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A place at the table: Book explores future of alternative agriculture

Mon, 01/26/2015


LAWRENCE — As local and organic food movements have come into their own in the last decade, a University of Kansas researcher's new book seeks to find a place at the table for these methods within modern agriculture.

Paul Stock, assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies, who co-edited "Food Utopias: Reimagining Citizenship, Ethics and Community," said the book seeks to study alternative agriculture and how communities can intertwine them with mainstream agriculture that dominates the landscape today.

"There are a lot of small examples happening right now that we can be learning from that we can be integrating that we can be taking in and helping support," Stock said. "We give so much money and time and effort to find these technological solutions or supporting the biggest, most successful farms already established. But we do very little to support new and innovative ideas."

He said while big versus small agriculture are often pitted in adversarial terms, the book is looking for a way to bring the two together.

"How do we blend the technical prowess of what we think is the only way to do agriculture with these long-standing, relatively sustainable ways that the food utopias of the future are going to probably be finding a way to do? How do we do that without saying there's only one way to do it?" Stock said.

However, the research is looking for ways to improve the status quo.

"We know that the way we do most of our agriculture is pretty damaging both to the environment and communities, so how do we begin to imagine or envision different ways of growing food?" Stock said.

Much of the contemporary efforts have focused on farm-to-table, fork-to-table or school garden movements, for example, as awareness has focused more on locally produced food. Stock said this is not a novel movement though, as the book is a collection of essays on food movements across the world and throughout history on how certain communities focused on sustainability, urban agriculture and other themes.

This includes the slow-food movement in Italy as an effort to recapture the countries rich food tradition in light of the advent of fast food.

"This development of modernizing and fast food was really not a bad thing inherently, but for Italy in particular, it was losing a lot of old recipes," Stock said.

He said essays in the book also documents peasant agriculture movements in Argentina and urban agriculture in Basel, Switzerland, which could be a model for large cities in the United States.

"It's about creating new ways of living in a city — one of the big projects is to promote urban small-scale agriculture as a way to not necessarily supplant how we do things but definitely in support of and in a way promote self-sufficiency to the neighborhood and citywide network around them," Stock said.

Closer to home, the book features both a foreword by Wes Jackson, founder and president of the Land Institute in Kansas, and a chapter about the institute, which seeks to develop an agricultural system with ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops, written by John Head, the Robert W. Wagstaff Distinguished Professor in the School of Law.

Stock said the research looks to point out that there likely will be a middle ground at tackling major issues like food shortages and effects from climate change.

"One idea of thinking about food utopias is to critique the idea that some technical solution is going to be the silver bullet that is going to fix everything," Stock said. "That's not true because that's just a repeat of the past. One thing is not going to fix the myriad of issues that are at play around social, political and ecological issues."

The book’s release coincides with Paul’s first project using the methods discussed in "Food Utopias" to explore first-generation farmers in the Midwest working with KU faculty photographer Bryon Darby and designer Tim Hossler.

Routledge released the book Jan. 25 as part of its Studies in Food, Society and the Environment series. Co-editors include Michael Carolan, a professor of sociology at Colorado State University, and Christopher Rosin, senior research fellow at the Centre of Sustainability: Agriculture, Food, Energy Environment at the University of Otago, New Zealand.



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