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Food prices on the rise (again)

Farmer's market produce, photo by David Beriss

Two years after the vicious spike in food prices, global food prices are once again on the rise. Are we going to see another food crisis?

The current rise in prices stems largely from the prospects of a lower than expected wheat harvest in Russia, the consequence of high temperatures and drought. The reduced demand attracts speculators who further push up the prices. Supply is further reduced when nations implement export bans. In response to an imminent poor harvest, today Russia imposed a ban on exporting grains. By shutting the door on exports, nations hope to keep the food in country to feed their citizens. This was a strategy adopted by several countries during the 2008 food crisis, which placed further upward pressure on prices. By disallowing exports, the global grain supply suddenly gets a lot smaller with no concomitant change in demand, and prices rise. When Russia decided to ban grain exports prices reacted predictably: they soared to their highest levels in two years” reaching “the highest level since August 29, 2008”. August 2008 is notable because it marks the height of the 2008 global food crisis, the food price index for cereals reached a whopping 238 (compared to 167 in August 2007, and 85 in 2000). Russia did not just ban exports on wheat; corn, barley, rye and flour were also banned from export, with predictable impacts on corn and other grains: Today corn futures shot to a 13 month high. It is likely that fertilizer will also increase in price as declining yields drive increased fertilizer applications.

Things do not (yet?) look as dire as 2007/8 and some will (again) benefit from the price increase. US wheat farmers, for instance, will likely gain as prices for their exports increase and rural producers in low-income countries may as well. But, the global poor could again suffer and those at the margins of poverty could be driven over the edge. Even small increases in food prices translate into human suffering. The International Fund for Agricultural Development estimates that a one percent increase in the price of staples results in 16 million more food insecure people in the world. A rise in food prices so close on the heels of the last price spike also threatens those households that are still rebuilding their livelihoods.

The causes of the 2007/8 crisis and the current price increase do not entirely overlap. The conversion of grains to fuels is thought to have been a driving force in the 2008 food crisis, for instance. Speculation in agricultural futures markets however may be a common factor. The role of hoarding and speculation in the 2008 food crisis has been widely debated, with mixed evidence on its role. Some suggest that the role was minimal, while others believe speculation and hoarding played significant roles. (Fredrick Kaufman has written a wonderful piece on this for Harpers called The Food Bubble: How Wall St starved millions and got away with it, available in full, alas, only to subscribers.) The current rapid price increase, however, seems to be unambiguously driven by speculation.

This is a situation to watch closely, especially if other countries begin to impose similar export bans. It might also be a good time to revisit the issue of the commodification of food and to think on how we can avoid food price spikes. As nutritional anthropologists it might also be a time to think about how our work can contribute to policy debates and to the popular understanding of the local impacts of global market forces.

Posted by Craig Hadley

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Food in Bloom

One of the best food conferences of the year promises to be even better in 2010.

The 12th annual joint conference of the Association for the Study of Food and Society and the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society will be joined this year by the annual meeting (first, if I am not mistaken) of the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition.  The sponsors of this wonderful blog, in other words.

The conference itself is June 2 to June 5 in scenic Bloomington, Indiana.  The host institution, Indiana University, is home to some of the leading scholars in food studies and should make for a nice setting for people to think about food.  I have heard that there are some surprisingly good things to eat there too.  In my experience, Indiana is one of the best places in the country for sweet corn, but I suppose it is too early in the year for that.

Meanwhile, check out the conference program.  The panels and papers represent the cutting edge of food studies, across several disciplines.  There will be papers on sustainability, on food propaganda, on Big Food (Wal-Mart, for example), food education, nutrition, food coops, famine, social media, restaurants, farmer’s markets, cookbooks, national identity, etc.  SAFN has sponsored several panels, which we have listed below.

There are also a number of interesting side activities at the conference, including tours in the vicinity that explore food security, “grass” farms that take unusual approaches to raising dairy and meat, visits to artisanal breweries, and what looks like a pleasant opportunity to take a boat ride and eat BBQ.  You can go on a foraging tour, looking for seasonal eats in the surrounding wilderness (is there wilderness in Indiana?).  The heartland at its best.  There are museum tours, receptions, a banquet…and a workshop on how to teach culinary improvisation.

Finally, there will be a keynote address from Will Allen, 2008 winner of a MacArthur fellowship and innovative urban farmer.  This may be one of the keys to the future of food and I am really looking forward to his talk.

This promises to be a really great conference.  If you can get yourself to Bloomington, I think you will be rewarded with a lot to think about and a great time.

I’ve listed the SAFN-sponsored panels below.  There are other anthropologists participating in non-SAFN panels (we are everywhere!) and, of course, there is just a staggering amount of interesting work to hear at this conference.  Don’t miss it!

(Re)defining Food in an Era of Dietary Change

Black, Rachel  “Amaro: a boozy, bitter history of digestivi from the pharmacy to the bar”

Johnston, Susan L  “What is a vegetable?”

Yates-Doerr, Emily  “The complexity of reduction: perspectives on nourishment in the Guatemalan Highlands”

Zycherman, Ariela  “Indirect effects of regional development on diet: redefining food among the Tsimané”

Agriculture as education

Altshul,Katarina S.  “Life’s a garden…. dig it: Youth perspectives on crisis and food systems”

McCollum, Timothy J.  “Dirt in the Classroom, Thought in the Field: Civic Agriculture as Pedagogy in a Liberal Arts Context”

Niewolny, Kim L. , Susan F. Clark  “Restoring Community Foodsheds in Unlikely Places: Challenges and Possibilities of Civic Agriculture As a Concept For Higher Education Curriculum”

Food, Identity, and Place: Local production and cross-pollination

Fajans, Jane  “Açaí: from the Amazon to the world”

Hall, Olivia  “Preserving Plums, Preserving Place: Traditional Food Products in Poland and the Europe of Regions”

Haupt, Timothy  “Chinese food in Berlin – from both sides of the kitchen door”

From Global to Local and Back Again: Pan-American Perspectives on Rice and Beans

Beriss, David  “Red Beans and Rebuilding:  An Iconic Dish, Memory and Culture in New Orleans”

Berleant, Riva  “Rice and Beans in the Eastern Caribbean”

Montero, Carla Guerron  “All in One Pot: The Place of Rice and Beans in Panama’s Regional and National Cuisine”

Preston-Werner, Theresa  “Defending National Foodways: Laying Claim to Tradition in Costa Rica”

Wilk, Richard, Discussant

Family nutrition

Benyshek, Daniel C.  “Human Placenta: From Biohazard to Food and Medicine for Mom”

Namie, Joylin  “Public Displays of Affection:  Mothers and Requests for Junk Food from Children”

Sellen, Daniel W.  “Complementary feeding, evolution and baby food marketing”

Food and meaning: Taste, ethnicity, memory

Pérez, Ramona Lee  “Seeing with Sabor: Flavor in/of Latino New York”

Valora, Amanda  “Plates in Hand and Mind– Food and Memory in Copacabana, Bolivia”

Weinreb, Alice  “‘Native foods’ and ‘authentic recipes’ in postwar West Germany: The racial politics of gustatory authenticity after the Third Reich”

Yamin-Pasternak, Sveta  “The Rotten Renaissance: Aged Foods and the Importance of Their (Re)Acquired Taste in post-Soviet Chukotka”

Eating on the Edges while Farming in the Center: Alternative Agriculture in Postsocialist Societies

Caldwell, Melissa L.  “Growing the Nation: Fresh Food, Organic Capitalism, and Community Organizing in Russian Gardens”

Jung, Yuson  “Ambivalent Consumers and Niche Producers: Organic Food Movement in Postsocialist Bulgaria”

Klein, Jakob “Reconnecting with the Countryside? ‘Alternative’ Food Networks with Chinese Characteristics”

Watson, James L.  “Discussant”

Social Constructions of Prenatal Nutrition

Chrzan, Janet  ““My baby doesn’t like pork, because her dad is Muslim”: Beliefs about food intake, digestion and infant outcomes among African American teen gravidas”

Moreno-Black, Geraldine and Melissa Cheyney “Food is More than Nutrition: Nutritional Counseling and the Language of Prenatal Diet in Midwifery and Obstetric Practice”

Vallianatos, Helen “Feeding Our Babies, Feeding Our Selves:  Food, Reproduction and Identity among Immigrant Women”

SAFN ROUNDTABLE: Just Food? How Louisville Kentucky organized for food justice for all.

Moskowitz, Karyn; Lisa Markowitz, Yvonne Jones, Jenrose Fitzgerald, Joshua Jennings


Feltault, Kelly  “Dark Skin, Safe Seafood & Entrepreneurial Citizens: Racializing HACCP and Development Policy in Thailand.”

Katz, Esther  “Threatened sustainability of the Rio Negro food system (Brazilian Amazon)”

Richard, Analiese  ““Trasgénicos, ¡Ni Maiz!”: Genetic Risk and the Body Politic in Mexico’s Food Sovereignty Movement”

Rosing, Howard  “Ataca el ácido úrico (Uric Acid Attack): Nutritional Beliefs, Imported Pinto Bean Sales and the Political Economy of Domestic Bean Avoidance in the Dominican Republic”

Reconstructing Local Food Systems to Provide for All

Bomba, Megan  “Ya no está sufriendose por la comida (No longer suffering for food): How Can Home Food Production Improve Food Security and Nutrition in Rural, Coastal Ecuador”

Cunningham, Sarah  “So You Want to Start a Campus Food Pantry?  Local food for food security”

Daye, Rebecka  “Canastas Comunitarias in Ilaló, Ecuador”

Gross, Joan E.  “Discursive Tensions in the Development of a Local Food Movement”

Posted by David Beriss

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Shrimps and Earl

Shrimps in earl, photo by David Beriss

Watching the BP Oil Spew slowly unfold, I started to wonder about our relationship to food and oil (“earl” if you tawk rite) here in south Louisiana.  Food activists have observed that Americans are increasingly detached from the sources of their food.  The people who produce seafood, meat and vegetables are invisible in the supermarket and the packaged products show no trace of work or human hands. Of course, this is largely true here too.

Except for seafood.  As I mentioned in my last note, our seafood is usually from around here, fresh, affordable and recognizable.  People in south Louisiana often fish for themselves or, if they don’t, they get fish from neighbors and friends who do.  And it is damn good.  Sometimes we buy our shrimp at the grocery store, but we also get it from the shrimper directly, parked on the side of the road, with an ice chest in the back of a pickup truck.  Or at the shrimp lot in Westwego, a town on the West Bank of the Mississippi, in the suburbs of New Orleans where shrimpers gather with their trucks.  This is also true of crabs and other fish.  We know the people who catch our seafood personally.  When my students read Paul Durrenberger’s excellent book “Gulf Coast Soundings,” about shrimpers, they add their own insights, because many of them have family in the business.

I thought about this as I was driving to work this morning.  I thought that maybe this was why we felt violated by the oil industry and its apparent disregard for safety and the environment.  Or why we are angry at the government for giving up on regulating industries.

But then I thought something else.  For most Americans, oil is also a mysterious product that appears, out of nowhere, in the form of gasoline, conveniently available for their cars.  It comes from foreigners.  Which is true, but not the whole truth.  Oil comes from the Gulf of Mexico.  It is explored and extracted by people…who are our neighbors and friends.  We all know people who work offshore, on the rigs like the one that exploded, as well as geologists, engineers and others who work in the industry.  Full disclosure: a couple years ago, my wife worked briefly as a computer consultant at Shell, which maintains a very large presence in New Orleans.  Shell sponsors our famous Jazz and Heritage Festival (“presented by Shell”).  The oil industry employs thousands of people here, probably just as many as the seafood industry.  Some people work in both industries.  It is one of the main sources of tax revenue for the state of Louisiana, a fact that makes those of us working in public higher education depressingly dependent on the price of oil for our budgets.

One of the more amazing festivals in Louisiana is the annual Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival, in Morgan City.  This appetizingly named event has been going on for the last 75 years and, as the web site states, “The festival also emphasizes the unique way in which these two seemingly different industries work hand-in-hand culturally and environmentally in this area of the ‘Cajun Coast.'”

An observation that ought to make you think about some of the oppositions we have been using to frame this spill.

The oil industry is clearly responsible for a great deal of the environmental destruction we face along the Gulf Coast.  At a distance, it may seem simple to criticize this giant industry for its destruction of our otherwise wonderful way of life…except that we are them.  We don’t just buy their products.  We work at making them.  Even those of us who don’t work in the oil industry directly are dependent on their revenues.  We have chosen to build our economy around the kind of industry that can and has destroyed our environment and culture.   We have given the industry an enormous amount of support.  Maybe we have allowed ourselves to be sold a bill of goods by our (suddenly very pro-environment) leaders.  But we should not forget that we picked these people to lead us.  Their way is not the only way, a fact that we have not yet learned here in Louisiana.

Oil and shrimp.  Louisiana—and the whole Gulf Coast—needs to look in the mirror.  This disaster is personal in a lot of ways that may make us uncomfortable.  Getting BP to pay for this is a great idea.  But untangling oil and seafood in our economy and in our culture will be a far greater challenge.  And the subject of another blog posting.

Posted by David Beriss


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A Genetic Modification of Europe?

After years of resistance, including a WTO dispute in which the Panel of the Dispute Settlement Body of the Organization condemned the European Communities to stop its moratorium on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), Europe is finally surrendering.

The ban on GMOs by the European Community was in place from 1998 and 2004. Since then, a new regulatory framework has re-launched the authorization process for GM food and feed. Since the entry into force of the Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on genetically modified food and feed (Regulation No 1829/2003) (establishing a pro-active authorization process for GM food products), a total of 60 applications have been submitted. In response, and upon 15 scientific opinions issued by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), 7 authorizations have been granted for GM products and another 8 are pending at different stages of the regulatory approval procedure.

None of these authorizations managed to achieve a qualified majority in either the Regulatory Committee or the Council on genetically modified food and feed. The regulatory procedures of the European Commission (described in Article 5.6 of the Comitology Decision) outlines the procedures for the exercise of implementing powers conferred on the European Commission European:

“5.6 The Council may, where appropriate in view of any such position, act by qualified majority on the proposal, within a period to be laid down in each basic instrument but which shall in no case exceed three months from the date of referral to the Council.

If within that period the Council has indicated by qualified majority that it opposes the proposal, the Commission shall re-examine it. It may submit an amended proposal to the Council, re-submit its proposal or present a legislative proposal on the basis of the Treaty.

If on the expiry of that period the Council has neither adopted the proposed implementing act nor indicated its opposition to the proposal for implementing measures, the proposed implementing act shall be adopted by the Commission.”

Each of the authorizations  for GMOs were thus adopted on the basis of the third paragraph of article 5.6. This process does not properly guarantee democratic decision-making, as the Commission is not adequately accountable to citizens, nor is it appointed by a democratic and representative body.

In March 2010, the EC Commission approved a decision aimed at authorizing the production of a genetically-modified potato developed by BASF. This decision sparked a great deal of attention as it was the first to address a seed. All previous decisions had referred to foods and feed, that is, final products, and now the authorization concerns a living modified organism.

GMOs are highly politicized and invoke a range of emotions. Let me summarize the main questions and concerns that often arise around GMO regulation:

  1. Human Health: we do not know much about the long term impacts of GMO crops, food and feed on human health. Moreover, many studies suggest that they tend to facilitate allergies as they incorporate traits of different species in the same organism. In addition, most of the negative results of scientific tests made on GMOs are not made public, as they are conducted by the laboratories of the companies producing them. For an independent assessment see Arpad Pusztai’s research on risks for human health posed by GMOs:
  2. Ethics: Humans have always manipulated nature: agriculture itself is a biotechnology but selective plant breeding is a far cry from transgenic manipulation. Are we sure we want this and who has the authority to make such decisions?
  3. Biodiversity and Environment: there is the issue of cross-contamination as GM seeds move from one field to another, modifying crops. In addition, this method of plant production has the effect of standardizing food and reducing diversity. Finally, GMOs are at times designed to contain insecticides (i.e. BT maize from Monsanto) but many of the organisms harmed by these crops play a fundamental role in local ecologies and ecosystems.
  4. Agriculture: the GM model responds to and supports an industrialized and reductionist approach. This approach has proven to have detrimental impacts on localized, traditional and organic farming. Faults in the industrial food systems are increasingly being revealed and many are turning back to non-industrial modes of production to ensure soil quality, food security, animal husbandry, water quality, culture and health.
  5. Socio-economics: GMOs can be “privatized” with patent and royalties to be paid out by users. Thus, products of nature, which are normally common, become private and protected by intellectual property norms.

This very basic and general review is enough to show that there are too many unresolved problems to leave GMOs to market forces and without further public discussion, input, authorization and control. In addition, such regulation must be democratic, transparent and accountable. It is necessary to understand who make decisions around this issue, how they decide and in the name of whom.

So how did the EU originally react to all this? With a very complicated system of authorization.

This system involves Member States and Communitarian Institutions, above all the European Food Safety Authority (ESFA). Application are be filed to the competent authority of a Member State, and then are passed to the EFSA. The EFSA performs a scientific assessment and delivers an independent non-binding opinion on the submitted substance. Finally, the European Commission decides, involving the Council and, eventually, a Committee. The system has positive qualities, for example the involvement of either Member States or EC Institutions. In addition, it admits the application of the precautionary principle. However, it lacks transparency and accountability. Finally, also EFSA has a lot of de facto power as their opinions – even if not formally binding – have a considerable weight in the decision making, most of which depend on the prevailing orientation inside the Authority.

Therefore, Europe is trying to resist GM products, but it is slowly opening up. Moreover, some Member States – like Spain (which currently holds the presidency of the EU)  and Holland – are not vocally opposed to GMOs and are going as far as to push for the opening up of the market to GM food and feed. Since the EU is the main Western power trying to restrict GMOs, we have to ask: How long will the ultimate bulwark against a new Green Revolution that will further change our lives towards agro-industry, standardization, environmental uncertainties, unsafe food, and corporate control of our food systems last?

Posted by Dario Bevilacqua

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Join us!

Now’s the time!

Many of you will probably soon be renewing your AAA memberships (the Annual Meeting paper deadline is April 1). When you do, we ask you to also renew your membership with SAFN– or join us if you’re not already a member.

We’re a great community with wide-ranging interests in food, nutrition, health, agriculture, and other related topics (we’ve also been known to feed our members really well after business meetings). By signing up as a SAFN member you’ll be able to:

  • Access the valuable teaching resources on our website.
  • Make connections to a dynamic community of scholars interested in anthropological understandings of food and nutrition.
  • Participate as a voting member in our meetings.
  • Access SAFN-sponsored publications.

This year SAFN membership can also be used to enroll in the ASFS/AFHVS conference (the early enrollment deadline for this conference is May 15).

Please join us!

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Food and Anthropology, the blog you have been waiting for!

Welcome to the blog of the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition.

Someday this blog will be seen as one of the first steps in establishing SAFN as the place people go when they ask, “what would an anthropologist think about food?”  If you have not asked that question yet, then you should.  Read here to find out why.  Right now there is really only one other place you can go for that kind of information and it is also part of the growing SAFN intellectual empire:  That is the SAFN home page, of course.  If you go there, you can join in with hundreds of others who are discussing food, nutrition and anthropology right now.  Also, there are some nice pictures and some really useful information on the SAFN bulletin board.  If you join SAFN, you can get access to even more stuff, such as our brilliant syllabi set.

There are a lot of blogs about food out there.  There are some really good anthropology blogs too.  We think there is room—even a need—for a blog the brings anthropological insights to the discussion of food and nutrition around our planet.  The members of SAFN have been studying all aspects of food and nutrition for decades.  From biology to culture, we’ve probably got it covered.  Many of our members write scholarly books and articles.  If you are not a scholar of some sort, you probably don’t read those books and articles.  But don’t fret: we’ll bring you the insights of those authors here, in terms and style that will make you want to keep on reading. Through your comments and participation in the SAFN bulletin board, we hope this blog will become the starting point for many lively debates.  If you are a scholar, you’ll find the open discussion of concepts, issues and ideas here inspiring and refreshing.  We promise.

Our hope is that members of SAFN will feel welcome to submit blog posts here (send them to about the food and nutrition issues of the day, or about really interesting aspects of their own research.  Entries should be limited to 500 words and should be written in a relaxed style.  They should be completely original.  The only bibliographic references we want are those that will be useful to the readers of the blog—links to other sites on the web are especially useful.  Of course, provide references where necessary to avoid plagiarism.  See the contributor page of the blog for more details.

This is going to be a lively blog.  Subscribe to out RSS feed and make it part of the list of blogs you scan regularly.  We are pretty certain that you will find it worthwhile.

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