Summary Comments



This article provides a set of summary comments on the articles written in response to Manning's book. It also comments on Manning's book itself by highlighting its elegant sweeping account, while also reminding the reader that humans are cultural creatures with agency to change the messes Manning articulates.

The book that lays claim to the attention of these contributors is richly deserving. It treats a subject—the world's food—that is deadly serious, but it manages to do so without resorting to prose that is deadly boring.

Throughout, Dick Manning treats the production and consumption of food as if they were intimately connected parts of a single economic system. Such a virtue might seem obvious, but much recent work by anthropologists has focused too much on consumption, and too little on production, almost as if these activities were not taking place on the same planet. In a society such as the United States, the allure of studying consumption is easy to understand. We are famous for our talent: we shop till we drop. Perhaps more in the United States than anywhere else, the study of consumption is appealing; it leaves the analyst room to play games with catchy jingles, comical ads, the Freudian foibles of the consumers, the pleasures of conspicuous consumption, the naive faith that anything sore can be made better by more of something else. But separating production from consumption weakens what is an economically sounder understanding, of a sort based on—for example—anthropological studies of small societies, such as Firth's treatment of Tikopia, or Malinowski's of the Trobrianders.

In those works, production and consumption were seen as closely connected, and they were described that way. What they provided readers was an analytical overview of how a whole society worked economically. But they did something else besides. By implicit contrast, they enabled a modern reader to understand far better the oddity of an economic system in which the very soil of the earth itself becomes a commodity, and we are not counted upon to know what anything is “really worth” until the market gives it a price. In studying that kind of system, the analyst feels invited to divorce production from consumption. But it is also true that in our sort of society, everyday life witnesses a genuine weakening of the links between these processes. The man in the street once wondered who had produced the food that he ate, and where that food came from; but it does not seem to matter much to him, or to us, any longer. This new lack of concern is evidence of globalization at work in all its splendor. Now we can witness joyfully the production of strawberries that look like they were grown on our very own Three Mile Island but which—it then turns out—come to us year-round, from Chile, Australia, or Mexico.

In the preceding papers, however, as in the book about which they tell us, production and consumption are perceived as connected, even if the consumers live far away from the producers—related, as are the human beings who care for the food and ship it (and are usually underpaid to do so) on the one hand, to those who buy it (usually overpaying to do so) and then consume it, on the other.

Book and commentary demonstrate their worth: they improve our aim by enabling us to think more clearly—perhaps not so much about hitting a particular target, but about what the target might be. By this I mean that the writers help us single out, for specific problems, what the relevant factors are, when we try to assign differing degrees of responsibility to possible causes. Finding the target, figuring out what factors are responsible for a particular condition, is not always immediately apparent in modern life. This is not just because modern life is complex, which indeed it is. It is also because so many people now make their livings out of helping to conceal the relevant factors. Whether it be bovine spongiform encephalopathy, WMD, avian flu, or global warming, all are perceived by today's opportunists not as threats, but as cash cows. Business opportunities are like that. There was a time when everybody knew a joke about the undertaker whose business, it was said, was always good. But I cannot remember a joke in which the undertaker hires hacks to convince people that organ failure is not really the cause of death, and they should worry about the weather instead.

It follows that the reason we are told so often that Americans are fat simply because they do not exercise, is not because the people who say it believe it so fervently, but because being paid to distract us from the other reasons for obesity turns out to be good business. On a far grander scale we have long been told that large-scale corporate agriculture is the only way to protect those hungry millions around the globe from starving. The truth is that though mechanized agriculture has surely fed countless people, it has had many negative consequences as well, for people, for local economies, and for environments, and those who have prospered by telling us how great such agriculture is have told us nothing about those consequences.

Though Dick Manning takes us through time in order to reach the modern world, his emphasis is primarily upon the United States, its history, and its contemporary role in world food issues. This makes good sense to me, even if I did find myself often wanting to interrupt him, as he led us through 12,000 years of human history. It may be useful to turn back for a minute to the first large-scale estate agriculture in a truly modern guise, which emerged very early in the post-Columbian overseas colonies. There were no transoceanic empires before Columbus, but in the 16th century, soon after his explorations of the Caribbean region, overseas production of sugar, molasses, and rum was undertaken there, and it was clearly intended for a European market. Within a century, these rare and costly commodities were serving both to domesticate the emergent factory proletariat in Europe, and soon enough, to bring joy and the blessings of Western enterprise to large non-Western populations in other places—American Indians, Inuit, Hawaiians, and so on (Mintz 1985). The changes in world food production and the diet of the world's peoples after 1492—in the long term by what Crosby (1972) calls the Columbian Exchange, and in the even longer term by plantation economies—were at least as significant as anything that has happened to world food production since.

The first New World plantations were European in origin, ownership, and the distribution of benefits. But the eventual appearance of a New World rival in the form of the North Americans—that is, white but not European—was not lost on the Europeans. Seen first as a cornucopia of wealth for its colonial masters, parts of the New World became a hatchery of resistance to Europe—and one of its eggs was, of all things, sugar. After all, it was an older and wiser John Adams who observed, writing of the American Revolution: “I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence. Many great events have proceeded from much smaller causes” (1856:345). The Stamp and Molasses acts made plain, even earlier than the levies on tea, that the 13 colonies were to be a thorn in Britain's side, and that politics and the economics of food can be intimately joined. After that Revolution, we Americans drank more coffee and less tea, more bourbon and rye whisky and less rum. But even as we were Americanizing ourselves culturally we were, in our own way, also proving that we were a by-product of the commerce that had been given birth by the pioneering, overseas, slave-powered, agrofactories that European imperialism had created.

The century that began with the birth of the new American republic would end with the annexation of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines by the Americans. Though we went to war against Spain for bigger things than sugar, it was in those newly conquered places, hothouse style, that we forced up the production of sucrose and its derivatives, molasses and rum, to feed ourselves and our own rapidly growing migrant labor population.

Between the start of the 19th century and its end, the relationship in this country between agriculture and industry tilted, seemingly irreversibly, to the industrial side of the scale. The cost of that shift, whereby the number economically used in agriculture began its irreversible downward slide, is not easy to calculate, because it is a social, as well as an economic matter. It brings in its wake the depopulation of rural areas, the death of many small towns, changes in everyday governance, out-migration, the replacement of production by tourism, and similar problems, as anyone from Maine or North Dakota can tell us. But though these changes happen without any national attention, we are bound to live with the increasingly important consequences of corporate farming and the corporate farming perspective in the present.

What does it mean to a country that it no longer has farmers? And how can we tell what it means? In an ambitious and well-written book, Colin Duncan has argued that a future world economy can fulfill human and ecological goals only by placing agriculture, rather than industry, at the center of local—that is, regional—economies within the nation (1996). Colin Duncan is a socialist, and his work brings back memories of social theorists of the late 19th century. He himself refers to the work of Edouard David and Kozo Uno who, like him, cared about a world to be, and worried how to get from here to there. I will not dwell on his work. But I think that his core idea—that agriculture, not industry, must be at the cultural center of every society—is provocative, and definitely worth thinking about. He suggests to us that the relationship of people to the earth, as experienced through industry, leaves out something that the relationship of people to the earth through agriculture does not.

But when we read Manning's book, we may begin to believe that it is not industry, but agriculture itself that is the villain, and that our sympathies really ought to repose in hunters and gatherers. This appeal includes some poetic and highly evocative prose. But only after we have read 186 pages about the awful sins of agriculture does the author confess to his readers that agriculture is not the villain after all:

agriculture was not a bad idea … it arose independently in at least five places on the planet. In each case, it arose as a necessary consequence of natural forces, which is to say it evolved … Obviously we need the food: hunting and gathering, commercial fishing and the like will not meet the needs of six billion people.”


And so Manning's real target is not the growing of food but industrial agriculture, aimed more at profit and less at health and food security. But the industrial agriculture of the plantation era was soon to be followed by another important stage in the world system before today's industrial agriculture would take shape. In the same century that Great Britain, then the world's leading power, turned her back both upon the West Indian planters and her own farmers, by repealing the tariffs on foreign sugars and passing the Corn Laws that protected British agriculture, she establishes a “food regime”—Harriet Friedmann's name for it (1993)—in beef and wheat. In Argentina, Canada, Australia, and marginally in the United States British investment in railways goes hand in hand with the expulsion, killing, or confinement of indigenous peoples by “settler-colonial” groups. From 1870 to 1914, the first worldwide “price-governed market in the essential means of life,” in Friedmann's words, is established (Friedmann 2004). But after two world wars, separated by a worldwide depression, there comes into being another food regime, this one based on large-scale industrial agriculture under U.S. domination, and we are still caught up in that era.

The present situation in world agriculture is the subject of a recent work by Tim Lang and Michael Heasman. Their book, Food Wars (2004), sketches in two alternative futures. To the present North American-led world food system they give the name “productionist paradigm.” By “food wars,” they mean an emergent struggle between two different paths, brought on by the realization by enough reasonable people that mad cow disease, SARS, and other recent threats to world health will not lend themselves to a quick fix, and that the obesity pandemic and its attendant medical consequences cannot be solved by refurbishing food pyramids or a rapid expansion of Gold's Gym franchises.

Lang and Heasman contrast these two alternative paths: the Life-sciences paradigm, with its heavy biotech, functional food, nutraceutical, and genomic outlook; and the Integrated Ecological paradigm, which is a more holistic, more environmentalistic, more sustainable family-farm oriented outlook. They point out early on that the struggle between these two quite different ways of addressing contemporary problems in supplying the world's food will have much to do with how human health is conceptualized, and they worry—I think with reason—that the next 50 years may degenerate into a war between two very different philosophies about the world's food.

It is true that American agriculture is not completely monolithic, and that sustainable agriculture can be an important alternative to industrial monoculture. But without substantial organizational and civic investments in such alternatives, I find it difficult to be optimistic about family farming's future. As Kendall Thu urges, we need at least to ask where our food comes from. But we can do more organizationally, if we care enough. As for this matter of addressing current concerns, I think that Dick Manning may discount too quickly two factors in the contemporary American mix. Soon after he opens his discussion of food growing, he writes: “the political system cannot be counted on to reform agriculture because any political system is a creation of agriculture, a coevolved entity” (2004:187). I suspect that assertion would not hold up for, say, the first years of the Soviet Union, Mexico under Cardenas, or post revolutionary China. Obviously none of those cases—two of them quite egregious in their destructive effects upon the rural sector—is a model for us or anybody else. But I think we still need to look to our own national politics for partial answers. Though national politics, including in the United States, has been deeply corrupted by corporate agriculture and the food industries, it is still the case that the one thing that politicians in modern social democracies seem to favor as much as “pork” is votes, and though considerable money is being spent all of the time to make our votes totally irrelevant, it has not worked out that way quite yet.

Soon after, Dick Manning tells us that the market too, cannot be used to effectuate changes in how we grow and consume our food, because it is dominated by corporate interests. With this assertion I find myself in complete agreement. Marion Nestle is fond of pointing out in her lectures that the USDA funding for nutrition education is less than the advertising budget for Altoid lozenges, a nice datum to contemplate. But I think this means that we voters must look more and more closely—and voice our concerns more loudly about—the relationships between corporate capitalism and national governance.

I do not mean by this to say that serious students of world food can or should settle for some abstract, anticorporate or anticapitalist formulation. I think that Mark Moberg's concise insistence on social justice, fair wages, and an anti-imperialist program as part of any concrete agricultural reform, at least in our country, makes good political sense.

I would like to conclude with a couple of general observations. The first is about that much-abused term “culture.” I recognize that the United States and France are both important capitalist countries. But they do not farm alike and they certainly do not eat alike. The French are under many of the same pressures as we, but their food system is still quite different. Something other than, or in addition to, capitalism must be involved in explaining the different ways that we produce food, and the even more dramatically different ways that we regard it and consume it. I think that the word “culture” must be brought into the dialogue about how this country came to feed itself in the way that it does, and how it is now trying to dominate the world's food with its future slop.

I have a last comment on Dick Manning's wonderful book. It is aimed to qualify one of his concluding assertions. My concern is anthropological, and though it is conceptual only, I think it has to do with how we regard the human animal. Behaviorally, I believe we humans are a highly malleable species, owing to the way that the birth of a symbolic form of communication and the emergence of culture have enabled us to leave behind so much of our animal nature. This is not the place to expand on that perspective, but we are no longer an animal that is seasonally in rut: each human group speaks a language that is not genetically programmed; our food is only minimally regulated by our physiology; we commit suicide frequently, often for ethical reasons and sometimes even by fasting. In these and endless other ways, our behavior is totally remote from our animal past. Indeed, each functioning human grouping can be said to carry its own culturally specific version of reality, and to live in terms of its meanings, far more than in terms of any universals about us as a species.

At the same time that culture profoundly affects our behavior (and does so in a culturally specific, rather than generically human way) we are also prone to behavioral change, and even to change radically. This said, I do not agree with the implications of Dick Manning's assertions (p. 202) about the “hunter that survives in each one of us,” or what “we remain at our genetic core,” or how civilization successfully denied the joys of sensuality to others. Let me begin with a homely but nonetheless thought-provoking ethnographic case, to suggest what I mean.

When the Crow people broke away from their Hidatsa cousins on the Upper Missouri to become equestrian bison-hunters, giving up agriculture, semi-subterranean houses, ceramics, and a sedentary life style, in order to make war, count coup on fallen enemies, make drudges of their women, and torture themselves in the vision quest, they returned each summer to reap the sacred tobacco and to live briefly among their peaceful farming kinfolk, before returning to the plains. We need to keep in mind that the genetic cores for the Hidatsa and the Crow were just about the same—it was their cultures that had changed. The people changed them, and changed with them. As far as can be known the sensuality of the Crow and Hidatsa peoples remained about the same, too.

But sensuality itself as a human endowment deserves another word. When I spoke earlier of the first New World plantations, I noted its labor basis only in passing. But think for a moment of those thirteen million Africans believed to have been dragged across the ocean by civilization during nearly four entire centuries to plant the sugar cane, tobacco, cotton, and coffee for those who styled themselves their civilizers, I believe that it is impossible to document a more monumental sensual deprivation in human history. It had to do not with agriculture, but with the inhumanity of the enslavers.

And yet, “civilization” never did manage to deny those people their sensuality. If we look at their music, for example, this truth is borne in upon us powerfully. “Music,” wrote novelist Ralph Ellison, “was what we had in place of freedom,”(1964:255) and Ellison goes on to point out that no black musician ever heard a sound, not even from the New York Philharmonic or J. S. Bach, that intimidated him. Was that sensuality in their bones? No, it was not; but it was in the cultures into which they were born. Human sensuality can only be identified in the cultural acts of human beings, for every human emotion becomes a historical product as it assumes a culturally specific form.

Dick Manning has given us a truly important book about our human future. I have learned much from it, and thank him for it.