Healing the Rift Between Science and Food

Written by Planting Justice

On November 1, 2019

Healing the Rift Between Science and Food: The Role of Intellectuals in Promoting a Just and Sustainable Food System

 By Joshua Sbicca

Since the end of World War II agrifood corporations who both fund and often set the research agenda for scientists studying food and agriculture have increasingly infiltrated science. While natural scientists in fields like microbiology and agrology are using genetic engineering and biotechnology to increase crop yields, social scientists like economists provide the “social” rationale for perpetuating an industrialized agrifood system. Moreover, nutritionists who are often perceived as experts on food are increasingly co-opted by food corporations hoping to expand market share. While at times it seems like scientists are nobly progressing the cause of “feeding the world” and “ending hunger,” the facts don’t add up. There is more than enough food to feed a global population whose average growth is diminishing. The problem is that the poor cannot afford food. Poverty is leading to hunger, not insufficient global food stocks. These facts are coupled with the role that some scientists have played in assisting the corporate agrifood complex in eroding ever greater proportions of the world’s topsoil, decreasing biodiversity, polluting of local ecosystems and dominating grocery stores with highly processed foodstuffs. The following example on the controversy surrounding the partnership between the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) and Novartis will provide a springboard for a critical reflection on the role of public intellectuals in ameliorating corporate influence in natural and social science research on food and agriculture.

In 1998, the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at UCB decided that it would develop corporate partnerships in the name of advancing the “public good,” thus increasing the influence of agrifood corporations in research decisions. Upon finalizing a partnership with Novartis, a Swiss agriculture and drug company, many scientists, students and those in the public began to worry that this $50 million dollar deal would harm the public good. Instead of academic freedom, many scientists would be enticed to carry out research in the interests of profit over socially relevant knowledge production. Many believe that corporate infiltration into the academic arena is undermining the original populist intent behind land grant universities’ mission of expanding education to more people (endnote: 1).  However, the Novartis case reveals a deeper contradiction between the interests of the public and the desire by large landowners and corporations desiring more productive agricultural technology (endnote: 2).

Scientists committed to social justice are often marginalized by their colleagues and university administrators. When so much money is tied to research supporting industrialized agriculture, scientists working on alternatives are often seen as a threat to the future livelihoods of co-opted scientists and university officials. There is not enough room in this essay to address the increasing corporatization of universities, but suffice it to say that sociologists in particular have been noting this growing trend since the 1950s (endnote: 3).  While there were agricultural scientists at UCB who criticized industrial food systems and actively worked to develop sustainable and just alternatives, they were slowly marginalized as the Novartis agreement crystallized into a corporate-science relationship that has become the norm.

So what is the alternative? What is the role for intellectuals committed to justice and sustainability?

I am a Ph.D student in Sociology at the University of Florida (UF), a large land grant university. In my two years at UF I have seen similar tensions to the UCB-Novartis controversy. As a social scientist I have more flexibility than my agricultural science colleagues to openly critique the relationship between corporations and universities. I take this privilege seriously. I was recently invited to work on a multi-million dollar collaborative grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on what is called the “Improved Sustainable Food Systems to Reduce Hunger and Food Insecurity Domestically and Globally” program. So far I have witnessed reticence on the part of some natural scientists to openly discuss the structural reasons for food inequality, such as capitalism and institutional racism. That being said, these people want to build an alternative food model that is ecologically sustainable. While there is a larger heated debate about the words we chose to discuss food inequality and alternative food and farming systems, I am most concerned here with how to build alliances with those both within academia and within the burgeoning food justice movement.

Given that this grant is collaborative, the natural scientists are looking to the social scientists for direction on where they should be investing their research energies. For example, some of the natural scientists are experts on building greenhouses, but they do not want to go ahead with what they think might improve the local Gainesville, Florida food system without first understanding what the diverse shareholders within this local community desire. So, my social science colleagues and I are charged with working closely with local churches, non-profits, elected officials, school representatives and historically marginalized groups to collaboratively develop a food system reflecting social justice and ecological sustainability.

I see my role as a bridge builder and an advocate scholar. I have the privilege and moreover the desire to move between both academic and social movement circles. Public intellectuals have a distinct responsibility to not only challenge their colleagues who may be perpetuating an unjust and unsustainable food system, but to work on providing distinct alternatives. Ideally, these alternatives should be developed with those most marginalized by capitalism and institutional racism. At the same time though, those with specialized forms of knowledge should share their ideas in mutually respectful environments. A praxis supporting the goals of food justice should provide the foundation upon which those committed to new social, economic, and political values are developed. Through collective reflection and collective action committed to achieving equal access to healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate food which is also justly and sustainably grown we will build a foundation upon which we nourish our bodies and our spirits. Food sustains all life. Therefore, a new vision is imperative if we are to heal the wounds inflicted by those in the scientific-agrifood complex driven by profit and prestige over social welfare and human and ecological health.

1 See Universities in the Age of Corporate Science: The UC Berkeley-Novartis Controversy (2007) for a thorough history and analysis on land grant universities, science and corporate power.

2 Large-scale corporate and non-family farms control 75% of agricultural production in the United States (Rosegrant 1998; Banker et al. 2007).

3 See C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination, Jürgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action, and Pierre Bourdieu’s “The Corporatism of the Universal.”   

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