Making food resonate in the humanities?

From February 19-21, 2011, an invitational conference will take place at the University of Oregon entitled "Food Justice, Security + Sustainability." (Website pending, twitter hashtag #FJSS_2011.) Open to the public, the conference will explore themes of food justice, urban agriculture, micro-ranching, the history and future of farming, ethical cuisines and food security (as well as its competing term in the social sciences of food sovereignty). The goals of the conference are severalfold: investigate the current paradigms of sustainable agriculture and fair trade; build new research networks among scholars, policymakers, activists, farmers, artists and community organizers; examine how social movements and social networks are together transforming the global food system; and consider the particular roles of women, indigenous groups and youth in agriculture. Among the speakers, a wide range of disciplines will be "in the mix": anthropology, geography, sociology, law, ethics, marine biology, visual art, media studies, plant genetics, soil sciences, and, importantly in my view, literary and cultural studies.

We are fortunate to have two renowned people as plenary speakers: Indian food activist and writer Vandana Shiva and U.S. sustainable agriculture leader Fred Kirschenmann. The program also includes keynote sessions with founding editor of Gastronomica, Darra Goldstein, scientists who research plant breeding and transgenic crops and a tremendous group of nonprofit and policy leaders. Among the other highlights, perhaps especially for the humanities scholars in attendance, Natalie Jeremijenko (director of the xDesign Environmental Health Clinic and Professor of Visual Art at NYU) will "curate" what she terms a cross-species dinner and, we hope, urban agriculture installation.

As the conference organizer, I am working with units across campus from the Wayne Morse Center for Law & Politics to the Environmental Studies Program to the English Department. As part of the planning process, I have realized that my role as convener tends initially to puzzle scholars in other disciplines, although they have been terrifically supportive of the event. The implicit question seems to be, "why is an English professor interested in the food system?" This question intrigues me, because nearly every discipline in the social and natural sciences as well as quite a few humanities disciplines (media studies, visual art, and history, most notably) have robust areas of scholarship related to food and agriculture. As someone whose book project squarely engages with this interdisciplinary field, I am eager to make the case that food and agriculture are rich subjects of inquiry for literature scholars and, as a corollary, that "we" have much to offer food studies. I should note here that food writing may be among the most popular genres of contemporary nonfiction and speaks centrally to questions of interest to the humanities—identity, globalization, power, aesthetics, social media, and the list goes on. (That said, I would also be the first to admit that food writers do not always offer the most exciting formal responses to those questions.)

Of course, any attempt to generate exchange among groups with divergent ways of thinking about a shared concern—in this case food justice & alternative agricultures—is bound to be challenging. With that in view, I am writing this post to invite reflections on two, for me, interrelated questions: (1) What would make a conference entitled "food justice, security & sustainability" resonate, and reverberate, with current research in the humanities? and (2) How might one make the case for the relevance of literary criticism and theory to the project of researching (and perhaps reimagining) the food system?

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