to be an important and powerful part of the local food movement and sustainable food systems.  The white-tailed deer population in the United States was decimated by the beginning of the 20th century.  In the intervening 110 years, this population has grown exponentially.  According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, left unchecked, which it largely would be without hunters, deer populations can double about every three years.  Human management of deer is essential to modern herds.  More than 300,000 deer live in my home state of Iowa before one third are culled every hunting season.  The vast food resources and essential ecological management provide important opportunities to address the pillars of the local food movement.

While deer hunting has been largely ignored by anthropologists and sustainable food system advocates, several interesting ventures do exist.  These include Deer Hunting for Locavores, a class tailored to urbanites who grew up outside of traditional American hunting culture and who are searching for local food options.  Another is the Bull Moose Hunting Society.  This group aims to expose urban foodies to wild game food resources, reconnect urban eaters to nature and recenter hunting as an essential part of local sustainable food systems.  Deer hunting is also an important contributor to local food security through venison donation programs, which exist in all 50 states as well as several areas in Canada.  These programs provide existing hunters with the opportunity to hunt more and reduce waste.  They can have a powerful impact on food security.  For example, 1.1 million meals were donated through the Iowa DNR’s Help Us Stop Hunger (HUSH) program.

Within the local food movement, there is the need to explore the many logistical and cultural issues surrounding deer hunting.  These include the cultural acceptability of venison as a food resource among food aid recipients, safety concerns of lead shot, and the cost and training required to hunt, as well as cultural constructions such as gender and ethnicity in relationship to hunting.  Additionally, the cultural divide between traditional American hunters and the more cosmopolitan local food movement locavores is important to understand in order to combine the two in a sustainable marriage that highlights and celebrates both as valid cultural traditions worthy of anthropological inquiry.  Maybe then my husband and I won’t have to answer our foodie friends’ inevitable questions, “he’s doing what?” and “are you OK with this?”

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Filed under anthropology, food security, Food Studies, hunting, nutrition, sustainability

Contaminated cuisines and the omnivore’s dilemma

The Egg of Death?

As a service to our readers and with the permission of the editors of Anthropology News, we have decided to republish each month’s SAFN column from that publication.  This, then, is the December 2010 column, edited by Kenneth Maes and Alyson Young.

Contaminated cuisines and the omnivore’s dilemma
By George Armelagos (Emory U) and Kenneth Maes (Brown U)

Much media and scholarly attention has been paid to obesity epidemics. More recently, worry over food safety in terms of pathogenic infection and toxicity has assumed prominence on par with concerns about over-nutrition. George Armelagos, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology at Emory University and recipient of the AAA’S 2008 Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service, recently took on both of these issues in an article published in the Journal of Anthropological Research (66[2]:161-186), entitled “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Evolution of the Brain and the Determinants of Food Choice.” The article critiques Michael Pollan’s popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma for ignoring the importance of infectious epidemics caused by industrial food systems in the US. Below, George Armelagos and Kenneth Maes discuss the omnivore’s dilemma in light of last summer’s massive salmonella outbreak in the US egg supply.

Omnivores have a predilection for a varied diet, but this represents a challenge given that new foods are often feared for their potentially poisonous and deadly qualities. This is the omnivore’s dilemma: the confrontation between neophilia and neophobia.

The omnivore’s dilemma for our primate cousins is instructive. The rainforest may seem to be an unlimited source of food, much like a supermarket. But many plants have evolved toxins for their own protection. In 1978, Daniel Janzens commented that the primate world is not colored various shades of green, but instead colored morphine, caffeine, tannin, phenol, oxalic acid, and saponin. Thus potential jungle foods demand careful discrimination.

The invention of cuisine was an essential process in human biocultural evolution. As a cultural system, cuisine determines items in nature that are potentially edible and how they are processed into food, flavored or enhanced, and eaten in a culturally-correct manner.  Cuisine is thus an attempted solution to the omnivore’s dilemma. But not all aspects of a cuisine are adaptive. Aspects of an industrialized food system can be severely maladaptive—and thus the omnivore’s dilemma remains unvanquished for modern humans.

This is illustrated by last summer’s recall of a half-billion eggs after nearly 1300 cases of salmonella infection were reported among US consumers. This massive number of eggs came from only two factory farms in Iowa, which in turn had a common supplier of chicken feed. This attests to the extent of conglomeration in the food industry, driven by a desire for cheaper food, which incentivizes the cutting of safety corners. Neither factory involved in the recall had ever been inspected by the top federal and state agencies responsible for food safety oversight (for details, click here).

In last summer’s salmonella epidemic, hens were individually exposed to infected rodent feces, leading to salmonella infection of their ovaries and thus their developing eggs. In previous salmonella outbreaks spread by chicken eggs, the mode of transmission involved contamination of the outer shells of already-laid eggs. This is controlled by more stringent procedures in preparing eggs for market. Unfortunately, such procedures cannot prevent the infection of hens’ ovaries and thus eggs that are infected “from the inside-out.”

In 1999, Paul Mead and colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths in the US each year. Salmonella, Listeria, and Toxoplasma are responsible for 1,500 of these deaths, while the majority of deaths and illnesses are caused by unknown food-borne agents, including toxins, viruses, and other bacteria. For Mead and colleagues, the importance of these unknown agents cannot be overstated. Yet 63% of US shoppers feel that foods sold in supermarkets are safe, though this percentage may be dropping.

Throughout human evolution, contaminated or poisonous foods have posed a problem despite the attempts of cuisine to keep them out of our bodies. Michael Pollan’s popular writings overlook this aspect of the omnivore’s dilemma. For Pollan, the dilemma faced by humans in the U.S. and around the world involves the long-term health consequences of over-consuming sugars, fats and salt. Over-nutrition is certainly important, but is only part of the dietary dilemma faced by people today. A complete understanding of the omnivore’s dilemma must include the more immediate dangers posed by infectious microbes and toxins in industrialized food systems. Perhaps rainforests and supermarkets share a fundamental similarity after all.

Please send your news and items of interest to Kenneth Maes or Alyson Young.

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Filed under anthropology, culture, economics, food policy, food security, nutrition, obesity, SAFN Member Research, sustainability

Seafood Solidarity

Even before I wrote up the restaurant guide for the upcoming AAA meeting in New Orleans, people were asking me about what they can eat here.  My advice has been to eat local (no chains!).  Many New Orleans restaurants—and not just the high end ones—work hard to source their products locally.  You can get food from regional farmers all over town.  New Orleans is one of the last places in the United States where you can eat local seafood.  If you eat locally here, you are very likely to eat well.

However, the BP oil spew from last summer has people concerned about the safety of our seafood.  The government has tried hard to certify that safety and assure people that they can eat the food.  This is problematic: decades of pathetically bad government oversight in nearly every industry has led many of us to be skeptical of their judgment.  After all, it seems that lax government oversight was partially responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place.

So what should you do?

I know what I will do: I will continue to eat Gulf seafood.  Despite my misgivings about food regulation in the U.S., Gulf seafood is under more scrutiny now than most of the rest of the food—including, no doubt, imported seafood—that you will find at your local grocery store.  I also believe that we need to make a commitment to local seafood (and to local food in general) if our food system is going to be sustainable over the long term.  We need to make it possible for people to make a living in the seafood industry in this region.  Frankly, I also trust the fishers, shrimpers, oystermen, seafood retailers and chefs who provide these products locally.  I hope you will eat Gulf seafood while you are here.  You also need to be an active voice for strong regulation of the industries that bring us these disasters and for real regulation of our food system.  We need to work to insure the safety of our food.  We also need to make sure that the people who provide us with that food can make a good living.

Meanwhile, here are a few links to thought provoking material on the web that may help you think about these issues.

One place to start is this fascinating article from the Times-Picayune about how the oldest oyster processing business in the U.S., the 135 year old P&J Oyster Company, is adapting to the situation.  Brett Anderson, the paper’s restaurant critic, has produced a number of thoughtful and moving pieces on the topic.  Here is another one, this time on the impact of the spew on the crab market as far away as Maryland.

This article on the problems involved in restoring the oyster industry while simultaneously trying to save the wetlands is fascinating.  Our problems are deeper than just this oil spill.

If you are interested in the latest reports on the status of fisheries, take a look at the USFDA web site on the topic or at the latest news from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.  Here is a press release from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab about research showing that the oil was consumed by bacteria and may, as a consequence, have entered the food chain in the Gulf.  How far it goes—and what the consequences might be—is still unclear.  The Times-Picayune has reported on this as well.  Here is a link to a group that is very skeptical about the safety of our seafood and about claims that the Gulf has been cleaned up.

Our chefs think you should eat the seafood.  I know they are interested parties, but they also eat the seafood themselves.  Here is a moving piece from Chef Stephen Stryjewski of Cochon and Cochon Butcher.

posted by David Beriss

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Filed under AAA 2010 New Orleans, anthropology, disaster, economics, food policy, food security, gulf of mexico, seafood, sustainability