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Anthropological Approaches to Agriculture, Food, and Nutrition

Anthropological Approaches to Agriculture, Food, and Nutrition
DOI: 10.5040/9781474208802.0003

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In this course, we investigate the stark disparities in nutritional well-being around the world and seek to understand in what ways agricultural systems of food production have played a role. Much of the food that we eat has undergone multiple transformations, traveled substantial distances, passed through different hands, and been subject to a host of laws, institutions, and interventions. We shall investigate these links and the relationships between them. We will also consider the ways in which agricultural systems have contributed both to hunger and to increasing rates of obesity and other diet-related diseases, while viewing these contemporary trends in the light of a much longer history of human biological change and adaptation dating back as far as the Paleolithic period.

Taking a critical perspective, we treat nutrition not only as the process by which bodies are nourished and sustained but also as a set of ideas that influences how people think and behave, that is taken up and used by individuals, policy-makers, and private industry to educate, to persuade, to sell products, or to influence behavior.

Learning objectives

Upon completion of the course, students should recognize, understand, and appreciate the following:

  1. Nutrition both as a set of biological processes and as a culturally and historically specific body of knowledge.

  2. The role of biological adaptation and social/cultural factors in influencing dietary changes.

  3. Nutrition science as a body of knowledge that influences the social world in a range of ways.

  4. Factors affecting food consumption and nutrition of small-holder farmers, including the shift from subsistence to commercial farming.

  5. The effects of agricultural production on farmworker health and well-being.

  6. Intersection of scientific knowledge and public policy in relation to issues of nutrition.

  7. Contribution of agricultural production and the food industry to contemporary trends of both hunger and overconsumption.

The aim is for students to be aware of the principal actors and agents in the phenomena outlined above. Students will be able to identify key debates on the above issues and express informed positions of their own.

Unit Outline

This ten-module lesson plan is intended to be spread throughout a full semester. The content is aimed toward a writing-focused postgraduate group in anthropology or in food studies with an interdisciplinary focus.

Most, but not all, of the suggested readings are by anthropologists. In order to uncover and make more explicit the links between agriculture and nutrition, which is a key aim of this course, it is necessary to draw on a range of debates within the discipline and beyond.

Assigned readings and discussion questions are included to provide an understanding of the ideas to be discussed in class. A range of homework ideas are suggested to feed into and stimulate class discussion.

Lesson 1: Dominant Narratives

In this first week, we consider some key nutrition concepts and will begin to explore what we mean by “nutrition” and how this meaning has changed over time.

Core texts to be read before the lesson

Paxson, Heather. 2016. “Rethinking Food and Its Eaters: Opening the Black Boxes of Safety and Nutrition.” In The Handbook of Food and Anthropology, edited by J. Klein and J.L. Watson, 268–288. Bloomsbury.

Scrinis, Gyorgy. 2008. “On the Ideology of Nutritionism.” Gastronomica 8, no. 1: 39–48.

Pollen, Michael, 28 January 2007. “Unhappy Meals.” The New York Times. Accessible online: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/magazine/28nutritionism.t.html .

Milne, Richard. 2015. “Science.” In Food Words: Essays in Culinary Culture, edited by P. Jackson, 188–193. Bloomsbury.

Discussion question

  • How has the rise of “nutrition science” created new conditions of authority and expert knowledge?


Identify one case study from the readings or from newspapers/internet to prepare a three-minute presentation for class, reflecting on the following quote by Tim Lang:

“Nutrition science, like all sciences, does not live in a vacuum; science is framed by context.”

Lesson 2: The “Mediterranean Diet”

This week, we consider a case study that brings together many of the themes you’ll encounter on the course. Following an epidemiological study in 1970, the cuisine of certain populations of southern Europe was publicized for containing numerous items identified as beneficial against heart disease, such as olive oil, oily fish, almonds, fresh fruit, and vegetables. Anthropologists subsequently argued that the idea of the diet as “optimal” was more complicated, showing variations in temporal and regional experiences that influenced food intake and preparation, highlighting the relevance of external environments, food economies, and cultural practices in contributing to nutritional intake. Using this example of the “Mediterranean diet,” we ask whether there is such a thing as an optimal diet and will consider the factors that might support or challenge this idea. We also consider how agriculture and trade regimes reproduce and redefine the “Mediterranean.”

Core texts to be read before the lesson

Truninger, M. and D. Freire. 2013. “Unpacking the Mediterranean Diet: Agriculture, Food and Health.” In Food between the Country and the City: Ethnographies of a Changing Global Foodscape, edited by N. Domingos, J.M. Sobral, and H.G. West. Bloomsbury.

Knight, Christine. 2011. “‘If you’re not allowed to have rice, what do you have with your curry?’: Nostalgia and tradition in low-carbohydrate diet discourse and practice.” Sociological Research Online 16, no. 2. Accessible online: http://www.socresonline.org.uk/16/2/8.html .

Discussion questions

  • Is there such a thing as an optimal diet?

  • How are different types of knowledge (scientific, cultural, economic, agricultural) used to support government interventions or to influence public moral discourse?


Write a 500-word response reflecting on the concept of “authenticity” and how it shapes people’s understandings of what they eat and why.

Lesson 3: Human Evolution and Diet

This week, we explore the evolution of human diet over a wide historical span beginning with the Paleolithic period.

Core texts to be read before the lesson

Kiple, Kenneth. “The Question of Paleolithic Nutrition and Modern Health: From the End to the Beginning.” In The Cambridge World History of Food, edited by K.F. Kiple and K.C. Ornelas, 1704–1710. Cambridge University Press.

Wrangham, Richard 2009. “Introduction: The Cooking Hypothesis.” In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, 1–14. New York: Basic Books.

Cordain, Loren et al. 2005. “Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet: Health Implications for the 21st Century.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81: 341–54.

Diamond, Jared. 2002. “Evolution, Consequences and Future of Plant and Animal Domestication.” Nature 419: 700–707. Accessible online: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v418/n6898/full/nature01019.html

Discussion questions

  • What were the earliest human beings eating, and how does this compare to modern diets?

  • What, if anything, can we learn from the dietary behavior of our ancestors?

  • How did the shift to settled agriculture affect diets?

  • How do contemporary dietary practices rely upon and reproduce ideas of cultural or temporal “Otherness”?


Use internet sources to identify an example of a dietary trend such as the “paleo diet” or the “Mediterranean diet.” Record a three-minute video of yourself, either alone or in dialogue with a friend, reflecting on the cultural norms and ideas influencing the diet.

Lesson 4: Biological Adaptation and Social Change

In this unit, we consider recent dietary transitions in relation to long processes of historical change and adaptation.

Core texts to be read before the lesson

Draper, H. H. 2000. “Human Nutritional Adaptation: Biological and Cultural Aspects.” In The Cambridge World History of Food, edited by K.F. Kiple and K.C. Ornelas, 1466–76. Cambridge University Press.

Wiley, Andrea S. 2016. “Cow’s Milk as Children’s Food: Insights from India and the United States.” In The Handbook of Food and Anthropology, edited by J. Klein and J.L. Watson. Bloomsbury.

Discussion question

  • How has human dietary behavior adapted to external circumstances? How do we account for both adaptive and maladaptive responses to nutritional constraints or excess?


Write a 500-word response exploring the issue of how biology and culture intersect over time.

Lesson 5: The Nutrition Transition

This week, we investigate the stark disparities in nutritional well-being around the world, with a focus on the uneven geographical spread of under- and overnutrition. We consider claims by nutritionists about a global transition from undernutrition to obesity and related non-communicable diseases, and look at the role agriculture has played.

Core texts to be read before the lesson

Popkin, Barry M. 1998. “The Nutrition Transition and Its Health Implications in Lower-Income Countries.” Public Health Nutrition 1: 5–21.

Rousseau, Signe. 2012. “Obesity: Whose Responsibility Is It Anyway?” in Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference, 126–146. Bloomsbury.

Pertierra, Anna Cristina. “The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: Rice and Beans in Modern Cuba.” in Rice and Beans: A Unique Dish in a Hundred Places, edited by R. Wilk and L. Barbosa, 35–60. Bloomsbury.

Discussion questions

  • What is fat and is it a problem?

  • How have changing agricultural practices played a part in the nutrition transition?


Write a 500-word response reflecting on whether and how an anthropological approach can enhance our understanding of the nutrition transition.

Lesson 6: Agriculture, Livelihoods, and Nutrition

This week, we turn our attention to questions of agriculture and land use. We explore the various links between agriculture and nutrition, with a focus on small-scale farmers. We look in particular at whether commercialization of agriculture improves or reduces farmers’ access to nutritious foods and assess the various factors that may influence this scenario, including intra-household distribution, diverse livelihoods, and changing food prices.

Core texts to be read before the lesson

Pottier, Johan. 2016. “Observer, Critic, Activist: Anthropological Encounters with Food Insecurity.” In The Handbook of Food and Anthropology, edited by J. Klein and J.L. Watson, 151–172. Bloomsbury.

Fleuret, Patrick and Anne Fleuret. 1991. “Social Organization, Resource Management, and Child Nutrition in the Taita Hills, Kenya.” American Anthropologist 93, no. 1: 91–114.

Discussion question

  • What are the pathways between small-scale agriculture and nutritional outcomes?


Identify three arguments in favor and three that challenge the claim that the shift from subsistence to commercial agriculture undermines the health of small-scale farmers and their families.

Lesson 7: Agriculture and Nutrition: The Gender Link

In this session, we look at gender roles and how they influence behavior and health outcomes. There are multiple ways in which gender emerges as a key link between agriculture and health. For example, women’s contributions to farming may enhance their control over which foods enter the home. Thereafter, women’s central role in deciding what is eaten and how it is prepared may provide a direct link to child nutrition. Commercial agriculture and wage labor remain essential sources of income around the globe, and women who have access to these incomes are likely to be motivated by their children’s nutritional well-being when making spending decisions. There may also be a range of factors—economic, cultural, ecological, or political—that limit both women’s and men’s capacities in particular contexts.

Core texts to be read before the lesson

Kennedy, Eileen and Lawrence Haddad. 2000. “The Nutrition of Women in the Developing World.” In The Cambridge World History of Food, edited by K.F. Kiple and K.C. Ornelas, 1439–1443. Cambridge University Press.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1985. “Culture, Scarcity, and Maternal Thinking: Maternal Detachment and Infant Survival in a Brazilian Shantytown.” Ethos 13, no. 4: 291–317.

Lem, Winnie. 2013. “Regimes of Regulation, Gender, and Divisions of Labour in Languedoc Viticulture.” In Wine and Culture: Vineyard to Glass, edited by R.E. Black and R.C. Ulin, 221–240.

Discussion questions

  • How is gender understood and what is its role in these contrasting readings?

  • How do gendered expectations, obligations, or rights affect agricultural production and/or nutritional outcomes?


Pick a single ethnographic example from the readings. Write a 500-word reflection about it, focusing on what the example tells us about gender in relation to agriculture and/or nutrition.

Lesson 8: Knowledge, Power, and Politics: The Changing Role of Anthropology in Agriculture and Nutrition

In this unit, we engage with Audrey Richards’ classic anthropological text on nutrition among the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia) alongside a restudy of the same area published more than fifty years later. This is the most significant debate on agriculture and nutrition within anthropology.

I provide a bit more background here to contextualize these readings. The first consists of two excerpts from one of the first, classic monographs in British Anthropology, by Audrey Richards—Land, Labour and Diet in Northern Rhodesia (modern-day Zambia). Richards was one of the early, functionalist anthropologists who trained under Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics. The book should be read as a text that reflects the empirical concerns and intellectual approaches of the functionalist school. It is based on research that Richards carried out in the 1930s. In the book, Richards tries to explain the reasons for chronic undernutrition among the Bemba people. A key issue that she raises is that men were being drawn away from rural areas into the urban workforce and couldn’t therefore play their part in the agricultural practice of slash and burn (known as citimene)—which depends on a strict gendered division of labor. Men were working in the city and therefore agriculture at home collapsed. Richards was deeply concerned with the negative effects of colonialism and industrialization on the “Bemba way of life,” one of which was poor nutrition.

I’ve recommended two pieces to read from Richards’ book. One is an ethnographic description of the practice of citimene—to give you a sense of the core agricultural activity by which the Bemba were known. The other piece is the very last section of the book in which Richards attempts to challenge the colonial perception of the Bemba as “lazy” by offering various alternative explanations.

The second reading is a condensed version of the argument presented in the book Cutting Down Trees by Henrietta Moore and Megan Vaughan. This article and book are a restudy, some fifty years later, of the very same area and themes that Richards studied. These authors are concerned to highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of Richards’ account, and they try to identify the assumptions Richards held that influenced her findings. One of their arguments is that Richards’ emphasis on the absence of male labor potentially overlooked the significance of female labor in vegetable gardens.

Core texts to be read before the lesson

Richards, Audrey. 1995 [1939]. “(a) Millet Cultivation (the icitemene method)” pp. 288–300, and “The Will to Work” pp. 398–405, in Land, Labour and Diet in Northern Rhodesia: An Economic Study of the Bemba Tribe, International African Institute.

Moore, Henrietta and Megan Vaughan. 1987. “Cutting Down Trees: Women, Nutrition and Agricultural Change in the Northern Province of Zambia, 1920–1986.” African Affairs 86, no. 345: 523–540.

Discussion questions

  • How and why have anthropologists treated the relationship between agriculture and nutrition differently?

  • How has anthropological knowledge about nutrition been constructed alongside, even as part of, a wider set of colonial agendas?


Write a 500-word response addressing the question: Did Audrey Richards misunderstand the causes of chronic undernutrition among the Bemba?

Lesson 9: Widening the Lens from Nutrition to Health

Continuing the discussion from the previous week, this unit will develop our critical perspective on the production of knowledge. Focusing on the plight of farmers and waged agricultural workers, we ask whether it is sufficient to think exclusively in terms of nutrition or whether we must widen the lens to health.

Core texts to be read before the lesson

Jackson, Peter. 2015. “Work.” In Food Words: Essays in Culinary Culture, edited by P. Jackson, 246–248. Bloomsbury.

Münster, D. 2012. “Farmers’ Suicides and the State in India: Conceptual and Ethnographic Notes from Wayanad, Kerala.” Contributions to Indian Sociology 46, no. 1–2: 181–208.

Discussion questions

  • What methodological, epistemological, and political questions/problems do we encounter in widening the analytical lens from nutrition to health?


Choose any newspaper article that deals with an aspect of farmworker health. Bring it to class to reflect on how it relates to the themes of the week.

Lesson 10: Government Policy, “Philanthro-capitalism,” and the Food Industry

This week, we ask whether under- and overnutrition have been caused by the production of food or by its distribution. We look at how production has been altered by agricultural policy and what its effect has been on health. We explore the role of “philanthro-capitalism” and the food industry—including the advertising, marketing, and sale of foods and the dominance of particular sectors/corporations within the food industry—in influencing the desirability and availability of different foods and the patterns of food distribution that result from this. Finally, we critically assess possible agricultural interventions for improved nutrition and health, and ask what are the opportunities and obstacles for achieving these.

Core texts to be read before the lesson

Brooks, S., M. Leach, H. Lucas, and E. Millstone. 2009. Silver Bullets, Grand Challenges and the New Philanthropy. SEPS Working Paper 24, Brighton: STEPS Centre.

Smith, David F. 2013. “The Politics of Food and Nutrition Policies.” In The Politics of Food and Nutrition Policies, edited by A. Murcott, W. Belasco, and P. Jackson, 398–409. Bloomsbury.

Discussion questions

  • What kinds of agricultural interventions are common for improved nutritional outcomes today? Do they work?

  • Can the food industry help tackle the growing global problems of under- and overnutrition? What are the problems and limitations?


Collect evidence and prepare an argument for a structured discussion in class to debate the following statement:

“Technological solutions are the most effective way of tackling malnutrition.”

Assessment Options

The homework tasks allow for a reflection upon themes, issues, debates, and/or questions arising from the readings. Written work should be completed beforehand and brought to class to lay the foundation for student contributions to seminar discussions.

The discussion questions included above could be used to structure class debate or as the basis for larger essay or project-based tasks.

Further Reading

E-books in the Bloomsbury Food Library

Domingos, N., J.M. Sobral, and H.G. West (eds). Food between the Country and the City: Ethnographies of a Changing Global Foodscape. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. DOI: 10.5040/9781350042186

Jackson, P. (ed). Food Words: Essays in Culinary Culture . London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. DOI: 10.5040/9781350042278

Kiple, K.F. and K.C. Ornelas (eds). The Cambridge World History of Food . Cambridge University Press. 2000 https://www.bloomsburyfoodlibrary.com/encyclopedia?docid=b-9781474208710

Klein, J. and J.L. Watson (eds). The Handbook of Food and Anthropology . London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. DOI: 10.5040/9781474298407

Lien, M.L. and B. Nerlich (eds). The Politics of Food . Oxford: Berg, 2004. DOI: 10.5040/9781350044906

Murcott, A., W. Belasco, and P. Jackson (eds). The Politics of Food and Nutrition Policies . London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. DOI: 10.5040/9781350042261

Enrichment Materials


Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition. https://foodanthro.com/cfps/ .

Food and Agriculture Organisation. http://www.fao.org/home/en/ .

See, especially, FAO. 2013. The State of Food and Agriculture: Food Systems for Better Nutrition. http://www.fao.org/publications/sofa/en/ .

FAO. 2013. The State of Food Insecurity in the World: The Multiple Dimensions of Food Security. http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3434e/i3434e.pdf .

Sustain: The Alliance for Better Food and Farming Sustain Report. 2000. https://www.sustainweb.org/ .

See, especially, “Fat of the Land: The Impact of Production and Consumption of Vegetable Oils on People and the Environment” Sustain: The Alliance for Better Food and Farming. http://files.uniteddiversity.com/Food/Food_Facts/ .

International Food Policy Research Institute. http://www.ifpri.org/ .

Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health. https://www.lcirah.ac.uk/ .

“Girls Grow: A Vital Force in Rural Economies.” 2011. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Available online: https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/publication/girls-grow-vital-force-rural-economies.

Oliver de Schutter. 2013. Gender Equality and Food Security: Women’s Empowerment as a Tool against Hunger. Mandaluyong City: Asian Development Bank. Available online: http://www.srfood.org/images/stories/pdf/otherdocuments/20130724_genderfoodsec_en.pdf .

Harvest Plus. http://www.harvestplus.org/ .

Useful critical commentaries on food and nutrition

Hart, Keith. “The Political Economy of Food.” http://thememorybank.co.uk/papers/the-political-economy-of-food/ .

Taubes, Gary. http://garytaubes.com/ .

Pollan, Michael. https://michaelpollan.com/ .

Nestle, Marion. https://www.foodpolitics.com/ .

Magazine articles



Examples of dietary trends

The paleo diet: https://thepaleodiet.com/ .

UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage: The Mediterranean Diet. https://ich.unesco.org/en/Rl/mediterranean-diet-00884 .