Something’s Fishy Here…

Not gonna to lie–I was definitely not expecting to find anything remotely related to new food activism amidst D.C.’s ruckus St. Patrick’s Day festivities, but there it was, literally staring me in the face:

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I spotted this car in the middle of Adams Morgan–a neighborhood in the District notorious for its bar scene and therefore a destination of choice to properly commemorate the Irish holiday. Needless to say, I was pretty surprised by its presence, and a little unsure of whether it was parked there to make a statement, or simply because its owner was joining in on the day’s celebrations. Either way, my first instinct was: “I can blog about that!” (I realize this is not a normal reaction)

This car represents some pretty interesting topics. Clearly it is a statement about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which are a very hot-button issue in food activism these days. While proponents of GMOs claim that they are the future in terms of combatting food insecurity, people remain skeptical not only of GMOs’ ability to generate higher crop yields and withstand adverse weather (as promised) but also their basic health and safety for consumers. According to the Non-GMO Project, “a growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems, environmental damage and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights.”

Interestingly, as of right now, the main battlefront seems to be playing out only over the issue of labeling. As the car I spotted proclaims, anti-GMO activists are mostly concerned about knowing whether or not their food has been modified, and less concerned about stopping the process of genetic modification altogether.

Beyond the message it sends, the car itself is a great example of public art which, according to Lucy R. Lippard, is an essential facet of activism (“Looking Around: Where We Are, Where We Could Be” 1995). A vehicle as eye-catching is this one will certainly stand out in the sea of neutral-shaded diplomatic sedans that is D.C. The clever morphing of an ear of corn into a fish visually depicts for the viewer what it is that so many people find unsettling about GM foods–namely, the unnatural merger of plants and animals that have no business mating with one another, let alone the physiological capability to do so. However, I find the choice of medium to display this protest at least slightly ironic. Some of the strongest adversaries of GMOs cite the environmental risks they pose. It doesn’t seem too petty to point out the irony in driving a fossil fuel-consuming vehicle to protest an environmental hazard, does it?

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Despite the growing distrust in genetically modified foods, there are of course still pro-GMO fighters out there. As argued in an article by Cameron English on PolicyMic, genetically modifying plants and animals is nothing new–we have been cultivating crops for centuries and the intentional act of breeding is in fact manipulating the genetic process. English goes further to suggest that the fear of ‘foreign microbes’ which is the basis for demanding GMO labels is unfounded, seeing as how “all the plants we eat, genetically modified or not, are loaded with bacteria, viruses, and other living organisms — and their DNA.” This links up in a curious way with my previous post discussing interspecies ethnography. While it is true that bacteria and microorganisms exist harmoniously with flora, fauna and humans alike, proponents of GM foods claim that we are in fact taking a greater risk ingesting these unknown additives than the ones intentionally spliced there by geneticists. Paraphrasing agricultural scientist Steve Savage, English claims “the only difference between the foreign genetic materials found naturally in plants and the genes we intentionally add to them is that we know more about the latter.”

To me (and I’m sure many others) this defense seems more than a little absurd. We’ve heard this story before–just check out these advertisements to get a darkly humorous glimpse at what was believed to be beneficial to our health not so long ago. We’ve learned (or at least been shown) the lesson the hard way that sometimes developments that look great and fool-proof at first turn out to be disastrous in the long run.

Sure, questioning the validity of seemingly unnatural innovations might be viewed by some as an illogical barrier to the benefits of modernity; and undoubtedly some technological advances have vastly improved quality of life. But this does not place categorical immunity on any and all newly developed techniques. This is precisely the philosophy held by adherents of the Back to the Land movements studied by Dona Brown, who questioned the necessity for technology in order to fully embrace the challenges of modernity.

There may be a compelling argument to be made that we have been knowingly modifying foods since Gregor Mendel (or even earlier),  but we have to be willing to draw the line somewhere. As Lippard notes, “nature includes everything, even technology, created by humans, who are a part of nature,” but just because GMOs may be seen as ‘natural’ in this sense of the word, doesn’t mean we get a free pass to start injecting tomatoes with fish genes and expect there to be no significant consequences. Perhaps we should start taking a serious look at the bigger structures that are causing all this food insecurity in the first place…but that’s a topic for another day.

Review: Back to the Land – The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America

Despite the luxuries offered by modernity, there seems to always be a lingering sense of longing for simplicity in American society; however, this longing is not merely motivated by naive, nostalgic notions of pastoral life. In her book, Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America, Dona Brown eloquently guides her readers through over a century’s worth of back to the land movements and, in doing so, illustrates how the motivations for such movements have in fact been very complex and tied to the political, economic, social and even literary atmosphere of the time.  These “back-to-the-landers” saw themselves not retreating backwards to a primitive time, but rather as spearheading a progressive movement that promoted a more practical approach to the challenges of modernity.

Growing skepticism and mistrust in the newly-booming industrial capitalist market at the beginning of the 20th century led many people to embrace the notion of returning to the land; the possibility of self-sufficiency directly combatting dependence on shaky markets. Thus, the movement was formed as a progressive alternative to mainstream modernity.

"Self-sufficiency was not justice, but it was 'one way out'" (30)

“Self-sufficiency was not justice, but it was ‘one way out'” (30)

The second wave of back-to-the-landers surged in conjunction with the development of FDR’s New Deal programs. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, going back to the land was seen now as an effective and even necessary way to tackle the overwhelming problem of unemployment. As one might expect, reliance on government assistance did not sit well with all back-to-the-landers and many turned to leaders like Ralph Borsodi, who again rejected the notion of such reliance and became a ‘decentralist’–encouraging people to maintain a self-sustaining lifestyle as was the dream of the original back to the land movement.

The final back to the land movement Brown focuses on is tied up with the multiple other social revolutions of the 1960’s and 70’s–particularly the environmental movement.  New back-to-the-landers did not express the same anxieties about economic hardships as those who came before them, but they were still committed to and compelled by the notion of self-sufficiency and the ability to break away from the grip of a government they felt was unjust.

What is particularly fascinating is the overwhelming influence literature has had on these movements, and the ways in which such literature has resonated with its audiences. The most striking example is that of David Grayson–who was actually a fictional character developed by a muckraking reporter named Ray Stannard Baker. The fact that a fictional account of going back to the land could change the way so many people viewed their lives is indicative of the truths that are held at the core of back to the land ideals. The back to the land movement provides a poignant example of how progressive ideology can in fact echo lessons from the past and need not focus so intently on advances in technology in order to be successful. Going back to the land was not to reject modernity, but in fact to embrace it in an alternative way which many believed rang truer than the growing reliance on technology and unstable market economies.

There are common threads which run throughout all of the back to the land movements in the last century, and we see similar notions beginning to peek through in contemporary society as well. Concerns about over-centralization and consolidation of power, economic security, social justice–all are part of what has driven so many people over the years to venture back to the land, and all exist in heightened form today. Once again our society is now in a time of economic crisis, and trust in centralized government is certainly waning. Along with Brown’s conclusion that going back to the land was ultimately about self determination we might also say that, at its core, the ultimate struggle of the movement was between the public and private. Although back-to-the-landers often fell in line with public agendas, their desire was to be able to dictate when and how they would engage with the public sphere. Indeed, we see this tension in many contemporary food movements.

What is perhaps most intriguing about the ideals of going back to the land is that they also incorporate a significant degree of social/racial/gender justice. More and more we see these issues overlapping with the more ‘traditional’ causes of new food activism–food security, environmentalism, global health–and it is for this reason I believe that the ideals expressed by more than a century of back to the land activists will remain relevant in the contemporary realm of activism. Just as going back to the land was never simply about returning to an idyllic agrarian lifestyle, neither is contemporary food activism simply about health/environmentalism/justice/etc.–it is the cross section of all these forces and more that spark movement.

(For citation information please see the ‘Webliography’ page on this site)

Coffee Talk

Working in a café for 5+ years has left me with many invaluable life skills and experiences (mostly related to the fact that I now know that I do not want to work in a café for the rest of my life.) I’ve learned all about the art of pulling a perfect shot of espresso and have tentatively mastered latté art. Yet despite my relatively intimate and longstanding relationship with making and serving coffee I am still hopelessly disconnected from its production.

Unlike some foods that we unnecessarily purchase from far off lands simply for the sake of convenience, cost, etc., coffee is one that cannot simply be grown in the inhospitable climate that is New England. In fact, coffee that is suitable for today’s coffee-literate society really can’t be produced anywhere in the U.S. That is why we see names of entire countries becoming representative of certain roasts: Ethiopian coffee is known for its mild, medium flavor; Guatemalan for its fruity undertones; and French roast has become nearly synonymous with “large black coffee.” But what does this really mean? Who are the people and what are the processes involved in getting my coffee from there to my cup?

The coffee industry has taken an interesting and rather progressive foray into food activism in this sense. Perhaps this is due to a critical mass of socially conscious (…hiptster….) consumers, maybe the caffeine just makes people want to do things!! or perhaps the industry has genuinely identified a need to create more transparent and responsible supply chains. For example, Counter Culture has taken on a policy of Direct Trade, rather than Fair Trade, in the hopes of sustaining more personal, cooperative, and  equitable relationships with their suppliers. There are even activists guides  being produced in order to engender a more progressive base of consumers.

While studying abroad in Uganda I got to see coffee in its natural habitat for the first time, but that’s about as close as I’ve come to having any connection at all with the plant or people (not that any significant amount of coffee I have consumed in my life has even come from Uganda…) who supply me and millions of others with such a tantalizing addiction.

Our guide in Uganda shows us coffee berries right off the tree

Our guide in Uganda shows us coffee berries right off the tree

I wish I could buy coffee from Farmer Joe down the road, but Farmer Joe doesn’t have the capacity to grow the coffee I crave. So  I need to find a more meaningful way to interact with people halfway around the world who do have this capacity. After all, the coffee industry is a huge economic force in countries like Uganda, where other exports are slim–especially ones that can be produced by average citizens, as coffee can. Right now I feel the best I can do is make a conscious effort to research where my coffee comes from; not just the country, but the modes of production that actually get it to me. Is the farm family owned or corporate? Are the farmers given adequate share in the profits? How do fair trade/free trade regulations factor in? Similar to the growing number of people who demand to know where their meat is coming from out of concern for the ethical treatment of animals, I want to know where my coffee is coming from out of concern for the ethical treatment of farmers.

So this is a dilemma I still face. I strive to have a deeper connection with what I consume, but how can I do that when there really is no way to connect me to the root of the coffee plant, save traipsing around the world gathering beans and speaking with farmers myself? I’m sure there’s a compromise in here somewhere, maybe I just need one more cup of coffee to help me figure it out…