Flachs, Andrew and Joseph Orkin. 2019. “Fermentation and the Ethnobiology of Microbial Entanglement.” Ethnobiology Letters, 10(1):35-39.
Fermentation preserves and transforms foods through autochthonous or introduced microorganisms. Fermentation is of special interest to ethnobiologists because it relies on place- and practice-based knowledge, local flora and microbial taxa, is sensitive to cultural and ecological conditions, and illuminates the interactions through which communities shape and are shaped by the world around them. In this short topical review, we discuss recent anthropological and ethnobiological research into fermentation, arguing that this topic deserves further attention during the current moment of microbial interest across social and natural sciences. We present a typology of scholarship on human-microbial relationships that delineates three intellectual camps in this literature: neo-cultural ecology, microbiopolitics, and the environmental humanities. In light of biomedical and scientific attention to microbes—not only as threats but also as complex and beneficial actors in our lives—it is crucial to understand how socioecological practices including growing, preparing, and consuming fermented foods sustain microbial communities, heritage foodways, and human wellbeing.
Organic regulation makes products legible to consumers around the world, adding value to commodities and seeking to counter socioecological injustice through neoliberal logics of consumer choice and market diversification. Despite the regulatory and consumer need for universal signification, organic agriculture varies considerably between regional contexts and even within the same country. Within India, home to more organic producers than any other nation, certified organic cotton agriculture in Telangana and certified organic coffee production in Andhra Pradesh highlight how organic agriculture provides distinct, but parallel, ways for farmers and intermediaries to capture value in these supply chains. These questions are especially pressing in South India, which has struggled to spread the economic development of Hyderabad and coastal Andhra Pradesh to poorer rural areas plagued by suicide and agrarian distress. In this article, we explore how organic farmers and intermediaries in South India navigate the demands of foreign capital and governance while negotiating the benefits of global ethical supply chains alongside their own aspirations.
On cotton farms in Telangana, India, performance draws attention to farmers’ work not merely as an economic activity but as directed toward different kinds of audiences and in conversation with different roles, stages, and scripts. Importantly, this performance is contextualized by a neoliberal seed market where a seasonal deluge of accelerated and consumerist seed marketing diminishes the value of experiential knowledge in favor of the expansion of private genetically modified (GM) seed sales. This article draws on mixed methods and qualitative fieldwork conducted between 2012 and 2016 on cotton farms in Telangana to explore the use of “scripts” in rural life: the learned and socially mediated mental maps that reflect sets of rules, values, patterns, or expectations in smallholder commercial agriculture. The script of manci digubadi (good yield) helps order and justify GM cottonseed decision making in rural Telangana, where seed knowledge is uncertain, environmental feedback is ambiguous, and social emulation dominates farmer choices. While being cautious not to present performance in such a way that questions authenticity or presupposes either fatalism or economic rationalism, I argue that scripts help farmers navigate cotton agriculture amid uncertain GM cottonseed markets and the anxieties and aspirations of neoliberal rural India.
Performance is a useful lens through which to analyze agrarian life, as performance illuminates the ways that farmers manage the complex socioecological demands of farm work while participating in social life and in the larger political economy. The dialectic of planning and improvisation in the farm field has produced scholarship at multiple scales of political ecology, including the global ramifications of new technologies or policies, as well as the hyper-local engagements between farmers and fields in the context of modernity and development. Political ecologists are also beginning to understand how affects, such as aspirations and frustrations, influence agriculture by structuring how farmers and other stakeholders make decisions about farms, households, capital, and environments. To understand farm work as a performance is to situate it within particular stages, roles, scripts, and audiences at different scales. The articles in this Special Section ask how farmers have improvised, planned, and performed in response to agroecological challenges, bridging scholarship in political ecology, development studies, and the study of agrarian landscapes through new empirical case studies and theoretical contributions. Agriculture both signals social values and fosters improvisations within farming communities' collective vulnerability to weather and the political economy. We argue that the lens of performance situates the political ecology of agriculture within the constraints of the political economy, the aspirations and frustrations of daily life, and the dialectic between improvised responses to change and planning in the field.
Paul Richards invokes the metaphor of performance in agriculture to highlight the ways in which farmers improvise and draw on repertory knowledge to address new and unexpected problems in the field. This skillset helps farmers respond to shifting weather patterns or changing pest cycles, but it also helps farmers take advantage of new markets, technologies, and development interventions – a question of planning and context as much as improvisation in the moment. This article discusses two intervention failures and one success in Telangana cotton agriculture, arguing that such agricultural interventions succeed when farmers can align development performances with their own visions of development and agricultural success. In doing so, it offers a political ecology of farmer performance on two levels. First, it brings attention to the ecological and socioeconomic factors that inspire performances and structure farmer improvisations. Second, it argues that development initiatives must recognize their efforts as embedded within local agricultural planning and contingent on local calculations of social capital. In two ultimately unsuccessful interventions, farmers withdrew from programs that required investments of time and agricultural methods but did not underwrite important social and agricultural vulnerabilities identified by participants. In one successful intervention, farmers found that an NGO's willingness to respond to their agricultural needs and provide a stage for the cultivation of a local celebrity more than compensated for the new demands of non-certified organic agriculture. In a rural Indian context, where farming is a moral as well as agricultural process, the performance of a development identity is an integral part of performances and plans that guide farmer decision-making. Because these performances create a knowledge that cannot be separated from actors, roles, and stages present, these contingent performances ultimately have lasting impacts on the agrarian landscape.
Karl Kautsky’s Agrarian Question remains a useful lens for analyzing the relationship between small and large agricultural producers under the conditions of industrial capitalism. The U.S. agricultural census provides an opportunity to identify socioeconomic, demographic, and agricultural factors associated with new and alternative farming at the county level, and then analyze these for spatial patterns within a geographic information system. By associating these county‐level indicators with a crowd‐sourced USDA directory of farmers’ markets as a proxy for local demand, we identified four hot spots of new American agriculture: The West Coast, central Texas and Oklahoma, central Florida, and the Great Lakes region. Furthermore, we show that these areas have been growing since 1997. An additional farmer hot spot in central Appalachia diminished after 1997 and finally disappeared in 2012. We argue that spatial analysis is a tool for defining new agrarian landscapes, observing geographic and social shifts in small, alternative farming, and conducting more focused ethnographic research.
Crop seeds are a factor of production that can be produced on farm or bought, commodified in varying ways and degrees, and that can change slowly or rapidly—all of which directly impact the crucial process of farmer “skilling.” Seed choices also offer a unique empirical window through which farmer knowledge may be studied. Although other studies have examined the differences between cash and food crops, this research provides new insights into varyingly commodified crops within the same agrarian system. When planting rice, genetically modified hybrid cotton seeds, and garden vegetables, farmers in Telangana, India, face different constraints and opportunities to learn about their seeds and practice that knowledge in the field. These differences arise from agronomic properties of the seeds themselves as well as from the sociocultural meaning that structures the context in which farmers buy, grow, and save them. This measurable discrepancy in farmer knowledge and experience presents an opportunity to examine the variable impact of seed commodification as it is experienced by the same group of farmers across several different crops. Building on theories of commodification and agricultural knowledge, we propose that the different ways in which farmer knowledge operates in these crops reflect a spectrum on which knowledge and commodification are inversely related.
Research in GM crops is of pressing importance to biotechnologists, development economists, government officials, and concerned citizens. Each of these stakeholders carries preconceived notions of success and failure that not only influence how data regarding GM crops is shared but also reify the objective reality of GM seeds as a technology that might exist outside the idiosyncracies of a farmer’s field. In this essay, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork conducted among GM cotton planting farmers in Telangana, India to deconstruct the process by which scientific facts are created, leveraged, and then divorced from their subjective contexts in agricultural research. In paying closer attention to the ways that the science of agricultural development has limited possibilities of farmer experience and transformed GM seeds into autonomous beings, this paper attempts to take up Latour’s call for a compositionist investigation of a common world slowly assembled by its constituent actors.
Free listing exercises are common and informative ways to explore shared bodies of knowledge and practice, and they can probe widely experienced phenomena in daily life. However, even with a representative sample, this method can suffer under common conditions in anthropological fieldwork: Respondents forget to list items, they fail to provide exhaustive lists, they become fatigued during the interview process, and their responses may not provide representative information. In this article, I suggest an iterative process that combines targeted free listing with key informants, walking probes, and a survey checklist. During an investigation of agricultural biodiversity in Telangana, India, this approach generated more comprehensive lists than free listing exercises alone. This process generates checklist surveys appropriate for larger research populations and can be used to assess widespread knowledge and practices quickly, accurately, and with minimal respondent fatigue.
In this article, I describe a paradoxical but necessary creation of the development apparatus: the “show farmer” (Stone 2014). Various corporate, state, and NGO development projects call upon show farmers to demonstrate the viability of alternative agriculture for visiting funders, scientists, media, and growers. As village gatekeepers, show farmers cultivate local celebrity and publicize a model not just for their community but for the sustainability of agricultural development interventions in the global South generally. This transformation is, however, contingent— hen the incentives, ranging from farming infrastructure to social recognition, dry up, show farmers may abandon the stage and development interventions can fail. In addition to qualitative ethnography and interviews, this article draws on 12 months of seed choice and household demographic surveys conducted 2012–2014 among 104 organic cotton farmers in the Warangal and Asifabad districts of Telangana, India. To better understand how alternative agriculture interventions are affecting rural life and how farmers create new avenues for agricultural success through the development apparatus, anthropologists must pay more attention to this crucial but underexplored character.
This paper was selected for the 2015 Robert M. Netting Award by the American Anthropological Association.
Although India’s cotton sector has been penetrated by various input- and capital-intensive methods, penetration by herbicide has been largely stymied. In Telangana State, the main obstacle has been the practice of ‘double-lining’, in which cotton
plants are spaced widely to allow weeding by ox-plow. Path dependency theory primarily explains the persistence of sub-optimal practices, but double-lining is an example of an advantageous path for cash-poor farmers. However, it is being actively undermined by parties intent on expanding herbicide markets and opening a niche for next-generation genetically modified cotton. We use the case to explicate the role of treadmills in technology ‘lock-in’. We also examine how an adaptive locked-in path may be broken by external interests, drawing on recent analyses of ‘didactic’ learning by farmers.
Press coverage: Counterpunch
Flachs, Andrew, Glenn Davis Stone, and Christopher Shaffer. 2017. “Mapping Knowledge: GIS as a Tool for Spatial Modeling of Patterns of Warangal Cotton Seed Popularity and Farmer Decision-Making.” Human Ecology, 45(2):143-159.
In the Warangal district of Telangana, India, poor farmer knowledge, rapid seed turnover, and farmer conformist bias have resulted in faddish spikes in GM cotton seed popularity. We analyze space as a variable in 2715 seed choices by 136 farmers in two villages between 2004 and 2014, allowing us to model a decade of changes in farmers’ social learning across the village landscape. GIS analysis in combination with ethnographic research reveals shifting loci of seed certainty, in which different farmers were deemed worthy of emulation in different years. Over the study period, Warangal farmers were far more likely to emulate field neighbors’ cotton choices than they were to replant seeds, regardless of their crop yields. Rapid seed turnover and seed choice conformity was strongest among the comparatively poorer Scheduled Tribe farmers who live on the outskirts of the town proper. When the same farmers plant rice, their choices are more consistent through time and across space, suggesting that farmers learn about these two crops in very different ways.
Organic agriculture projects have advanced biodiversity as a key goal and outcome of their methods, in part by encouraging non-chemical inputs and non-genetically modified (GM) seeds. In India organic cotton agriculture has been marketed as a specific alternative to GM cotton, India’s only legal GM crop. However, previous work has shown that the same production pressures that drive GM agriculture to lack biodiversity do not necessarily apply to Indian cotton farms. On organic farms in the Adilabad district of Telangana, India, organic farmers are growing nearly 100 semi-managed foods, trees, and medicines belonging to 37 botanical families. However, organic groups target farmers that may be more inclined to cultivate agrobiodiversity anyway. This paper draws on household surveys, field interviews, and ethnographic research among ethnic Gond farmers participating in a corporate organic program to suggest that such alternative agriculture schemes find ways to reward farmers for biodiverse fields. Organic cotton farms contain significantly greater numbers of economic plants than GM cotton farms in Telangana, and organic organizations ensure that this economic botany becomes institutionalized.
Flachs, Andrew. 2016. Cultivating Knowledge: The Production and Adaptation of Knowledge on Organic and GM Cotton Farms in Telangana, India. Doctoral Dissertation, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri.
This dissertation explores the ways in which genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds, rice seeds, and organic cotton seeds in Telangana, India set farmers on diverging economic, environmental, and social trajectories. GM cotton, a cash crop sold under hundreds of different brand names by private corporations, leads farmers to rapidly change to new seeds and copy their neighbors’ choices as they chase high yields that counter their high investments. Rice, a subsistence and market crop developed by public breeders, allows farmers to change their seeds more slowly as they carefully evaluate durability and taste alongside overall yield. Organic cotton seeds, often provided free of cost by sponsoring NGOs or ethical fiber companies, show farmers that agricultural cost-benefit analysis can be less important than learning to work in tandem with a sponsoring organization. The solutions to agrarian crisis or underdevelopment are often presented as a series of technological fixes. However, agriculture is a fundamentally social act, hinging on the ways in which farmers learn to manage their fields. Taking individual seeds as a lens, I use ethnographic detail to study how farmers learn to navigate confusing seed markets, state programs, ethical supply chains, and the village hierarchies that determine who looks to whom for agricultural advice. This work has implications for international development as well as a broader question of modern life: how technologies become sustainable in new contexts.
The transnational spread of law and technology in Indian agricultural development has passed through three distinct phases since the mid-19th century. In each case, a narrative of agrarian crisis allowed for new state and corporate interventions, conceived by American and British agribusiness, within the existing logics of Indian smallholder agriculture. These began with colonial British industrial cotton projects in the 1840s, continuing with Green Revolution agriculture, and eventually with contemporary GM and organic cotton farms. In each case, farmers developed strategies through a frictive, contentious adoption of new technologies and built new avenues to success that worked for some farmers and failed for others. In this article I draw on ethnographic fieldwork and household surveys conducted in nine villages from 2012-2014 in Telangana, India. As with previous development initiatives, the US-born legal structures that defined high-tech GM and low-tech organic agriculture were adopted in India without major changes. I argue, however that their actual implementation by farmers has required a significant shift in the ways that people manage the agricultural economy.
This paper was selected for the 2015 Eric Wolf Prize by the Political Ecology Society.
Stone, Glenn Davis and Andrew Flachs. 2015. “Seeking Sustainability for Smallholders: Bt Cotton in India.” In Africa's future...can biosciences contribute?, David Bennett and Patrick Mitton, eds. Pp. 119-128. Cambridge, Banson/B4FA.
Of the various genetically modified (GM) crops in use today, none is planted by more smallholder farmers than Bt cotton. Bt crops contain insecticide-producing Cry genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, expressing proteins deadly to many common cotton insect pests. Small-scale Indian cotton farmers in particular have struggled with pest management, and in 2013 over 90 per cent of Indian cotton farmers planted Bt cotton, more than in any other country. A pressing question in agriculture today is how sustainable the benefits of Bt cotton will be for these farmers.
Genetically modified (GM) crops may threaten agrobiodiversity because: (1) genetic material could escape into and subsequently alter non-GM species; and (2) GM crops encourage farmers along an agronomic feedback loop encouraging input-intensive monocultures. However, in the Warangal district of Telangana, India, GMcotton farms also contain nearly 100 semi-managed vegetables, trees, and wild plants belonging to 39 botanical families. While farmers continue to plant poorly understood, deceptively labeled Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis Berliner) cotton seeds in their fields, they also maintain an average of 17 other plants on the same farms for home economic needs. This paper draws on surveys, field interviews, and ethnography conducted among randomly sampled Bt cotton farmers to show the full range of economic plants cultivated on Warangal GM farms. In doing so, I argue that some farmers have been able to preserve agrobiodiversity despite the pressures of GM cotton cash cropping. That agrobiodiversity has potential benefits for Indigenous knowledge and drawbacks for environmental and health concerns.
This paper was selected for the 2014 Barbara Lawrence Award of the Society of Ethnobiology.
In this essay we present three biases that make it difficult to represent farmer voices in a meaningful way. These biases are information bias, individual bias, and short-term bias. We illustrate these biases through two case studies. One is the case of Golden Rice in the Philippines and the other is the case of Bt cotton in India.
Press coverage: Yale Environment Review
Scholars in many disciplines have approached the question of how humans combine environmental learning (or empirical assessments) and social learning (or emulation) in choosing technologies. As both a consumer item and the subject of local indigenous knowledge, commercial crop seeds provide a valuable window into these processes. Previous research on seed choices by cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh, India, uncovered short-term seed fads, or herding, indicating agricultural deskilling in which environmental learning had broken down. Unknown was if the faddism (and the underlying deskilling) would continue or even be exacerbated by the spread of genetically modified seeds. Data covering 11 years of seed choices in the same sample villages are now available; we combine analysis of this unusual data set with ethnographic observation. We find that herding has continued and intensified. We also find an unexpected emergent pattern of cyclical fads; these resemble classic models of successive innovation adoption where periodicity is introduced from outside the system, but we argue that it periodicity is actually generated by an internal dynamic.
This paper shows the ways that ethnographers can develop a more effective qualitative understanding of community gardens by volunteering as gardeners. It explains how volunteering helps gain access to different facets of the garden community. Ultimately, it shows that volunteering can provide an anthropological perspective on the idea, prevalent in the literature, that many people join community gardens only for the economic benefits.
While the benefits of healthy eating and greenspace development have been well documented, the social impact of urban and community gardens remain less studied. This paper explores the social and cultural effects of urban gardening in the greater Cleveland area. Gardening is shown to have a multitude of motivating factors, including economic, environmental, political, social, and nutritional. While analyzing the impact that gardens have on community building, identity, and food security, some authors claim that the gardeners themselves are preoccupied with the economic impact of their actions. Perversely, this leads readers to the conclusion that poor people or people of color are only interested in gardening for its dollar value. Following this argument, more affluent gardeners have the security to ignore the economic impact and focus only on furthering an environmentalist agenda. Such authors presume that utilitarian function and environmentalist ideology are mutually exclusive, but my own fieldwork showed that many gardeners actively combine these ideas. This paper intends to convey the complexity of use, function, and intent in these communal spaces, filling an existing gap in our understanding of their social impact.