Culture & Agriculture

a section of the American Anthropological Association

Weekly Gleaning 12/8: Agrarian Questions

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing in the tangled realms of culture and agriculture. This week: multi-species corporate-microbial collaborations, Marxist food theory and more.


Monsanto and Novozyme’s BioAg Alliance

What forms of alienation, instrumentalization and symbiosis are implied in Monsanto’s upcoming commercialization of beneficial microbes?

Will Nestle’s mysterious new sugar be accompanied by mysterious new relationships of power?

Why are Europe, North America and Australia absent from a new heat-map of smallholders?


Samberg, L., Gerber, J., Ramankutty, N., Herrero, M., & West, P. (2016)

Have Marx’s contributions as a food and farming theorist been understated?

Does scientists listening to the sound of corn growing qualify as sensuous scholarship?

Weekly Gleaning 11/30: Advanced Plant Habitats

One year ago NASA celebrated a “historical vegetable moment” – the first vegetables grown and eaten in space. Just last week the next version of the system arrived at Kennedy Space Center. The Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) will be delivered to the International Space Station in 2017. How do we theorize an agriculture that has been severed from the Earth by several hundred thousand pounds of thrust? Astral-foodways are sterile and rigidly controlled, but perhaps harbor latent capacities to vitalize life in orbit.

A test unit, or prototype, of NASA's Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) was delivered to the Space Station Processing Facility at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The APH is the largest plant chamber built for the agency. The unit is being prepared for engineering development tests to see how the science will integrate with the various systems of the plant habitat. It will have 180 sensors and four times the light output of Veggie. The APH will be delivered to the International Space Station in March 2017.

Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) // photo:

Here in the primitive plant habitat of terrestrial soil, the definition of agriculture is expanding in other directions. A novel ant-plant symbiosis has been reported in Fiji, where the ant farmers plant seeds and fertilize seedlings. Might farming by non-humans disrupt the entrenched dichotomy of nature and culture that structures our agricultural concepts? Autonomous tractors are getting closer to commercialization – bringing along an intensification of the proprietary data and intellectual property issues that haunt modern farm machinery.

Lastly, the “improvement” of nature that justified enclosure of the commons in Europe and colonial land-grabs around the world has penetrated the process underlying not only all of agriculture, but of all terrestrial biomes. Transgenic plants with “tweaked” photosynthesis have demonstrated 14-20% yield increases in field trials.

Swale, a novel plant habitat not in orbit, but in the Hudson River

Swale, a novel plant habitat not in orbit, but in the Hudson River


Other items of interest:

– 538 on why census counts of very small farms have been growing
– Medical anthropologist Seth Holmes on ‘suffering slot anthropology’ and migrant farm workers
– Reports from the USDA on rural America and mid-size farms
– German forester Peter Wohlleben on the social life of trees
– Speculations on Trump’s ag secretary
– Roland Bourdeix on the precarity of coconut

I’m Alarmed at How TIAA Is Investing My Retirement Funds

A cross-post from Doug Hertzler, Culture & Agriculture member and senior policy analyst at ActionAid. See the original post here.

Photo Credit: Doug Hertzler/ActionAid

Photo Credit: Doug Hertzler/ActionAid

As a person whose work-life as a teacher and as a public policy analyst has been grounded in anthropology, I am very alarmed at the way in which my retirement funds are being used by the investment firm TIAA (formerly Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association—College Retirement Equities Fund) to undermine rural communities in the United States and many other countries through land speculation and land-grabbing.

I grew up on a farm in rural Pennsylvania where my immediate and extended family farms a wide range of crops including corn, soybeans, vegetables, hay, as well as dairy cattle and other livestock. Unfortunately policies that encouraged larger-scale farming, characterized by mono-cropping and price volatility, have all but destroyed small towns and rural communities across the United States.

Today, a much smaller number of farmers survive in a risky business of specialized farming that often requires leasing larger and larger amounts of land from other farmers who have retired.

Farmers used to be an important economic base that supported communities and local business, but the dwindling number of farm families, coupled with the loss of manufacturing jobs, has torn apart the social fabric of rural communities, towns, and smaller cities across the United States. Over the past year of the U.S. election campaign, we have seen the alienation, anger, and fears that have arisen in these distressed communities.

TIAA holds the retirement money of several million individuals working for several thousand organizations, primarily professors and non-profit workers. In recent years, TIAA has begun buying up farmland as an investment strategy. So far, the company has focused on the United States, Brazil, and Australia.

This strategy means there will be fewer farmers and more farms will be operated by “farm management companies” that lease the land from the investor owner. TIAA is not the only investor buying up farmland, but it is particularly important because of its size, and because it claims to be a responsible investor on behalf of its clients. Yet in Brazil, research has shown that TIAA bought farmland illegally from intermediaries who had grabbed it away from communities.

Anthropologists are interested in how both long term processes and everyday actions affect human life. As an anthropologist who works for a non-profit that brings people together in solidarity to fight for human rights and human dignity, I am interested in seeing anthropological knowledge make an immediate contribution to the struggle for the rights and dignity of rural communities.

A prominent anthropologist was one of the first to document the social and environmental impacts of this type of large-scale leasing of farmland in California way back in 1947. In his book “As You Sow” Walter Goldschmidt, who later became President of the American Anthropological Association, noted:

“The economics of this type of production do not motivate the operator to maintain soil fertility; to consider the welfare of the local community in which his leased lands, nor to have any concern over the long-term welfare of his labor.”

All is not lost in farming communities in the United States. Family farms still exist. In some places like my home areas of Pennsylvania, the number of small farms may actually be increasing thanks in part to religious communities, such as the Amish and Old Order Mennonites. But also many other young farmers are figuring out creative ways to supply markets in nearby towns and cities.

With the right set of policies to support small farms, rural communities could be strengthened and made more prosperous, but this can only happen if large-scale speculation in farmland for investment is stopped and farmland remains available for young people and new farmers.

Fellow anthropologists and fellow TIAA clients, we have an obligation to speak out and demand that TIAA change its practices in land investment and other agricultural investment policies which harm communities or cause deforestation and climate impacts. Please sign this letter to the CEO of TIAA demanding transparency and changes to investment practices.

Once you have signed, please share this letter with TIAA members and faculty colleagues from any academic discipline. Together we can change how our money is invested and give farming communities everywhere a chance to survive and thrive!

Weekly Gleaning 11/11: The Beast and the Smiler


Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan

“What can one believe quite safe if the world itself is shaken, and its most solid parts totter to their fall … and the earth loses its chief characteristic, stability?”

                                                                                           – Seneca

Among the diverse responses to this week’s election results, it is probably significant that for so many (myself included) the reaction was primarily somatic – a feeling of being sick to the stomach. Like finding out you were being cheated on, that it had been going on for a long time, and that it was at least partly your fault. Media bubbles are surprisingly solid until they aren’t. In any case, it seems like what Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has been calling “forgotten rural America” will be getting more attention and analysis in the coming months. CivilEats article from a couple weeks ago linking Trump to the farm crisis in the 1980s is a good place to start. Market analysts are predicting that 2017 will see many of the commodity price pressures for farmers that brought about the downfall of so many family farms in the 80s.

As for how farming and food systems will fare during Trump’s presidency, Eater has a review of the implications for food policy. The president-elect’s love of fast food is well documented and interesting in light of Aimee Hosemann’s article at Savage Minds about diet and identity, specifically on veganism and religious conversion. Arturo Rodriguez from the United Farm Workers explained their endorsement for Hillary in an interview last week, most notably saying that Trump has little awareness of the role migrant labor plays in enabling the US food system. It remains to be seen how Trump’s anti-NAFTA rhetoric will impact farms and farmers on both sides of the US-Mexican border.

While there may be a slew of bad news coming out of the border region (see: deforestation for avocado plantations and the social costs of export agriculture in Baja), recent attention to the traditional acequia system of commons water management is cause for at least some comfort. The National Young Farmers Coalition has an interview, and the Agrarian Trust’s Our Land 2 symposium is going on all November.

Pre/Post-doc Mentoring Workshops with Karen Kelsky @ the AAAs

Good news! Room remains in the Kelsky career development workshops. Register soon and take advantage of the highly subsidized participation fee.

Culture & Agriculture (C&A) and the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN) are excited to announce joint sponsorship of two workshops led by Dr. Karen Kelsky from “The Professor Is In”. These workshops, which she describes below, will offer fora to consider career development strategies, particularly as they relate to matters food/agriculture/ natural resource-related. They will take place on Thursday, November 17th. We will also hold a Mentoring event between the workshops (at noon) for registered participants and interested members of C&A and SAFN.


ACADEMIC AND POST-ACADEMIC CAREER DEVELOPMENT FOR PRE-DOCS: KAREN KELSKY TAKES ON PROFESSIONALIZATION In this workshop I walk you through the conditions of the current American job market, the most common mistakes made by job-seekers, and the ways you can maximize your chances of success while looking for a tenure-track job. We’ll cover: The big-picture conditions of the U.S. tenure track job market, How to think like a search committee, The four core qualities of a successful tenure track job candidate, The all-important 5-Year Plan, The ethos of job market documents, The most common mistakes made by job seekers, The keys to academic interviewing. We’ll also touch on the non-academic option. You’ll leave with a broad understanding of the real (as opposed to fantasy) criteria of tenure track hiring, and how to tailor your record and application materials to maximize your chances of success. Thursday, 11/17- 10:30 AM-12:00 PM

ACADEMIC AND POST-ACADEMIC CAREER DEVELOPMENT FOR POST-DOCS: KAREN KELSKY TAKES ON PROFESSIONALIZATION This workshop shows you how to 1) track out a research and teaching trajectory across the 5 years of the tenure track probationary period in an anthropology or related social science position; 2) manage postdoctoral fellowship years while seeking an eventual tenure track position. Focuses on creating an effective Five-Year-Plan, and managing your time to maximize productivity (i.e., working backward from your tenure year to plot out specific publishing goals, or making a postdoc writing schedule with an eye to the job hunt). Also looks at departmental politics, managing colleagues, handling the demands of teaching, and calculating appropriate levels of service. Addresses children and work-life balance. Based on Dr. Karen’s years as a department head mentoring a number of faculty through successful tenure cases. Thursday, 11/17 2:00 -03:30 PM

The AAA workshops are all listed on the website, but the active link for workshop registration is only visible from a member’s personal profile (under “My Payments, Receipts, Transactions & Events”)

Weekly Gleaning 11/2: The agency of a cow

Every week, Culture & Agriculture gathers the latest happenings in the anthropology of farming. This week: genetic agency, sharing and conspicuous (insect) consumption.


What is the agency of a single bull? The Atlantic has a story on Pawnee Farm Arlinda Chief, the individual whose genes now constitute 14% of all DNA in Holstein cows. His timely encounter with the nascent practice of artificial insemination has led to $30 billion in additional milk production, but also to over 500,000 spontaneous abortions due to a mutation he introduced into the population. This mutation was only discovered much later, and serves as a warning that new breeding techniques generate unpredictable possibilities and outcomes.

On that note, results are in from the first field trial of GM Golden Rice, seventeen years after being engineered in the lab. Farmers will apparently be allowed to save and share seed, but it’s hard to say how this will impact smallholders and food systems. As to the perennial GMO debate, a fairly damning report came out from the New York Times on yield and pesticide use (see a response here).

Of course, issues around genetically modified crops go far beyond yield and inputs to new constructions of ownership and property. While a proprietary licensing paradigm has also expanded to machinery and data, its (sometimes) benign twin – the sharing economy – is also spreading into food production with Airbnb for gardens and Uber for tractors.

Food First’s Hartman Deetz has published a report from the front lines at Standing Rock, highlighting some of the connections with food and agriculture. In the Philippines, indigenous farmers are also mobilizing for fair treatment, and in other native agriculture developments, the Navajo Nation is working out a deal for the first domestic cultivation of industrial hemp in recent years.

In Ontario, attempts to reduce neonicotinoid use and protect vulnerable honeybee populations are proving more complex than originally conceived. Another strategy, from entomologists at Washington State University, is the first ever bee sperm bank. It’s likely that much of the critical analysis of banks for seed germplasm (e.g. van Dooren 2010) could also be applied to such practices. Other insects, at the first ever wine and bug pairing in Los Angeles, are not for conserving but for conspicuously consuming.

Culture and Agriculture at the 2016 AAA meeting

The 115th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association are in Minneapolis from November 16 through 20. Check out the culture and agriculture sessions below:


Thursday, November 17; 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM
Minneapolis Convention Center, Room: 212B

Thursday, November 17; 12:15 PM – 1:30 PM
Minneapolis Convention Center, Room: 210AB

Minneapolis Convention Center, Room: 212B

Thursday, November 17; 6:15 PM – 7:30 PM
Hilton, Room: Marquette IV

Thursday, November 17; 7:45 PM – 9:00 PM
Offsite: Mission American Restaurant

Friday, November 18; 8:00 AM – 9:45 AM
Minneapolis Convention Center, Room: 200C

Friday, November 18; 8:00 AM – 9:45 AM
Minneapolis Convention Center, Room: 102EF

Friday, November 18; 10:15 AM – 12:00 PM
Minneapolis Convention Center, Room: 102AB

Friday, November 18; 10:15 AM – 12:00 PM
Minneapolis Convention Center, Room: 210AB

Friday, November 18; 4:00 PM – 5:45 PM
Hilton, Room: Salon C

Saturday, November 19; 8:00 AM – 9:45 AM
Minneapolis Convention Center, Room: 200F

Saturday, November 19; 8:00 AM – 9:45 AM
Minneapolis Convention Center, Room: 102C

Saturday, November 19; 10:15 AM – 12:00 PM
Hilton, Room: Marquette VIII

Saturday, November 19; 4:00 PM – 5:45 PM
Minneapolis Convention Center, Room: 206AB

Weekly Gleaning 10/20: Big revolution, little revolution


Last weekend in The Hague, Monsanto (often as a metonym for the assemblage of industrial agriculture) was accused of crimes against humanity and nature at a citizens tribunal. Keep an eye out for our ethnographic report on the event, coming soon!

The Monsanto Tribunal may have comprised disparate and sometimes contradictory parties, but it does demonstrate that there is a global movement (as Marion Nestle questioned last week) coalescing around food sovereignty. This year’s Food Sovereignty Prize winners were announced on Saturday – to the Farmworker Association of Florida (domestic) and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (international). The prize presents an alternative to the World Food Prize, also presented last week and won by a group of plant scientists for biofortified sweet potato.

If you prefer your anti-GMO revolution in the form of processed snacks, check out the new Our Little Rebellion line of “triangular corn-based food” from BFY Brands. It might be hard to reconcile such enterprises with the militant anti-capitalism on display at the Tribunal, but it raises legitimate questions about how to define the scope of the movement. In what other small ways are people (and foods themselves) asserting agency? Agricultural Heritage Systems in Italy, tastes of rural nostalgia in Japan, and Food Policy Action’s 2016 scorecard for every US senator and representative, just in time for the election.

Weekly Gleaning 10/14: A new kind of local


“Mutant Roots” by Cleve West

Have we ever been Neolithic? Stacy Adimando makes a case for root vegetables as a kind of quasi-causal operator for the emergence of agriculture, in contrast to the fixation on grains. Human-plant coproduction of food continues to reinvent itself as researchers in Finland have successfully “3D-printed” food from plant cells in a kitchen sized bioreactor. Often the technological transformations of food procurement are seen as creating distance between people and the land, but the researchers tout it as “a new and exciting way of producing local food in their own homes”. Not only is this food “local”, but it is also wild – Finnish varieties of Arctic bramble and cloudberries.

3D printed berries - Credit: Image courtesy of Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT)

“3D printed” berries – Image courtesy of Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT)

In other curious developments, the Bright Green Group of Companies has announced a partnership with the Acoma Pueblo tribe to construct 80 acres of greenhouses on the reservation for the cultivation of medicinal plants. It’s unclear whether “medicinal” is a wink at investors to imply cannabis, but in any case the rationalization of plants-as-medicine in collaboration with a Native American tribe sounds ripe for some ethnography. Those working on indigenous rights more generally may be interested in the new Free, Prior and Informed Consent manual from the FAO.

The sportswear company Patagonia has announced their own line of beer. Considering that they also have a history of establishing national parks, this is not so remarkable, but was is interesting is that Long Root Ale is the first commercial beer to be made from kernza. Kernza is a perennial grain being bred by the Land Institute, where such grains have been called the “solution to the 10,000 year problem of agriculture

Those who read the New York Times Magazine’s food issue this week saw those problems in dizzying (and strangely beautiful) display in George Steinmetz’s photographs. In the leading article, Michael Pollan expressed his disappointment at the lack of change during the Obama administration in terms of farming and food. What about change from below? Anyone who has read Seth Holmes fantastic “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies” will be interested to hear that the indigenous Mexican berry pickers at Sakuma Brothers Farms have organized into the first new farmers union in many years: Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

Weekly Gleaning 10/5: Autumn of the anthropocene

“He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.”                            J.R.R. Tolkien 

Jessica Barnes has contributed a new entry on gluten to the Lexicon for the Anthropocene Yet Unseen. Is there something about the current moment that lends credence to the idea that we are changing our world so fundamentally that a grain central to human diets for ten thousand years is no longer good to eat?” In The Conversation, Nick Kawa explores the irony of the Anthropocene.


“Rainbows, Kittens, and Killer Baby Unicorns” @ Treinen Farm

It is amidst this strangeness and uncertainty in our food and farmways that we enter the season of corn mazes (see Modern Farmer’s Top Five mazes of 2016 and a case study of the Great Cornish Maize Maze). How are we to navigate this labyrinth of loss and plenty? Feral Theatre perform A Funeral for Lost Species while the foragers at GatherVictoria celebrate the seasonal abundance through the imagery of the cornucopia. Bill Mollison – founder of the permaculture movement and perennial pot-stirrer – is dead at 88 (see Graham Bell’s obituary and the Permaculture Research Institute’s official statement). Perhaps the only place left to turn is the daily tarot card picked by goats at Goat Guidance.

In Jacobin magazine, two graduate students rail against the common notion that food systems can be changed by “voting with your dollar”. Rather, they say, food justice is fundamentally a class war. Another article from the University of Chicago’s business school blog seems to corroborate this – describing the sugar baron Fanjul brothers who are hosting fundraising events for both Trump and Clinton (at last week’s Prairie Festival at the Land Institute, Wendell Berry blamed both conservatives and liberals for the current state of US agriculture). Also see a recent feature on the Resnicks, megafarmers in California who control a significant portion of the state’s water supply. A new study from the National Agricultural Imagery Program shows that conversion of land for almond production in California (the Resnicks are the world’s largest producers of almonds) has led to loss of wetlands, increased stress on pollinators and of course increased water consumption.

Such water shortages in Africa have led to increased risk of conflict, and a recently published report by Lund University links water shortage directly to crop choices and water management by foreign agricultural companies. Their choice of crops “often require more water than the traditionally grown crops” and leases on land “rarely include any rules or limits concerning the use of water”. Is this class warfare? Hard to say. For now, enjoy some goat yoga, and a happy autumn.

Page 1 of 23

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén