Culture & Agriculture

a section of the American Anthropological Association

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.

Weekly Gleaning 9/21: Down and out in the robot kingdom

Every week we’ll be collecting relevant news, web features and publications from the world of culture and agriculture. From this past week: the microbiopolitics of resistant bacteria, plant blindness, and the latest in agri-business consolidation.


        okonomiyaki chef in Japan’s Robot Kingdom theme park

There’s been quite a bit happening in the past week amongst the upper echelons of agriculture. In the latest in microbiopolitics, heads of state around the world committed Tuesday to coordinated action on antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Based on the FAO’s action plan, the draft declaration calls for stricter regulation and surveillance of agricultural practices (70% of antimicrobials are consumed by livestock). Heather Paxson’s work on artisanal raw cheese producers serves as a useful starting point for engaging and theorizing such developments. At the same time, a new study demonstrating that applications of endophytic microbial communities can increase drought tolerance also shows that Post-Pasteurian practices are not necessarily restricted to the local and embedded; this particular research is on poplar tree plantations destined for cellulosic ethanol (i.e. biofuel) production. Also worth keeping an eye on is the BioAg Alliance formed by Monsanto and Danish biotech company Novozymes, which has mostly flown under the radar so far.

Of course, Monsanto’s acquisition by different European corporation continues to spark discussion. The Wall Street Journal has an article (unfortunately behind a paywall) on the implications for EU regulatory policy. There’s also a timely short film co-produced by Neil Young about an Alabama farmer’s legal battle with Monsanto. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack also weighs in on the acquisition, with the familiar maneuver of turning a question about consolidation of power into a response about “innovation”. Dominic Glover has written in the Journal of Peasant Studies about such narrative shaping for GM crops, and Holmes and Graham have explored the portrayal of GMO’s as “public goods” in Colombia. In other transgenic news this week is the largest study to date of pesticide and herbicide use by farmers growing GM maize and soy (pesticide use down; herbicide use increases w/ weed resistance), and a new technique that increases the range of crops that can be modified. Supplement these with articles on the anthropology of genetically modified crops and bio-hegemony in Argentina.

It’s a low point in the ag cycle, and conditions are ripe for consolidation. Besides Monsanto and Bayer, two of the largest fertilizer producers – Agrium and the Potash Corporation – also announced a merger. Last Thursday, 37 companies launched the Global Agri-Business Alliance. See Kendall Thu on consolidation in agriculture and centralization of political power.

The US Trade Representative Office is contesting Chinese price supports for domestic cereals, saying that they have breached WTO commitments and are hurting US farmers. Of course, subsidized US cereal production and export has itself been historically disruptive to local food and farming systems around the world, as shown in Seth Holmes ethnography of indigenous Mexican farm laborers Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies (overtime pay for farm labor in California was finally signed into legislation on Monday).

That farmers are often compelled to make decision based on the rhythms of the global market (e.g. ag cycles) rather than agroecological rhythms is perhaps related to what Kathryn Williams has called plant blindness (also see Williams and Mung Balding’s recent article and a new study showing that gardening as a child has lasting effects on diet). On the other hand, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg’s article in the new issue of Farming Matters demonstrates how peasant farmers read their farms through a “range of complex and interdependent cycles of observation, interpretation, readjustment, evaluation and learning”.

Hands on the Land – Young Researchers Program


Deadline: Monday, September 19

The Young Researchers Program, a mentorship programme by the Hands On the Land Alliance in cooperation with TNI, FIAN International and Friends of the Earth, is open for applications until the 19th of September. This program enables young engaged scholars and activists to strengthen their capacities around understanding food sovereignty and the human right to food, including opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, benefitting from the experience of mentors, and the opportunity to attend two main events as part of the research process.

Introducing the Weekly Gleaning – September 14

We’re happy to announce a new feature – the Weekly Gleaning. Inspired by the good folks at Savage Minds and Somatosphere, here we’ll be rounding up what’s happening around the web in matters of culture and agriculture.

Léon Augustin Lhermitte – Les Glaneurs (The Gleaners)

It seems appropriate to start our first edition of the Weekly Gleaning in the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture itself originated. First off is a story on the Syrian Dust Bowl and the complex role of agricultural development in the trajectory of the conflict. ICARDA’s (International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas) seed banks, built to maintain agrobiodiversity in the Middle East, are apparently still secure. Just a bit north, excavations in Turkey have uncovered some of that heritage in the form of 2,800-year-old wheat and sesame seeds – which are to be “resurrected”. In other seed news, Future of Food has a new report out on local seed systems. For an anthropologist’s take on agrobiodiversity studies, check out James Veteto and Kristine Skarbø’s review or Veteto’s article on southern/central Appalachia.

As further consolidation of the seed industry makes headlines with Bayer’s takeover of Monsanto (also see Howard’s classic Visualizing Consolidation in the Global Seed Industry), the first confirmed meal of CRISPR-Cas9 genome-edited food was quietly eaten by a researcher in Sweden – tagliatelle with a stir fry of altered cabbage. Here’s a well animated introduction to CRISPR for the uninitiated. Synthetic biology and biohacking beg questions about how to define food, questions that are also being contested in Sonoma County – where inspectors at the National Heirloom Exposition (the “World’s Pure Food Fair”) fined vendors for giving away free samples of heirloom seeds without a “tasting permit”.

What do such fundamental questions reveal about farming and food in the Anthropocene? The Guardian writes that the domestic chicken (and its subsequent fossilization) defines the current geological epoch. IDS and Oxfam have a new report on the global food crisis of 2007-11 that indicates it is characterized more by precarity. Or maybe, as Christy Shields-Argelès writes in Savage Mind’s series on anthropology and food, it is the act of eating with strangers.

New Guest Post from Paul Durrenberger

Although the recent surge in attention to food and agriculture feels like the hot new thing, anthropology has long been on the forefront of research about how our systems of food production inform cultural practices.  In this Notes from the Field, E. Paul Durrenberger reflects on his many years examining the intersections of agriculture, labor, and social justice in the context of Brad Weiss’ new book Real Pigs:  Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork.

Robert M. Netting Student Paper Prize

The Culture and Agriculture section of the American Anthropological Association invites anthropology graduate and undergraduate students to submit papers for the 2016 Robert M. Netting Award. The graduate and undergraduate winners will receive cash awards of $750 and $250, respectively, and have the opportunity for a direct consultation with the editors of our section’s journal, CAFÉ (Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment), toward the goal of revising the winning papers for publication. Submissions should draw on relevant literature from any subfield of Anthropology and present data from original research related to livelihoods based on crop, livestock, or fishery production, forestry, and/or management of agricultural and environmental resources. Papers should be single-authored, limited to a maximum of 7,000 words, including endnotes, appendices, and references, and should follow American Anthropologist format style.

Papers already published or accepted for publication are not eligible. Only one submission per student is allowed. Submitters need not be members of the American Anthropological Association but they must be enrolled students. Students graduating in the Spring of 2016 are eligible. The submission deadline is August 31st, 2016 and all submissions should be sent to [email protected]

The New Wild West

Our latest entry in our “Notes from the Field” series comes from James H. McDonald of Southern Utah University. His essay explores the on-going disputes over public lands in the western United States that recently came into the media spotlight during the “Bundy Standoff.”

From Pipelines to Paris: Why We Need Forests Now More than Ever

Our latest edition to the “Notes from the Field” comes from Dr. Duncan Earle, an anthropologist and the director of Global Studies at Marymount California University. Dr. Earle also serves as consultant for Jadora International, whose mission is “to mitigate climate change, preserve biodiversity, and improve livelihoods through an innovative and economically sustainable approach to forest preservation.” His essay examines the linkages between forests and climate change mitigation, specifically in the U.S.

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