Upcoming panel on commodities, contentions, and contradictions in Southeast Asian agriculture

Join my colleagues Peter Garber, Mélie Monnerat, Patrick Slack, and myself at our panel on commodities, contentions, and contradictions in Southeast Asian Agriculture on October 17th. This panel will be part of the 2020 annual meeting of the New England Conference of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), hosted online by the University of Vermont.

Title: Marginality, Materiality and Maneuverability: Commodities, Contentions, and Contradictions in Southeast Asian Agriculture

Organizer: Melody Lynch, McGill University; Chair: Patrick Slack, McGill University

Abstract: Contemporary agriculture in Southeast Asia is largely shaped by contentions and contradictions in both policy and practice. This panel unpacks some of the social, economic, environmental and political tensions in rural and urban farming in the region. We do this through themes of marginality, materiality, and maneuverability.

From rural-to-urban migrants cultivating crops on abandoned city lots, to ethnic minority farmers working in vast rural landscapes, this panel muses on meanings of marginality in diverse Southeast Asian agricultural settings. With land representing many facets of marginality for certain populations, we discuss the implications of land rights and access in different contexts. We draw upon the concept of materiality to explore the complex web of entanglements that relate plants, animals, and humans with the systems and institutions that hope to reform them in present-day agriculture. Governance schemes, global economic processes and environmental factors seemingly dictate who is able to farm, what, where, and under which conditions. This panel explores the ways in which rural and urban farmers creatively maneuver the natural, built, socio-economic, and political landscapes in order to farm on their own terms. These frictions materialize in various forms; farmers plant gardens on city sidewalks, transition to cash-crops, navigate new precarious markets, or create new relationships with old animal allies.

The contentions that characterize agricultural production yield many contradictions. In cities, people increasingly attempt to meet their food demands by farming within city limits, while urbanization consumes surrounding agricultural lands. In upland Vietnam, ethnic minority farmers at the margins of the state are essential for the cultivation of spices in the iconic breakfast soup phở, yet contentious and contradicting policies hinder the cultivation of them. Beyond spice cultivation, many of these ethnic minority farmers also rely on water buffalo for working in their rice fields, although extreme weather events and government programs are rapidly disentangling this human-animal relationship.

Follow us as we trace cinnamon commodity chains, peek into the production of black cardamom, contemplate farming in its urban context, and investigate the changing relationships between humans and domesticated animals. The curious contentions and contradictions we uncover through themes of marginality, materiality, and maneuverability reveal important insights into the realm of Southeast Asian agriculture today.

Join us online on October 17th! Registration information can be found here on the conference webpage.

Can small-scale regenerative agriculture feed the world? A review for Soul Fire Farm

As part of the Food Justice Scholar-Activist/Activist-Scholar (FJSAAS) community of practice, colleagues Robin Lovell, Sahil Patni, Angelika Winner and I set out to answer the question: can small-scale regenerative agriculture feed the world? We conducted a literature review of academic articles published from 2007 to present and created an annotated bibliography for Soul Fire Farm, a black, indigenous, and people of colour-centered community farm in upstate New York. Here is a brief summary of what we found:

A review of the literature written between 2007 and 2020 indicates that small-scale regenerative agriculture can indeed feed the world, but would require economic, dietary, policy, and cultural shifts. In terms of yields, smallholder farming already accounts for well over half of the world’s food supply. Additionally, while conventional (industrial) forms of agriculture have previously been thought to be more efficient, current research has found that organic production can have greater yields in various contexts. Local and organic farming can also be more resilient to shocks and a changing climate, which can support a more reliable food supply over time. However, while it is technically possible to continue to produce the calories needed for a growing global population through small-scale regenerative agriculture, there are social, economic, and political barriers that need to be addressed. Small-scale organic farming alone can only provide enough calories with a dietary shift away from animal products such as meat and dairy, and if inequities in food distribution can be eliminated. The reduction of food waste also needs to be prioritized. Furthermore, in many places around the world, local and organic food is often more expensive and therefore only accessible to privileged groups. As such, in order for alternative agriculture to feed the world, we need to address underlying inequalities, such as class, gender, race, and educational disparities. Additionally, organic forms of agriculture tend to be labor-intensive. This is a major concern when scaling up alternative food production in a just way, given that many organic farms depend on cheap or voluntary labor. It is also argued that producer and consumer networks must be strengthened in order for small-scale regenerative agriculture to successfully reach all groups of people over the short and long terms. Finally, in order to feed the world, alternative agricultural initiatives need to be scaled up or massified through social organization and mobilization of participating producers and consumers, the horizontal dialog of knowledge, and favorable public policies.  Overall, based on this review, it is arguable that the potential of small-scale regenerative agriculture to feed the world is promising. This is particularly so when considering the additional benefits that this type of food production can provide.

For more information about the FJSAAS community of practice, visit our website.

For more information about Soul Fire Farm, visit their website, or check out their book, Farming While Black.