RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2016

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170 From political ecology to political technology in agrofood systems
Affiliation Food Geographies Working Group
Rural Geography Research Group
Convenor(s) Imogen Bellwood-Howard (Georg-August University Göttingen, Germany)
Chair(s) Imogen Bellwood-Howard (Georg-August University Göttingen, Germany)
Timetable Thursday 01 September 2016, Session 2 (11:10 - 12:50)
Session abstract Agrofood studies has evolved from a political economy to a networked perspective that addresses power in a relational fashion, allowing agency to emerge from constellations of social, economic, technological and natural components. Drawing on Actor Network Theory (ANT), this approach attempts to overcome separations between nature, culture and society. ANT emerged from Science and Technology Studies (STS), to which this session relates: we seek to interrogate the role of technology in agrofood systems. Technologies are not merely material implements, but include interpretations of ways to use these and to perform agrofood systems without them. Issues of power and control are folded into physical objects such as seed, agrochemicals, vehicles and packaging. STS provides language that describes how such technologies are ‘re-scripted’ in diverse social contexts, performing multiple tasks for different actors. This vocabulary permits examination of the recursive co-construction of technology, society and nature. More generally, food systems comprise complex nexuses between humans, animals, plants and technology; rural-urban and development gradients, and production, processing, marketing and consumption.
The session comprises papers that consider the technology-politics nexus in agrofood systems. We are particularly interested in STS, ANT, technoscience, assemblage and Political Ecology perspectives.
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: AC2016@rgs.org
Farm Plastic Recycling Phantasies: Differences in EU and US regulation
Bruce Scholten (Durham University, UK)
Plastic in the world's oceans may soon outweigh fish. Plastic packaging, etc., in agrofood systems is proliferating in 'nexuses between humans, animals, plants and technology' (IBH session abstract). Creatures suffer by absorbing plastic waste; burning plastic releases toxins; and burying disrupts hydrology. Conversely, agrofood systems benefit from plastic protecting seedbeds from cold, erosion and weeds; preserving hay, straw and silage from rain, rot and pests; and decreasing wastage from farm-to-table. Unfortunately, organic matter often contaminates agricultural plastic 50-70% by weight, making recycling uneconomic. This presentation links empirical data from public, private and PPP approaches to plastic recycling, in networks from the Erema company in Austria to the UK, Massachusetts and Wisconsin, USA. EU and national authorities mandate recycling; by contrast some US model farms do not recycle. Barely 10% of global plastic is recycled. Reversing this scenario is discussed in relation to the 1980-90s US neoliberal shift from the 'precautionary principle' to a 'risk/benefit' approach (Scholten 1990:8; 2016:13-20), compared to a European political environment sensitive to dangers in a 'risk society' (Beck 1992). Technical advances by Wisconsin Film and Bag Co. ease the cleaning bottleneck for (often incompatible) plastics, but will not improve logistics enough to make recycling routine. Sustainability requires what Actor Network Theory (ANT) describes as reconstitution of the technological and human nexus (Murdoch 1995, 1997:25). But regulation and tax incentives lack political-economic consensus, and are unlikely to assemble without a public outcry such as that which attended the global Mad Cow crisis.
"No such thing as a free lunch": Expiry dates and technologies of power in UK surplus food redistribution networks
Charlie Spring (University of Salford, UK)
Food labelling is described by Lang and Heasman (2004) as a "warzone", an arena in which the distribution of roles and responsibility of government, consumers and the food industry is continuously contested. As a technology of power (Milne 2012), the date label 'congeals' relations of power and capital yet authorship does not necessarily equate to authority. In debates around food waste, consumers are frequently represented as ignoring, misreading or mistrusting the label's potential to determine the safety or desirability of food; in short, its edibility.
Among growing numbers of anti-hunger and/or anti-waste organisations aiming to "feed bellies, not bins" in the UK, the date label opens a similarly contested space. This paper explores practices of surplus food redistribution in Greater Manchester, from charitable food banking to street 'protest' feeding. The date label's relevance in determining the edibility of food is mediated by organisational regulations, individual attitudes and situational expedience. At times elaborated and at other times disregarded or concealed, the date label may prevent the use of food in one context but thus enable its redistribution to another. Treating the date label as a node in the ethnographic unpacking of relationships between food, poverty, waste and social movements, this paper sheds light on the networks and practices of (dis)entanglement in different organisations' configuration of food from, and into, waste. Considering the radical potential for social movements to address the causes of hunger and waste, the date label operates an ambiguous biopolitics, both enabling and protecting the knowing, empowered consumer of neoliberal capitalism yet embodying the rationalising temporalities of industrial food production whose profit-motivated calculations rely on the systemic generation of food waste.
Resisting robots: automated milking and emerging geographies of more-than-human resistance
Christopher Bear (Cardiff University, UK)
Lewis Holloway (University of Hull, UK)
In this paper, we examine the concept of political technology to explore the emergence of resistant practices in and around automated milking systems (AMS). While a range of studies have explored the 're-scripting' of technologies in various contexts, this is often assumed to emerge in relation to human technological users. Here, instead, we understand re-scripting as emerging through practices of resistance – or counter-conduct – that are distributed through heterogeneous biosocial collectivities, involving not only humans and automation technologies but also cows. AMS are frequently marketed on the basis of freedom and choice for both farmers and cows; their central premise is that farmers no longer need to herd up cows for twice-a-day milking, with cows instead expected to present themselves to a milking robot, which collects the milk, checks for infections, and records data relating to each cow's weight, yield and milking frequency. The intention is that cows are free to express their 'natural' behaviours, while farmers have greater flexibility around the use of their time. In contrast to this freedom discourse, AMS are also implicitly characterised by regimes of control – whether through the development of barn architectures that promote regular milking, the use of electric shocks to eject cows from the milking robots, or the desire of manufacturers that farmers should adopt particular farming philosophies. Based on intensive periods of field research with robots, farmers and cows, this paper explores how political technologies associated with AMS produce regimes of control which are negotiated, subverted or resisted through practices of counter-conduct.
The role of decision support tools in agriculture: lessons from a user-centered study of uptake and use
David Rose (University of Cambridge, UK)
With growing calls for the sustainable intensification of agriculture (Pretty and Bharucha, 2014), there is interest in helping farmers to make evidence-based decisions to improve productivity and environmental outputs. The use of decision support tools, usually defined as software systems (Dicks et al., 2014), may be an important method of improving on-farm decision-making. Despite their apparent value, however, the use of such tools by farmers and advisers has been found to be disappointingly low (McCown, 2002; Alvarez and Nuthall, 2006). This paper presents the findings of a one-year study as part of Defra's Sustainable Intensification Platform. Using a mixed methods approach, involving focus groups, interviews and surveys, the paper argues that several factors need to be considered for the effective design and delivery of decision support tools. It argues that the traditional 'transfer of technology' approach, in which it was assumed that sophisticated, intuitive systems will be taken up quickly by end users, misses several key determinants of use and uptake of technology. Instead, it is better to see technology transfer as 'travel' (de Laet, 2002). Notably, it argues that end users (farmers and advisers) often think of decision support in a far richer way than researchers. Rather than just representing software systems, decision support tools could be trusted peers and advisers. Therefore, human-based decision support tools could be better appreciated in the research community.