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November 4, 2010

A Mango In the Middle of Oregon's Winter: The Agricultural Revolution Continues

An excellent example of paper 2 by Keets Nelson - Fall 2010

"Everyone wants to eat like an American on this globe... But if they do, we're going to need another two or three globes to grow it all" --Daniel Basse

Population is tied to food supply and due to our incredible capacity to grow food, humans are rapidly overpopulating the planet. Our options are to either decrease the population or increase the food supply. A drastic reduction in population, whether through permitting starvation or mandatory sterilization programs, would be considered inhumane and is subject to extreme social bias when determining which groups should or should not receive aid or be allowed to reproduce. However, aside from China's one-child incentive program that led to infanticide of baby girls, which has drawn major criticism from human rights activists, voluntary population control has not been demonstrated in most modern cultures (1). In societies with seemingly abundant resources, there are fewer motivations to limit reproduction.

Humans' relationship to food is a common theme throughout Daniel Quinn's book Ishmael and that relationship is used as to bring historical reference to the evolution of human society and as a platform to examine the evolution of human culture. While the average American may not have a strong relationship to the way their food is produced or acquired, many of the institutions and beliefs our society is based upon can be attributed to agricultural practices. That being said, our institutions and beliefs are intricately connected to the way we acquire food, which means they are subject to change as we continue develop new agricultural methods.

Americans demand variety. We have grown accustomed to having the foods we want when we want them. International trade markets allow me to eat a mango in the middle of winter despite living in Oregon, a state without mango groves. Accessing crops from across the world relieves us from the limitations of eating what grows regionally. From a sociological perspective, the practice of eating foods that do not grow locally and adopting dishes from another culture is intriguing. It can allow a person to "experience" a small aspect of another community without ever meeting someone from that community. For example, I don't think that I've ever met anyone from Morocco but by simply eating at a Moroccan restaurant, I'm able to connect several stereotypes about hygiene practices and religious beliefs based on my association with using one's hands rather than silverware to eat. However, my perception of better understanding Moroccan culture through visiting a restaurant is insufficient and the conclusions I draw are more than likely inaccurate, especially since most ethnic restaurants play up the associated stereotypes as a marketing technique.

While people in many countries experiment with foreign dishes as a way to add cultural variety through their diet, there have also been trends of people in developing countries incorporating foreign foods as a method of "modernizing." Helena Norberg-Hodge witnesses a cultural shift in the attitudes of the Ladahki towards food, noting that "...as the desire to appear modern grows, people are rejecting their own culture. Even the traditional foods are no longer a source of pride. Now when I'm a guest in a village, people apologise if they serve ngamphe instead of instant noodles" (3). A New York Times article shows an additional example of this phenomenon and discusses the effects of adoption of foreign foods. "Nigeria grows little wheat, but its people have developed a taste for bread, in part because of marketing by American exporters. Between 1995 and 2005, per capita wheat consumption in Nigeria more than tripled, to 44 pounds a year. Bread has been displacing traditional foods like eba, dumplings made from cassava root" (4). This cultural shift creates a dependence on importation of foods that cannot be supported by the ecosystem of the new country as well as increasing the overall demand for certain crops.

There are many methods of meeting the increased demand in a world market but I would like to focus on the development of genetic engineering as it pertains to the continuation of the agricultural revolution. The purpose of genetic engineering (GE) of food is three fold:
-Developing crops that are resistant to pest, viral, or fungal threats as well as herbicides (5)
-Improving yields by creating crops that are resistant to cold, drought or salt as well as modifying the nutritional composition of some plants (5)
-Creating pharmaceutical crops that could be used as edible vaccines or sources of some drugs (6)
The cultural changes that will stem from the development of genetically modified foods will be widespread and potentially unforeseeable. While many people are fighting against the use of GE crops and they remain to be controversial, it may be difficult to opt out of this revolution that appears to be leading to a "Biotech Society." Crop contamination is difficult to control and even in the Williamette Valley, farmers who do not want to use GMO crops worry about losing business and their original crops simply because their neighbors choose GMO crops (7).

One thing is clear, our relationship with food has shifted from viewing plants and animals as sources of nutrition, whose presence we benefit from in varying degrees, to viewing them as objects that can be manipulated to best suit our nutritional needs and desires. It is a step in further controlling our food supply, as Ishmael points out is a key part of the story enacted by most humans.

In addition to the shift in how we view food, our social institutions will be affected by the practice of genetically modifying crops. James Henslin examines how social inequality has evolved and increased with each major social revolution. For example, the Industrial Revolution decreased the need for animal and human power, which forced people to seek work in cities, resulting in poor wages and little time with family. There have already been indications of agribusinesses such as Monsanto, using GE crops to monopolize markets to secure huge financial profits and shut out competition. Monsanto has farmers sign contracts prohibiting them from saving seed from one year to the next, which requires them to buy Monsanto seed each year (8).

As the Biotech society unfolds and jobs become increasingly more specialized, the division of labor will lead to a system made up of parts too complex for any one person to understand the whole. From my experience working on a small farm, we were able to recognize a problem, such as a nutrient deficiency in the soil, and identify a range of options to fix the problem (i.e. add fishmeal, allow ducks to forage, apply store bought fertilizer). When a GM crop is used, the person who is planting and maintaining a crop will not be able to problem shoot as easily because they do not share a knowledge base with the person who manipulated the DNA of that crop. That crop may have be genetically engineered to produce a form of insulin to be ingested by diabetics. In this scenario, there are several groups depending on the success of the crop--the scientist hoping for a successful experiment, the grower wanting a high yield, the doctor desiring an effective treatment, and the diabetics needing accessible insulin. Sociologist Emile Durkheim might view this interdependence as contributing to the development of "organic solidarity" (Henslin).

Unfortunately, I believe that organic solidarity will eventually create a cultural shift to acceptance of GMOs, regardless of the current resistance to their introduction to the world market. Human population growth and our desire for outsourced foods creates a demand for increasingly efficient methods of growing food crops. Genetic engineering of plants seems to offer a solution to that demand, yet the environmental and biological consequences of applying genetic engineering to our food sources remain largely unknown. However, if history is an indicator of the social implications for this type of societal revolution, at the very least, I expect to see a worldwide decreased connection to food and greater social inequality.

(1)Henslin, James M. 2009. Essentials of Sociology A down-to-Earth Approach. Allyn and Bacon: Boston MA
(2) Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. . Reuters. 05/11/2009
(3)Norberg-Hodge, Helena. "The Pressure to Modernize" The Future of Progress. Green Books, Dartington, Devon, UK, 1992.
(4)Strietfeld, David. "A Global Need for Grain the Farms Can't Fill." NY Times. 03/09/2008.
(5)Bauman, Robert. Microbiology: With Diseases and Taxonomy (2nd Edition). San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings, 2007. p 754-755.
(6)Pascual, David. "Vaccines are for Dinner." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2007, 104: 10757-10758.
(7)Lyderson, Kari. "Monsanto Beets Down Opposition." In These Times. 11/21/2008
(8)Scott, Marian. "Family Seed Business Takes on Goliath of Genetic Modification." The Edmonton Journal. 05/25/2008.

other notes...

James Henslin refers to the agricultural revolution as the Second Social Revolution
The agricultural revolution for humans is alive and well

social buy-in

some communities won't need the nutritional supplements that are incorporated to meet the needs of the people who are developing the strain of plant (ex. vit D supplement in a region that is located closer to the Equator and people are exposed to sun).

The concept of foods that do not grow locally or seasonally has

November 3, 2010

Are social networks like Facebook and MySpace bringing us closer together or making us less social?

An excellent example of paper 2 by Adeline Brainard - Fall 2010

Some people spend hours on social network sites. Most of our society is not a gemeinshaft anymore and it is not always common to have a sense of a close small community. People may not talk to their neighbors but they may interact with hundreds of people on a social network each day. According to Facebook's statistics page there are more than 500 million active users, 50% of active users log on to Facebook in any given day, the average user has 130 friends and people spend over 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook . Could this new way of socializing be a way to keep personal ties or make our social ties more superficial?

Erving Goffman called the efforts that we use to manage the impressions that others receive of us impression management. "We have ideas of how we want others to think of us, and we use our roles in everyday life to communicate those ideas." (Henslin, p.103) on social websites even the shyest people can make an impression. They have their own personalized page and they control the impression they make on other people. It is like the internet version of impression management. People display their likes and dislikes, pictures of themselves and how they are feeling at any moment. Some people use these sites for business networking purposes and portray themselves more professionally. People use these personalized websites as front stages just like people use their roles in everyday life to show others how they want to be portrayed. The difference is that there is even more control over the websites for people to make their impression. They can take a moment to decide if they want to show a picture or share something that happened to them. Unlike in "real" life they are able to take a moment to edit what they say or even erase something they do not like. That is why even though the internet can be just as instant as the real world people sometimes have more control in the virtual world, if they use it wisely.

Milgrim's study of six degrees of separation was proved to not be as successful as people thought. "People who don't know one another are dramatically separated by social barriers." (Henslin, p.122) although one similar experiment was done with email instead of letters it was still unsuccessful. But now that we have social networks could it be that it is becoming a "small world"? Many people that do not know someone well or even at all will become "friends" on these sites. The site will suggest friends to you according to mutual friends that you and that person has. It brings people together and the process of knowing someone that knows someone that knows someone can go on and on if you want it to.

People are so busy these days that it is difficult to maintain social and family relationships. By Ferdinand Tonnies definition our society is mostly gesellschaft. (p. 98) Our lives no longer center on family. On these websites you can be in touch with everyone you know. You can see what your old classmates from grade school are doing and pictures of their vacation and kids. In this way it brings people closer together. It brings people in touch with people when they may not have time for contact otherwise.

On the other hand these sites can be impersonal and immediate. Limiting your social interaction to only brief messages and not face to face interaction could change people socially. Also it is not a conversation with one person it is multimedia and many people all at once saying what they are doing, sharing videos and playing games. You do not have to pay attention to one thing or one person. If a friend posts something you do not have to respond because it was not to you personally and they do not have to know that you saw it. Human interaction could be altered eventually because we might start adapting to this new medium for socializing.

Georg Simmel explored the significance of group size. "As a small group grows larger, it becomes more stable, but its intensity, or intimacy, decreases." (p. 130 Henslin) It makes someone wonder what the size of a group on a social network means. The size could be very large; people can be connected around the world. The intimacy is decreased by the amount of people someone is dealing with online.

Young people who are more used to this way of socializing because they never knew a world without it may be at a disadvantage. They may not learn how to behave in a way that is socially acceptable in our society. They may not learn how people expect them to speak and behave professionally. With emails there are no social cues like eye contact body language and tone of voice. This could cause them problems when trying to get a job or other situations where a first social impression is important.

Because these children do not know any other way of life their social standards may become the norm over time. Maybe in the future people will not put an importance on the things we now think are important in social situations. Things that make a first impression now in our society like speaking clearly and looking people in the eye may lose their importance over time. Society is always changing. The people who grow up with these new social ways may not be disadvantaged after all because they will become the norm. If everyone starts using social networks to socialize through social construction of reality a changed way of socializing will become the standard normal thought of society.
Because almost anyone can access these sites and become "friends" and interact will people become more equal? It is highly unlikely that Facebook could solve the world's social problems for many reasons. Not everyone has access to a computer everyday or at all and not everyone has time. Although these sites are free and open to anyone a single mother working two jobs with no computer is not going to go to these sites as much as a teenager from a wealthy family who has nothing but time. In some ways though it can bring people together who would normally not ever meet or speak to each other on the street. It can open people to ideas and information they may not have come across normally.

If we use an example from the novel Ishmael this way of life is very far from a natural way to live. Sitting at a computer indoors and talking to people through emails is very far removed from a hunter gatherer society. Instead of going back to being a "Leaver" culture these social networks are a part of a "Taker" culture.

Like many modern conveniences and technology social internet sites are both a blessing and a curse. We can keep in touch with people no matter where in the world they are, meet new people and gain new information and perspectives on the world. On the other hand we can ignore real relationships and live in a virtual world.

Facebook Website ://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics
Henslin, James M. 2009. Essentials of Sociology A down-to-Earth Approach. Allyn and Bacon: Boston MA
Quinn, Daniel 1993. Ishmael, Bantam