At some point, food studies courses examine what is cultivated, how, by whom and under what policy and environmental conditions. Together these elements make up the agricultural dimension to the food system. All too frequently, the broad question of ‘why’ particular approaches to cultivation are adopted is ignored or is reduced to contemporary economic forces, as in commodity chain research. This particular question is however key for public health ecologists interested in food system transformation for the benefit of food and nutrition security and food system sustainability. In this talk, I argue that any food system transformation requires renewed recognition of, and respect for, the cultural dynamics within farming systems. These dynamics can be a force for change or for the status quo.
As cultivators, farmers are pre-eminent cultural actors. They are as much artisan, creator, scientist, educator as they are an economic unit. Older farmers, in particular, are repositories of extensive knowledge about, and transmitters of value systems regarding, nature-society interactions and the impact of economic and social policies on a range of matters from the rearing of animals to the future of rural society. Their styles of farming, and associated rhythmic activities and value systems, are pivotal to food system (un)sustainability.
In order to fully appreciate the reasons for the adoption of particular farming approaches, it is necessary to have some insight on the cultural histories of specific agricultural sectors and spaces. Many such histories go back centuries, and they can help to explain bio-security disease outbreaks in the present as well as current attitudes towards animals, environments and markets and the structure of diets. This point will be illustrated with reference to pastoralism, harvesting of wild foods, and the rearing of small animals.
The talk will conclude by asking for debate around the following questions:
- How important are agri-cultural histories, and what do they imply for agri-food futures?
- Is there a benefit in making considerations of producer cultures more prominent in food policy, land use policy and rural policy; and what do such considerations mean in a world of global value chains and global food standards?
- Should farming be considered a cultural industry as well as an economic sector?
- Are agri-cultural considerations important for public health?