Farm to Shelf
All across the United States, and the rest of the world, food is produced through a complex choreography between humans and nature. It is not clear who is leading the dance that happens between these partners. Animals become food, and therefore energy, that humans use to put in the work to grow grain and feed that is eaten by the animals, perpetuating a cycle of dependency. But who took the first step? Where does food really come from? The production of food is reliant on both a natural and manmade infrastructure that often goes unnoticed by the end consumer. This infrastructure is reliant on a certain status quo among both nature and humans, which we investigate in this sub exhibit. Small changes, like a new brand of tractor or a slightly drier growing season, can have huge impacts on the methodology and quality of food production. Tropes, subconscious simplifications of complicated ideas, also play their own part in this seemingly invisible dance. The idealized human vision of nature or the long held beliefs about animals and their place in human social hierarchy have large roles in the way that food is produced. Anthropocentric viewpoints, which are both harmful and all too easy to fall into, allow humans to make decisions about food production without considering the ultimate ecological consequences that their actions will have. This sub exhibit attempts to address these issues through the lens of sound; exploring the more hidden aspects to food production that ultimately shed light on how humans and nature do and could interact.
Planting Seeds from a Plastic Cup into Soil
The sound of rattling seeds and shuffling dirt can conjure up many images and ideas in one’s mind. The feeling of warm sunlight on your back as you plunge your hands into cool, dark earth, the satisfaction of picking tomatoes straight off the vine in your garden, even the smell of fresh air and the outdoors. For some people, these ideas and images draw from lived experiences. They have worked in a garden, or they’ve woken up to the sounds of a farm, or maybe they’ve grown a tiny basil plant in their kitchen. For the majority, however, the ideas created by these seed sounds are more abstract; they fulfill some imagined narrative. These idealized narratives are the result of pastoral ideation, a trope created by generations of thought that is often present in the way humans interact with nature around them. In the pastoral trope people often idealize nature as a perfect place held separate from the industrialized world. At first this trope may seem as though it protects and preserves the natural world by keeping it safe from pollution or other dangers, but in reality it can actually widen the gap between humans and nature. Greg Garrard claims this trope can provide “a locus, legitimated by tradition, for the feelings of loss and alienation from nature to be produced by the Industrial Revolution” (44). Because most people live in industrialized world, they feel as that it is justifiable for them to feel alienated from the farms or garden where the seeds of their food are planted. The idyllic images conjured up by the sound of these seeds is enough to sustain them and feel good about the purity of the natural world.
The pastoral trope both provides support for and is perpetuated by the invisibility of the infrastructure that goes into food production. People have a utopian image of nature in which the earth will always provide for the people sowing the seeds into it. However, people who have actually lived on a farm and participated in the life of a farm worker would most likely attest to the fact that just being physically closer to nature does not make life utopic. The imagined universe of a benevolent earth producing food with little effort is created by people imagining nature as responsive to their own feelings and ideas of what should happen. Garrard calls this a “pathetic fallacy” (40). In people's imagined world of pastoral ideation, nature will provide because they want it to or need it to. John Clare’s writing in “Journey Out of Essex” exemplifies this fallacy. In this piece he writes "On the third day I satisfied my hunger by eating the grass by the road side which seemed to taste something like bread...in fact the meal seemed to do me good" (436). The implication is that nature provided food for him when he was in his deepest need when in fact the grass would have grown whether Clare needed to eat or not. What most people do not see, which facilitates this fallacy, are the resources and systems that go into growing plants or raising animals. Resources like water, soil nutrients, and wood to build barns are all part of the system. To most people this infrastructure is inherently invisible (Star 380). Understanding the ways food is produced is necessary for people to lessen the gap between themselves and the real natural world. When people are exposed to the realities of farming or animal rearing, these realities become what Susan Leigh Star calls a “topic” rather than infrastructure; something real and tangible and much more difficult to idealize (380). If all food processes became topics, people would have a far greater grasp on the limits and resources of the natural world around them. The pathetic fallacy would not apply because people would understand the work inherent in food production and ultimately allow themselves to have more reality-based relationships with nature.
Imagine it’s winter. You’re kneeling in the dirt scooping away freezing cold topsoil with your bare hands. Hunching over your freshly dug hole, you firmly grasp the base of the plant where it meets the roots and you pull. And again, as if your next meal depended on it. This audio captures the thick event of picking vegetables and the satisfying *thunk* signifies completion of that task. But what’s next? In this day and age, I would argue that many of us (myself included) fail to recognize the long, laborious process that goes into getting meals, before we even begin eating. But why does that matter? Failing to consider the natural world and our impacts on it invokes an anthropocentric approach to life on Earth and even a type of human exceptionalism where we may consider ourselves as superior to other living things, and this, in turn, shapes our behavior to perpetuate this dangerous way of thinking. If we fail to consider ourselves as part of the natural world and don’t recognize the consequences of our actions on it, we take the Earth for granted and exploit the very resources and mechanisms that support all life on this planet. Ramachandra Guha argues that this way of thinking, akin to mainstream or “establishment environmentalism” perpetuates the exploitation of the natural world for human gain because its focus is “human-centered” (Guha 233). Furthermore, he advocates for an approach to environmentalism that involves “the transition from an anthropocentric to a biocentric view” so that humans may see themselves as a part of the natural world, rather than in an anthropocentric manner where we see ourselves at its center (Guha 234).
This notion of anthropocentrism and its flaws is also expressed by semiotician Hollis Taylor. She explains the dangers associated with human exceptionalism invoked by an anthropocentric view of the natural world. She argues we must overcome “the limitations of human exceptionalism in analytic frameworks” in order to better understand the world we live in and escape a narrow “viewfinder … dominated by human and elite Western concerns” (Taylor 72). This can be tied into simple seeming notions such as understanding where our food comes from and the earthly and ecological impacts of human food systems and agriculture, even acts as simple as picking a few herbs from a garden. This, in turn, enables us to understand our place in a biocentric world, the Earth, and its own biosphere. Another way of thinking about the Earth is through the concept of a “thick event," described by Nina Eidsheim when she explains that we need to take into account our actions and their impacts on the world around us, because “interpreting a sense experience in terms of just one of the physical senses” she writes, “cannot take full account of the event’s complexities." This is why we must consider the process behind how our food gets from the Earth, or more specifically perhaps, a farm, to the shelf and then to us. It’s not enough to just listen to the sound of picking herbs. Imagine yourself in the cold, on your knees, picking vegetables, and the implications of the long process that goes into the food we may be lucky enough to eat everyday. By failing to consider the consequences of our actions and our lifestyles, we threaten the existence of a stable biosphere (Williams et al 197).
Supermarket Produce Worker Husking Corn
When we go to a grocery store to buy produce, what do we do? Usually, we drive to the nearby grocery store, find the produce section, and buy whatever looks the best. It’s as easy as that. For most of us, we are not considering what went into farming the produce, delivering the final product, and the preparing of the produce to be placed on the shelves. In this sound clip, we get a unique chance to get a glimpse into what goes into the preparing of corn for consumption. At Ingles Markets, I observed and listened to a supermarket employee husking the corn that they had received from one of the farms where Ingles purchases its produce. This was not a process done behind closed doors, but was conducted right in the open behind the produce counter for consumers to observe how their food is being prepared and to even ask questions of the employee about the origin of the corn and the steps he has taken and is currently taking to get the corn ready for the consumer.
In this way, I was able to get a glimpse into the oftentimes invisible infrastructure of food consumption. Similar to the camouflaged electrical power systems in Michael Warner’s talk, “Environmental Care and The Infrastructure of Difference,” our current food system has become so vast and complex that it too has become camouflaged, with most humans being “remarkably oblivious to it” (Warner 00:31:20-00:31:16). As Warner states, “Power is just there, always” (00:26:00-00:25:55), just as when we go to a supermarket, the food is just there. It is not at all a concern for people. I know if I get in my car I can drive to Ingles and buy as much corn as I would like, and if there is not corn at Ingles, there is a Publix and Walmart less than five minutes away. Our relationship with food is very comfortable and reliable, which reinforces our obliviousness to what it takes to make the food available for us. If we were to rest outside of this invisible infrastructure of food, we would be forced into consciousness to see the homogenization of farmland and deforestation of lands, and to see all the pesticides sprayed on our foods and the mistreatment of workers farming our imported produce (Warner 00:03:50-00:03:25). Staying away from the invisible system would be uncomfortable, therefore no one wants to do it.
Humans prefer to enjoy our romantic pastoral view of nature. This view of nature is reinforced by Wordsworth in his poem, “Lines Written in Early Spring.” Wordsworth writes, “And ’tis my faith that every flower Enjoys the air it breathes” (11-12). Wordsworth writes of the beautiful, idyllic, and bountiful nature that is reinforced in our built infrastructure of food. Wordsworth, along with John Clare, also chip away the human/nature binary that comes from our romantic pastoral views of nature. In Clare’s “The Badger,” he exemplifies how humans are abusing nature until beating the nature (the badger) to death (Clare 247). We abuse nature in the food industry by destroying massive amounts of forest for farmland and through our subjugation of farm animals to mistreatment with the only goal in mind to provide as much food as possible for people in the cheapest way possible. It is likely that the farm that provided this corn has caused deforestation and homogenization of the landscape, but all we see is the worker husking the corn and the fully packaged corn ready to take to the table.
In Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster,” we get a glimpse into another example of food preparation outside of closed doors. In this extreme example, humans are celebrating the torture of the lobsters for our gustatory pleasure (Wallace 62-63). Even in these instances where we can see how our food is being prepared such as the boiling lobster or husking of corn, we are still able to maintain an anthropocentric viewpoint and to separate ourselves from the infrastructure of food and our domination of nature.
Cutting Turkey Flesh and Bones
The crack of snapping bones in this clip serves as a reminder of the “birdness” of a Thanksgiving turkey. Often, Americans lack knowledge about the origin of their food. Thus, we may easily forget the “animalness” of our meat. When a holiday turkey is purchased, it is featherless, footless, and headless, and its organs have been removed and neatly packaged in a bag placed just inside the body cavity. The turkey has been transformed from an animal with an umwelt of its own into an object meant to serve the human ends of sustenance and seasonal symbolism (Potter 118). It has been instrumentalized (Garrard 207). In its instrumental role, the bird’s bones are helpful for eating leg meat or making soup stock but become an obstacle when one attempts to remove meat from the turkey’s frame. The bones in this sound clip break because they stand in the way of human hunger. These bones were once vital for the structure, movement, and survival of the bird. Now they are a nuisance. This instrumental evaluation of our food is superficial. It ignores considerations of animal rights and ignores all food processes that come before buying, cooking, and eating, maintaining a distance between food eater and origin. With this distance in place, eaters may continue to accept food in conveniently packaged forms without examining the production practices happening in the (not so) far away CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), fields, and factories of “fly-over states.” To prevent the potential moral and ecological problems that continue amidst such ignorance, we must reverse the process of anthropocentric food instrumentalization and retrace the path of our food to its origin. In the case of meat, we must zoomorphize what is already innately zoic, reasserting “animalness” and considering the resulting implications of eating food that once had experiences and agency (Garrard 154, Potter 117). In the case of all food, we must examine production processes and reduce ignorant demand for sustenance produced in morally and ecologically troubling ways. Hopefully, considering the crack of turkey bones in this clip reminds you to also consider the origin of your food.