The Challenge of Ultra-Processed Food

The Challenge of Ultra-Processed Food

Last fall, my students and I enjoyed George Monbiot’s Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet (Penguin Random House, 2023). Monbiot explores agriculture’s widespread and devastating impact on climate change, and advocates for regenerative agriculture, perennial grains, and protein grown in vats. His is book is a compelling critique of large-scale industrial agriculture, and the local and organic food movements. While I found Regenesis provocative at the time, it left me wondering about the rural livelihoods of agrarian peoples around the world. More recently, I’ve stated to wonder about health impacts of Ultra-Processed Food, a category in which vat grown non-farm protein must fall?

I came across the concept of ultra-processed food in Chris van Tulleken’s Ultra-Processed People: Why We Can’t Stop Eating Food That Isn’t Food (Penguin Random House, 2023). I read van Tulleken’s book out of interest, after reading Daniel Lieberman’s books on evolutionary anthropology—Exercised (Pantheon, 2021) and The Story of the Human Body (Knopf Doubleday, 2014)—and Herman Pontzer’s Burn (Penguin, 2021). One thing to take these three books is the idea of mismatch disease, that is diseases caused more by our indoor, sedentary, calorie-dense lifestyles than our evolutionary ancestors would have experienced in the long span of human history. Reading them alongside van Tulleken, it seems clear that ultra processed food has its own health impacts, because we’re simply not evolved to eat a lot of the food that our industrial food systems produce.

Thinking about Regenesis and ultra-processed food, I suspect that farm-free and vat-grown food that Regenesis describes is, clearly, ultra-processed food. This gives me pause to optimism about vat-grown food, which might cause its own mismatch diseases. What does this mean for food systems in the context of climate change? One the one hand, large-scale industrial agriculture is unsustainable. On the the other hand, ultra-processed foods bring their own health consequences.

I suspect part of the solution involves more real farming, ingredients. But, the question is, can the planet handle that, and can our bodies handle the alterantive?…

In Praise of Trains

I write this on a sleeper train to Montreal from Moncton: the VIA Rail Ocean. Because of my general antipathy to air travel and because of their equivalent price, I splurged for an upper berth. VIA called and upgraded me for a cabin for one. This is the first long-distance train I’ve taken in a long time, certainly since learning to drive, and I have forgotten the way trains facilitate flow.

By flow, I’m thinking of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s, the Hungarian-American psychologist, concept of the mental state of being immersed in an activity, with focus, energy concentration, and enjoyment, so that one loses track of time and feels “in the zone” (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Collins, 2009.) Although Csikszentmihalyi means what occurs when skill is matched to challenge, I am referring to the feeling of being fully immersed in the present.

The train facilitates flow.

The train has been an unexpected time to think, daydream, and write. Neither driving nor flying facilitates flow in the same way. Part of the reason is that the train is slow. I left Moncton yesterday at 5:30 pm, and I won’t get into Montreal until 10 am. After that, I go to Ottawa. It’s a 20-hour train journey.

The same flight takes a couple of hours, and requires rushing, people, stimulation, a terrible schedule, security, and lots of interruptions. While fast, flights don’t create time. The train can.

The semester was busy: four classes, a grant application, and a few writing projects. The train has been an unexpected gift of time.

I’ve graded term papers, entered grades, had dinner, stretched, meditated, sent some messages, had a beer, slept, had a leisurely breakfast, and written this. The steady sound of the train passing over the tracks lends itself to flow.

Prior to the pandemic, I used to travel for academic conferences. At times, they left me exhausted. But, at their best, conferences were space to engage ideas, to think about other people’s work, and to read. The travel to and from the conference were part of the fun, which is why I’ve not been terribly excited about online or hybrid conferences. I never seem to take the time. But, next conference, if I can swing it, I think train travel has air travel beat, precisely because it makes time.…

Letter to Prospective Students

So you are looking for a graduate supervisor?

When you are a graduate student, after all is said and done—after the ideas and the coursework and the reading and the research—your job is to put words on the page for your dissertation, for research articles, for grant applications, and for job applications. It is the words we write as scholars that make the research we do visible and help us reach our audiences and build our careers.

The words are the hard part, I think.

As a supervisor, I work hard to help students with their writing. I am always interested in students who are eager to learn the craft of ethnography and ethnographic writing, as part f their graduate work.

My research focuses on writing fine-grained ethnography and on environmental anthropology. My areas are environmental anthropology, economic anthropology, political economy, and the anthropology of resource extraction. I have written on a gold rush of artisanal and small-scale gold mining in the Chocó in northwestern Colombia, on the impacts of the buzz phase of resource extraction, on citizenship and violence, on alternative futures in New Brunswick. I am particularly interested in rural life and livelihoods and agrarian change. My geographical areas of expertise are Colombia, particularly the Magdalena River and Chocó regions, and the Canadian Maritimes, particularly New Brunswick and the Saint John River Valley.

I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Brunswick and an Adjunct Research Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa. I am part of the International Development Studies programme at the University of New Brunswick, I run a workshop on post-extractivism with Donald Kingsbury, I am the former English book review editor for Anthropologica, and I coordinate the Human Environments Workshop with Noah Pleshet.

If you’re interested in working with me, I can supervise M.A. students in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton and M.IDST and Ph.D. IDST students in the Interdisciplinary studies program. I can also co-supervise M.A. or Ph.D. students in the Anthropology programme at Carleton University.

I sometimes employ undergraduate and graduate research assistants to help with my work as part of the Human Environments Workshop to write articles, and to support ongoing research. I am open to collaborative writing and research projects as a supervisor. I am also open to students pursuing their own independent research and working with me in a supervisory capacity.

Topics I am interested in:

  • Exploring the process of writing ethnography and developing the art and craft of writing as a way of constructing analysis, advancing arguments, and telling stories.
  • Investigating the ways resource extraction reshapes places and the people who live there.
  • Examining how natural resource projects create social impacts long before operations begin, during what Marieka Sax and I call the buzz phase.
  • Understanding how rural Afro-desendent communities in the Colombian Pacific pursue place-based rural life and livelihoods.
  • Understanding aquatic-histories of agrarian change and rural livelihoods in the Magdalena region of Colombia.
  • Building alternative narratives for the future.

Updated April 28, 2023

Why I Suck at Email and Social Media

As academics, we get a lot of emails. Sometimes, my response time can vary from a few seconds to a few months. I’m not a Luddite, but if I want to prioritize the most important work, such as writing articles, books, lectures, and supervising students, then email has to come last. To free myself from the tyranny of email, I try to follow a few rules—often, I fail.

I try not to read or reply in the morning, and I attempt to avoid checking emails on weekends. I schedule emails to be sent the next morning and access them only on my computer.

As I get older, I try to avoid social media.

No email or social media on mobile devices.

So, what do I do when I’m not writing or checking email? Sometimes, although not often enough, I play with my children. Other times, I work in the garden, run errands, repair a crumbling farmhouse, ski, or find other ways to avoid writing. Not enough, but still significant, is the time I spend reading, drafting, transcribing, revising, editing, or engaging in other writing-related activities.

Often, I try to walk.

Writing a book is a time-consuming endeavour. It requires years of fieldwork, thousands of pages of notes, and a considerable amount of cutting, polishing, revising, and editing. In my written work, I come across as thoughtful, articulate, and well-written. However, I am not as articulate over email or social media.

The same goes for social media.

If I can write a good sentence for every unwritten post and unliked tweet, I am happy. I do post sometimes, but my posts are mostly about the process rather than my work or current affairs. I have no hot takes or quick analyses.

I am a slow writer.

I spend a lot of time on the computer, but I struggle with email and social media. I want to focus on writing. I often fail.

So, by all means, get in touch. I may reply, and if I do, it’ll be late in the day.

Updated 29 April 2023.