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Iowa Food & Politics NCHC Faculty Institute: Day 3

I. AM: Inspiration

The most helpful thing I heard about interpreting the World Food Prize building was what our guide said just before we entered. “Ambassador Quinn was raised a Roman Catholic,” he explained, “and he’s used to buildings overwhelming and sort of wrapping the experience around you.” He seemed to say it almost as an apology, as though he was slightly embarrassed and needed to prepare us for what we were about to experience.

He was correct. The World Food Prize building was a cathedral to the importance of food and a shrine to those who have helped increase its “quantity, quality, and availability.” The architecture presented a clear narrative: the four pillars of rice, corn, wheat, and soybeans supported the building’s rotunda, but the four scenes painted beneath the rotunda, each portraying an agrarian landscape from a different society, showed that those crops in fact supported civilization itself. The availability of food equals civilization, and those who sustain and increase this are our civilization’s greatest heroes. This is what the building—as well as its various exhibits and inhabitants—was saying.

Ambassador Quinn touched on both the problem and the solution, as he saw it. The world population will reach 9.7 billion within decades. Our response to this challenge will define us as a society. Will we, Quinn asked, look to humanitarian heroes like Herbert Hoover, or will we continue on the path of politicians today who won’t even discuss food issues because they’re both too big (as we saw on our first day in Iowa) and too engrained in cultural values (as we witnessed yesterday at the fair).

Quinn has constructed a temple to inspire both the public and policy makers and make them believe food issues are essential (and formidable) but can be addressed successfully. Seeing the quiet grandeur of the building, which puts in mind the money and the power of those who come through its doors and are hopefully influenced to support the World Food Prize, makes it easier to have hope that issues of food can be addressed with influence, skill, and a good deal of inspiration.

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II. Interlude: Lunch

I couldn’t eat another veggie burger, so I had pork tacos at a pub called The Continental. There was what appeared to be an ibex head mounted on the brick wall above the bar. I wondered about that more than I did where the meat in my taco or the corn in my tortillas came from.

III. PM: Despair

If our guide at the World Food Prize building gave us some hope in the midst of a display of heart-wrenching photographs, explaining we could tip the world out of poverty and toward sustainable population growth by simply providing school lunches, much of that feeling quickly evaporated in our discussion with Dr. Roth of the Center for Food Security and Public Health and the reality of emerging zoonomic diseases and ballooning population.

One got the sense that Dr. Roth would simply give a heavy shrug under the dome of the World Food Prize building and point out that increasing food quantity and availability will only make the population grow faster. Roth used the same figure of 9.7 billion that Ambassador Quinn did, and he even quoted Borlaug, the patron saint of Quinn’s basilica. Borlaug read by Roth, however, was a warning of the “frightening power of human production,” which threatened to make his Green Revolution ephemeral. Hearing Dr. Roth speak of emerging diseases put one in mind of the Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. We’re going to get more of these, and they’re going to cross over into human populations more easily. And the results of that, Dr. Roth seemed to be implying, would be tragic but ultimately inevitable.

Yet Roth also seemed to keep pushing up against the limits of his own discipline. He had the data, but whenever it became a question of what to do with that, he would fall back on the fact that he was a scientists, not an ethicist or philosopher, as though it was possible to be one without being in some respect the other. I think my turning point came in response to this during the van ride home, when one of our facilitators voiced something I had known all along: that it was our job as honors faculty to put our students into situations where they would be forced to learn and think outside their disciplines or across the disciplines. Veterinary medicine might help you understand how to prevent the spread of animal illness, but it won’t necessarily help you critique the system of animal production or reevaluate cultural or industrial concepts of “health” itself. Answers to these problems will be messy and complicated and spill beyond disciplinary divides.

Getting students to live in this tension and be comfortable in discomfort, as someone pointed out in our debriefing—that’s going to be key here. But how do I apply this to food and politics and the specter of Malthus? If I’ve learned anything about food this weekend, it’s that even in the center of the American breadbasket (or perhaps especially here) food and its production means different things to different stake-holders: culture, heritage, and commercialization at the Fair; investment and monoculture in the fields; inspiration and international cooperation at the World Food Prize; and a zero-sum game on Dr. Roth’s population graph. On my plate it’s still a tangle of riddles, but I’m learning to be comfortable in—and even to embrace—that discomfort.

Iowa Food & Politics NCHC Faculty Institute: Day 1

First Impressions
8.12.15

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I.

I kept waiting to be surprised. I grew up in the Midwest, so this rolling landscape of corn and soy dotted with towns and suburban spillover from larger cities—this is all very familiar. This looks like home. The economic patchwork is clear: soy and corn on a grid, nearly flat, to the horizon. The fields are quiet this time of year: no tractors or combines combing the rows. (Human figures would be lost on this scale.)

We stop in a town called Bondurant that in a nutshell illustrates the ebb and flow of the local economic tides. The concrete pillars of grain elevators dominate the center of town like monoliths. There’s a small train depot in their shadow that has now become a park. The railroad is gone, replaced by a bike trail running into the heart of Des Moines.

This was a farm town, and though still surrounded by corn and soy, it’s now clearly an appendage to Des Moines, which is a fifteen-minute commute away. This explains the glut of new housing developments. The downtown holds several buildings for rent, a hair salon, dentist office, and a single pub. There’s no commercial center, though there is a brand new library and community center, as well as a new high school and elementary school. It feels like a community being pulled into the suburban orbit of Des Moines.

“The farmer on a small farm,” a local farm manager tells us, “doesn’t make money because he isn’t disciplined or motivated.” Small farms grow or die. The same thing seems to happen to small towns. “Everything in this country comes back to income.” And yet he claims to manage many heritage farms, where absent landlords view their property as something more than simply an investment.

In all of this, I’m trying to understand the cultural ties to the land, be it small town, farm, or suburban. Who invests in the land for its cultural value? And what’s the value of culture when crops are seen as commodity?

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II.

My surprise finally comes when we pull off the road to a “Public Area,” a space carved out of the grid-work of corn and soy and allowed to revert back to prairie. What strikes me is the soundscape: birds and the various chirps, whirring, and buzzes of insects. We had stopped in a cornfield earlier, and compared to this the cultivated land was deadly silent, as the loud life around me now would be considered pests in the fields of corn across the street.

“They say,” my group’s facilitator tells us, “that when the first plows pulled up the prairie grasses, the roots were so deep and strong that it sounded like shotguns going off when they pulled them out.”

I try to imagine that sound, giving way to the absolute silence of growing crops. Monoculture is quiet. Diversity is loud.

The same thing holds true of neighborhoods, I think. We pass housing developments where the homes look like they’ve fallen from the sky into the subdivision that was recently a field. No sidewalks, no families on porches, no baseball in the street. There’s not much diversity in these neighborhoods, either of culture or architecture that I can tell. In these suburbs, where the houses push right up against the cornfields, whatever is growing inside is growing silently, like ears within the husks.