Culture & Agriculture

a section of the American Anthropological Association

Month: November 2016

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.

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