Smithsonian Fellowship Helps Environmental Historian Understand Moral Economy of Food Production

July 1, 2009 — Salmonella-tainted peanuts and pistachios. Melamine in baby formula. E. coli-contaminated meat and cookie dough. Preservatives and colorings to make foods last longer or look more attractive. All are recent examples of food mishandling, alteration or outright adulteration.

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If food could be pure, what would it be? Raw, uncooked vegetables? Corn, not corn flakes? What does "natural" mean? What is "pure"? What is "adulteration"? And, is nature pure? These questions are not new; in fact, they first were brought to significant public attention during the advent of industrialized food production in the late 19th century.

Benjamin Cohen, an assistant professor of science, technology and society at the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, is looking for answers. He is an environmental historian and historian of science with an interest in modern environmental thought and the land and food at the center of it. He looks to the past for insight into how we live, and eat, today.

"I'm trying to understand how cultural concepts of 'nature' and 'natural' were challenged by the introduction of industrialized farming and food processing," he said. "It's not just an environmental concern, but a moral question, too. It isn't only whether something is natural or not, but if there is a right and proper way to use the land and make food and distribute it."

Beyond catching deceptive food adulterers – an easier case, Cohen said ¬– the bigger set of questions is about the proper way for humans to intervene in our world.

"Something like genetically modified organisms bring up many of the same questions today," he said, "because they, too, force us to debate what we think is an acceptable way to manipulate the environment and what is improper."

This summer Cohen is on a postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, where he is looking into food adulteration in the early Industrial Age. He's finding that people realized they didn't trust their food sources and that, with the issue of adulteration, they were questioning whether and in what way their food was natural. They wondered about the proper way to go from the field to their plates.

At the Smithsonian, Cohen will examine the moral economy of food production in an age of increasing global production and trade. To do so, he's looking into Progressive Era food packaging and advertisements, product descriptions, trade catalogs, cookbooks and landscape images. He is aiming to understand the way products were marketed as "pure" and even "absolutely pure" in a time when purity and its foil, adulteration, were brought into greater public question. The research will aid a book he is writing on the subject.

As manufacturers during the time period sought to increase production and reduce costs, and as those producers moved farther from the consumers, they sometimes added cheap alternative ingredients to foods as a means of dilution, such as water to milk, chicory to coffee, even saw dust to flour. At the same time, consumers, policymakers and scientists pushed for a clearer understanding of what "pure" and "natural" products actually were.

Rather than having local knowledge of agricultural products from one's own community – where trust, familiarity and visibility took on a personal dimension – consumers were left to trust distant producers who may or may not be delivering what they claimed. In this early age of industrialized food, people became concerned with food handling, how crops and meat were grown, raised, processed and delivered – many of the same concerns we have today, as evidenced by the thriving local and sustainable food movement.

"Eating is an example of our everyday interaction with the environment," Cohen said. "I want to understand that process as simultaneously moral, scientific and environmental. To care about the environment, we need to think differently about where our food comes from, how it is processed and how it is delivered. It is an interconnected process of which we are a part, since we are members of, not outside of, nature."

— By Fariss Samarrai