“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

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