Culture & Agriculture

a section of the American Anthropological Association

Weekly Gleaning 1/13: in the bleak midwinter

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. This week: a gleaning in three acts – martial food, transatlantic agrarian history and the ‘bear life’ of native food sovereignty 

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

// Wendell Berry

I. Seed Bullets – You might have heard about seed bombs, but the US Department of Defense’s proposed seed bullets are less DIY, more lethal. The seeds housed in the biodegradable ammunition would sprout several months after being fired, to bioaccumulate any potential soil contaminants left by the bullets. While the US military is attending to soil degradation, Venezuela’s has been organizing the country’s dwindling food supply since last summer, trafficking food and setting up black markets. Over at Material World, Thorsten Gieser reflects on the sensorial disturbance of field dressing his first kill, during fieldwork with hunters in Germany.

II. Transatlanticism – Two pieces of agrarian history from the Atlantic slave trade. First, amid all the celebration at the revival of the Carolina African Runner – the ‘ur-peanut’ of the South – Jeremy Cherfas looks at the role of the peanut in world history and what exactly the South American native was doing in Africa in the first place. Second, an ethnobotanical story of black rice – on the agency of West African slaves in carrying both rice and skill in growing it to the Americas.

III. “Bear Life” – Obama’s designation of the Bears Ears Monument in southern Utah has generated praise for its protection of native sacred sites and critiques that it constitutes a federal land grab. NPR’s The Salt takes a look at its significance for tribal food sovereignty. For whites, conservation is a matter of not using the land, Noyes says. For Natives, it means actively tending it as they have for generations. “Our goal is to change how Americans view landscapes so that they include cultures” as well as plants and animals, he says. Just across the state line in northern Arizona, Kristen Davenport writes about the many meanings of color in Hopi corn. Lastly, a reminder of the settler state appropriation of native slave labor that built up the California wine industry. Dinkelspiel’s conclusion is that a “glass of California Cabernet should never taste the same again”, but is this true? How should the colonial foundations of many modern institutions inform how we approach them today?

Culture & Agriculture is hiring!


CAFE Editorial Assistant (part-time)

Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment (CAFE) the journal of Culture and Agriculture invites applications for a part-time Editorial Assistant starting January 2017. The Editorial Assistant will provide general support for journal operations, marketing and publicity, and assistance with manuscript editing and management.

CAFE is a journal with an expanding and increasingly diverse submission volume and readership. The Editorial Assistant will have the opportunity to connect with leaders who work in the anthropology of the environment, agriculture, and food. They will interact with editorial board members, authors, and reviewers to enhance the journal’s outputs, exposure, and access to applied and non-academic readerships.

We are especially interested in candidates with some of the following skills and interests:

  • Journal administration and management
  • Copy-editing and proofreading
  • Social media and online marketing
  • Curation of themed discussions of current anthropological topics related to the environment, agriculture, and food production on the C&A website, drawing on CAFE articles and other anthropological and non-anthropological sources


Applicant should be anthropologically trained, with background in CAFE topical areas, highly motivated and organized, communicative, and willing to work in a team environment. Can be located anywhere, but willingness and ability to participate in regular skype or other remote conferencing calls with journal editors required. Graduate student preferred, but upper-level undergraduates with appropriate skills will be considered. Retired or underemployed anthropologists also welcome!


Although academic editing is often a volunteer endeavor, this position includes a stipend of $1,000 per academic year.

Work load will vary from week to week, depending on role with the journal and timing in the publishing cycle, but are expected to average 3-5 hours per week.


Brandi Janssen and Stephanie Paladino, Co-Editors

[email protected]

Journal home:

Weekly Gleaning 1/5: that is the Land, though not quite all

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. This week: vertical farming, liquid land and a friendly farming opera

That is The Land out there, under the sleet, churned and pelted there in the dark, the long rigs upturning their clayey faces to the spear-onset of the sleet. That is The Land, a dim vision this night of laggard fences and long stretching rigs. And the voice of it—the true and unforgettable voice—you can hear even such a night as this as the dark comes down, the immemorial plaint of the peewit, flying lost. That is The Land—though not quite all. Those folk in the byre whose lantern light is a glimmer through the sleet as they muck and bend and tend the kye, and milk the milk into tin pails, in curling froth—they are The Land in as great a measure.

                                                      – Lewis Grassic Gibson

It is in the wintertime that the Land awakens, wrote Rudolf Steiner. During the summer she “sleeps, her soul flies into the cosmos and the vegetation is her dream”. This particular winter, when even Steiner’s perennial Holocene rhythms are being disrupted (see: global see ice), the Land in all its contradiction and excess is becoming liquid and mobile in new ways. The Courier-Journal has just published an article on American Farm Investors, a company managing Kentucky farmland as financial assets for wealthy investors concerned about the intangibility of the ‘doomsday economy’. From AFI’s website:

We locate profitable farms, purchase them with our own equity and investor funds, and manage them efficiently to maximize potential. Larger farms can yield greater profits. By partnering with American Farm Investors, ownership of this asset class becomes a reality.

and some quotes from their customers:

I want to own something very real in this very fake world

There is something special about being able to drive by an asset and pick the dirt up and run it through your fingers. Come spring fever, I might drive out there and pull a leaf off a soybean plant and smell it

Such financial practices represent one of the many faces of land grabbing. For some other perspectives, check out the review symposium on Tania Li’s fantastic book Land’s End (as well as her response to the symposium and of course the book itself) in the most recent issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies. Over at GRAIN there’s an article on how indigenous Kayapó and federal agencies have been collaborating to bring down one of the largest illegal timber and cattle ranching operations in the Brazilian Amazon.

In such cases of deforestation and subsequent soil erosion, land becomes not only mobile in the commodity form but also literally dis-placed. A study published last month in Nature reports that US agriculture is just as vulnerable to a ‘modern Dust Bowl’ drought as it was in the 1930s. One option is to simply escape the complications of Land – Ian Frazier at The New Yorker has just written on the history and current manifestations of aeroponic vertical farming.

While vertical farming moves orthogonally up and away from the Land, a group of anthropologists is moving closer, down to a ‘snail’s eye view’ of a rice paddy. In their ethnographic Golden Snail Opera, Yen-Ling Tsai, Anna Tsing and their co-authors present the more-than-human world of ‘friendly farming’ in Taiwan, through the performative and multi-sensorial form of Taiwanese opera. For more on the more-than-human anthropology of farming, see the latest issue of our journal CAFE.

other items of interest:

–  Food Tank interview about the contradictions between urban agriculture and food justice

– USDA report on its microloan program (and analysis here)

– New labeling process for grassfed dairy


Call For Papers/Workshops – Initiatives in Critical Agrarian Studies

International Colloquium: The future of food and challenges for agriculture in the 21st century


When: 24-26, 2017
Where: Vitoria-Gasteiz, Basque Country
Who: La Via Campesina, Transnational Institute, International Institute for Social Studies, EHNE Bizkaia (Basque farmers union), Etxalde (Basque food sovereignty movement)

Find more information here
Submissions to [email protected]

Thematic Axes

1 Capitalism, class, agriculture, livestock and fisheries.
2 Climate Change and convergences.
3 Models of development in the context of flows of capital, goods and people.
4 Access and control over the means of production.
5 Consumption, health, nutrition and the Right to Food.
6 Movements for Food Sovereignty.


Weekly Gleaning 12/16


Two recent pieces of interest from Savage Minds: (1) Kristina Lyons explores the productive frictions that emerge when STS and multi-species ethnography (including her own work on soil practices in Colombia) interface with decolonial approaches, and (2) Sally Applin reflects on supermarket sociality in light of Amazon’s new grocery stores.

In the world of plant breeding, open source principles inspired by Jack Kloppenberg and the Open Source Seed Initiative are also finding traction in Europe. A working group associated with Agrecol and GFAR has recently published an open source license in a working paper that can be downloaded here. Also, support is building for a moratorium on gene drives at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity this week in Cancun, Mexico.

The USDA has announced new Farmer Fair Practices Rules. Check out some analysis from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, who seem hopeful that the new rules will bring changes to the much maligned ‘tournament’ system.

From the Kid’s Safe and Healthful Foods Project comes a quite comprehensive report on the implementation and impact of 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Download the report here.

Three post-election reverberations: (1) CUNY’s Urban Food Policy Institute has assembled a set of priorities for New York City food justice advocates in the ‘Trump Age’, (2) Kay McDonald at Big Picture Agriculture takes on ‘fake news’ blaming cattle for increases in methane emissions, and (3) US-China relations take a bizarre turn as plans go forth to construct a Sino American Friendship Model Farm in China, modeled on a farm in Musctatine, Iowa that President Xi Jinping visited in 2012. Chinese officials are also considering to ‘recreate a Midwestern community’ as a tourist area.

New CAFE Issue! – Entanglements of Reciprocal Relations


We’re happy to announce the latest issue of our journal Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment. Inspired by the recent scholarship of Anna Tsing and others, we’re approaching agriculture as a bundle of relationships, exploring how these entanglements have developed through history and continue to shape current practices of food production.

Volume 38, Issue 2: Entanglements of Reciprocal Relations

Entanglements of Reciprocal Relations
// Stephanie Paladino and Brandi Janssen

From “Genetic Resources” to “Ecosystems Services”: A Century of Science and Global Policies for Crop Diversity Conservation
//Marianna Fenzi and Christophe Bonneuil

How Religion, Race, and the Weedy Agency of Plants Shape Amazonian Home Gardens
// Nicholas C. Kawa

A Semi-Autonomous Mexican Peasant Community and Globalization: The Role of the Cacique (Broker) in Maintaining Traditional Agroecology
// Jean Gilruth-Rivera

Borders Out of Register: Edge Effects in the U.S.–Mexico Foodshed
// Laurel Bellante and Gary Paul Nabhan

Shrimp Aquaculture, Social Capital, and Food Security in Rural Vietnam
// Jessie K. Fly

Research Report
Bringing Farmer Knowledge and Learning into Agricultural Research: How Agricultural Anthropologists Transformed Strategic Research at the International Rice Research Institute
// Lisa Leimar Price and Florencia G. Palis

Book Review
The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing)
// Reviewed by James P. Verinis

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.

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