Tag Archives: food production

New perspectives on an aquacultural geography

Boy holding a pangasius catfish (photograph by Ben Belton)

Boy holding a pangasius catfish (photograph by Ben Belton)

by Ben Belton and Simon Bush

So how many people realise that more than half the fish eaten by human beings will very soon come from aquaculture? The answer may well depend on where you live, which raises a series of questions about the geography of where and how farmed fish are produced and consumed.

The rise of aquaculture over the last four decades has been as uneven as our understanding of its development. Our recent paper published in The Geographical Journal, explores this apparent deficit in knowledge about aquaculture by asking whether geographers have responded in any substantial way to a call to arms published by Barton and Stanifordt in Area in 1996 urging them to do just this.

Our results are not as positive as one might hope. While a potential global deficit in food fish has been averted by the growth of the industry, geography’s contributions to understanding patterns of aquaculture development have been less expansive. Work has focused largely on species exported from, and areas  exporting to, the global North, rather than on the more significant production, trade and consumption that occurs in the South. In other words, why focus on ‘booms’ in catfish from Vietnam or shrimp from Thailand which end up on dinner plates in North America or Europe, when other fish consumed in the South make up more than 90% of the world’s production? A geographical attention deficit is clearly evident.

What then should an aquacultural geography look like? In addition to the big questions of politics and trade that have been asked of export crops, researchers should be unpicking the intricacies of everyday food production and consumption. In spite of globalisation, domestic (often urban) markets in the South remain the main sites of global consumption. Overlooking the importance of these markets and the production systems which feed them, means ignoring some of the most important trends in food production for the coming decades.

Geographers are extremely well placed to develop a more considered understanding of what further growth of aquaculture will mean, not just in terms of export trade, but also in terms of both a growing urban middle class and marginalised rural communities. Given that the forecast is for a further 50% expansion of the industry simply to meet the demands of an increasingly affluent global population by 2020, the need for closing the knowledge deficit has never been greater.

The authors: Ben Belton is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at The WorldFish Center, Dhāka, Bangladesh; Simon Bush is an Associate Professor in the Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University, The Netherlands.

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Belton B and Bush S R 2013 Beyond Net Deficits: New priorities for an aquacultural geography The Geographical Journal DOI:

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Barton J R and Stanifordt D 1998 Net deficits and the case for aquacultural geography Area 302 145-55

60-world2The New York Times 2013 Fish in the global balance 10 February

60-world2WorldFish and Conservation International 2011 Blue Frontiers : Managing the environmental costs of aquaculture June

60-world2BBC News 2011 Global fish consumption hits record high 1 February

The $250,000 burger: towards a new moral economy of meat-eating?

Image credit: macieklew

No cows were harmed in the making of this post
Image credit: macieklew

By Helen Pallett

On Monday afternoon at a West London press conference, reporters witnessed a world first: the eating of a pioneering laboratory-grown hamburger. The carefully orchestrated spectacle also reached a further audience worldwide, as this pricey mid-afternoon snack was streamed live onto thousands of PCs, whilst others joined in the conversation on twitter with the hashtag #culturedbeef. Media reporting on this event has been quick to point out the potential of this emerging technology to alleviate pressing food security and distribution problems, and to reduce the environmental impacts of meat production. The arrival of the new burger has also been celebrated by animal rights advocates, such as the philosopher Peter Singer and the activist group PETA, as opening up a new market of cruelty-free meet.

The event has raised challenging questions which have stimulated wide-ranging debates across the traditional media and new media. Are there any meaningful differences between this stem cell burger and ‘natural’ meat? How do we know that it is safe to eat? What stance should vegetarians take? Can a lab-based food source prove to be a sustainable alternative to other low carbon, low impact diets based on low meat intake and local or organic food? And of course, does it taste any good?

The press conference focused on demonstrating the safety of the new product, but also brought together a group of food writers and journalists to attest to the meat-like taste and texture of the burger. What was not under the microscope were some of the broader moral and economic questions, covering scales beyond the object of this solitary burger, spanning temporalities beyond the specific event, and concerning the whole of the production chain. In a 2009 paper, Peter Jackson and colleagues used the term ‘moral economy’ to describe how ethical and moral concerns were expressed across time and space, and in relation to the diverse practices and processes involved in the production of different food products. Whilst Jackson’s paper was concerned with the morals and markets of the supply chains of chicken and sugar, their framework also helps to shed light on the moral economy of this newest of products.

The answers to questions such as ‘how different is this new meat?’ and ‘is it suitable for vegetarians?’ depend not only on which ethical frameworks we use but also where we choose to look, through space and time. The in vitro burger is made up of muscle tissue, the substance which would also account for the majority of any normal beef burger that you could pick up in the local supermarket. The scientists have also been careful to reassure potential consumers that there have been no ‘unnatural’ chemicals added to the burger. In this sense then, perhaps there is no meaningful difference between the two kinds of beef. But the processes that went into making the new burger, do set it apart, and this is why it is possible to claim vast environmental benefits of in vitro meat. A small amount of muscle cells are harvested from a living cow and are then nurtured in the lab so that they grow and multiply. This process takes around 3 months, much shorter than the life of the average cow when it enters the slaughterhouse. The carefully controlled laboratory process also means that there is no fat in the meat to give it flavour, so this instead came from the use of ‘natural’ flavourings such as beet.

On the question of the response of vegetarians, the the texture and taste of the burger itself has been likened to the meat substitute quorn. When we broaden our gaze to the production processes as well, the burger has been welcomed as cruelty-free (and therefore implicitly vegetarian friendly) meat by many advocates as it requires the painless removal of muscle cells rather than the slaughter of a cow. However, when the micro-scale laboratory processes which go into the production of the meat are also brought into the frame the use of calf serum – a slaughterhouse product – to nurture the stem cells comes into view.

Another aspect of the moral economy of the new burger which has been relatively unexplored in the media coverage is its situation in broader economic and market structures. The making of the in vitro burger was bank-rolled by the much-criticised Google co-founder Sergey Brin, citing animal welfare concerns but also with interests in the market potential of this emerging product. In the liberalised and globalised modern food industry does this product bring into being new moral economies or will it simply be moulded by existing ones?

books_icon Peter Jackson, Neil Ward & Polly Russell, 2009, Moral economies of food and geographies of responsibilityTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34 12-24

60-world2 The world’s first cruelty-free burger The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 First hamburger made from lab-grown meat to be served at press-conference The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 Google’s Sergey Brin bankrolled world’s first synthetic beef hamburger The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 World’s first synthetic hamburger gets full marks for ‘mouth feel’ The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 Synthetic meat: is it ‘natural’ food? The Guardian, 6 August 2013

60-world2 Lab-grown burgers cannot provide a secure future for Africa The Guardian, 6 August 2013

60-world2 PETA: Lab meat to provide methadone for meat eaters ITV News, 5 August 2013

60-world2 What is Cultured Beef? Maastricht University, accessed 5 August 2013

60-world2 Test-Tube Burger: Lab-Cultured Meat Passes Taste Test (Sort of) Scientific American, 5 August 2013

Local solutions to global food shortages

Mopane Caterpillar

A Mopane caterpillar, found in southern Africa

I-Hsien Porter

The United Nations ‘Food Price Index’ recorded food prices (particularly cereals, sugar and meat) rising to record highs.

Warnings of dangerously high food prices were driven by dry weather in Argentina, cold weather in Europe and North America, and floods in Australia. For example, Australia is the world’s fourth largest exporter of wheat.

However, our attention is rarely drawn to food consumption, rather than food production. In a paper in the Geographical Journal, Peter Illgner and Etienne Nel highlight the loss of traditional food and food consumption, which in many parts of the world has been displaced by imported Western fare.

In a case study of the Mopane caterpillar, the authors argue that edible insects have historically been important to diet in poor rural communities. If bias towards Western foods could be overcome, Illgner and Nel express the view that insects are an economically and practically viable addition to our diets. In addition, this might even empower poor communities that cannot aspire to lifestyles associated with high levels of consumption.

The Guardian (5th January 2011) ‘World food prices enter ‘danger territory’ to reach record high’.

Illgner, P. and Nel, E. (2000) ‘The Geography of Edible Insects in Sub-Saharan Africa: a study of the Mopane Caterpillar’. The Geographical Journal 166 (4): 336-351

Learning for food

I-Hsien Porter

Global climate change is likely to cause significant changes, or at least greater uncertainty, in human lifestyles. One vulnerable area of our relationship with the environment is food production.

The BBC recently reported that over the past 25 years, rice yields in Asia have fallen 10 – 20% in response to rising temperatures. This trend is expected to continue. Meanwhile, a summer heatwave (a relatively short-term climatic event) has caused the Russian government to ban the export of wheat, with far-reaching impacts for food prices. In this light, some might be concerned for future food security.

However, many small-scale farmers in the Global South have been dealing with adverse climatic conditions and resource scarcity for decades. In a recent paper in Geographical Journal, Lindsay Stringer and others look to these groups to inform countries in the Global North, which are now facing similar challenges.

Many of the strategies employed by farmers in developing countries were specific to particular places, so had limited transferability to other contexts. As a result, Stringer et al. looked at the process-related aspects of farmer’s experiences, rather than those rooted in place.

Farmers who were faced with adversity were found to have much greater political awareness (e.g. of trade agreements). Those responsible for food production in the developed world could learn from the way that other actors have influenced food and farming policies.

Redefining the traditional North-to-South flow of knowledge into a two-way exchange generates a much larger pool of ideas to mitigate and cope with pressures on food production.

“Rice yields to “fall” under global warming”, BBC News, 9th August 2010

Stringer et al. (2008) “Learning from the South: common challenges and solutions for small-scale farming” Geographical Journal 174(3): 235-250

Lashings of local food: alternative food networks

By Jayne Glass

Between 2007 and 2008, the ‘Fife Diet’ challenged people to sign-up to eating food only from the region of Fife  for a year.  Funded by the Climate Challenge fund, the project raised awareness of how our ‘normal’ eating habits contribute to climate change through the emissions generated in transport, agriculture, industry and in the home.  The organisers and participants monitored their progress and shared their experiences with a much larger network of people trying to re-localise more generally and to explore what sustainable food might be.

In the April 2010 edition of the ‘Social’ section of Geography Compass, Edmund M. Harris considers how those seeking alternatives to industrialized and globalized food systems have looked beyond organic production to develop a range of alternative food networks (AFNs).  There are links between AFN activism and geographical theory of place because many AFNs are set in ‘local’ places, in which relationships of trust, regard and responsibility are perceived to circulate within the ‘local community’.  Harris argues that the academic discourse surrounding AFNs would be enriched by a stronger theoretical engagement with geographical space and place theory because such an exchange would help to develop a more nuanced understanding of the role place plays in food systems.

Read more about the Fife Diet

Read Edmund M. Harris’ (2010) article: Eat Local? Constructions of Place in Alternative Food Politics Geography Compass 4 Vol. 4 pp. 355-369

French farmers and the fields of Paris

By Jenny Lunn

The Champs-Élysées, the most famous boulevard in Paris, has been silenced for a few days – by young farmers! Overnight, lorries brought in tonnes of soil and turned a one-mile stretch of the normally busy thoroughfare into an enormous green space. The aim of the event, which has been organised by the French Young Farmers (Jeunes Agriculteurs) union, is to reconnect the general public with agriculture. Consumer demand for lower food prices is causing financial problems for farmers so they hope to showcase the quality of their produce and demonstrate the effort that goes into producing it.

Reconnecting farmers and consumers is also discussed by Guy Robinson in his article ‘Towards Sustainable Agriculture: Current Debates’ (Geography Compass, September 2009). Since the Second World War, the relationship between farmers and consumers has distanced due to mass production techniques, supermarket-based retailing and government regulation. Gradually people have forgotten where the food they eat comes from and how it reaches them. The system is becoming ever-more unsustainable as fruit, vegetables, meat and fish are flown across the world to meet year-round consumer demand for exotic produce.

Moving towards more sustainable forms of production and consumption will not be easy. Although demand for organic and locally-produced produce is growing, it is still a relatively niche market in overall terms. Changing consumer behaviour – particularly when it requires them to spend more money – is not a simple task. The cows and sheep on the Champs-Élysées over the holiday weekend is a starting point, at least, for reminding people of the quality and diversity of their nation’s food.

Read about the event in Paris on the BBC website

Read Guy Robinson’s article in Geography Compass