Cologne Workshop - October 30
Prior to the conference I had gathered a list of the conference contacts who were willing to be interviewed. I was drawn to this conference because it was not only talking about the global food system, but it was placing the global south at the center. The global south is a term used to describe countries in the southern hemisphere, although I have heard it most often used to discuss third world countries feeling the impact of climate change. The global south is a unifying term to encompass groups of people who are disproportionately impacted by the carbon emitted by the first world countries. Therefore, I selected this conference on food because based on its terminology it was placing at the center the groups of people most impacted by climate change.
This conference was held in a classroom, and full of geographers. Though I knew little of the field of geography, it was a field that had intrigued me because it seemed to have strayed from my third grade memorization of longitude and latitude to a realm closer to my interests: the way human interact with land. What environmental studies major would not get excited at this field?
The opening speaker like all opening speakers should got me anticipating the potential of the conference. He spoke of the four horsemen of the global nutrition apocalypse within the food system: under nourishment, overweight & obesity, hidden hunger (not a complete nutritional profile but enough calories), and a degraded and stressed natural resource base. Additionally, he spoke about the ethical ramifications when the UN makes goals about hunger. For example, a low goal may be more practical, but it is immoral to set a goal where there are still hungry people. Though now the UN has set a high goal, as an international community we are facing both over and undernutrition, which are both problematic. After this speaker the conference progressed and I began to see that this conference community was placing the global south into the center because it was the location of research, but the speakers did not always discuss their perspectives or opinions.
Though the conference let me down, I was glad I went because I met three incredible academics. The first was a PhD fellow who taught me that technology is not simply iPhones and AI, but also knowledge itself. He told me how he sees academia as a place to empower the voices of small farmers, which he intends to do in Mexico. His commitment to place inspired me to envision a new type of academia, which has its feet more firmly on the ground creating local change. The second was a professor who aroused a collection of questions from the audience because he was focused on GMOs. Though that subject in and of itself deters me, he spoke about how he tends to pick subjects of research that are taboo. Hearing him mention how he uses academia to discuss both societal and even academic taboo, became another source of inspiration into the value of academia. The last person was a lauded professor who spoke about his experience in India and the farming system there. He grounded me into the importance of context and place. As I tend to generalize in seeing patterns and the big picture, I can lose the details. He spoke about how the size of Indian farms is drastically different than the average farm size of America. This simple detail of size, can alter how we understand people’s everyday life and their food system.
While these three individuals caught my ear, the conference had a few other fabulous quirks. The catering service only served food that had been otherwise discarded. The snacks were a motely crew of expired dried fruit pouches and crackers and lunch was a soup of misshapen vegetables. It was strange that in the act of eating this food I felt both that I was doing good as well as being a part of a larger community.
Towards the end of the conference a woman presented on Chicago. Though Chicago is far from being the global south and in hindsight I do not know why this presentation was included, the talk itself was fascinating to hear because it was given by a German. In other words, this was an “outsider” researching a place in America where many of my friends are from and live. While I was curious to hear her perspective, it was also strange. She had a distance to what she discussed such as her explanation of what a convenience store was. I was surprised at how seemingly accurate her description of the South Side of Chicago was to what my friends and college taught me, but the foreigner describing her experience and research made me feel like the picture was not whole. Perhaps this is something internal, and I should check my biases. Why is a person from a place more likely to communicate a situation better than someone not from the place? Why was I comfortable listening to people discuss places that I do not call home, but when the discussion was turned towards my country suddenly I sensed cracks missing and an incomplete picture.
Though I was less vocal about these feelings, the student sitting next to me spoke out numerous times when people were discussing India. As a student from India he was constantly poking at the details missing from the presenters, which it seems like you only can have having spent significant time in that place or maybe only growing up there.
Overall, this conference challenged me in ways beyond academic knowledge. I was beginning to think outside the box about the role academia can play within society as well as the importance or role of the outside in research. Though this seems to be the conversations that sociologists and anthropologists have been having since their inception, if I understood my college roommate correctly, its seems as though I am finally beginning to feel the impact of a researcher discussing your own home.