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"How Not to Feed the World"
FROM THE AUTHOR
This talk is about a new book project, “How Not to Feed the World: Our Century-long Quest to Produce More Food and Where It’s Led Us Astray.” It is a history of science, agriculture, and racial and environmental justice. The book begins by wondering why we are always trying to feed the world anyway or, better put, what people really mean when they say that. Before the blossoming of global capitalist industries by the early twentieth century, nobody thinks a farmer’s job is to feed a global population. By the mid-twentieth century, at the center of a Green Revolution, the mantra is dogma. On its way across the twentieth century, the book seeks answers to these questions: where did the idea come from that food and ag policy should be scoped to the span of an entire world, why did that lead to a high-yield answer, and what else were we not doing when people were so focused on quantity above all?
We will always need to feed hungry populations, that much is true. The sticking point is how to place that impulse among other reasons to grow food, cultivate land, and build flourishing communities. The sticking point is how to understand a wider range of ways to accomplish the same goals, to consider not how to feed a world, but what it means to be well fed, what it means to nourish people so they can flourish. You can grow food for sustenance, for community stability, for ecological health, for agrarian livelihood, for sovereignty and self-determination, for gender equity, and for racial justice. Many people have sought those goals over the past industrial century. Putting the mantra to ‘feed the world’ into historical context can encourage food policy change toward a more just and equitable future that includes those goals. Or so I hope. Or so I’d like to think through.
This talk about a project that is very much in-progress lays out the general arc of the story, while pointing to the ways that world-feeding story fits into a longer series of works on the origins of modern food and agriculture from my prior books.
Benjamin R. Cohen teaches at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, where he is a historian of science, technology, and the environment and STS scholar. He is the author, most recently, of Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food (2019), co-editor with Michael Kideckel and Anna Zeide of Acquired Tastes: Stories about the Origins of Modern Food (2021), and writer for a variety of public forums. You can learn more at brcohen.net.