Culture & Agriculture

a section of the American Anthropological Association

Category: Weekly Gleaning (Page 2 of 3)

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?

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


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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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