Tag Archives: agriculture

What EM Is Reading and Watching

Another set of thought-provoking readings and recommendations from frequent FoodAnthropology contributor Ellen Messer. Note that while many of these are inspired by items from the Financial Times, Dr. Messer has found links to related stories from other sources. This is because access to the Financial Times is restricted for non-subscribers. If you do subscribe to the FT, you can probably find the original articles quite easily on their web site.

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

Weekly readings offer a few appetizers for reflection:

(1) the Swiss based global trading firm Glencore, which recently underwent reorganization because of its high debt obligations, seeks combination of its Glencore Agriculture unit with Bunge. It aims to break into the “big four” global agricultural trading firms (ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus) at a time when agricultural margins are low because of booming harvests, and as farmers the world over seek leverage to sell directly to buyers, squeezing the big four on profitability. Glencore Ag, which has a major presence in wheat, seeks expansion in the US and South America in soybeans and other commodity crops in which Bunge enjoys comparative advantage. Glencore Ag has the money to do this because the company recently offered a 50% stake in its business that was purchased by two Canadian pension funds, who now, in addition to owning 50% of Glencore Ag also own 50% of its debt, so that the company has raised its potential profitability ratings. Bloomberg news weighs in here, with graphs showing the markets’ reaction.

(2) European and North African olive oil production is way down because of drought, and prices for extra virgin olive oil have risen in tandem. This article gives the official reductions in product for Italy, Greece, and Spain (which it says is the largest producer) but does not discuss whether California olive industry is offering more product in response. Nor does it suggest any further dilution in product, which culinary experts say is always a problem in commercial oils. The Olive Oil Times has a series of supporting articles here.

(3) Coca Cola is trying to raise the desirability of its brand by emphasizing its “inclusivity” —with reference to its historic claim that everyone, however defined by ethnicity or economic class—can afford to enjoy Coke (citing Andy Warhol’s iconic image and phrase) and its efforts to improve its nutritional profile. The company officially endorses the WHO guidance that added sugars should provide no more than 10 percent of total caloric energy intake. The company claims to be contributing to reductions in sugar intake by reformulations or smaller portion size, both of which potentially reduce added sugar intakes in its products. But the company also has to find new revenue streams to replace lost sales from coolers, which are losing sales especially in locations like shopping malls, which are experiencing lower foot traffic as more people shop on line. The official company statement on “inclusive” culture can be read here.

(4) And finally, not really a “food” story but a feel-good sheep textile story, which replaces “farm-to-table” with “sheep-to-shop” traceability and authenticity, as people can watch their clothing being created in iconic textile mills with high skilled artisan labor input that they are willing to pay for. The designer realized that low cost Chinese labor would always outcompete British firms, and came up with this new old idea to compete on quality and local employment. The name of the entrepreneur is James Eden; the town was once known as Cottonopolis. The FT article can be accessed here.

In other news:

US PBS (National Public Television) has some food shows that are worth viewing for their stunning visual presentations of food and food culture, story lines, and possible critique. “A Matter of Taste” “Food—Delicious Science” aired in mid-May 2017. The lessons in the chemistry of taste and food preservation feature British science filmmaker Michael Mosley and ethnobotanist James Wong. For starters, they showed that taste is organized into five flavors, which can be reduced to their purified chemical essences—sweet, bitter, salty, sour, umami. These findings were connected to particular foods, which showed how acidity (sour) can be measured (by pH) that turns out to be pretty constant across fruit categories (watermelon is the least acidic), even though one senses that fruits such as strawberries are more sweet than sour. The reason for this is that aromatics enter into perception of sweetness, but the chemistry of this trickery and its connection to complex flavors was not well communicated. The program would have been more insightful (and more fun!) had it featured U.S. taste psycho-physicist Linda Bartoshuk describing her own experimental findings, which show how volatiles (the aromatics) leverage sweet taste perceptions and complexity. (An engaging interview about her career can be accessed at here. But further surfing on the web reveals that BBC already did a Bartoshuk piece, so maybe what we see here is Mosley, a BBC showmaster, distancing himself from the competition (Veronique Greenwood) and Wong, an ethnobotanist, privileging plants over people (psychology).

The other featured foods included traditional Andean freeze-dried potatoes. This segment featured Wong (who spoke Spanish pretty well) visiting a highland Andean community, which grows many varieties of potatoes, and singles out an especially bitter variety for freeze drying into chunyo, a series of steps that take place at an even higher elevation. I did not think that the segment communicated the complexity of the process, which involves multiple days of washing, freezing, stamping out bitter alkaloids. They made the process look simple, and the taste of chunyo look delicious, which is a stretch. Another featured food was Iberian black pig. This segment showed plump pigs nosing out acorns as nourishment, which the narrator informed is what flavors the meat with its extremely delicious umami taste. Although butchering was the theme, the visuals showed limited blood and gore, as an extended family gathering around a festival table to share the annual pig-slaughter and processing ritual, which uses all parts of the animal in some culinary fashion. There were then multiple scenes of multiple people shaving off thin slices of exquisite ham, which they ecstatically sampled. The idea of traditional foods guided by flavor and artisan technologies informed both pig and potato segments; the filmmakers could have made more connections to tomato and strawberries, which are also preserved with value added through artisan technologies.

This is the second of three in their series, “Secrets of Food,” which aim to illuminate the biology, chemistry, and physics of the items people eat, although as reviewers emphasize, few Brits (or Americans) will have tasted many of the examples.

PBS also has new American Masters shows featuring lives of major chefs and cookbook writers, including Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, James Beard, and Alice Waters. So far, viewing them at night, they’ve put me to sleep, but that may be due more to the knock-out pollen load this spring in Boston and their relatively late viewing hours. For anyone teaching relevant course materials, they should provide opportunities to compare the relative advantages of visual media vs. text for communicating the food and restaurant history in the US. The Alice Waters story, “Delicious Revolution,” uses the metaphor of food politics and performance, which will provide a useful backdrop to my summer graduate seminar: “Local to Global Food Values: Policy, Practice, and Performance”.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, applied anthropology

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, April 21, 2017

David Beriss

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

As the Trump administration nears its 100 day mark, it is worth noting that the US Department of Agriculture, with over 100,000 employees spread out over 29 agencies, regulating parts of an industry that contributes around $992 billion to the U.S. economy, is still without a confirmed leader. Lack of leadership has not stopped the Trump administration from acting, however. For instance, a rule proposed under the Obama administration that would have protected the rights of farmers to sue corporations for whom they raise chickens and hogs has been suspended for six months—and possibly permanently—much to the dismay of some of those farmers. The unconfirmed nominee has had a hearing, with mixed reviews, as you can see here and here.

Also on agriculture, but on a more global scale, the Lancet has recently started an open access online publication, “The Lancet Planetary Health,” that will focus on “human health within the context of climate change, water scarcity, biodiversity, food and nutrition, sustainable fishing, agricultural productivity, environmental exposures to contaminents, waste management, air quality, or water and airbourne diseases.” The first issue is worth a look. It includes an editorial about the role of smallholder farms in the global food system and several related articles.

And while we are still thinking about agriculture, take a look at this article and short film about a form of urban agriculture that is rarely discussed. The focus here is on farmers in Guangzhou, China, who continue to farm even as their village has vanished around them, replaced by endless rows of skyscrapers. This process is an old one, but watching this raises a lot of questions about food, culture, and the future of our food supply.

There has been a lot written about American barbecue cultures and racism in recent years. This New Yorker article, by Lauren Collins, focuses on the particularly bitter history and present of Maurice’s Piggie Park, in South Carolina. Collins does a great job of unpacking the nuances of this particular story in a way that would make for a great discussion starter in a class on…food, racism, American society, or the country’s political present. Alas, this is an article about barbecue that may cause you to lose your appetite.

From the UK, we have this interesting observation about a new restaurant in Seattle that will feature foods from the American South…served with an “encyclopedia” that explains the cuisine. The idea is to combat racist perspectives associated with the cuisine.  Food that insists you think.

Everyone wants to know where their food comes from, but who looks at how it gets to you? This episode of the podcast Bite focuses on an interview with Alexis Madrigal, who has his own podcast series on the world of containers and shipping. In this instance, he discusses the place of small batch coffee in the world of enormous containerized shipping. The way this shapes the world of food is really so huge that it is hard to fully grasp. You should listen to this; it is where much of what you eat comes from. Also, the podcast starts with a brief segment on Indian cooks in America who are thrilled with their Instant Pot electric pressure cookers…which ought to be inspiring for anyone who has one.

Many people are distressed at the demise of Lucky Peach, which provided a place for all kinds of food writing that was hard to find elsewhere (at least in an accessible format). For an example of why, read this amusing (yet possibly serious) article on the most beautiful Taco Bell in the world. Also, if you draw, you could join the Taco Bell Drawing Club.

Why are so many people being asked to work for free? This has been a crisis in the arts for a while, of course. Internships, mostly unpaid, seem increasingly necessary for college students before they can hope to start developing careers. Unpaid labor is also an important part of the world of food, with cooking school graduates and other aspiring cooks often engaging in “stages” (one of the culinary world’s words for “internship”) in restaurants. How useful is this? How exploitative? Is it even really legal? Corey Mintz explores these questions by looking at the astonishing extent to which the world’s most elite restaurants actually depend on unpaid labor.

The hipster food world is in love with mobile food vendors, perhaps best represented by trendy food trucks. Along with trendy trucks, a lot of food vending happens in carts that sell nearly every imaginable food.  This very useful article by Tejal Rao illustrates a day in the life of a New York City food vendor. His food looks great, by the way, but it is the result of hard work and what look like terrible economics.

In the realm of obscure-but-fascinating items, historian Paul Freedman provides this brief overview of the history of food at private clubs. The article includes lists and photos of current specialties at a variety of clubs around the U.S. One might expect the food to be rarified and elegant, but the photo of macaroons with Halloween candy corn suggests otherwise.

Finally, the first round of the French presidential elections is this Sunday (4/23). The outcome is anything but certain and, depending on your politics, you may need a drink afterwards. A French friend recently sent a clip from the movie “Le Tatoué,” with Jean Gabin and Louis de Funès demonstrating how to eat and drink with gusto. Even without faith in French politics, this should inspire everyone to have at least some faith in French cuisine, no matter the outcome. Remember this advice: “Manger des tripes sans cidre, c’est aller à Dieppe sans voir la mer.” Enjoy.

Leave a comment

Filed under agriculture, anthropology, anthropology of food, film, Food Studies

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, February 13, 2017

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food policy, Food Studies

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, January 27, 2017

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

Among the Trump cabinet nominees most likely to have an impact on the global food system is former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, who has been picked to lead the Department of Agriculture. What sort of leader will he be? There are a lot of opinions, many of them collected here in this very interesting piece from Christina Cooke at Civil Eats. Tom Philpott, at Mother Jones, adds additional interesting facts here.

What does the new administration mean for food systems in the U.S. and around the world? At Food First, Ahna Kruzic and Eric Holt-Giménez have written an incisive critique of the privatization of the presidency and where they think this is going, at least for food. They also provide some ideas about what people can do about this.

It seems that the U.S. will be building some sort of wall on the southern border and cracking down on immigration. This will inevitably have an impact on many aspects of our food system, from agriculture to restaurants. This article from Brian Barth at Modern Farmer examines some of the consequences.

Food activists can certainly be critical of the incoming administration. But it is perhaps even more important to have an idea of what sort of policies should be implemented for food and agriculture. The folks at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future have published a very interesting agenda for food and agriculture policy for 2017. Read it and be inspired.

The new U.S. administration is clearly a concern for many people in the food movement. Perhaps we are over-emphasizing the role of the government in D.C., to the detriment of local activism and local government. In this article, Paula Daniels argues that food system change should take a more decentralized approach. Consider it!

Meanwhile, clever entrepreneurs are devising ways to make sustainable urban farms in really unlikely places. In a recent New Yorker, Ian Frazier writes about the development of vast vertical farms that use very little in the way of resources. Right now, it seems that in the future we will all be eating very expensive microgreens. And maybe nothing else. For an alternative version of urban farming, this NPR piece by Sarah Feldberg looks at more horizontal farming in Las Vegas.

The pull of “purity politics” sometimes seemed to be deeply embedded in the food movement. We are often told that we can change the world by changing our diet, by eating fewer (or no) animal products, by following strict diets, etc. In this wide-ranging interview, Alexis Shotwell, author of the recent book “Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times” (U of Minnesota Press, 2016) provides a deep critique of this approach to food and other areas of life, including useful insights on why this is not an effective approach to politics.

Are you a food media producer of some sort? Would you like to win €10,000 for your work? You might want to enter your writing, photos, or video into the Thomson Reuters Foundation Food Sustainability Media Award competition, which you can read about here. Want another award opportunity? Apply, by March 15, for a UC Berkeley Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship. This is for journalists, but one supposes that that could be widely defined. It is an opportunity to work on long form food systems stories.

Food historian Ken Albala has been deeply involved with all kinds of noodles for quite some time. Read about some of his experiments in noodling around (sorry, but that pun was inevitable) here. You may feel a need to find (or make) something with excellent noodles after you read this. Prepare yourself.

Need something to eat that you can afford and that may make you feel hopeful about the coming year? You do…and you will. The New Economy Chapbook Cookbook proposes just the thing. Read about it here and then follow the links to download a copy.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Food Studies

CFP: Climate, Agriculture and Food Systems

A CFP of possible interest to our readers.

Call for Abstracts/Papers for Special Issue: Climate, Agriculture and Food Systems

Special Issue Editors: Gabrielle Roesch-McNally (USDA Climate Hubs, groeschmcnally@fs.fed.us); Rebecca Schewe (Syracuse University, rlschewe@maxwell.syr.edu); Andrea Basche (Union of Concerned Scientists, ABasche@ucsusa.org)

Global climate change, driven in part by greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and associated land use change, is predicted to impact agricultural systems in heterogeneous ways. A multitude of external forces including agricultural policy and development drivers are pushing for both adaptation and mitigation strategies within the agrifood system. It is expected that global-and local-dynamics will affect agroecosystems, labor and market forces, food security, land use decisions, and climate policy. To better assess these dynamics, there is growing emphasis on interdisciplinary climate change research that examines how the context of climate change will influence adaptation and mitigation efforts in the agricultural sector and subsequent interconnected impacts.

We are seeking papers for a special issue of Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (RAFS) focusing on multidisciplinary research that examines agrifood system responses to both projected and experienced climate changes. This special issue is a unique opportunity to present original research or review an emergent body of research, particularly by identifying linkages between agrifood scholarship and research on anthropogenic climate change. In addition to reviews, empirical, and theory-based research, we encourage submissions that incorporate applied efforts aimed at addressing problems associated with agriculture and climate change with particular interest in multidisciplinary projects and contributions from practitioners. Special issues generally lead to higher citations, which can assist authors in getting their work more widely read. RAFS also has an international reach and we hope to develop an issue that links scholarship on agriculture, food systems, and climate change across varied spatial and socio-political scales.

Manuscripts presenting a variety of research methodologies, including both qualitative and quantitative research, are welcome. We intend to publish research and review papers, as well as papers that fit the Journal’s other manuscript categories. Researchers with ongoing field research or early career scholars may be interested in “From the Field” papers, which are appropriate for early results and studies of limited scope. Another manuscript option are “Preliminary Reports” that report on highly innovative systems where little existing research has been conducted, which may be of interest to those doing work in alternative agricultural systems where there are limited data available with few replicated studies available to cite.

For more information on categories of articles accepted by RAFS: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/renewable-agriculture-and-food-systems/information/instructions-contributors

We are open to relevant submissions, but key topics of interest for the special issue include:

  • Critical reviews and comparative analyses of large-scale climate and agriculture research projects
  • Explorations of shifting agricultural labor dynamics associated with social, economic, and ecological changes brought about by a changing climate
  • Comparative analyses of large scale interdisciplinary climate and agricultural research
  • Exploration of stakeholder decision making in the context of both adaptation and mitigation efforts in the agrifood system
  • Examinations of resilience and vulnerability as both social and ecological concepts in climate change and agrifood studies
  • Using an intersectional and/or climate justice lens to examine climate change impacts and policy efforts in agrifood systems
  • Multidisciplinary examinations of the social-ecological consequences of a changing climate on agroecosystem productivity (e.g., soil health, soil erosion, changing pest cycles and plant disease impacts, etc.)
  • Assessment of climate change impacts on agriculture and associated challenges to food security and/or food sovereignty efforts
  • Multidisciplinary research integrating both biophysical and social science data sets
  • Critique or analysis of current efforts to define “climate-smart” agricultural practices

All correspondence regarding abstract submissions to this special issue should be addressed to all three of the special issue editors (e-mails above) only. If you would like to be considered for this special issue, please send a 500 word (maximum) abstract of your planned contribution to the issue editors by February 15th. Provide a summary of the significance of the work, background or context, and methodology in the case of original research papers. Include any additional information you think is critical to consideration of your article.

Authors invited to submit should anticipate submitting a full paper by June 1st if your abstract is accepted. Full submissions that are accepted will be published online shortly after they are accepted, prior to publication of the special issue. Please note that all manuscripts will go through peer review and there is no guarantee that papers by authors invited to submit an article will be published.

Submissions and questions should be sent to the special issue editors Gabrielle Roesch-McNally (USDA Climate Hubs, groeschmcnally@fs.fed.us), Rebecca Schewe (Syracuse University, rlschewe@maxwell.syr.edu), and Andrea Basche (Union of Concerned Scientists, ABasche@ucsusa.org).

Leave a comment

Filed under agriculture, anthropology, CFP, climate change

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, October 26, 2016

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

Sorting out the costs and benefits of fish farming in the Mississippi Delta is at the heart of this fascinating article from Brett Anderson that appeared in Landscape Architecture Magazine. The focus is mostly on the work of Forbes Lipschitz, who teaches at Ohio State University, using photography of landscapes to think about food production. This would be a useful article to use in contrast with articles that insist on the superiority of organic agriculture.

On a related theme, this interview with Dr. Jillian Fry, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future Public Health & Sustainable Aquaculture Project, addresses some similar themes, while focusing on different ways of evaluating the impact of fish farming. In fact, comparing these two articles ought to make us think carefully about how evaluations are done.

While we are reading about types of farming, here is a provocative opinion piece on farming as a modern occupation, a high-tech industry, a piece of history, a part of globalization, a lynchpin of communities, and much more. Clearly, farming is good to think.

Urban agriculture has been proposed as a way of dealing with a variety of problems in contemporary societies. As it happens, there is a journal, Urban Agriculture Magazine, devoted to the topic and you can read the latest issue for free. You may be able to read all the issues there too. Enjoy.

The 2016 Faces of Hunger Short Film Festival took place a few weeks ago, but the films that were shortlisted for prizes are still available here. These are all powerful, sometimes a bit hard to watch, but nevertheless worth watching. Not sure how long these will be available, so watch them soon.

Restaurant economics are either pretty simple or very complicated, depending on who you ask, but either way, the reality is that a lot of restaurants go out of business every year. This article contrasts the economics of fine dining with that of fast casual or fast food, showing the issues confronted by both.

Here is a manifesto on restaurants and race. Ranging from fine dining to fast food, the author raises questions and demands action on making restaurants and dining in general more inclusive and more culturally aware.

Did you know that cafeteria workers at Harvard have been on strike for the last three weeks? They may have reached a settlement, but it is nevertheless worth reading about what it is like to be a very low-wage worker struggling to pay health insurance premiums at the richest university in the U.S.

On a related note, you may want to know if slaves produced the food you are eating. This article provides an overview of a recent study that graded twenty of the largest food and beverage companies on their use of forced labor. You may want to put down your lunch while you read it.

Good news! You can keep going to the dentist even after you are dead. Sort of: dental anthropologists may dig you up and take a look at your teeth to figure out what you ate. Ok, maybe not you, but people in general. Neat stuff, from NPR.

To be an anthropologist is to be constantly amazed and fascinated by the thinking and behavior of humans. The rest of the world often returns the favor by being amazed by the fact that anthropologists are amazed by ordinary things. In this instance, Dr. Kirk French at Penn State is offering a course on the anthropology of alcohol (“Booze and Culture”) and this article from an alternative student web site explains it. You may want to go have a drink with some humans after you read this.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Food Studies

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, October 4, 2016

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

Let’s start this week with a rumination on the meaning of “sustainability” across languages and cultures. This piece, from María García Maldonado, Rosario García Meza and Emily Yates-Doerr, raises questions about how to think about this term while we are rethinking the tropes of modernity. From English, to Spanish, to Mam, in highland Guatemala, this brief-but-provocative article is part of Cultural Anthropology’s “Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen.”

The same companies that supply your campus food service probably also run food services for American prisons…and they do so, in many states, for very little money. This article looks at the monetary constraints that have been imposed on prisons, even as the U.S. incarcerates a growing population. Is there anything wrong with running a prison food service as for profit enterprise? Is it important for prisoners to receive good nutrition? Apparently these are not rhetorical questions.

On a more upbeat food service note, the National Museum of African American History and Culture recently opened in Washington, DC and it has a restaurant. Writers from Smithsonian Magazine provide an overview of some of the foods served there, along with their history, here.

How essential is online media to the success of restaurants? How much has the development—in just the last decade—of web sites and blogs devoted to chefs and restaurants changed the business of providing food to the public? This short piece from Grub Street (one of those sites) explores these questions.

There have been a number of articles about the dismal wages many restaurant workers make in the U.S. and about efforts to remedy that by moving away from tipping. But much of what we have read on this topic is New York-centric. Want to know more about how this is playing out in the rest of the U.S.? This article, from Helen Freund in the New Orleans Gambit is a good place to start. How is this debate going on where you live?

What kinds of organizations advocate for farmers in the United States? There are many, of course, with a lot of different political perspectives. Read this interview with Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union to learn about that particular organization’s approach to various food and agriculture issues.

Trade agreements have been getting seriously bad press in the current U.S. presidential campaign. It is possible, however, that not all trade agreements are bad. Read this short article about trade agreements on organic foods that recognize organic standards in other countries. And for a more in depth analysis, here is a link to the report referred to in the article.

You have probably seen all the advertisements for services that will deliver meals directly to you, with ingredients that you can easily prepare. Is this a healthy alternative to actually cooking? Is it a gateway to real cooking? Ankita Rao tries one service, then explores some other interesting ways in which people are being taught how and what to cook. Also, Krishnendu Ray is interviewed.

Many of you probably have deeply researched ideas about why some foods are kosher and others are not. But have you ever wondered how wine gets to be kosher? Or why most bourbon and some Scotch is kosher? From “The Alcohol Professor” (in this case, Amanda Schuster), a handy guide to and analysis of this fraught topic.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, Food Studies

What FoodAnthro Is Reading Now, May 18 Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, food, food activism, food history, food policy, Food Studies

Lentil Underground

 

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

A1Jh6ZhpAlL

Carlisle, Liz. Lentil Underground. Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America. NY: Gotham Books, 2015.

Lentil Underground is a book that many of us have been waiting for: a readable, journalistic rather than staid academic account of U.S. farmers’ struggle to create a mainstream organic, multi-crop alternative to conventional and genetically-engineered, monocrop agriculture. The story interweaves a triple interpretative biography of the farmers, the plant varieties in ecosystems, and their struggling but ultimately successful business, Timeless Seeds. It constructs the history of this Montana organic agricultural business through the life stories of its diverse and colorful members, the new-old seeds and biodiverse agro-ecological products and practices they re-pioneered, and the collective material- and information-sharing they achieved through collective action and networking. The narrative begins in 1974 and traces a developmental, alternative agricultural path that roughly parallels the Green Revolution and its successor Green-Gene Revolution, the mainstream energy- and chemical-intensive agricultures, through 2014. The experiences of the farmers, researchers, and business interests who jointly made these organic activities happen, provide additional shining testimonies to the role of government in encouraging or discouraging a healthier, more resilient rural environment and economy in an era of Big Agriculture, big corporate lobbying interests, and big risks for farmers facing uncertain natural and economic climates that put many conventional agriculturalists out of business.

The author, a product of University of California at Berkeley’s agro-ecological, sustainable-food, and writing programs (think Miguel Altieri, Alice Waters, and Michael Pollan), dedicated three years to interviewing the principals and telling their individual, family, and networking stories. These colorful, dedicated, and resourceful characters, almost all of whom originally come from Montana farming backgrounds, include founding family farmer, Dave Oien, a philosophy and religious studies major who then contributed agroecology and business as assets to transform and manage their family farm and Jerry Habets, who backed into lentils and organic farming when he could not afford the chemicals necessary to continue conventional farming. Others are Casey Bailey, whose diverse background in music, urban studies, Liberation Theology, and counter-cultural activism, made him an excellent candidate for diversified farming and associated collective decision-making, and Doug Crabtree and Anna Jones-Crabtree, who combined day-jobs that paid the bills and provided medical benefits with their passion, organic farming. Their politics range from right-wing libertarian to left wing progressive and this is Carlisle’s point: there is considerable diversity in the politics of the organic farming movement. Seasoning this mix are also heroic plant breeders and ecologists, who provide biological and physical (soils) information and materials to assist and improve organic operations.

Carlisle correctly realized that careful, qualitative, investigative research could document how U.S. and state government investments and regulations at multiple levels helped or hindered a more diversified agriculture, and what farmer-led actions could contribute to sustainability — farming and livelihoods — which was everyone’s value. The additional insights she gained over the course of these interviews concern the human community and what Frances Moore Lappe, in various food writings, has termed “living democracy.” Timeless Seeds constructed its network and thrived because it made human community an integral component of its sustainability vision. Their combined collective, seed, and farmer biographies also offer an argument against the growing preference for “local” food and agriculture, as the markets that make this regional success story possible illustrate another kind of globalization — from the grass-roots. All could agree that agricultural business-as-usual was not working for farmers like them or farms like theirs, and found that they needed grassroots organizations to support and voice their collective commitment to organic, multi-crop, and pluralistic botanical and social alternatives. They also required government support for research and organic-friendly regulations to make their enterprises viable. On these government agendas they have been partly successful in winning some dedicated (rather than “bootlegged”) funding for soils and pest research that will provide an evidence base for optimal, multi-crop organic management strategies. They have also managed to acquire some farmer protection against lawsuits should licensed GMO seeds incidentally rather than intentionally sprout in their fields, and bans on GMO wheat until such time as their Asian markets agree to accept this product.

The text is beautifully crafted to let the voices of the farmer families speak for themselves, and in the process recount the sorry history and ecology of US agriculture. Some are the children of family farmers, who followed US Department of Agriculture guidelines, investing yearly in ever higher priced seeds, energy, machinery, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides but regularly losing crops to bad weather, poor soils, or evolving pests. They found the only protection temporarily rescuing them from penury was government crop insurance or payments. So long as they followed the rules (monocropping with chemicals), the government payments at least partially bailed them out. But most years, this was not a living and future prospects were bleak. Both the soils and the human beings who worked them were exhausted, their health eroding from chemical poisons. The older generation despaired of leaving their farming legacy to their offspring. This next generation, however, a group of rugged and well-read individualists, nevertheless learned to apply modern scientific understandings of their more diversified agricultural past, and also created the kind of community that shares and helps each other overcome isolation, trauma, and risks. These social as well as agri-technical developments are clearly showcased in the stories of farmers’ improvement clubs, where new farmers could present and help solve each other’s problems, and ultimately stay in business. Their stories convincingly show that American rural life might yet thrive, based on the vision and determination of these fully dedicated but for economic reasons, part-time farmers.

As a text for teaching, I find author Liz Carlisle and her subjects are at their best when they are assessing the tradeoffs, and sometimes the ironies of their situations. Most of these tradeoffs concern economics and politics. Slowly, these new “weed” farmers, who know Montana farming can’t continue to practice business as usual because the older generation is going broke, learn to experiment first with new cover crops and green manure species, and only later add forage, feed, and food into the mix to make their farming operations viable. Although throughout this multi-decade learning process, individual farmers and the group as a whole learn to value organic agriculture by assessing energy saved and chemical expenditures avoided, they need crops they can sell at a premium if farming households are to survive. As Timeless Seeds moves into new legumes, in new combinations, and sometimes in combination with other “heritage” seeds such as purple barley, emmer (farro), and spelt, or more common grains and livestock that have the added value that they are produced and certified organic, the instigators find they must learn business skills and spend increasing time on administration and marketing.

These learning curves, which demonstrated that Timeless needed to have multiple crops and not rely on single buyers, proved as challenging as the field and processing skills they accumulated and shared over time. The cases developing markets for “new” legumes such as French green lentils (a one-time shot with Trader Joe’s) and “Beluga” black lentils (promoted by one particular high-end chef and then marketed through his client networks) are particularly instructive. Although most participating farmers entered organic farming with idealistic values that they were going to save the land and the population’s health, they find that some of their best customers are Asian nutrition supplement businesses, who turn their high-protein legumes into biochemicals that feed highly industrialized animal operations or high-income consumers. As one farmer opines: this is not why she signed up to work hundreds of hours each week, instead of living a normal professional life with a vacation house and time.

Another trade-off concerns government payments: was the goal to get government off or on the farmers’ backs? As organic farmers sought answers to agronomic questions, could they get equal funding for organic (as compared with conventional) agriculture, or create commodity check off payments that would help educate and promote organic production and consumption? Another effort was to access crop insurance, because, while organic production helped cool and sequester moisture in soils, it did not make one immune to natural weather disasters, which include not only ferociously dry, high temperature seasons, but also untimely rain and hail that can devastate harvests. A third was access to health insurance, because health problems posed a big barrier to sustainable farmers, who usually needed one fully employed spouse with benefits to make sure medical bills were covered. Although networked farmers did very well at sharing experiences and taking care of each other, these grassroots approaches, sadly, could not solve all their problems; they still needed government assistance.

Carlisle and her sources, significantly, also raise some unanswered questions. For example, how should farmers calculate returns on crops, when there are so many different species and varieties, and some of the returns are multi-year contributions to soil structural health and fertility, or plant-community based resilience to crop-specific pests, or simply long-term human health? Is there a more complex answer to the question, can GE ever contribute to soil conservation and restoration when soils and multi-crop ecology are so complex and genetic technologies treat one gene or gene-to-gene interaction at a time? The beauty of this text as an information source and teaching tool is that these questions are raised, and suggest plenty of directions for further research and discussion. It would serve well as a basic supplementary text in U.S. agricultural and food systems and policy courses at undergraduate through graduate levels. It would also make a terrific addition to the reading library of any organic gardener or consumer. Finally, to increase comprehensibility, there is an introductory map of Montana locating all the farms, towns, and major transportation routes mentioned in the text, and a glossary, defining key environmental, economic, and social-political concepts. The book is very beautifully produced, with botanical images and easily readable type in multiple gray to black shades. There is, alas, no index.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, book reviews, farming

Genetically-Engineered Crops and Sustainability: Controversies and Commentaries for 2016 (Part 2)

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

(Part 1 of this 2 part series is here.)

As a possible antidote or balance for someone seeking ways ag-biotech might contribute to sustainable agriculture and food systems, I searched not the web, but local university library shelves, and located a 2012 edited volume that promised to fill out this more positive bill. In this essay collection, The Role of Biotechnology in a Sustainable Food Supply, eds. Jennie S. Popp, Milly M. Jahn, Marty D. Matlock, and Nathan P. Kemper (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), I sought updates and possible answers to the role of biotech coverissues raised in The GMO Deception. Peggy Lemaux’s chapter, “Genetically Engineered Crops Can Be Part of a Sustainable Food Supply,” was the most likely candidate, but did not provide completely satisfactory responses. A multi-authored interdisciplinary project paper on Healthy Potatoes for Wisconsin was similarly discouraging on major issues, such as outlooks for social equity and renewable soils. From beginning to end, issues of equity, or shared prosperity, were also concerns.

Lemaux’s chapter was an update of her 2008 Ann. Rev. of Plant Biology 59:771-812 article: “Genetically Engineered Plants and Foods: A Scientist’s Analysis of the Issues. (Part I)” It briefly reviews and dismisses many of the safety questions raised in GeneWatch reports, which were collected in the edited “Deception” volume. Some of her analyses effectively blunt well-publicized anti-GMO concerns. For example, no food plants GE’d to express anti-freeze fish genes have ever been released or approved for human consumption. Lower nutrient contents found in some comparative studies of GE versus conventional food-plant varieties are within the normal range of variation found in conventional food-plant products. Higher than expected nutrient values that are purposely introduced by GE must be so labeled. There are many and more diverse food-safety studies on GE foods than GeneWatch editors would lead one to believe.

But other cases remain troubling. For example, “Were potatoes engineered to produce a lectin unsafe to eat?” The studies she cites, with respect to Pusztai’s findings, don’t accurately settle the matter whether it was the lectins or GE process that introduced damaging toxins into the small number of laboratory rats that consumed the lectin-containing potatoes. If the pro-GMO community was so concerned about the negative outcomes and publicity, why didn’t anyone reproduce the study with clearly presented, standard methodologies and proper controls?Analogously, why are there not more rigorous studies countering the possible toxic implications of Roundup Ready soybeans on reproductive outcomes, as asserted by Irina Ermakova of the Russian Academy of Sciences, whose laboratory methods were also said to lack proper controls, and whose work was not subjected to rigorous peer review? Lemaux’s treatment of allergen issues similarly suggests the need for more diverse testing of Bt corn varieties. Finally, it would appear to be a no-brainer that GE of plants as pharmaceutical delivery vehicles should avoid common food crops, in order to prevent any possible contamination and unintended entry of pharmaceuticals into the food supply chain. Even “The Grocery Manufacturers of America urged the USDA to restrict plant-made pharmaceutical production to non-food crops” (Lemaux 2012:131). Her conclusions, that “In deciding whether the crop should be grown in the field the focus should be on possible consequences of such mixing” can be taken to suggest that this focus is not yet implemented. Her final point, on global production of GE crops, also raises alarms: “The potential use of a wider range of organisms as sources of genes to introduce new traits and the creation of GE crops and foods by countries with less rigorous regulatory structures present new identification and safety assessment challenges for foods” (p.133).

Then there are the “who benefits?” and “who takes the risks?” questions. A multi-disciplinary Wisconsin case study of Healthy Grown potatoes, which use GE traits to lower needs for chemical inputs and thereby lower toxicity scores admits: “The economic advantage to the grower, packer, or other parts of the potato industry is uncertain.” The researchers assume “Transformed varieties will certainly incur license fees for seed and other potential costs.” In addition, if pest-resistant potatoes raise production through greater efficiencies, this likely would cause prices to fall, with no certainty that consumer demand would increase to make up the difference. This would decrease profitability, although one might argue, on the positive side, that reduced expenses for inputs, and reduced exposure to pesticides are pluses. (p.207) (All these points are taken from the chapter: Bussan, Alvin J., Deana Knuteson, Jed Colquhoun, Lary Binning, Shelley Jansky, Jiming Jiang, Paul D. Mitchell, Water R. Stevenson, Russell Groves, Jeff Whyman, Matt Ruark, and Keith Kelling. Case Study. Healthy Grown Potatoes and Sustainability of Wisconsin Potato Production. Pp.192-211.)

Loss of biodiversity in major food crops is also a persistent issue recognized among proponents. Whereas in the US, within less than a decade, Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant, Roundup-Ready (RR) trait had been inserted into more than 1,100 local varieties of soybean, which had been selected by farmers and breeders over the years to “optimize yields and other product properties specific to local conditions,” such rapid GE breeding facilities are not routinely available in developing countries, where “When a transgenic trait is not available in a local variety, a farmer must switch to a generic variety in which the trait is available. This switch is likely to result in yield and other losses. Farmers trade off gains from the trait with losses from the generic variety.” Only where the proper “incentives” are available will “seed supplier … add the transgenic traits to local varieties” ; that is, “where the necessary genetic materials are available at low transaction costs and where there is sufficient technical capacity to backcross or modify local varieties at relatively low cost” (p.256) Although these conditions may be met in large producing places, such as the US, China, and India, “Concern regarding lack of technical capacity may lead to the introduction of only a few generic transgenic varieties in Africa, unless that capacity is upgraded.” Such observations are consistent with GeneWatch reports indicating pressures on seed stores to sell transgenic varieties and concerns about reductions in biodiversity. (p.256). Concerns about co-evolution of pests, including Bt-resistant insects and glyphosate-tolerant weeds are also acknowledged as management challenges that emerge in the proliferation and expansion of GE crop plants (p.257). All these points are raised in the chapter by Graff, Gregory D. and David Zilberman (2012) “Agricultural Biotechnology. Equity and Prosperity”, pp.252-266.)

Hopefully Lemaux will continue to explore and communicate new findings on the ways GE crops can be part of sustainable food systems. (Lemaux, Peggy G. (2012) Genetically Engineered Crops Can Be Part of a Sustainable Food Supply. In The Role of Biotechnology in a Sustainable Food Supply. Eds. Jennie S. Popp, Milly M. Jahn, Marty D. Matlock, and Nathan P. Kemper. Pp.122-140. New York: Cambridge University Press.) Her frustrations at being unable to commercialize products that she has developed in the lab, are chronicled in a 2014 Berkeley Science Review interview (Gadye, Levi (2014) GM to Order). This journalist’s piece identifies new breeding technologies, including CRISPR gene-editing techniques, as possible solutions, which can circumvent corporate intellectual property rights and high patent and licensing fees that keep university scientists from moving useful, targeted products to market. These innovative gene-editing techniques take GE products out of the hands of Monsanto and a few other domineering corporate conglomerates and potentially have wide applications across a range of crops. Targeted species include vegetatively propagated crops such as cassava that have proved more difficult to genetically-transform and regenerate consistently to deliver traits of interest.

But these innovative techniques continue and possibly raise the risk-monitoring concerns that currently constrain university and other scientists and technologists, whose reasoning will not automatically dispel public distrust and questionable understandings of science. High profile GE salmon and Campbell Soup’s recent decision to label all GMO ingredients should contribute to a flavorful and simmering stew for 2016.

 

1 Comment

Filed under agriculture, anthropology, food policy