« Are social networks like Facebook and MySpace bringing us closer together or making us less social? | Main | How Advertising Reinforces Racism, Sexism, and Classism »

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relationship to food is a common theme throughout Daniel Quinn's book Ishmael and that relationship is used as to bring historical reference to the evolution of human society and as a platform to examine the evolution of human culture.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