In this conversation with environmental geographer Jamie Lorimer, we discuss different ways of conceptualizing scale; how ideas of scalability, globalization, and homogenization have shaped food and other systems; and how the tiniest of actors, microbes, can potentially have huge impacts on these systems.
For more info, visit: tabledebates.org/podcast-episode6
Welcome to Feed, a food system podcast presented by TABLE, a collaboration between the University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University. I’m Matthew Kessler
And I’m Samara Brock. And today we’re speaking with Jamie Lorimer, professor of environmental geography at the University of Oxford and author of a newly published book, Probiotic Planet: Using life to manage life.
It's quite a profound exercise to think that a few microbes, doing different things in the soil or doing different things in the guts of cattle, could actually, by the ways in which the system scales up, start to have quite profound implications on the very processes that environmental scientists have been concerned about for some time.
This conversation is a bit different from our previous ones. It’s a little more theoretical and academic.
But we discuss some really interesting ideas that can help us in understanding food systems, such as different ways of conceptualizing scale; how ideas of scalability, globalization, and homogenization have shaped food and other systems; and how the tiniest of actors, microbes, can potentially have huge impacts on these systems.
And just before we start, we want to say thank you for listening. Whether you’ve been with us since we’ve started or if this is your first episode.
And if you’re just starting now - you can go back and listen to our first five episodes.
Right, we’ve had some really interesting conversations about the impacts of global trade on the food system to exploring scaling seaweed production, to the complexities of addressing food security in subsaharan Africa.
We really appreciate you tuning in, sharing the show with your friends and colleagues!
And now onto our conversation with Jamie Lorimer.
Can you first introduce yourself, where you're calling from? And how did you first get into the field of environmental geography?
Many thanks Matthew and Samara for having me on the program. I'm calling you today from my spare room in Oxford. And like many of you around the world, we are all locked down and teaching from home. I've always had an interest in popular understandings of nature, and how they come to shape, the acceptance and the implementation of scientific approaches to manage the environment. Much of my early work was on nature conservation, histories and nature conservation, the politics of nature conservation. And the latter, the I got more interested in the rise of rewilding as an approach to nature conservation. rewilding being a model that tries to reintroduce keystone species to manage landscapes. And as I was working on that project, I began to see the traffic if you like, have ideas from the microbiome from people interested in landscapes and conservation into this emerging interest in the microbiome in microbial organisms that make up and live on us. And there's growing interest both in the absence of microbial species, but in the potential for restoring them through acts of microbial restoration, or even rewilding. So that was a sort of passage from the macro to the micro scale.
Thank you, Jamie. That's a really great introduction. And we will be diving into a lot of the different threads that you just introduced. But before we get into that, I'd like to turn our attention to scale now. This is a first conversation we're having with someone from the field of geography, which tends to use a concept of scale quite frequently, but also in different ways. Can you briefly describe how scale can be understood differently?
So scale is, if you like a foundational concept for geography, it's something that I give tutorials on to the first year students that arrived at Oxford. And in some ways scale is an intuitive concept. It's something we all use in our everyday discussions. But we tend to use what geographers might refer to as a Russian doll model of scale, the idea that there are, there are smaller units that are nested within bigger units in a sort of natural idea of particular territories that can be divided up. So there's a classically you'd look at the map of the world, and you'd have the world and then you'd have nations and you might have regions, and then you'd have smaller political units, you know, right down to the city, that kind of model of scale you get on Google Earth if you zoom in and zoom out. And as you know, clearly a significant and important way of thinking about how life works, thinking about how power operates, the geographers have been up like skeptical that that captures all the interesting things that go on when you look at the spatial distribution of stuff in the world, and in particular geographers working on the processes of globalization have increasingly come to focus on the importance of networks and connections. So the ways in which some places that might be far away on the map are much closer to us because there is a straightforward connection to them. There is a piece of transport infrastructure that takes you from the village to the city. There is a well trodden trade route that connects one country to another country. And if you start to think about scale through a network, you get quite a different understanding of proximity and distance to what you get if you are looking at scale from a territorial model. So this it'd be like two contrasting models of scale that are funded Intro to geography that we get our students to think about in that sort of 101 geography teaching.
So these models are of nested scales that measure absolute distance and this other version where scale is a measure of connectivity based on networks rather than distance. So how have these conceptions of scale changed over time?
Partly they’ve changed in relation to the changes in the world at large. Globalisation is certainly a long running process but certainly has accelerated dramatically through the 20th century. So the understandings of scale have shifted to reflect the reality at play in the world. I guess there is also a range of political debates that would hinge on what the appropriate scale of analysis ought to be.
Again, a lot of this came to the fore in the debates around globalization and what became known as the anti globalization movement. In the latter part of the 20th century, a sense that there was this somewhat homogenizing process of space time compression, that was connecting places together, that was leading to the loss of local difference that the local was being subsumed into a homogenizing. Global, sometimes the shorthand for that is the idea of mcdonaldization
Turns out this Mcdonaldization is evident across society. In the food system, we’ve seen the rise of fast food restaurants like McDonalds, which now feeds approximately 1% of the global population every day, and can also be seen in superstores like Walmart - that successfully replicate their same business model across different geographies and cultures. As Jamie mentioned, McDonalidization here refers to the unifying of consumer patterns and homogenizing of cultures through the process of globalization. Jamie explains how this social trend has been challenged in different ways.
And this is contested both on the left and on the right. People who felt that that loss of identity was in some way in paralleling with deep felt values, deep felt political sites of importance. And of course, there were then many who advocated for globalization, particularly those coming from a free trade somewhat neoliberal model in which globalization enabled nations to express their competitive advantage, it would allow this upsurge in in economic growth, which was then countered by some who would say, Well, if you look at the patterns of growth, it's much more unequally distributed, because capital is much more mobile than than labor. So I guess, just to recap, there's a sense that understandings of scatter shifted, because the world has shifted. But there's also shifted in light of different political interpretations of the processes of globalization, amongst those who advocate for it as a good thing, and those who see it for a range of reasons as corroding some traditional or more social justice model of organizing economic and political life.
So it seems there is a bit of a correlation between people’s values and how they understand scale or how they use scale in their work. How do our different values impact our understandings of scale?
In some ways, ideas of scale in geography are closely entangled with ideas of place, and ideas of the local, which are often valued in different ways, particularly those who think about them through the lens of a model of environmental sustainability, those who are nested in place those who've lived there for a long time, as somehow celebrated as having a more sustainable attachment to the land. And there are others who say, Well, actually, there is a darker side to that notion of local pneus. And rootedness. And particularly the ways in which that was used to justify an argument that some people are out of place, some people who are more mobile, more cosmopolitan, perhaps less rooted in fantasy in Europe in the 20th century, that would be a kind of story told about the Jewish diaspora that that ideas about the local can be used to justify all sorts of eugenic bio political projects. And this, you know, comes to the fore in contemporary discussions about the optimum location for thinking about environmental citizenship, always citizens of the globe. Does that work as a model for environmental politics? Or does environmental politics always have to begin at home? Does it always have to begin in place? Does it always have to begin in the local? And what does that mean for people who aren't at home who aren't local? Who for a range of reasons, either through choice or through necessity, have been displaced, have moved have traveled alumni networks for globalization? Are they inherently as environmental citizens, because they are out of place in different ways?
And how can we tie this specifically to food and agriculture? How is scale relevant?
Okay, so I think there's a couple of ways of thinking about the relevance of these discussions of scale for food and agriculture. Clearly food and the pursuit of food has been one of the drives. As of globalization for a long time, and in the pursuit of cheap food arguably propelled the colonial project, it was, you know, underpinned histories of slavery histories of plantation economies in in in the Americas. The pursuit of spaces, you know, was what drove explorers to many parts of the world. So, you know, we live with the legacies and are haunted by the legacies of those colonial trade raids. At the same time, clearly, the globalization of food has enabled nations that have particular comparative advantage around growing certain foodstuffs to develop economies, export economies that would not otherwise have been possible. So there is a new kind of Janus faced process of globalization, that it has both driven colonial processes of expansion and appropriation, while also facilitating the rise of global food industries, you know, enhancing global food security, arguably, in different parts of the world.
Jamie also introduced the idea of earth systems science as another way to think about scale - highlighting the link between local practices and global changes. So what is earth system science and how does it explain the connection between local and global scale.
So Earth system science is this new and increasingly powerful body of knowledge that tries to understand the operation of the earth as a system tries to think about the interconnections between the different spheres of the earth between the climate, the water system, and other systems in there. And that would look at how the relatively small scale changes at a local scale can have quite substantial ramifications if they lead to systems changing state. So the idea is that systems have multiple stable states and these stable states have particular thresholds or boundaries. And a change in one system can have cascading effects down down the other system. So the melting of the ice caps can have ramifications for for runaway climate change. And so in some of the work that I've been doing, thinking about this idea of the probiotic turn, and we can talk about that a little bit later on, is trying to think about how regional changes in food systems do that deforestation in Amazonia, or the shift to intensive livestock cultivation in temperate regions, through their impacts on atmospheric chemistry, can have these profound global scale changes that could ramify through all sorts of systems at a global scale. So what might seem a local relatively local shift can have profound implications.
So your recent work looks at microbes. How does this relate to the links you have just described between local and global environmental change?’
Where it gets particularly interesting, but complicated is this growing attention that's being paid to the microbial drivers of some of these shifts, you know, we've known very little about microbes for a long time, particularly bacteria. But it's clear that bacteria play a fundamental role in all sorts of processes that enable human health, digestion, for example, but also a fundamental for processes like soil carbon sequestration, or the digestive processes of capital which drive co2 emissions, drive methane emissions, and starting to think about how dysbiosis as is described, so an ecological imbalance on a microbial scale, can start to ramify up through these systems to have global implications. And it's quite a profound exercise to think that a few microbes, doing different things in the soil, or doing different things in the guts of capital, could actually, by the ways in which the system scales up, started to have quite profound implications on the very processes environmental scientists have been concerned about some time.
You explore this idea in your recent book about ‘the probiotic turn’, which you say can be detected across a range of ecological scales in science and policy domains. What do you mean when you're talking about “going probiotic” or the “probiotic turn”?
The book rests on an argument that the Anthropocene - so the label that we currently use to describe the contemporary present, is the outcome of the very successful application of what I would describe as antibiotic modes of managing life and antibiotic modes of managing life and not just about you know, giving chemicals That kill bacteria, but a more profound philosophy which is about the rationalization, simplification smoothing acceleration of ecological systems. And we can think about that across a range of scales from what happens with the modern intensive agricultural system, which tends to trend towards monocultures, premise stone on high inputs of fertilizers, we can think about that in the context of land management, the rationalization of forests in commercial timber plantations, the suppression of fire regimes, but also think about it right down to the ways in which human health has been premise largely on what we describe as a pathological understanding of the microbes that all microbes are bad. And the best way to deliver health is just to minimize microbes. So that's the antibiotic model. And it's delivered all sorts of amazing things, at least to some people in some parts of the world. But there's a growing sense across a range of policy domains that that model has been applied to excessively. And the excessive application of that model leads to a whole range of new problems. That would extend to problems across a range of scales, the rise of pesticide resistance in in agricultural systems, loss of biodiversity, the dramatic increase in the intensity of forest fires because of the suppression of fire burning systems. Right away down to this interest in in the microbiome, a sense that there are important missing microbes in the human microbiome, and that the absence of these microbes is was behind the rise of a whole collection of autoimmune allergic and inflammatory diseases, for example, obesity, various forms of gut condition, but also some planning that this can have profound effects on, on cognition, that it would link depression and microbial imbalance.
Jamie’s book explores the blowback response, or the countermovement or resistance, to the widespread application of the antibiotic model. He looks at how citizens, scientists and policymakers are designing and implementing probiotic alternatives. So what is this probiotic approach?
The idea of
a probiotic approach is that you use important elements of an ecology to try
and restore the desired functions and services that would have once been in
that ecology. And the key concept here is the idea of a keystone species. A
keystone species is a species within an ecology that might not be very
abundant, but it has this disproportionate effect upon the circulation of
energies within an ecosystem. The archetypal keystone species is the wolf. A
relatively small number of wolves, by virtue of their predation activities can
fundamentally change the grazing patterns of herbivores, which then cascade
down the trophic system down the food web, such that they lead to very
different ecologies coming into existence in the landscape that are grazed by
by herbivores. So ecologists have known about keystone species for some time, and
they've mapped out a range of keystone species. There's an increasing interest
now and what that concept might mean in the microbiome, a sense that there are
some microbes or at least ecologies of microbes that perform this
disproportionate influence on the internal dynamics of the microbial ecology,
and that the absence of those particular microbes are what leads to the rise of
dysbiosis and causes this blowback within ecological systems. So the probiotic
approach is trying to identify this keystone species, it's trying to
reintroduce them, but it's carefully managing what they do. So it's not a kind
of laissez faire, just let things go. It's quite a targeted and very science
driven model of ecological restoration and management. So if you like, there's a
recalibration of the antibiotic model, rather than a rejection of the
antibiotic model at play.
I might actually turn us towards talking about how this all relates more to food and farming. In the conclusion of your book, you say that you haven't said much in relation to agricultural and food. This is an area that has had long histories of probiotic experimentation. Can you elaborate a little bit on what those experiments have been? And what relevance they have for those who are currently trying to transform the food system?
Okay. So I think I mean, we can come at this from two different directions. So the first of which is a now very well established understanding post COVID of the possibilities that modern, globalized food systems, particularly premier stone intensive agricultural models, have the possibility of creating superbugs, if Like, and then enabling, they're very swift transmission around the world. And we were told about this in relation to the risks around swine flu, around avian flu. And these were diseases, but they didn't achieve pandemic proportions and, and that it like is a manifestation of this idea of the blowback from antibiotic modes of managing life. The origins of COVID, are not completely clear. But nonetheless, we've you know, we've been told for some time that modern agricultural systems have this both ability to generate huge amounts of food, but undermine the resilience or the internal dynamics of agriculture systems. And now this story goes a long way back into into 20th century or even 19th century concerns about the ways in which technology was changing agricultural systems, concerns about soil concerns about biodiversity loss, concerns about the loss of pollinators came to inform things that the organic movement and the permaculture movement well before people were concerned about climate change, or people concerned about microbial loss in in their bodies. And you know, these experiments, and this knowledge has run for a long time. In many cases, it emerges out of conversations with indigenous forms of land use, which arguably never became antibiotic have maintained a certain idea of probiotic thinking in agro ecological models, for example, or ways in which agricultural systems will be understood as ecological webs, in which you might know about the significance of particular plants or particular insects, particular crop rotations, even knowing something about the fertility and the microbial composition of the soil, so that over different timeframes, you can manage them to secure their sustainability over time. So people involved in agriculture arguably have had that nuanced probiotic understanding of how life works for eons. What's interesting, if we're thinking about this, through the concept of the probiotic turn, as I describe it, that to become probiotic, you almost have to go through the process of becoming antibiotic experiencing the blowback and then responding to it.
Jamie points to a really interesting phenomenon, where in order to become probiotic, you first have to experience the problems associated with antibiotic management - And a clear example here is Aldo Leopold, author of the 1949 novel Sand County Almanac. In his early career, Aldo Leopold was employed to hunt predator species such as bears, wolves, and mountain lions in order to protect local livestock in New Mexico. It was after this experience that he wrote his famous “Thinking like a mountain” essay, which brought him to understand the importance of keystone species and develop a more ecocentric point of view. It’s also worth pointing out that these ecocentric perspectives have existed for a much longer time among many other cultures.
Now back to
Jamie who connects this idea of antibiotic blowback to agriculture in the
And so perhaps the most ascendant forms of that, in agriculture at the moment relate to this idea of regenerative agriculture, which is perhaps just a new word for a set of concepts that have been around for a while. But this idea that we need to think much more seriously about soil health, we need to think much more seriously about grazing patterns, we need to think much more seriously about crop rotations, in order that you could use life to manage life to secure biodiversity, soil fertility, soil microbial activity, where we're going with the LEAP project at the moment is to look at the rise of regenerative agriculture as a particular manifestation of the probiotic turn. And again, to think about the different forms it comes in. There are kind of high tech techno optimists versions of it, there are the green, somewhat kind of near primitivist versions of it, you know, it's a baggie label that describes all sorts of different activities. But I think it can be usefully conceived in that historical timeline, as a probiotic response to a set of now well diagnosed blowbacks to the antibiotic model.
A debate that we often fall into in food systems is that these more regenerative systems or agroecological systems are so much harder to study and measure than more industrial intensive systems. You talked about how science itself is shifting in response to viewing systems in a different way. How could this be applied to food systems? What does Gaian science look like when we're looking at Food and Agriculture?
Quick interjection here before Jamie answers So the Gaian hypothesis was developed by chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s. Put very simply, it combines biogeochemistry, and systems ecology and hypothesizes that the earth itself is a self-regulating complex system.
It's a great question and it's very much a scalar question. I think isn't about what you count at what scale as indicators of success and sustainability. So Gaian thinking, at least from Lovelock onwards has always taken the planetary as its scale of concern. It's about planetary boundaries. It's about calculable thresholds and concentrations of particular stuff and on a planetary scale. And that, you know, that's fair enough. But the issue with that is that it tends to negate the uneven distribution of the costs and benefits of any agricultural intervention on a more regional or on a more local scale. In particular concerns about the globalization of agriculture, which arguably is enabling rewilding in temperate regions, because we've outsourced food production in Europe and temperate parts of North America to parts of the tropics. It's clearly having profound effects on different people in different parts of the world. So
I’d like to pause here and unpack this really interesting observation. Jamie is suggesting that one of the reasons why rewilding and conservation efforts have expanded in recent history in North America and Europe is that they’ve shifted some of their food production to importing it from other countries, primarily from the global South, which has resulted in a changing land use policy. There is a consistent tension when designating land use either for conservation or for food production - and there is often an uneven distribution of which countries are benefiting from these decisions. We’ll explore this in a future episode with Brent Loken, Global Food Lead Scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, where he points out that sometimes local diets in some regions can lead directly to worse environmental outcomes including biodiversity loss.
Jamie goes on to talk about how do you measure success when considering the temporal scale.
So there's a scalar question. And then there's a question, I guess about what your benchmark might be? How would you know success when you saw it? What's the timeframe that you would run your, your assessment over. We take the models of anthropogenic climate change and run them forward, then we're going to have non analog agricultural landscapes. So the landscapes in the UK, that will be fundamentally different to any landscapes that we've had in the UK in the past, because the climate will shift. So your historical baseline becomes much less dependable than if you said, Well, yeah, this used to be the tropical forest, or this used to be the mature temperate woodland. And if we can just get it back to that, it has some sort of naturalistic grazing within it, it has some kind of origin within it. And fair enough, but eventually, the forests of the UK are not going to be like the forests of the UK, at the end of the last ice age, they're going to be forests sort of adapted to the new climate envelope. Then you're the kind of benchmark to guide your experiment is different.
SO this creates very different management implications when thinking about the future of forests - do you plant a tree that is suited to an ecosystem that it grows in in 2020, or the one that it will be better suited to at its harvest date in 2100? Similarly for the future of food - should we focus on cultivating staple crops in the same places they have been historically produced or the places they’re most likely to survive in, in the future.
Jamie goes on to explain why it’s especially difficult to measure and test Gaian thinking.
The whole idea of Gaian thinking is premised on the operations of fundamentally complex systems that are very hard to replicate in a laboratory setting and subject to the type of trials and controls that we'd normally expect if you were running a clinical trials test a vaccine or test a drug, let's say so. So some of the work around the microbiome there's an awful a correlation, that when they try and simulate it in a laboratory setting with a mouse model, or even in in the bodies of human patients, there's so many moving parts, and so many ways in which the legacy of the organism how it's grown up in environment, makes it quite hard to prove it out .So a lot of the hopes and dreams around the microbiome that came to the fore in the late early 2000s have yet to really manifest in clear therapeutic applications. It's a very messy picture. But as a rejoinder, those who are enthusiastic about probiotics, would say, well, you’re trying to use the wrong tools for the job, if you like. The laboratory clinical models or testing is never going to work in this context and in some ways we need much more open ended experiments that listen to citizens experience, that can be made feasible for a planetary system that doesn't have a replicate, you like. THere’s only one earth and what happens is hard to compare with anywhere else. And we have to live alongside these real world experiences to see what we can learn from the emerging phenomenon as it plays out in real time.
Another question we asked Jamie was how the probiotic turn related to issues of justice. He gave us an example of the ways in which patterns of probiotic management can be traced to histories of colonization and unequal global development.
If we think it through to take an example of people trying to reintroduce microbial species to tackle autoimmune diseases, to be able to do that, and to go probiotic by taking desirable microbes is a very rarefied experiences only available to to a small number of people, you need to have control over your own sanitation, you need to have the means to both know about the microbiome to be able to secure these organisms to have backup medical support to where it happens. So there's a very patchy geography to how this works out. We talked previously about the ways in which the globalization of agriculture, regenerative or otherwise are redistributing places of food supply, potentially freeing up agricultural lands in northern regions making those lands much more pleasant to live around the removal peak production to two parts of Brazil and you shifted away from urban situations in the north, you outsource all the environmental Bad's and you allow people in wealthier neighborhoods to have you know me a nice nicer forms of life. So, so there's some, you know, familiar thorny issues of social justice, that are as true for probiotic approaches as they are for antibiotic approaches
Moving towards a conclusion now, we ask each of our guests this same question - what evidence and knowledge base do you draw from in your own research and work?
Okay, I mean, I'm quite an eclectic academic in terms of the methods that I use and the data that I do record. And that's one of the joys of being a geographer, but primarily, my method is interviews, I go and speak to experts, I speak to citizens, find out what they do. If I'm lucky, I get to hang out with them and see what they do and get to talk to them about what they do and in practice. Otherwise, I guess it's based on close reading and scientific texts. And recently of late partly through the LEAP project, and partly through some work I've been doing on the microbiome, I've been able to collaborate with scientists to design particular pieces of research participatory research might allow people to sequence their own microbiomes and tell stories about them. We’re working in the lead project to think about what would a modeling approach look like if you wanted to take seriously concerns about health and social justice that come from some of the participants in a particular research project
Thank you so much, Jamie.
Fantastic. Thank you both for your time
And that wraps another episode of the Feed podcast. We really only scratched the surface of Jamie’s thinking on the connections between the micro, macro and planetary scales, and critically discusses probiotic cultural practices today including home fermentation to permaculture to rewilding. If you’d like to learn more, check out his book The Probiotic Planet: Using Life to Manage Life.
Thank you for listening, and if you enjoyed the conversation, please leave us a review on Apple podcast. We read each one and want to know what you think of the show.
To stay up to date with newest research on food sustainability topics, and to receive weekly updates of upcoming events and job postings, you can subscribe to TABLE’s newsletter: Fodder and visit our webpage for this episode at tabledebates.org
Today's episode was edited and mixed by me, Matthew Kessler, with thanks, as always, to podcast co-host Samara Brock. A special shout today to Table intern Wendy Jenkins, whose about to graduate with her masters in Nutrition and Health at Wageningen. Wendy has been incredibly helpful to us at Table and with the podcast! All the best to you in your next steps!
Music in this episode by Blue dot sessions. We'll be back in your Feed soon when we speak to Elana Lazos Chavero doing a deep dive into the complex food sovereignty movement in Mexico, and how the urban and rural communities are constantly influencing each other.
I think that we cannot understand the rural parts without explaining the urban and we cannot understand the urban without understanding the rural. parts. All the industrialization was done in Mexico thanks to the be over exploitation of the farmer production. So really, the farmers production and all the peasant production was really financing the industrialization of Mexico and the urbanization of Mexico.