“Moving from ‘matters of fact’ to ‘matters of concern’ in order to grow economic food futures in the Anthropocene

Hill, A. 2015.  Agriculture and Human Values, vol. 32: pp. 551-563.
Agrifood scholars commonly adopt “a matter of fact way of speaking” to talk about the extent of neoliberal rollout in the food sector and the viability of “alternatives” to capitalist food initiatives. Over the past few decades this matter of fact stance has resulted in heated debate in agrifood scholarship on two distinct battlegrounds namely, the corporate food regime and the alternative food regime. In this paper, I identify some of the limitations of speaking in a matter of fact way and of focusing on capitalist and neoliberal economies as the yardstick by which to assess all food economy initiatives. Using stories of bananas in Australia and the Philippines I advocate for a new mode of critical inquiry in food scholarship that focuses on matters of concern. Following Bruno Latour I use the term critical inquiry to refer to research methods and thinking practices that multiply possible ways of being and acting in the world. The new mode of critical inquiry I propose centers on enacting three broad research matters of concern. These are (1) gathering and assembling economic diversity (2) human actancy and (3) nonhuman actancy. I argue that through becoming critical minds in the Latourian sense researchers can play a key role in enacting economic food futures in the Anthropocene.

Going Bananas in the Anthropocene

As we think about cities in the Anthropocene we obviously have to keep a perennial question in mind: what are urban dwellers going to eat? Despite a rich history of farming in cities traditional models of farming the land are continually being pushed farther from urban centers by sprawl. Economic development is making the cost of land in central cities too expensive for traditional growing and potential land in urban areas is becoming increasingly scarce. These changes, along with increasing interest in locally grown produce and concerns about climate change, demand new ways of imagining how we provide food to city dwellers. This is because neither tilling the land and planting a seed in the soil, nor importing food from far off destinations, does enough to reduce risks associated with food security. In this post I want to illustrate these problems by using the example of the banana. I will show how a recent article by Ann Hill, an assistant professor at the University of Canberra, helps us identify options available for managing the food system as we get deeper into the Anthropocene.

Hill suggests that food production is problematic because it is guided by neoliberal fiscal policies that favor large-scale agribusiness. This approach fails to address important economic–as well as ecological and social–issues confronting humanity in the Anthropocene. She situates her discussion as a part of an ongoing debate in food systems scholarship regarding the role of multinational corporations and globalization in addressing issues of food security and food sovereignty worldwide. Her work focuses theoretically on the dichotomy between “matters of fact” and “matters of concern” as proposed by Bruno LaTour, and utilizes a set of four case studies to illustrate how the neoliberal corporatization of the banana, guided by matters of fact and derived from overly simplified economic models, illustrates the need for alternatives that shift focus toward matters of concern to our current time, including questions of diversity, justice, and sustainability.

  • The first case study traces the problematic relationship between market-based perspectives and the banana on the island of Mindanao in the Phillipines. The story highlights how a focus solely on output and yield led the banana farming business to be “de-peasantized,” as large corporations, with the support of state-sponsored policies, worked to evict small-scale and subsistence farmers, replacing them with mechanized techniques and linking operations to global supply chains.
  • The second case study takes a closer look at an alternative food network: fair trade bananas. A non-governmental organization in the Balangon region of the Philippines provides supply chain support to a collective of farmers. The project is intended to help small, independent growers gain access to valuable markets in Japan by creating stability for both the farmers and their customers across the Philippine Sea.
  • The third case study focuses on the role of community supported agriculture in Compostella Valley Province of the Philippines. Organizers used a business incubator model, inviting residents to plan an agricultural operation. Out of this process emerged a banana growers association dedicated to cultivating the locally favored Lakatan type of banana. The cooperative formed to assist existing farmers, recruit new ones and ensure that local residents maintain sovereignty over process. (This video shows the kind of entrepreneurship happening in the region around banana farming, though it is not an official record of the cooperative’s work.)
  • The final case study differs somewhat from the others. It directly engages climate change, and focuses on Sharon, a particular banana tree. Following the category-five Cyclone Yasi in 2011 only six trees were left on a large-scale banana farm in Queensland, Australia; the rest were burned to eliminate the possibility of fungal infection. The farm that normally produced 700,000 cartons of bananas would only make 80,000 that year. Sharon and the other survivors were given names to commemorate their triumph. Yet the farm faces enormous challenges in the wake of the storm’s devastation—in particular because the wet conditions it created made new plants extremely susceptible to disease.

Fresh fruit consumption

Bananas provide a particularly interesting indicator of the relationship between the Anthropocene, food, and urban life. They are so ubiquitous to shoppers in almost every developed nation, but they represent an extremely fragile component of the rural lifestyle and ecosystems of the tropical communities where they originate. Bananas are one of the most consumed fresh fruits in the United States, around the same as apples, and trade globally in quantities upward of 17 million tons annually. Over 76% of the crop from Asia, Latin America, and Africa goes to consumers in the European Union, the United States, Japan, China, and the Russian Federation.

As the story of Sharon suggests, bananas are increasingly seen as a potential victim of climate change. Entire crops are often decimated by flooding, drought, or the spread of Fusarium Wilt. Fusarium Wilt, commonly called Panama disease, is resistant to fungicide and is lethal for members of the Musadeae family like plantains and bananas. The disease nearly drove the globally popular Gros Michel variety of banana to extinction in the 1950s, necessitating the cultivation of a new variety known as the Cavendish. Today this is the primary kind of banana eaten in most parts of the world. The Cavendish was believed to be a substitute for the Gros Michel because it could be grown in the same climatic and soil conditions and appeared to be resistant to fungal infection. But a new strain of Fusarium Wilt emerged in recent years leading some to suggest that we may be in the brink of losing the Cavendish and necessitating the development of yet a new variety to replace it.

The decline of the Gros Michel banana and potential disappearance of the Cavendish banana provide an important opportunity to think about what is next for food in cities of the Anthropocene. Those of us working in food systems planning are imagining a time when agrarian life is transformed in ways that soil and climate can be easily controlled in indoor environments specifically designed to grow many types of crops, including bananas. Indoor vertical farms would be a centerpiece of many urban environments. In these spaces pests and climate would be controlled in a number of ways to promote growth of food crops like bananas, including the Gros Michel and Cavendish. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations  agrees that new models of farming are needed, particularly in fast growing African and Asian countries, where old models of agriculture are fragile given the changes in climate and population growth expected in these regions.

All images created by the author.

McMichael, Anthony, J. (2014). Population health in the Anthropocene: Gains, losses and emerging trends. The Anthropocene Review, 1(1), 44–56. doi: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2053019613514035
Jørgensen, D. (2014). Not by human hands: five technological tenets for environmental history in the Anthropocene. Environment and History, 20(4), 479-489. doi: https://doi.org/10.3197/096734014X14091313617163

Outsourcing our thermoregulation to the city

The cold in Yakutsk, Russia. Courtesy of http://www.snowaddiction.org

In the middle of winter in Yakutsk, Russia, the average temperature is -34 °C–so cold that the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit is negligible.  Overnight dips to -42 °C are common.  For the 270,000 people who live there, time outside is to be avoided—eyeglasses freeze to your face, eyelashes freeze, your nose hairs freeze.  October to April is spent scurrying around from house to house and spending Continue reading

“Cities in the age of the Anthropocene: Climate change agents and the potential for mitigation”

Pincetl, S. 2017. Anthropocene, on-line 18 August 2017.
Cities are human creations where many of the emissions causing climate change originate. Every aspect of daily life in cities Continue reading

Pathogens and the Anthropocene: Germs, Genes, Geography, Part 2

[This is the continuation of the post from last week.]

To speak of an “Anthropocene for pathogens” is to imagine the ways that human transformation of the environment has shaped the ecology and evolution of infectious microbes. In other words, it is to imagine Continue reading

Pathogens and the Anthropocene: Germs, Genes, Geography, Part 1

The smallpox virus

We welcome our colleague Kyle Harper to the blog; his bio is on the OU contributors page. His book, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, is now available from Princeton University Press. Continue reading

Early Cities and Other Urbanisms

Galata bridge in Istanbul, bridging east and west, old and new. By Moyan Brenn [CC BY 2.0)]

Urban landscapes provide useful spaces for thinking through the complexities of the Anthropocene. They are hybrid locations in which the social and ecological Continue reading

Urban Ecology

The male showed up with breakfast.

A post shared by Dacey (@officebuddha) on

As we get started with our series on the urban Anthropocene, I’d like to approach the topic as a biologist, and think of cities as places filled with various kinds of life.
Continue reading

“The Politics”

Aristotle. 1981. Tr. T.A. Sinclair, rev. T.J. Saunders. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Internet Classics Archive version (tr. Jowett) at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.html

In The Politics Aristotle addresses the questions that lie at the heart of political science. How should society be ordered to ensure the happiness of the individual? Which forms of government are best and how Continue reading

“Designing Autonomy: Opportunities for New Wildness in the Anthropocene”

Cantrell, B., Martin, L.J., and Ellis, E.C. 2017. Trends in Ecology and Evolution Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 156–66.
Maintaining wild places increasingly involves intensive human interventions. Several recent projects use semi-automated mediating technologies to Continue reading

Et in Arcadia ars: Thoughts on Volcanism and Urbanism in Southern Italy, Part Two

[This is the continuation of the post from last week.]

The Plain of Catania, atop which the city of Catania sits, is land reclaimed from the Ionian Sea by Etna’s lava and other subterranean volcanic uplift. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who traveled across it while writing the letters and notes that became his Italian Journey, refers quite accurately on May 1, 1787 to Continue reading

“Svalbard Global Seed Vault: A ‘Noah’s Ark’ for the World’s Seeds”

Marte Qvenild. 2008. Development in Practice Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 110–16.
News about Norway’s plans to establish a ‘doomsday vault’ for seeds in the permafrost of the Artic archipelago of Svalbard as a back-up for conventional gene banks reached the world press in 2006. The idea of a Global Seed Vault, which today is considered Continue reading

Prospection and the Anthropocene

I’d like to share two recent items from the news that make a sobering pairing.

The first is an opinion piece in the New York Times by psychologist Martin Seligman and Times science writer John Tierny summarizing a new theory about human beings that emphasizes our orientation toward the future. Continue reading

Weedy Resistance: Multispecies Tactics for Contesting “The Age of Man”

We welcome Ellie Irons, an artist and educator based in Brooklyn, NY, as a guest on the blog . . . click for her own website, or see her bio under the “Who we are” tab.

resistance (Biology): Ability (of an organism, tissue, or cell) to withstand a destructive agent or condition such as a chemical compound, a disease agent, or an environmental stressor. (American Heritage® Medical Dictionary) Continue reading