Banking on Wild Relatives to Feed the World | Maywa Montenegro

Abstract: Crop wild relatives, the progenitors and kin of domesticated crop species, promise breeders a potent weapon against climate change. Having evolved outside the pampered environs of farms, wild relatives tend to be more rugged to survive temperature, salt, floods, and drought—all the extremes characteristic of a warming planet. But who will benefit from re-wilded crops? What kinds of agricultural systems will they tend to support? And can wild relatives be protected before they are lost under pavement, desertification, and expanding industrial farms? In this essay, I explore different visions of conservation and use for crop wild relatives. With CWR valued at an estimated $115–120 billion to the global economy annually, many researchers suggest ancient germplasm can be harnessed to feed billions in a warming world. Others look more closely at ancient customs and farmer knowledge that have long promoted conservation of wild species within and around cultivated landscapes. By intentionally planting crops at field borders, farmers also perform “in vivo” breeding. I conclude that wild relatives hold much potential to reinfuse diversity into eroded crop gene pools, providing greater systemic resilience. But unless we consider who controls seeds, intellectual property, and wild and agricultural lands, CWR innovations will only prop up an agriculture that ultimately undercuts crop and wild relative renewal.

Not long ago, Native Seed Search, a Tucson-based organization dedicated to preserving indigenous crop varieties, was approached by representatives from Monsanto. Did Native Seed have any samples of teosinte they were willing to sell? The wild ancestor from which domesticated corn was bred, teosinte is scarcely recognizable as a kin of modern corn, the latter with its multiple rows of kernels, plump and sweet. Yet it is in the genes of this wild relative – and those of all the world’s major crop species – that modern plant breeders are eager to find a potent weapon against climate change.

Having evolved outside the pampered habitat of a farm, wild relatives are hardier than most domesticated species. Their traits, say researchers, could potentially be bred or engineered into crops to produce climate-hardy varieties. If you have not yet heard that “weeds will feed the world,” you soon will.

But who will benefit from such wild relative improvements? What kinds of agricultural systems will they go to support? And how to stanch the loss of wild relatives due to climate change, urbanization, deforestation, pollution – and industrialized agriculture itself?

With such questions still waiting to be satisfyingly addressed, much wild relative work is already underway. Scientists at the United States Department of Agriculture are looking to red rice, a weedy relative of domesticated rice (genus Oryza), for genes that could make commercially grown varieties more heat-resistant, adapted to saltier soils, and higher yielding even under the driest conditions (Palmer 2014). Other USDA researchers are crossing the countryside in search of wild relatives of sunflower (Helianthus), one of the few domesticated plants native to North America (Harvey 2015). Similar research at CIMMYT in Mexico, the cradle of Green Revolution research, focuses on relatives of wheat (Triticum), with advances in drought- and heat-resistant traits already resulting in edible grain.

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Don’t Mono-crop the Movement: Toward a Cultural Ecology of Local Food | B.R. Cohen

from Gastronomica 14:1

What matters for the future of healthy food is not just farmers’ markets, CSAs, urban farms, food hubs, and the like—the particular individual innovations of the foodsheds—but the ways they interact and overlap. 

The former director of the Community Food Security Coalition, Andy Fisher, recently pondered what, if anything, holds the local food movement together. The CFSC is a coalition of several hundred food security organizations across North America; Fisher’s prior experience at its helm offered a vantage point to ask about cohesion and common purpose. It was an echo of the point Michael Pollan made about the 2012 election, when President Obama had asked if there really was a movement to be tapped—for him, a voting bloc—or just a collection of disparate pieces. And it is an important question for advocates and activists to ask, but not because there actually is one thing holding the movement together, like a label, or an aphorism, or a fad diet, or an appeal to public health. Rather than an individual feature that can center various attempts to improve food and farming, what matters is the way the many activities of local food advocates overlap with one another in an interdependent, ecological whole.

This is a point about organizational identity and the political possibilities such an identity makes possible. It is grounded, though, in the ways advocates for food health, security, and sovereignty envision the spatial arrangements of food production, distribution, and consumption. In North America—and across the United States in particular—good food advocates over the past generation have defined that spatial arrangement almost entirely through the farm-to-fork trope. That trope provides a common framework to think about the various stages involved in food and farming. Consider its many examples. Farmers’ markets, food hubs, community supported agriculture (CSA), virtual marketplaces, organic grocery stores, rooftop, community, and schoolyard gardens, 100-Mile Diets, urban farms: the architecture of reform is endless, but every part seeks to reduce the distance between food producers (farms) and consumers (forks).

Some innovations, for example, pull consumers closer to producers by bringing them to the farm (CSAs); some redefine consumers as producers too (gardens and urban farms); some eliminate links in the long farm-to-fork chain by appealing to urban living patterns (virtual marketplaces, organic grocery stores, food trucks). These would seem to provide points for a food movement to rally around.

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From the Editor, Spring 2014

from Gastronomica 14:1

Welcome to 2014 and the first issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. As I announced in the previous issue (13.4), the journal’s core emphasis will be innovative and thought-provoking scholarship and debates within the worlds of food and food studies, a refocusing that is reflected in the journal’s new subtitle. At the same time that our contributors push the boundaries of food scholarship in terms of the topics they cover, they will also invite us to consider the formats in which we engage these topics and conversations. While we will continue to rely on conventional text-based formats, we also will experiment with new types of scholarly communication, including graphic arts and multimedia approaches, both in the pages of the journal and on our website. This is an exciting moment for the journal and for food scholarship, as researchers, writers, artists, and enthusiasts play with innovative content and formats. I am very much looking forward to the creative possibilities and scholarly innovations that will emerge as Gastronomica’s contributors and readers interact at the very forefront of critical food scholarship.

More generally, this is a timely moment for critical engagement with food in all of its forms. As this issue goes to press, California governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency for the state and requested that residents voluntarily reduce their water use by twenty percent, with the possibility of mandatory water restrictions coming soon. Both the drought, which is California’s worst in 100 years, and the water restrictions are already having significant effects on America’s food practices and will have repercussions for a long time to come. Most immediately, with lakes and reservoirs at or near empty and wells running dry, California farmers are making decisions about whether they will plant, what they will plant, whether they should sell off or slaughter their livestock, and whether they will even have jobs for the laborers who work in their fields and on their farms. Vintners are uncertain about whether they will have grapes later this year, as the lack of water now will likely affect whether their vines will bud this spring. Even fisheries are suffering as scarce water resources are being diverted for more critical needs.

These developments will have profound consequences for national and global food supplies. California produces approximately one-half of the US’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts and is the country’s leading dairy supplier. Its number-one food export is almonds, which is also one of the most water-intensive crops because it requires year-round watering. No one knows precisely what will happen if California’s drought continues, but it is clear that any reduction in California’s food production capabilities will resonate across the food chain, with prices rising and availability and diversity shrinking, farmworkers losing their jobs, and farmers wrestling with hard choices about whether to wait it out, change their focus, or get out altogether. Such critical themes as labor, health, choice, access, environment, sustainability, and tradition, among many others, will increasingly come to the fore as points of debate and discussion in scholarly research, public policy, and dinnertime conversations.

Above all, these developments highlight the fact that food never exists in isolation from larger trends and dynamics; rather, it is always deeply embedded within and buffeted by shifting political, economic, cultural, and environmental forces. Food is not merely something pleasurable or tasty, but something that is crucially significant to all parts of our daily lives. Food matters. Thus as the journal moves forward this year, expect to see contributors focus careful attention and debate on the weighty, thorny, and consequential aspects of food in all of its manifestations.

The contributors to this first issue of 2014 take us directly into critical food conversations with an impressive and fascinating collection of essays that revolve around themes of morality, knowledge, and power. In different ways, the contributors inspire us to think about how particular food traditions have evolved, what types of information and perspectives they provide, how they are situated within systems of power and control, and why these food practices matter in today’s world.

Seth Holmes starts this conversation in the opening interview about his recently published book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, a riveting ethnographic account of the hidden world of migrant farmworkers as they cross the border into the United States and make their way to the West Coast farms that stock American pantries. With an eye to the scholarly and ethical dimensions of his project, Holmes describes and analyzes the physical and emotional suffering of Triqui migrant workers who are entangled in racialized work hierarchies and medical systems.

The questions that Holmes raises about the nature and impact of power and value are pursued in different ways by the other contributors to this issue. In his essay on local food movements in the United States, B. R. Cohen examines the political terrain staked out by these movements as they make claims on such issues as health, food safety, food security, and food sovereignty. By illuminating the interconnections and points of convergence and divergence among these movements, Cohen argues against a one-size-fits-all homogenizing orientation to food reform efforts and instead suggests that a greater potential for innovation and alliance lies within an ecological approach that recognizes their plurality. Maywa Montenegro de Wit extends this theme of the plurality of politics and ideas within food movements in her essay on urban agroecology trends in the United States, with particular attention to the ways in which agroecology scholars, proponents, and activists have interacted in their efforts to educate the public about new approaches. Taking a slightly different angle, Yuson Jung and Andrew Newman critically interrogate the moral economy of food, labor, and consumer choice in Detroit as local residents and activists debate the arrival of Whole Foods in their midst. Jung and Newman provoke important, but also uncomfortable, questions about the role of class, race, and taste in a setting where low-income residents who have struggled to survive in a food desert now have access to a premium grocery store that promotes a particular health-oriented lifestyle.

Value, change, and tradition continue as themes in essays by J. Weintraub and Gary Paul Nabhan. In his translation of a chapter from Eugène-Vincent Briffault’s Paris à table, Weintraub introduces us to Briffault’s critical perspective on Parisian gastronomy, replete with both serious and humorous observations of the highs and lows of the cuisine, restaurant settings, manners, sensibilities, and even diners of nineteenth-century Paris. Far removed from the metropolitan tumult of Paris, Nabhan situates the Arabian Peninsula’s spice trade in a compelling history that weaves the past with the present, the cultural with the agricultural.

Moving beyond the serious to the more whimsical, but no less intellectually provocative, Marilyn Stasio, Robert Iulo, and Julia Hebaiter invite us to consider the mysteries of food. Stasio takes us into the world of the “foodie mystery” and offers insight into how food works as a plot device and what ultimately makes for a satisfying food-oriented thriller. Iulo details the intimate and mysterious powers of food as recipes, traditions, and shared memories hold families together through time. Hebaiter provokes us to consider the value of secretive, even illicit behaviors for enhancing the pleasures of food, with her cheekily rendered musing on purloined fruit from neighbors’ gardens.

In their contributions to this larger discussion of the intersection of values, morals, and food, Laura Titzer and Margaret Sessa-Hawkins explore from different angles the productive, generative nature of food work. In a reflection on the hard work that takes place on an organic farm, Titzer considers how the physicality of planting and harvesting tomatoes offers insight into the complexities of alternative food systems and the ideals of the inclusivity they promote. Sessa-Hawkins explores how a simple food like the apple can simultaneously include and exclude, as she learns to make homemade apple pie and new friends over a fire in Malawi, far from her family and home in Virginia.

Finally, in their contributions, Ali Fitzgerald and Shelly Errington push the boundaries of food studies formats by moving away from text-based analyses to more artistic forms of critical commentary. Through graphic arts, Fitzgerald and Errington illuminate the political dimensions of food, with Fitzgerald’s rendering of mushrooming in a post–Cold War Berlin and Errington’s musing on what capitalist consumption might mean for the Easter Bunny.

In closing, I invite you to dig into these pieces and allow them to inspire your own critical reflections on food and its role in our daily lives and the world around us.

The March of Empire: Mangos, Avocados, and the Politics of Transfer | Robert R. Alvarez

from Gastronomica 7:3

According to the truism, we are what we eat. These days, most of us delight in eating plenty of guacamole and mango chutney. But where did those avocados and mangos originate? When did they shift from being exotic intruders to part of our daily diets? What were the politics of their transfer? Most of us haven’t a clue.

In fact, deliberate plant transfer into the United States dates back to the late nineteenth century, to the period when Darwinism spurred scientific interest in new typologies and in the recording of new species. This seemingly innocent and objective process evolved into a dynamic global strategy of plant exploration and collection that transformed landscapes and yielded new hybrid vegetable and fruit varieties. In the United States, plant transfer had a clear economic base: the us Department of Agriculture (USDA) wanted to provide American farmers with seeds and plants for the creation of new markets. As a result of USDA policy, farming and the national landscape changed dramatically, if gradually. New hybrids that were developed in this country became staples in regional and national markets and ultimately engendered a transformation in global agriculture.

The pioneers who sought out nonindigenous plants were by and large men of creative vision and imagination. The collection of plants and their transfer initially belonged to a burgeoning botanical science in which new plants were added to growing and impressive typologies. But economic reasoning, no less than scientific curiosity, shaped the plant hunters’ activity. The significant funding involved in organizing their travels and disseminating their work required administration by government agencies that imposed a variety of regulations and controls. Today’s network of food regulations reflects a hierarchy tied not only to health and safety but also to economics and control.

In the late nineteenth century, the USDA sent agents throughout the world to find new fruit and vegetable varieties suitable for hybrid adaptation and eventual export in the world market. These agents, largely unknown to most of us today, formed a cadre of remarkable explorers who pushed at the frontiers of botanical science and changed forever what we buy at our markets, plant in our gardens, and cook for our meals.

The Plant Hunters

David Fairchild (1869–1954). David Fairchild, a botanist and bureaucrat, grew up in Kansas in the 1870s as a member of America’s intellectual elite. He studied at the Kansas State College of Agriculture, where his father was president, and then at Iowa State and at Rutgers, where his uncle, a distinguished biologist, taught. He eventually married one of Alexander Graham Bell’s daughters. Fairchild came to Washington in the early 1890s, where he joined the Department of Agriculture and made several explorative forays abroad. Indeed, while working for the USDA, Fairchild himself introduced more than twenty thousand exotic plants into the United States, among them mangos, alfalfa, nectarines, dates, horseradish, bamboos, and after a trip to Japan, the first flowering cherries of Washington, D.C. In 1889 he convinced the us Congress to allocate twenty thousand dollars to create the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction (OFSPI) and subsequently became its first director. Fairchild’s intention, like that of the USDA in general, was to support an applied botanical science to provide American farmers with what they called “economic plants” for market development. To achieve that goal, he sent USDA agricultural explorers, known as “plant hunters,” to collect thousands upon thousands of seeds and plants suitable for America’s farms, home gardens, and city landscapes.

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