Anthropology of Food: The Social Dynamics of Food Security. (Book Reviews: Social Anthropology)

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POTTIER, JOHAN. Anthropology of food: the social dynamics of food security. x, 230 pp., bibliogr. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999. [pounds sterling]49.50 (cloth), [pounds sterling]14.99 (paper)

As the subtitle makes clear, the present book is an attempt by a social anthropologist to say something about the discipline's relevance to debates concerning food security. It is a mixed success. Discussion of how intra-household dynamics, or access to cash, land, and labour, affect food security is well handled. The main message is that context matters. Ethnography is a useful antidote to some of the more sweeping generalizations of the political economists.

By drawing together material from several continents, Pottier is able to show that local coping mechanisms do often make a difference, though extreme and general food shortages (famines) require political and economic action on a national or global scale. The book also effectively points out the extent to which food markets are subject to political and cultural constraints. Where it is more problematic, however, is the approach to technology. The world depends for much of its food energy intake on just a handful of major crops. Song Yiching (New seed in old China, 1998) suggests that about a third of Chinese food security since the Great Famine has come from crop improvement (much of it from the hybridization of rice and wheat, two self-pollinating crops where hybrids offer limited scope for commerce). This is about the same contribution to food security that I estimated (on the micro-scale) for farmer seed type selection in a central Sierra Leonean village in the early 1980s (Coping with hunger, 1986). So th e topic cannot be ignored.

And yet much of what Pottier says about seed technologies is inadequately placed in context, disputable, or just plain wrong. What are we to make of statements like 'hybrid seed ... is incomplete and does not reproduce itself' (p. 134)? (It does, but segregates, and loses the advantage of hybrid vigour.) Where is the evidence that 'genebanks are unlikely to focus on poor people's crops' (p. 129)? (Try telling that to the curator for sorghum and teff collections in the national genebank in Ethiopia, or indeed the managers of the IRRI genebank, rice being the single most important crop of the poor.) What Pottier writes about 'biotechnology's impact on smallholder farming' (p. 128) lies mainly in the realms of moral panic ('truly, biotechnology [has] become a tool to control the world', p. 128), for there is, as yet, hardly any such impact, though there is vigorous debate about what might be expected from potential innovations such as facultative apomixis and gene use restriction technologies (neither of which a re actually discussed). …