September 26, 2011

How the calorie shapes food politics, past and present

Despite feeling like I'm sinking into a puddle of quicksand as my work piles up this semester, there is one thing that always keeps me going: the excitement of reading about food and agricultural studies. I know this makes me the biggest nerd ever, but my dream job is for someone to pay me to write about whatever I want related to food and the environment. I might not be the next Michael Pollan, but I have a lot of academics and authors that I really look up to because of their work in this field.

One of my favorite authors that I discovered last year is Nick Cullather, a diplomatic historian. His most recent book, The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia, is a great read for anyone interested in foreign affairs, food politics, and the Cold War. The first chapter of this book is based on his previously published article, The Foreign Policy of the Calorie. It begins in the 1890s, in the beginning of the Progressive Era, with Wilbur O. Atwater and his invention of the calorimeter.

Cullather describes how the neutral technology of the calorimeter becomes a tool of foreign policy making, writing that, "With a numerical gauge, Americans could begin to imagine the influence to be gained by manipulating the diets of distant peoples. The calorie, Atwater declared, would determine the 'food supply of the future'" (Cullather, 2007, p. 341). Interestingly, Atwater worked for a time with Ellen Swallow Richards, who I wrote about earlier (much of her later life's work was in nutritional science).

The calorie became what we might call a "boundary object"- something at the interface of science and policy. It is used to co-produce both scientific knowledge and social order. Cullather shows how although the calorie is an extremely reductionist measure of health, it was used to define the post-world war foreign policy agendas. He writes: 
Beginning with India’s 1946 crisis, “famine” came to be understood as a national caloric deficit rather than the strictly localized emergency defined by imperial famine codes.... Caloric accounting reversed the flow of information about famine; international authorities decreed emergencies, while officials in stricken areas complied with mandated remedies. (Cullather, 2007, p. 362-363)
The invention of the calorie established a metric for modernization. Cullather shows "the capacity of science to renew positivism by inventing new metrics and new ways of deploying them. Quantitative reasoning was not a singular approach that could be disproved, but a succession of rhetorics tied to particular ways of counting. The inception of new numbering schemes revived a mandate for international social engineering" (2007, p. 364).

This obviously has a lot of links to later international development, including the Green Revolution and the population bomb. The complex ideas of food security and family networks were reduced to the simple metrics of calories, land area, and population size, and used to justify large-scale modernization interventions in developing countries. Today, I often think about how we have perhaps replaced the rhetoric around calories with the rhetoric of carbon. Instead of calorimeters we have climate models. Instead of a mismatch of calorie production and consumption, we have a mismatch of carbon emissions and climate impacts. What sort of inventions are we justifying through the normative lens of science and technology?


Cravens, Hamilton, 1990. Establishing the Science of Nutrition at the USDA: Ellen Swallow Richards and Her Allies. Agricultural History 64(2):122-133.

Cullather, Nick, 2007. The Foreign Policy of the Calorie. The American Historical Review 112(2): 337-364.

September 21, 2011

Blogs I like

My apologies for the lack of updates. School has gotten really busy again, but I still hope to update as much as I can. Honestly, at this point in the day I'm lucky if I can type full, coherent sentences.

So I want to introduce you to two of my new favorite blogs (one is actually new, the other is new to me). I've started reading the "Global Dashboard" blog, which is usually both informative and humorous. Two recent articles of interest:
"Our unspoken bet on climate change: we’re going to wing it, and to hell with the poor (and our kids)" and "What is the population problem?" Hope you check them out.

My new favorite lady-blogger is Kate Clancy over at Context and Variation (also see the blogroll on my other blog- because female-authored science [and science policy!] blogs are a bit rare around here!). She does an awesome job taking down the evolutionary psychologists, and has great insights on science and gender.

Finally, I should probably mention... "Does it matter what politicians believe about science?"

September 13, 2011

Defining my research question

This month I've been slowly working on developing my research question. A research question represents why you want to do your research. It will be crucial to explaining my research to other academics, to my field contacts, and to eventually shape my dissertation. Some professors think the "what" should come first- what methods, field sites, case studies you want to use- and others, the "why." Clearly, they are interdependent, and will both change as I engage more and more with my topic.

I have been struggling a lot with this. I clearly know what I want to study- climate change and agriculture- and am drawing from a variety of theoretical traditions to frame my interest. But I struggle with what methods I want to use- history? anthropology? empirical research? econometrics? geography? I believe this has been the primary block to me narrowing down my research question.

Since I am taking a proposal writing class this semester, and am resubmitting an NSF graduate fellowship proposal, I'm forced to really work on my research question. Last semester I created a few questions for my NSF and other proposals, but they were broad, heavy, and highly influenced by a few of my professors.

So here is the evolution of my progress this semester, and I'm still working on it.

Draft 1) How is scientific expertise used to shape international agricultural development agendas in the context of perceived socio-ecological crises (such as the "population bomb" and climate change)?

Criticisms: Is this really what I want to study? Do I want to study agriculture or environmental crises? This question precludes the on-the-ground fieldwork that I want to do. The word "shape" is ambiguous, the rest is too abstract- need concrete variables.

2) How do policy-makers use scientific knowledge to define and respond to socio-ecological crises that affect food production and consumption?

Criticisms: Same as above, too broad.

3) How do agricultural research institutions utilize plant genetics as a strategy for climate change adaptation, and how is this affected by past technological trajectories?

Criticisms: What is my focal point? Research institutions? Climate change adaptation? Plant genetics? What assumptions am I embedding in this question?

4) How do international agricultural research institutions portray innovations in plant genetics, such as biotechnology, as a strategy for farm-level adaptation to climate change?  In particular, what is the interplay between national and international agricultural research agendas with regards to climate adaptation, and how is this affected by historical technological trajectories of plant-based innovations?

Criticisms: Still too broad! What is my case study here? How am I going to study this, and is it a manageable project?

5) How does a specific technological innovation in agriculture, such as flood-tolerant rice developed at the International Rice Research Institute, become a climate change adaptation strategy at different levels of the agro-innovation system, from farmers to scientists to policy-makers, in South Asia?

Criticisms: Much more concrete! But the language is clunky. Specify what I mean by "climate change adaptation strategy"- what are the physical implications of this- in science, seed marketing, farmer education, policies, agricultural technologies, etc.?

I'll be meeting with my professors all week to narrow this down and clean up ambiguities/clunkiness in my language. But yay, I have progress! What do you think, is my research question reasonably clear? Any suggestions?

In other news, some interesting analyses of climate change, food security, and conflict: the new environmental determinism!

September 9, 2011

Pika politics and climate change

Look at the cute little pika! So cute! So... controversial??? One of my professors at Arizona State University studies pikas, little critters that are found in both North America and Central Asia, and is entrenched in an unusual debate between environmentalists and the government. I'm going to paraphrase a bit from a presentation he gave to our lab group and then discuss the science policy behind it.

North American pikas are a focal point of the climate change agenda among conservationists in the American west. This is because pikas live in the mountains, and with rising temperatures due to climate change, it is feared that they will soon run out of habitat at high enough altitudes to stay cool. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Not so, according to my professor. While the conservationists are lobbying for pikas to be listed as endangered, he believes they are using shaky science.
In the advocates' claim for [endangered species] listing, Andrew Smith of Arizona State University sees a case of going overboard, and extending implications from limited studies. 
In his own work in Bodie, Calif., begun in 1969, Smith said he found pika capable of adapting to temperature swings by haying at night, instead of during the day, if it is too warm. He also has found the animals at low elevations, where they were not documented previously, complicating the theory that pikas are being chased relentlessly upslope. 
"We really think pikas are at risk, and we should learn more about them, and be monitoring them at lower elevations," Smith said. "They should tell us an incredible amount about climate change. But they are not endangered." (Seattle Times, 2009)
He thinks that environmental groups have picked the pika as a poster child for climate change based on values (such as conservation ethics) over scientific fact, and that they repeatedly cherry-pick data that supports their cause rather than the broader scientific consensus. While the lobby groups claim that pikas are disappearing before our eyes, others note that the western mountains are literally crawling with pikas. Scientists are working to take censuses of pika populations, but this is arduous and can reflect changes other than climate. So the question is, what will happen if the pikas don't disappear? Will we give up on climate change mitigation policy? Will science lose credibility? These are familiar questions to anyone who studies scientific controversies.

Environmentalists have long held a tenuous relationship with science- they both distrust it, and use it to their advantage in legal battles. Science has the power of legitimacy, and making visible the invisible. The case of agricultural biotechnology (GMOs), and how environmental advocates use science, is strikingly similar to the pika controversy. Small degrees of scientific uncertainty become major points of contention, and unfortunately the environmentalists and scientists seem to be speaking directly past each other. I will refer you to my past post to highlight this point. Roger Pielke Jr. would call this a politicized scientific debate. As he argues in The Honest Broker, we should use science to highlight a range of possible policy options, rather than a narrowly defined, predetermined political position. Implicit in the entire pika debate, as with the polar bears, is that in order to save the pikas, we must limit our carbon emissions.

Should scientists speak up and advocate against the environmental lobbyists? Or aim to provide a more robust understanding of the science and policy implications of climate change on animal populations? Can conservationists promote their own agenda without using dubious science?

Until next time, check out this new blog by some of my former MSU professors.

September 7, 2011

Women scientists and Home economics

This article, coincidentally by a professor of history at Michigan State University, calls for a revival of Home Economics as a response to widespread obesity. The first half of the article is about the foundations of Home Economics, which was a legitimate science, albiet one run almost entirely by women. The unequivocal founder of Home Economics was Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911), who began her graduate career as a chemist, coined the english version of "ecology" (based on Haekel's Oekologie), studied and taught at MIT, and was critical to the formation of no less than half a dozen applied science fields, such as sanitary science, nutrition science, domestic science, and human ecology.

Not coincidentally, I wrote a paper on Ellen Swallow Richards last fall and, dear reader, I'm happy to provide it to you. I was really interested in Richards' theories human-environmental interactions, so I mostly focused on that. But some of my main points will interest environmental, women's studies, and history of science scholars:
  • Ernst Haeckel introduces Oekologie (ecology) in 1866, defining it as:
“knowledge concerning the economy of nature—the investigation of the total relations of the animal both to its inorganic and its organic environment… the study of all those complex interrelations referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence.” (Foster, 2000:195)
  • Richards envisions ecology as the science of the total environment (human and non-human, including the built environment), introducing it to America in 1892.
  • As the "organismal" (and non-human) definition of ecology prevailed in the male-dominated sciences, Richards’ tries to re-brand her vision of ecology as domestic science, home economics, human ecology, and "euthenics"- as opposed to eugenics- as "the science of the controllable environment."
  • Richards situates women as guardians of the home environment, emphasizing safety, efficiency, education and relief from drudgery. Rather than seeking to impose more housework on women, Richards saw scientific home economics as empowering.
Some scholars recognize Ellen Swallow Richards as a proto-feminist, or even ecofeminist. Philosopher of science Sandra Harding writes, "Might our understanding of nature and social life be different if the people who discovered the laws of nature were the same ones who cleaned up after them?” (Harding, 2001:27) Unfortunately, I believe that many of Richards' theories on the environment disappeared after her death. Although she was a prominent chemist at the time, even appearing in books such as American Men of Science, she was marginalized because of her gender and her progressive views on human-environment interactions. Her version of Home Economics was watered-down significantly over the next century. Nonetheless, I cautiously applaud the call for a reinvigoration of Home Economics- perhaps one that recognizes the role of men and women in the household.

This blog is cross-posted at my other, less updated blog, Her Story of Science. References available in my paper, linked above.