In our second conversation exploring power in the food system, we speak with Julie Guthman, professor and food geographer at UC Santa Cruz. We ask her: how is Silicon Valley trying to transform the food system, who within Silicon Valley has the most power, and how does their vision compare with the Organic food movement? We discuss the different ways 'sustainability' is understood in these two different worlds and the broader structures that define or limit their competing visions. We also chat about how Julie's views on the Alternative Food Movement have evolved over time, and how Silicon Valley might be different if venture capitalists took her "101: Intro to Food and Ag'" class.
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For more info and transcript, please visit: https://tabledebates.org/podcast/episode20
Welcome to Feed, a food system podcast presented by TABLE. I’m Samara Brock
And I’m Matthew Kessler. We’re onto our second episode of the second season exploring power in the food system – what is it, who has it, and should power be shifted? In case you missed it, you can go back and listen to our first episode where Phil Howard talks about corporate consolidation in the food system.
Today we speak with Food Geographer Julie Guthman from the University of California Santa Cruz who is currently researching Silicon Valley as an emerging actor shaping the food system.
Julie Guthman 0:37
And it's a very different vision than organic farming, a lot of it is like rather than work with natural processes is like trying to make do away with natural processes. They have a very different relationship to nature than other alternatives that have been developing for decades. And so obviously, it depends on what we mean by sustainability. Because clearly, they have a different idea of sustainability.
Julie has written several books on food systems including “Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California (and) Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism.
Julie is also the Principle Investigator of the UC After project, which is an acronym for Agri-Food Technology Research, that seeks to explore the emerging Silicon Valley-based Food and Agriculture Technology sector and the visions that underpin them.
This might seem like a strange comparison, but we spoke with Julie mostly about Silicon Valley and Organics, which are both movements that try to influence the food systems, but in very different ways.
We reflect on the differences between Silicon Valley’s high-tech high efficiency approach to food systems, and the contrasting vision put forward by the organic movement. They both grow out of the idea that the food system in its current form is not working.
We talk about the different solutions they’re proposing and also the various contradictions embedded within them. Julie talks about how both of these visions have different conceptions of what sustainability looks like which ultimately shapes their problem-definition.
Throughout our series we'll be hearing different understandings of food systems problems, different visions of what a good food system should look like, and different ideas about how to get there. One thing that varies among our guests is how they think about power, so we first asked Julie how she conceptualizes it. Julie draws from many thinkers including a tradition of Marxist political economists.
A short warning that the beginning of our conversation is pretty academic and theoretical, but it doesn’t stay this way throughout. We’d love to hear whether you find it useful to hear our guests’ frameworks for thinking about power and food. As always, you can send us an email to email@example.com
As you know, we're talking about power today. So we're going to start with a really easy question. There's a lot of ways you can understand power. How do you think about it?
Well, as you know, ideas of power are subject to a lot of academic debate. And as a scholar, I try to be pretty ecumenical in my use of theory. So it really depends on what I'm trying to understand. That said, my primary theoretical tool lies with political economy and a critique of capitalism. And so I often think about the power of capital. And it's pretty hard to explain the food system without thinking about capital and capitalism.
What does political economic power look like in the food system? Power to set prices, power to determine wages, power to determine land costs, power to set policy. But that's much more than just a focus on the big corporations and their consolidation. So when I use political economy, I'm thinking much more broadly than corporate power even though it's undeniable.
Julie also draws from French thinker Michel Foucault who among other things lectured and wrote about the relationship between power and knowledge.
But I also have to think about power in more capillary ways to borrow on Foucauldian thought. There's a lot of ways to go with that. But I think about it, how we come to understand what is good for us, what is good for the environment? So there's a lot of power in certain kinds of expertise. In agenda setting and promulgating common sense, or deciding what is thinkable. So I don't think we can think about food systems without thinking about the power of knowledge creation and dissemination.
We wanted to ask you about your training as a geographer and how that influences how you think about power. So can you reflect on that and also if there's specific thinkers that you use in helping to shape your ideas about power?
I've drawn a lot on the work of David Harvey, as many people have. And those of you who aren't aware, David Harvey is one of the foremost geographers who has theorized how capitalism plays out spatially. So he's had a big focus on the limits to capital, by that he has talked about the kind of internal contradictions of capital but also the contradictions of space in political economy. So one of the ways that capitalism has solved some of its - or tried to resolve some of its contradictions is by expanding in space, but his point is that there's constant limits, and that capitalism has to find ways to go up against those limits.
We’ll link to some of David Harvey’s work in our show notes. David Harvey is the world’s most cited geographer and is known among other things for his Marxist critique of late 20th century capitalism, suggesting neoliberal policies have led to overaccumulation and uneven development.
So I find myself talking about limits in a lot of my work. And I didn't really realize that, that I did that so consistently until recently. I'm always talking about limits. These days, I'm talking about the limits of finding any possible solution to food systems. So David Harvey's key. I'd be remiss if I didn't include the entire field of political ecology of whom my advisor Michael Watts was foundational. The field is so broad, but it means at this point, any kind of political, economic or cultural politics of env ironment and food. And recently, I've been thinking a lot with science and technology studies. I really can't quite pinpoint my biggest influences. But I'm certainly interested in the power of knowledge and the power of expertise.
I think that's a great example of how many different ways we can take this conversation. Iit's clear that you've been thinking about power for a long time. It's influenced your academic thinking and your research. I wonder if you could share a story of when you first started thinking about how power operates in the food system?
Yeah, that question is an interesting one, because I've never thought of it that way. But I think I had a big “Aha moment” early in my dissertation research that really influenced how I think about the political economy of California agriculture. And this theme continues to show up.
So this was, I think, my first day out of dissertation research. This is my research I did on the organic sector in California. And I went and talked to a few growers up in Sonoma County, which is in the wine country. And I was really struck, particularly with this one grower who was growing mixed vegetables. And he was in the Carneros District, which is a very high value wine district - I’m thinking, how is he growing vegetables here like this, the land values here must be really high. Well, it turned out he had inherited the land. And then I talked to another strawberry grower and had the same kind of question where like strawberries are high value, maybe that's how they afford that. So I started making these links between land values, and what could be grown and how.
Julie reflected that it’s not the individual or grower that determines what makes land and certain crops “high-value,” but rather a mix of historical, social and political factors. Over the course of this conversation, you’ll hear Julie reflect on the power of land value.
So recently, you've been writing a lot about Silicon Valley, which is quite different from your other work, more working with field agriculture. What made you think about Silicon Valley as food and agriculture actors, and why did you become interested?
Well, it's so interesting. I went to this event, I'm trying to remember what impelled me to go to this event. It was one of these events in San Francisco called Food Bites. And these are these events that they there's several organizations that do them but Food Bites is a key one. And they basically bring together Food and Agriculture entrepreneurs with venture capitalists and the entrepreneurs pitch their stuff. I thought it was just fascinating. I mean, it was kind of shocking to see how much people there didn't know much about food systems.
So you have these people marketing protein bars as a solution to malnutrition. What protein bars are going to go to people in Africa who you're invoking? Some of the stuff that was being touted was the same old stuff like precision agriculture to make things more efficient. And like what, efficiency is not the problem. Not to mention just the food samples of technified food that tasted horrible. I found it hilarious. But clearly it inspired me to begin a new research project.
We asked Julie if she was surprised by what she experienced at Food Bites or if she had expected it?
I don't know what I was expecting. And I want to be careful what I say because I do think that there are people who do their homework. It was more they're of feeding into the same problems. We know that bringing in meal replacements to solve malnutrition in Africa doesn't work. There's been efforts like that before. And we know that giving more technological solutions to farmers to make them more efficient, and to make them produce higher yields has not done much for farmers who have to pay for the technologies out of their pockets. And who then once they adopt it, and everybody else adopts any particular technology face a lot of price competition. So that was just kind of basic stuff. If you've done any research in the political economy of food, you would know that this doesn't make much sense. But indeed, a lot of ag scientists and technical people at the University of California who developed technologies for farmers also produce technologies that increase efficiency. There's a lot of people who are working with farmers who don't understand these basic things or don't pay attention to these basic problems in the political economy of food.
Quick aside here that making the food system more efficient is often stated as a business and policy goal, though it’s worth noting this concept of efficiency means different things to different people. TABLE’s predecessor the Food Climate Research Network produced a report in 2015 called :”Lean, mean green, obscene…? What is efficiency? And is it sustainable?” This report written by Tara Garnett, Elin Roos and David Little unpacks the various meanings of efficiency in the context of animal production and consumption. We’ll link to it in our show notes.
So is there one prevailing view of how food systems operate in Silicon Valley, one narrative about how these problems are framed? Is there diversity within that? And how is this different from other food system experts?
A lot of what we've been using for our research has been these events. And it's hard to kind of figure out, I mean, it's not hard to figure out what these events are doing, what these events are doing are trying to attract venture capital and get the public believing in these kinds of solutions. We don't really know what goes on behind closed doors. And when you interview entrepreneurs, you pretty much get the same things they say in the pitches. They do seem to always throw back to these usual ideas of what the problem is. And in part, it's the format of pitches that we've been paying so much attention to because the pitches are - I think that one, that food bites event, I think they were 10 minute pitches. The last one I saw also put on by food bites was like a three or four minute pitch. What can you say in three and four minutes if you have to follow this kind of formulaic thing of what is the big problem? What's my particular solution? How there's gonna be huge markets for it, and how I'm going to make money in three years. It's this formulaic talk.
Julie stressed here that it’s the structure of these short pitches that forces entrepreneurs to create very simple narratives. She then shared some of the key narratives that these pitches keep returning to.
But they always kind of refer back to feeding the coming 10 billion, or when they're talking about farmers, “we're going to help farmers be more profitable or make them more efficient”. One of the other kind of major problems they focus on is, of course, climate change, and the contribution of livestock to climate change. They speak less about the welfare issues with livestock. I think a lot of people promoting alternative proteins are animal rights people, but they think that climate change is going to be a more salient public accepting discourse.
So they kind of fall back to the same ideas. And part of it is this because they have like maybe 30 seconds to describe the problem before they get into what their particular solution is going to do. So I think the format in part constrains a discussion of what the problem is, but they are remarkably off the shelf problem statements.
One understanding of power is controlling what knowledge is publicly available. Julie has written about how Silicon Valley companies have some mixed messaging when it comes to transparency.
So on the one hand, they said, “We need to be transparent. So consumers really get it and they don't look like we're hiding anything.” On the other hand, these technologies are highly proprietary. And indeed that's what makes them investable. So if you're figuring out how to make protein from air, which is one of these kind of crazy, extreme moonshot ideas - you're not going to tell other people how to do it, right? Because you don't want this technology replicated. You want to be able to get patents so you can make super profits, at least for a while until it becomes common knowledge. And indeed, that's what venture capitalists want from these entrepreneurs. They want them to have patents and proprietary knowledge so there won't be competition early on when they figure out how to do this thing that seems pretty pie in the sky.
Julie says the startups will even boast during their pitch about how many patents they have because that makes their innovation more attractive to venture capitalists.
So what you see, and you often see this on websites, this bizarre manifestations where they say, “this is how we do it”. And it'll be this cartoonish depiction of: here's a plant, here's a bioreactor, and here's a burger. It's magic, somehow we take this plant or this mushroom and make it into a burger. But the website is saying, “This is how we do it.” As if that's making it transparent. And then later on the website will say we have 40 patents pending, so lots of magic in their processes.
So these companies’ websites and advocates of high tech solutions often say that their products are instrumental in building a sustainable, just, and equitable food system. We asked Julie what specific technologies she thinks might contribute to a more equitable future?
Yeah, I've been thinking a lot about that question. Because I'm trying to not be a complete Luddite and say, Okay, what kind of technologies might be valuable? Because there's two issues that make these technologies problematic for me. One is that they are highly proprietary, that they are developed, first and foremost, for, entrepreneurial gain and venture capitalists to get their money. So they're highly proprietary. The second thing is, they seem to feed into the same kind of problems in the food system that I was alluding to before, like, making farmers more efficient with higher yielding crops, which does not solve their problems and that sort of thing. So I've been thinking about what kind of technologies under what kind of conditions might be better? And it seems to me there are possible technologies that would actually support agroecological systems. There are some around, maybe a microbiome thing that helps build soil. I mean, I'm open to things like that. And I'm certainly open to technologies developed under more common source development, so they're not proprietary.
In our next episode we’ll hear our guest Channa Prakash take an opposite view saying that an equitable food system in fact depends upon technological innovation. Julie goes on to talk about the specific role that technology could play in relation to a just food system.
Obviously, if we want to have justice in the food system, we would need to work on justice. And despite some strange claims that they're helping to produce a more just system, there is no technology that's going to produce justice, and many will lead to more injustice. So you still have to work on justice. But I do think there are technologies that could be compatible with more just and sustainable food systems, ones that more support agroecological type techniques.
Given the urgency of these different crises, do you think in any way that Silicon Valley with its capital is in fact better positioned to shift the direction to a more sustainable food system and a faster way that's perhaps more urgently needed?
No. I don't think so. One of the things that's a little bit distressing is that there's people that have been trying to shift the food system to one that is more sustainable for a very long time. And organic farming, for better for worse, is a better solution than conventional farming. And I made my critiques at the organic industrial food system, whatever you want to call it, but it's still I think it's a road down a better path. And they've been doing it for a long time.
We’ll talk about Julie’s critiques of the organic movement and how they’ve evolved over time later in our chat. Julie reflects on one of the reasons why the organic movement hasn’t scaled up in the way that Silicon Valley solutions might. She then lays out their competing visions for the food system.
There’s political economy problems that make it hard to do organics at scale, and part of it does have to do with land values. And so here these other guys come along, they say “Oh, we know how to do it, we can bring it to scale.” And it's a very different vision than organic farming, a lot of it is like rather than, like work with natural processes is like trying to make do away with natural processes, you know, like bringing things indoors or, or making cows out of cells and bioreactors, they have a very different relationship to nature than other alternatives that have been developing for decades. And so obviously, it depends on what we mean by sustainability. Because clearly, they have a different idea of sustainability. Because a lot of agroecologist, say sustainability is working with nature and being land sharing that sort of idea. And these guys are like, very much in the ecomodern tradition is like, the way to save nature is to minimize agricultural production in space. So nature outside of humans can flourish somewhere else. And that's, that's the vision that I wouldn't share a lot of people don't share. The point is that there's contested visions of what sustainable is here and I don't particularly buy their idea of sustainability.
It's interesting what you're saying about Silicon Valley's relationship to nature. And you also are bringing up land and land value as a complication in terms of how it drives agriculture. And I was just thinking as you were talking, are those two things related? Is part of the reason Silicon Valley wants to distance itself from land, nature is because land is caught up in complicated investment schemes that they can't necessarily control. And also, part of the critique of Silicon Valley is that these food processing innovations that they're introducing will further operate to concentrate capital. Do you think there is a relationship between land and how they're framing these problems?
That's a really great question that I haven't quite thought about before. I mean, the land value argument that I've been talking about for a long time is not one that I think Silicon Valley or a lot of other even university technology actors think about. They think about, like what's a particular technical solution. So I don't think they're thinking about in terms of land values, but they are thinking about it in terms of land shortages, which is, of course, related to land values, because one of the reasons that we - that there appears to be land shortages is because there's a lot of other demands on good agricultural land, and particularly in California. From where I sit where some of the best agricultural land for growing our specialty crops. So strawberries and leafy greens are also where suburbanites like to live. Because it's close to the coast, and you get the cool ocean breezes, and it's really comfortable in the summer, etc. So there is a scarcity of land, which is of course related to land values. But I think that they don't think of it as place specific dynamics of land they think about is there is going to be global land shortages, because there's so many people, they use these kind of very coarse Malthusian frames - one planet, many people, land shortage, therefore, we need to find ways to produce food with much less land. And that's the ecomodernist vision too, right. That's what the Breakthrough Institute, people say. And so, yeah, that underpins their vision for sure.
We want to move next to some questions about where power is held within Silicon Valley and then also talk about some of the broader impacts of that. We’ll start by asking who holds power in this emerging sector?
Well, from what I can tell venture capitalists, venture capital holds the power because venture capital is deciding who gets funded to do what. Again, my research activities are a lot watching the pitches and this sort of thing. And they're pitching to VC, to venture capital. And venture capital wants two different things they want entrepreneurs to show that can have big impacts, but they also want profitability. Now, there's a lot of talk about patient capital, maybe not within three or four years, because they recognize that to have impact, you can't solve these things in three or four years. Maybe you need 10 or 20 years. But anyway, so venture capital holds a lot of power in that way of deciding who gets rewarded. The entrepreneurs clearly don't. The entrepreneurs that pitch, some of them, they're gone within a year, and some of them are pretty fly by night. They just have an idea.
But I think an interesting question here is what is the role of corporate incumbents in this ecosystem? And to be honest, my research team, this is something we talk a lot about, but we don't know what we really think yet, because I'm not sure we have the evidence to make any firm conclusions. What's interesting is entrepreneurs often tried to distance themselves from corporate incumbents in some ways because they say they want to disrupt their discussions or discourses of disruption. They're referring to sclerotic, big corporate capital, or big agribusiness, and yet, by the end of the pitch, they’re talking about, their team has people who have worked with some of the big players, and that they're looking for an exit from the big players. So that's weird, too, right? So this dynamic of distancing to show that they're disruptive, but on the other hand, wanting the support of big players. So the question is, what is the role of the big players? How many strings are they pulling? And what is the role of big players with venture capital? And I don't know the answer to that. And we could speculate. I mean, we see there are more buyouts recently of some of the, for instance, the alternative protein companies, Phil Howard did one of his maps recently that shows that a lot of big food companies are buying some of the alternative protein companies.
In our first episode of this season, we talked with Phil Howard about corporate consolidation across different agri-food sectors and its impacts. We asked Julie a similar question to what we asked Phil, which is do you think that consolidation is inevitable given the incentive structures in place for food and agricultural businesses to continue to grow and operate at economies of scale?
Yeah, I don't know if it's inevitable.I don't know the answer to that. And in part, because I think entrepreneurs have different ideas. I mean, I think some of the entrepreneurs actually really think they can do good, and they're not interested in being bought out. And some really are just looking for that exit. I think if organic is any example, there will always be those who want to cater to niche markets, and not sell - but I don't know. And again, it's unclear that a lot of these products are going to go anywhere, because the thing about the inevitability it's assuming that these products are wanted, desired and useful, and a lot of them - it's not clear that they are. Sure the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger have taken off beyond my wildest imagination. But a lot of the products I'm not sure, like, some of them aren't that novel, and the ones that are novel are too weird or impossible.
We’re going to shift gears a little here and talk about who Julie sees as having too much power.
We wanted to ask you about if there are people or actors that have too much power in the system, how could we shift that? And also you've been talking a lot about different structures that hold systems in place and create power imbalances. Within Silicon Valley, do you see the need to shift either the role that actors play, the power that they hold, or the structures that create certain outcomes?
Sure, I don't know what could be done practically. It's the abiding question. How do you thwart the power of capital? But I think that one of the issues here, that I've kind of been alluding to, is these guys are getting a lot of airtime. Again, organic has been around for a long time. And it's not like organic hasn't gotten a lot of airtime. I think that considering that still a very small percent of US farming land is organically produced, you would think that it was really big and surveys will show that like 60-70% of Americans will buy organic occasionally. So I think there's some weird disconnect between how big the discourse is and how little it has scaled up. But with Silicon Valley, here comes this new kid in town and really making the claim that they're the ones that can scale up and make these big changes. And this really could be a flash in the pan.
But I think part of the way to counter their agenda setting power is to kind of ignore it in a sense. And remember, there are other alternatives that are more developed, that have a lot of publics that are interested in them that could be more supported.
We also wanted to ask you, in addition to talking about Silicon Valley, where your current research is, is to talk a little bit about alternative food networks, which is something you've spent some past time looking at. And this is a new, you know, concept we're bringing up with our listeners. So just first of all, can you talk a little bit about what an Alternative Food Network is?
Yeah, I've tended to use the term alternative food more than Alternative Food Network and alternative food, I mean anything that's grown with presumably better working conditions or social conditions or ecological conditions. But an Alternative Food Network tends to refer to any kind of formal or informal ways to bring together producers who grow sustainably with those consumers who want it. And so examples of alternative food networks might be fair trade, or food hubs, or food collectives, because the network is assumed as bringing together different actors as opposed to alternative food, which is just like food grown differently.
And can you talk about from your research examples where you've seen alternative food be transformative and places where it has been less so?
Yeah, it's such a tricky question. And it so much depends on what day you ask me. So much of my earlier research was fairly critical of these as being kind of a drop in the bucket. And because of the structures of alternative food, it allows some who have the means or knowledge or wherewithal to opt out of the industrial food system, but they haven't really threatened the industrial food system. So that's been my critique. But sometimes I think they have affected practices of the large players. And I am concerned with getting to better practices rather than perfect practices. And when I think about my critiques of Silicon Valley, and find myself all of a sudden thinking, “well, you know, I'd much rather see the kind of approaches to food production that I'm seeing in alternative food networks than I am from Silicon Valley.”
We then asked Julie how alternative food movements have shaped the public conversation over the last few decades.
They’ve certainly changed the conversation. Clearly organic is the most successful in terms of having recognizability, having dedicated consumers, etc. I mean, there's lots of contradictions with organics that are regulations of organic or in some ways designed to make organics more expensive. So that is always limiting. There's David Harvey’s limits. But that's been the most visible and successful and yet in some ways, the most disappointing in terms of not addressing some of the social issues.
Julie previously criticized alternative food networks - such as ones that directly link food producers to consumers in places like farmers markets - as being colorblind. As in they aren’t actively working to address racial disparities within the food system. I wondered if Julie saw these alternative food networks as a more harmful approach than what Silicon’s Valley is doing. Because it is proposing a solution that may unintentionally privilege affluent groups that can afford local, ecologically grown produce.
That's an interesting comparison to Silicon Valley. I mean, look, I think that's changed. Alternative food networks were always intended to be transformational. No one said, “Oh, we're going to develop a Food Network for the white and rich and elite.” It’s just - I think it's a circumstance of how these things came into development. And I can trace a specific story with organics, which is like: We want to grow differently. Well, how are consumers going to know that what they're getting is organic? Well, let's set standards. Okay, what standards are we going to set? Years and years of debate. Well we will say we can't use synthetic inputs. Okay, but what does that mean? Debates, debates, debates, years of debates. And then it's like, okay, and how are we going to verify it? Well, we'll have people go out and inspect them and certify them.
Anyway, the point is that elaborate way of regulation, all of a sudden, you're like, wait, you're creating a barrier to entry for others to produce organic, and then the people who get certified to the standard want to charge more, because they want to make up for the cost of being organic, including not only the certification costs themselves, but having to farm in ways that rely on natural systems and some more rotations. And so all of a sudden it costs more in the market, nobody set out to say we're going to create a standard for organic that's elitist, and white, it's just the way it played out.
Julie reflected that many alternative food movements, not only the organic movement, were historically very white.
The original food justice movement was remarkably white. And I had students in my major, because we have a major where students do full time field studies. And they have worked at some of these food justice organizations. They're saying these are really white and the people in the neighborhoods in which they're placed are like, “Who are these crunchy, granola people?” But that was then and this is now. And a lot of alternative food systems have really changed, are much more BIPOC led. And also, I think another important point that I have to be humbled on is that there have been alternative food networks that have been led by people of color all along. And I think if you look at Monica White's work or Priscilla McCutcheon’s work there's always been - i don’t know about always - but for a long time there's been collectives or cooperatives of black people in the South, for example, who have had shopping cooperatives. They've always been doing it but now because the public conversation around race is so changed, it's like it can't be any other way.
Something we like to ask all of our guests is, what are your future aspirations for the food system? And what does your ideal food future look like?
Well, I love that question. Because I don't think about ideal food systems, I think about better ones, I think ones where we’re farming more ecologically, where our workers have livelihoods, where we're using fewer toxins, where we're kind to animals. And I actively refrain from providing a vision of a better food system. But the reason I do that, and here I do draw from David Harvey, actually, he had a long time ago, he wrote a book on Spaces of Hope. And it was kind of a critique of spatial utopian thinking. And he talked about thinking about Utopia as a process. And he was talking about how for neoliberals that they had a utopia process, like we're gonna let the market work, and that is going to lead to outcomes, but they didn't say, this is the vision we're gonna have. There's like, we want to unleash market forces, because we think that's gonna lead to something better - better for them, clearly not for us. But I like to think about that the same way. It's like, what kind of decisions can we make at any given point in time that lead us to a better place rather than the perfect place I have to envision? Because I don't know what it looks like. And I'm not an anarchist type that imagines a whole world of small communal networks. I mean, I don't think that's the world we live in. But regardless if that's what we got to that would be maybe, okay.
What are the processes in particular? If you had to do an equivalent for market processes, what ones would you want to unleash?
Well, I think it has to be policy type processes where we - it's feels yet more difficult to think about policy when you're in the United States, we can barely have voting rights, which is so frightening. But I think it's policy mechanisms and practices, where at any given juncture, what would be a better way to go than this one? What kind of alternative ways can we do this?
And besides the political environment, and lack of imagination, what other aspects of power are getting in the way of trying to reach this ideal or better future?
Well, clearly, it is those things. It's the logic of capitalism. Again, like let's think about land values for a second. We can actually farm strawberries in a more sustainable way, just with this set of techniques like rotating broccoli, for example, which is a mild fumigant. But how do you do that with high land values that are based on the supposition of strawberries grown on the same block year after year?
So capitalism's logics are always getting in the way of this. But it's also as usual the cultural power of what we believe is possible. So it's both the political economy and perhaps the not failures of imagination, but constrained imaginations because other people were sucking up all the air of the room like the Silicon Valley folks.
And so are there people who have too much power currently and who needs to have more power - and then sort of a follow up to that, how would we make that shift?
Well, so part of it is like, do we think about powers residing in people or residing in dynamics? I tend to think about it as residing in dynamics rather than people or institutions. Obviously there’s institutions with power, including large agribusiness corporations, financiers, venture capital, etc. I don't know how we shift power. Does anybody? If your other guests know how, tell them to talk to me! I'm kind of, I'm just so concerned with the impending fascism, right now, that it’s kind of absorbing and I don't know how to stop that. I don't know how to shift power.
So you might not have an answer to our next question, which is, do you have inspiring examples that you've seen that sort of, you know, can give some hope around how we might shift power?
Yeah, I do, actually. Because I think about - and this is what I teach too, when I think about this. There's not a lot of them, but we can think of very limited strategic campaigns that I think worked. And like, there's a lot to be said about the anti GE movement, which some would say was not successful, because we have genetically modified organisms in several crops where 80-90% of the soy or corn in the world are produced with GE. But there's this wonderful book that I often point my students to, Sherman and Monroe's Fighting for the future of food. And they actually said that the GE movement was quite successful. If you look at how many crops GE would have been in if there hadn't been the protest. So they look at it counterfactually. And so that was a very strategic campaign. And they talk a lot about the strategies that the movement used.
Our next guest Channa Prakash also talks about the power of this anti-GE movement. But he comes at this issue from a different angle and describes their success as an impediment to improving global food security.
I used to be an organizer before I became an academic long story there that I won't go into. But the people I organized with when I got out of college had all grown up in the United Farmworkers boycott houses, and they brought a particular idea of organizing that was highly flawed, but effective in some respects. And so I think there's again, you can make a lot of critiques of how the United Farm Workers went about doing their business. Some people say they focus too much on the boycotts, and not enough on worker organizing. And some people argue that the forces of other forces overwhelmed what they could do. But nonetheless, they were strategic. And they had some successes. And even one of the campaigns that motivated my work on strawberries, the fight against methyl iodide that was a highly toxic chemical that was supposed to replace methyl bromide. Well, people mobilized around it, I wrote an article about how they mobilized around it, and methyl iodide was never put on the market. And the company Arysta Life Sciences that had tried to get it approved, admits that it was a campaign that they didn't think it would ever be profitable. But that was because this campaign really thwarted it. And a lot of growers I talked to said, “Yeah, I wasn’t gonna adopt that chemical because I didn't want people protesting.” So I can think of particular campaigns that have worked. I think the problem has been linking them and building on them. And like with methyl iodide, you say, well, there's still other chemicals being used. But you know, it's changed the conversation about even the other chemicals that are being used. So I you know, so I think those are the things that I actually get inspired around. And maybe it's because I had this organizing background from way back when where we did look at it as a campaign strategy. Yeah, I think it's about finding fights to fight that can be done and then but then you have to figure out how to build on them.
I'm just curious about your thoughts on what role academia and your work in academia has in terms of power. What power do you have as a scholar to shift conversations or have impact in the world?
Yeah, that's a good question. There is this idea that we don't matter but I do think we matter because we teach generations of students. I know that my work has had an impact because I've been so outspoken on certain things. I tend not to be too shy about saying what I think. I can trace how the critiques I did on alternative food movements mattered. And, again, I'm not claiming all the credit for it, because there's many other scholars that were writing in that vein, and many activists were. It was a change conversation. You can see how different food movements are now than they were 20 years ago. And that has to do with the critique. It's hard to demonstrate, and certainly the ways that we're asked to demonstrate impact in academia, like citation count (laughs) don't really get to it at all.
Julie told us that out of all her articles, the one she gets the most response is her 2004 article “Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice.” This article troubles the idea of reproducing ideas of whiteness in communities of color. For example, the social and mental health benefits of putting your hands in the soil do not resonate with everyone, including those whose families were enslaved and forced to work in agricultural fields. Julie’s article, which we’ll link to in our show notes, calls for drawing more attention to the cultural politics of alternative food movements. Julie goes on to talk about the first class that her community studies’ students used to take.
I've had the really good fortune of working in a major called community studies where students do these full time field studies for six months. In the old days, they used to first take this class with me, if they wanted to do food and agriculture, they'd have to take this class where I'd disabuse them of all their ideas that came in with. And they were shaken by it, but they went out and they did this activism influenced by those ideas. And so they're actually in organizations, and whatever they learn in the classroom, they can subtly kind of bring into the organizations. Many of them went on to do other kind of work, it's not like they all became lifelong activists in this realm. But it did change them.
How would Silicon Valley look different if the venture capitalists had taken Julie Guthman’s 101 food and ag class?
Well, they would not be trying to make farmers more efficient. (laughs) You’re going to lead me to an interesting point which is, the next book I want to write is “The problem with solutions.” And it's going to be geared toward an undergraduate audience. And it's going to be geared toward these budding entrepreneurs. Because right now, it's not only Silicon Valley, it's all these universities are doing this programming around entrepreneurialism and encouraging students to pitch and having them do five unit internships where they go and fix, make a solution. And they're enabling, this thing and one thing about the community studies major, there's many good things about it. But we have, really, before students do their six month field study they have to learn more about the history and geography of the place they're going. And they have to get some training in the topics in which they're addressing, they just can't go I'm going to go fix things. And there, they have a lot of methodological preparation, where they're not coming in with the big ideas. They want to learn from the organizations and how the organization's framed those ideas. So they go in with hopefully, that's what we try to get them to do. To go in with humility and reflexivity. And so, I think there's a lot of lessons from community studies that I think would be really important to bring to all these programs that are encouraging students to be like, I alone can fix it, oh my God, you know, right. I can go fix things because I have the will. And I think it's such a bad approach. So that's the impact I want to have. My students at community studies tend not to be entrepreneurial like that, but they exist and I want to reach them and I - if I write this book, I want to mark it market it to some of these university programs and say, “hey, at the very least have some sort of curriculum around knowledge and humility.”
Thank you so much for speaking with us, Julie.
You're very welcome. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Thanks everyone for listening! That wraps up another episode of Feed, a food systems podcast, presented by TABLE, a collaboration between the University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University.
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Join us in two weeks as we speak with Channa Prakash, Dean and Professor of Genetics and Genomics at Tuskegee University.
Channa Prakash 45:38
I think a more productive way forward is to see how we can continue to improve our food production, and feed the seven, eight or 9 billion people in an equitable manner with less footprint on the ecology that supports agriculture, the water and the soil. And that is, I firmly believe, is driven by innovation and science, and not ideology.