Culture & Agriculture

a section of the American Anthropological Association

Author: Jonathan Tanis (Page 2 of 4)

Weekly Gleaning 3/9: soil science fiction

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. This week: gamma gardens, food dystopia, and animal autonomy

At what point in the 20th-century did science fiction lose the capacity to imagine utopia? Why are we so sure that things will get worse? As David Graeber’s asks – where are the flying cars? Transmango published an article last week about the looming post-Brexit food dystopia in Britain, but the real dystopian stuff coming off the press is on another scale entirely. The categorization of Earth as a toxic planet. A UN Human Rights report on the sixth great extinction as a human rights issue.

Going full sci-fi, the consistently great design podcast 99% Invisible has a new episode out on post-WWII Gamma Gardens, where plants were grown around radioactive towers in an attempt to accelerate plant breeding. Today, developments in CRISPR-Cas9 are beginning to pick up, with patent battles and proposals to employ the technology to tinker with seasonality and even to induce the first new wave of plant domestication since the Neolithic Revolution.

Then there are the more immediate consequences of steps towards dystopia – closer to speculative fiction than sci-fi: fear in the Central Valley, a wall through Tohono O’odham land, dealing with the realities of planting zones moving northward. Margaret Atwood has written about the Ustopia, “a world I made up by combining utopia and dystopia – the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other”.

What are the “little utopias” latent in these times?

The Burren from The Perennial Plate on Vimeo.

Other links of interest:

A team of French ethnographers challenge the characterization of pastoralism as ‘protective domination’, demonstrating that multiple North Asian relationships of husbandry actually encourage animal autonomy

Where is Sonny Perdue?

A plant theory of mind

Advocating towards student debt relief for young farmers

Weekly Gleaning 2/15: whale fall

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. This week: colonial farm policy, medieval climate change, and octopus farming.

Image credit: Jen Christiansen (whale-fall illustration); Catherine Wilson (species inset illustrations)

Sometimes when a whale dies, the carcass sinks down below the shallows to the abyssal zone. On the ocean floor, the rotting flesh generates its own local ecosystem that can endure for decades. Trump – the new Leviathan in Chief – has indeed generated a complex ecosystem around his persona, multiple trophic levels of rhetoric and resistance. For better or worse, much of the inherently political scholarship of farming and food systems will be operating in relation to this context, at least for the time being. As Congresswoman Chellie Pingree calls the current state of US food policy the “foggiest crystal ball” she has ever seen, the challenge is to descend – poised – into the abyss without becoming transfixed by the sublime presidential object.

Photo Credit: Dishing it Out

“Who the fuck hates shwarma?” is the sign that inspired Dishing it Out, an ongoing collection of “food-themed protest posters”.

The Syria Supper Club is allowing refugees to connect with their neighbors through shared meals and also raises money for their living expenses.

Though the future of farm policy seems uncertain to many, an early look at the next Farm Bill process looks like more of the same.

A new article from the Journal of Peasant Studies presents an analysis of colonialism in US farm policy, showing that ‘more of the same’ is more of profoundly unjust policies towards the majority of those involved with production agriculture.

Two pieces providing some historical context for environmental and racial crises facing contemporary agriculture. First, new evidence that agricultural decline due to climate change during the Little Ice Age may have been responsible for the collapse of Cahokia, the largest of the indigenous Mississippian city-states. Second, a short essay on slave owner’s use of food as a means of control, through the words of Frederick Douglas’ memoirs.

The Wall Street Journal warns about the “next American farm bust”. Recall that the last American farm bust precipitated rural poverty that manifested politically in surprisingly major ways.

But maybe you’d rather read about a Mayan octopus farming cooperative.

Photo Credit: Richard Schweid

Weekly Gleaning 2/8: power plantations

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. This week: structure and agency, the failure of food waste, and a fish hub.

“What makes a “plantation” different from the industrial strawberry fields of California’s Central Valley?”, asks Sarah Besky in a conversation published last week at Chapati Mystery. She notes widespread hesitancy in using the word to describe the agriculture systems that currently produce much of the world’s tea, fruit and coffee – as if plantations belonged to a bygone “era”. Donna Haraway and others have coined the Plantationocene to refer to our times, writing that “the slave plantation system was the model and motor for the carbon-greedy machine-based factory system that is often cited as an inflection point for the Anthropocene” – if there is such a thing as a plantation era, it is happening right now.

Talking about plantations is important because it directs focus on a particularly unjust structural arrangement of agricultural practices. As the change in administration carries with it a sometimes blinding fixation on the agency of one man, it becomes doubly important to maintain an incisive analytic towards structures of oppression like plantations.

Regarding that change in administration, an article in Nature describes responses to one of the last acts of the FDA before the inauguration – a draft rule requiring that genetically altered animals be subject to the same regulation process as new pharmaceuticals (e.g. dairy cows modified to develop without horns). Modern Farmer has done an overview of January ag policy happenings in case you missed something.

Raj Patel and Nick Saul wrote into The Globe and Mail to argue that tackling hunger also requires a more structural approach than redirecting food waste. “It’s awkward to look at how our current disposable-food culture creates waste. Much easier, then, to turn the poor into garbage-disposal units.” Their proposal is to focus on livable wages, affordable housing and social support, and point to the success of community food hubs in Canada.

Lastly, an inspiring story from Civil Eats about the development of a fish hub in Monterey, California, modeled after those Canadian food hubs. Are food and fish hubs the anti-plantation – a more just and inclusive structural arrangement of farmers and eaters? What might an era of food hubs look like? Like the plantation structure, it appears to be replicable and adaptable to new contexts as shown by Monterey’s fish hub. Food hub structures also contain implicit assumptions about the worth and positioning of different human and nonhuman subjects within agroecosystems.

The inexplicably long wait for a new Secretary of Ag, the unpredictability of Sonny Perdue, and the unknowns concerning the president’s anti-globalization agenda are only the beginning of a strange era for agriculture in the United States. Who is the master of the plantation?

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?

Page 2 of 4

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén