Monthly Archives: August 2014

Common Sense, Science and Government Part II: A Case of Quinoa

The first case I’ll discuss focuses on quinoa, a grain-like staple more closely related to beets and spinach than to the true grasses such as wheat. Once a rather obscure food in the US, quinoa experienced a rapid popularity spike beginning in 2007 when consumers in the global north fed into a new narrative extoling its virtues for health and social justice alike. It began with nutrition-minded journalists hailing quinoa as a “new health food darling”. High in protein, in fact featuring all nine amino acids, quinoa could also serve as a gluten-free substitute for wheat or barley. The added mystique of a “rediscovered” (read: Columbused) ancient staple, a “lost” Inca Treasure, also dovetailed nicely with the popular paleo-diet trend which urged a dietary return to an idealized simpler time when people were more closely attuned with nature. For all of these reasons, quinoa received great publicity as a sacred, super crop.

An interrelated second narrative presented quinoa as a way for consumers to also support fair trade and sustainable development. Buying quinoa meant supporting farmers in developing countries such as Peru and Bolivia while allowing them to maintain a traditional way of life. The pitch for quinoa on Eden Organic’s website, for example, reads, “The most ancient American staple grain. Sustainably grown at over 12,000 feet in the Andes helping preserve native culture.” In 2012, when I first looked into the quinoa case, I came across a fair trade certified brand, La Yapa (now defunct), which summed up a stronger iteration of this marketing narrative:

“In the past few years, the income of quinoa farmers has doubled with the increase in volume and prices… The farmer’s quality of life also has increased steadily… By choosing this Fair Trade Certified™ product, you are directly supporting a better life for farming families through fair prices, direct trade, community development, and environmental stewardship.”

The global food security community also picked up on the quinoa fanfare, culminating in the 2011 decision by the United Nations General Assembly to declare 2013 “The International Year of the Quinoa”. The press release for the occasion cites the potential contributions of quinoa to then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Zero Hunger Challenge, “not only because of its nutritional value but also because most quinoa is currently produced by smallholder farmers… ‘The crop holds the promise of improved incomes – a key plank of the Zero Hunger Challenge,’ Ban said.” A special report was released with the goal of “improving knowledge and dissemination of this ancient crop, which has a significant strategic value for the food and nutritional security of humanity.

The other piece of this global food security narrative touted the environmental advantages of traditional subsistence crops like quinoa (e.g. amaranth, teff, fonio, etc.), especially their resilience in the face of global climate change. A recent article from National Geographic captures the essence of this line of thinking:

“[Sustainable agriculture advocates are] increasingly turning to grains that have been the basis of subsistence farmers’ diets in Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America since the time of earliest agriculture. Because such grains adapted to grow on marginal land without irrigation, pesticides, or fertilizers, they are often more resilient than modern commodity crops are.” (emphasis added, also see note at [ii]).

Taken altogether, quinoa has been presented in and to the global north as a win-win-win superfood—good for the health of wealthy consumers, the wealth of poor farmers, and the ecological stability of global agriculture[i]. The overall message to the savvy shopper in New York or Berkeley or Chicago, then, was that quinoa was good to buy.

But complications with that rosy narrative arose just as rapidly as quinoa’s acclaim spread. Demand rose so quickly that the price of quinoa tripled from 2007 to 2010 (Fig. 1).

Prices

Fig. 1: Prices of Quinoa at the Farm Gate, 1993-2012 (constant Int. $/tonne). Source: http://faostat3.fao.org/.

 

Ironically, the food which was celebrated as a “cultural anchor and a staple in the diet of millions of people throughout the Andes for thousands of years” seemed to have been priced out of their budget by the “agricultural gold rush.”Over the same time period, production volume accelerated its growth and the area cultivated for quinoa expanded substantially, especially in Bolivia (Figs. 2 and 3).

Production

Fig. 2: Tonnes of Quinoa Produced Annually, 1994-2013. Source: http://faostat3.fao.org/.

Area Harvested

Fig. 3: Hectares of Quinoa Harvested Annually, 1994-2013. Source: http://faostat3.fao.org/.

These numbers seemed to paint a much more complex story than win-win-win: Was high consumer demand in the US and the EU actually taking a staple food away from South America smallholders? Were record-level prices encouraging farmers to plant quinoa on ecologically marginal lands, courting disaster in the form of an Andean equivalent to the Dust Bowl? With soaring prospects for fat profit-margins and a global development community hungry for a silver bullet crop, were Andean smallholder farmers in danger of losing control over quinoa and being pushed out of their own market?[ii]

All of these questions, however, boiled down to one media snippet for global north publics: to eat or not to eat? A rash of headlines in early 2013 posed titillating provocative challenges to the quinoa fad. “Is eating quinoa evil?,” quipped The Week, while The Guardian challenged, “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?”. Tom Philpott, writing for Mother Jones, tried to restore some sanity with his more nuanced article, “Quinoa: Good, Evil, or Just Really Complicated?”, but the overarching point of reference for the American and European publics had been set. Whether a question of health, the viability of smallholder farming, or environmental sustainability, it had to be framed, in Hamlett-like fashion, to buy or not to buy?

Lost amid all the hand-wringing were the voices cautioning that the public and the media had fixated on the wrong question. Tanya Kerssen, an analyst at the non-profit organization Food First writing for Common Dreams, pointed out that to consume or not to consume was a false choice:

“In short, the debate has largely been reduced to the invisible hand of the marketplace, in which the only options for shaping our global food system are driven by (affluent) consumers either buying more or buying less… [T]he so-called quinoa quandary demonstrates the limits of consumption-driven politics. Because whichever way you press the lever (buy more/buy less) there are bound to be negative consequences, particularly for poor farmers in the Global South. To address the problem we have to analyze the system itself, and the very structures that constrain consumer and producer choices…

Consumption-driven strategies, while part of the toolbox for effecting change, are not the only tools. Only by facing the reality that we can’t consume our way to a more just and sustainable world—and examining the full range of political options and strategies—can we start coming up with real solutions.” (emphasis added).

So there we have one example to help illustrate why good policy cannot rely solely upon common sense for guidance. As Gramsci warned, common sense “takes countless different forms” and “even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent” (as quoted in my previous post). Relying upon common sense alone is to follow a fickle and partial guide. The assumptions and tacit beliefs underlying common sense will not always hold up under scrutiny, meaning that developing good policy requires continual critical reflection, public debate, and learning.

Quinoa has risen to prominence because it can link key points of contention in global agricultural policy—often voiced in highly abstract statistics on population demographics, epidemiological findings, economic indicators, and environmental qualities—to the daily concern with what to eat that makes intuitive sense to powerful publics in the global north. While certain policy programs (e.g. leveraging the ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ of smallholder farmers or folding peasants into global commodity food markets) may have gained political traction by adapting their arguments to the contours of common sense, such compromise comes at a cost. In this case, the experiences and perceptions of first-world consumers were naively accepted as the “terrain” of common sense upon which public debates about global poverty, health, and climate change can and should be debated. However, this common sense represents only a narrow slice of daily life around the globe.

Missing from the common sense of affluent consumers are, for example, the experiences and perspectives of the Andean farmers who grow quinoa and the poor whose health and development so many are concerned with. And this is not to mention the underrepresentation of nonhuman organisms and ecosystems, especially those not explicitly contributing to food commodities (e.g. the ecosystems on marginal lands into which quinoa farming has begun to spread). That translates to a large number of options and strategies that will never even be considered and a large number of unintended consequences that will never be recognized because they are outside the realm of what is commonly familiar to the consumer classes. As Kerssen writes, it would be a rational ideal to “examine the full range”, but if we want to take that process seriously, then we also need to examine the full range of common sense.

As I argued in the previous post, good policy, including environmental and natural resource policy, cannot ignore common sense, but must work with the grain of existing preconceptions and ways of living in the world. What this case highlights is that we also cannot rely solely on common sense to guide us to good policy. As is shown with the quinoa case, common sense—such as the idea that the only lever we have with which to move the world comes in the form of our fork or our wallet—often misses important pieces of the story and can lead us far afield or into a seemingly intractable impasse or an impossible (or false) choice. Critical reflection on the strengths and shortcomings of basic common sense is needed.

From this insight, we can infer that good policy emerges from critical consideration of common sense. Good policy must be built on that existing foundation, but also must do productive work on people to direct them toward better habits, better ways of living in the world. In short, in order to better approximate good sense. Next time, we’ll consider upon what basis, if not common sense, good sense can be gauged.


[i] For an example of the kind of utopian visions that experts began attaching to quinoa potential future, a 2014 article by Lisa Hamilton in Harper’s Magazine quotes a prominent Dutch agronomist, saying, “If you ask for one crop that can save the world and address climate change, nutrition, all these things—the answer is quinoa. There’s no doubt about it.”

[ii] This poses a very thorny political economic question, and one that doesn’t lend itself easily to a simple yes or no response. The Harper’s article (ibid) tackles the complexity in greater depth, but the short version is that with great potential comes great prosperity, and then a great struggle over who has the right to enjoy that prosperity. In past epochs, newly “discovered” crops could be expropriated and spread around the world; examples include potatoes, tomatoes, or maize, all of which are native to the Americas. These plants didn’t just naturally evolve as desirable food crops, however. Rather, the ancestors of the Aztec, Incan and other indigenous peoples spent millennia worth of work breeding them from wild plants. Yet they never saw a penny for sharing those crops with the rest of the world. Instead, that privilege was assumed by European colonists and their descendants while Native American peoples were instead violently repressed (and killed). The Andean peoples of Bolivia and Ecuador are savvy to the long history of indigenous groups losing control over their germplasm heritages and have thus imposed strict sanctions over any sharing of quinoa seeds and genetic information. Thus quinoa finds itself at the heart of a struggle between food sovereignty and food security—an impasse seems to have been reached with “the poor of the Andes pitted against the poor of the world” (ibid). There are doubtless sensible and just ways to negotiate out of this impasse, which I won’t try to guess at here, but again the point I would like to make is that complex problems require complex (and often messy) responses. Pretending that a simple solution can be found by applying basic common sense (i.e. the needs of the world’s many outweigh the needs of the Andean few, so world development organizations should just go ahead and take quinoa from Bolivians and Peruvians) is not a route to sound policy or good governance.

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Common Sense, Science and Government, Part I

In the next set of posts, I draw on a lecture I gave to an undergraduate class on natural resource policy a few years ago to examine the relationship between common sense, science, and government. Revisiting this set of basic relationships will set a conceptual foundation for future posts on more specialized topics such as social construction and co-production.

Some decisions must be made and actions taken at a societal level, and such collective deciding and acting is part of what I mean when I use the word government (to distinguish from today’s popular usage of the word as a fixed institution). One thesis that I explore in this blog is that all government hinges on defining and manipulating relationships between people and nature [i]. This is a big claim, and in many cases might be difficult to demonstrate. For that reason, I begin with natural resources.

It seems to me that many people can easily imagine what good natural resource management might mean — clean and safe water, smog-free air, sustainable fisheries and forests, preventing soils from eroding away, preserving wild species from extinction, and so forth — which narrows the gap between common sense and good sense (more on that later) and makes for a good starting place.

As is often my wont, these posts will turn to food and agriculture for concrete case material to help illustrate the general points I would like to make. It might seem unusual to speak of food as a natural resource, but producing food involves the joining and utilization of many other natural resources – water, energy, land and soil, minerals for fertilization, ecosystems services like pollination, sunlight, and of course lots of hard work. Food may be the most complex and vital natural resource we have, which makes it a rich source of information for thinking about common sense, science, and government.

Common Sense and Government

The political theorist Antonio Gramsci, an Italian political activist in the years leading up to WWII who wrote his most famous works from prison after being arrested by the nascent fascist regime in Italy, turned to the concept of common sense to help explain how fascism could take root in a society. He defined it as:

“…the conception of the world which is uncritically absorbed by the various social and cultural environments in which the moral individuality of the average man is developed. Common sense is not a single unique conception, identical in time and space. It is the “folklore” of philosophy, and, like folklore, it takes countless different forms. Its most fundamental characteristic is that it is a conception which, even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential, in conformity with the social and cultural position of those masses whose philosophy it is.”[ii].

Common sense incorporates all of those beliefs and assumptions that people do not actively question, yet upon which we all rely upon to guide most of our actions throughout each day. While we might aspire to always make what Gramsci terms ‘an intellectual choice’, to act rationally (first weighing costs and benefits) or ethically (following a set code of conduct), following what we might term good sense [iii], Gramsci points out that much of the time people instead draw upon prepackaged thoughts and beliefs. We act out of habit as much as we do out of thoughtfulness.

While in general common sense often approximates good sense, the two are only loosely coupled. Critical theorist Stuart Hall—drawing on the source material in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks—explains the relationship more fully:

“Why, then, is common sense so important? Because it is the terrain of conceptions and categories on which the practical consciousness of the masses of the people is actually formed. It is the already formed and “taken for granted” terrain, on which more coherent ideologies and philosophies must contend for mastery; the ground which new conceptions of the world must take into account, contest and transform, if they are to shape the conceptions of the world of the masses and in that way become historically effective. ‘Every philosophical current leaves behind a sediment of ’common sense’; this is the document of its historical effectiveness. Common sense is not rigid and immobile but is continually transforming itself, enriching itself with scientific ideas and with philosophical opinions which have entered ordinary life. Common sense creates the folklore of the future, that is as a relatively rigid phase of popular knowledge at a given place and time’ (PN, p. 362)” (emphasis added). [iv].

Today, our society often looks to inductive science for an external reference of good sense against which to weigh our common sense. Science, we think, ought to provide objective evidence for how we should act individually and as a society. But science must work with the pre-existing terrain of common sense which is messy, slow-to-change, nebulous and carries with it the baggage of other external referents for good sense—such as religious doctrines, moral reasoning, and logical deduction—that have come before. And science itself emerges from people who themselves live within the encompassing medium of common sense.[v]

And yet we must rely upon common sense, in general, since as a practical matter it just takes too much time and energy to rationally and ethically analyze every potential action (and analysis is never perfect in any case). Thus geographer David Harvey asserts, “We cannot understand anything other than ‘common sense’ conceptions of the world to regulate the conduct of daily life” [vi]. The word regulate here begins to imply a more-than-superficial connection between the ways in which individuals act in their private lives and the ways in which societies act collectively through government. Many people are familiar with the idea that government imposes restrictions upon the private lives on individuals. However, it is a two-way street: the form that government takes is shaped by the ways in which people lead their lives.

Modern government trends toward governing “with the grain”—its philosophy is to act less like a drill sergeant and more like the conductor of an orchestra, serving as a point of reference to guide everyone in playing the right part at the right time at the right tempo such that a harmonious whole emerges. Thus to govern today, to develop and put into action sensible policies, requires an intimate understanding of common sense, for the former can only be effective if it accommodates the latter. Every policy, every attempt at what we might call good sense, must be ‘refracted’ through the common sense ways in which people lead their day-to-day lives, like light filtering through a prism. Likewise for the study of government (or in my case, environmental governance), for as sociologist Mitchell Dean puts it

To analyse government is to analyse those practices that try to shape, sculpt, mobilize and work through the choices, desires, aspirations, needs, wants and lifestyles of individuals and groups. This is a perspective, then, that seeks to connect questions of government, politics and administration to the space of bodies, lives, selves and persons . [vii].

To the extent that to govern well also entails critical examination of the common sense of governing, which might be seen as an attempt to form a good sense of good government of common sense (too meta?), the ways in which we conceptualize government and its relation to both common sense and good sense (such as that offered by science) cannot be separated from the practice of government.

This is not just an academic point, but a practical lesson in government, as demonstrated in this discussion with a man who has a lot of personal experience wrestling with the relationship between common sense and sensible policy:

Chris Hughes (interviewer): Can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve gone about intellectually preparing for your second term as president?

Barack Obama: I’m not sure it’s an intellectual exercise as much as it is reminding myself of why I ran for president and tapping into what I consider to be the innate common sense of the American people. The truth is that most of the big issues that are going to make a difference in the life of this country for the next thirty or forty years are complicated and require tough decisions, but are not rocket science…

So the question is not, Do we have policies that might work? It is, Can we mobilize the political will to act? And so, I’ve been spending a lot of time just thinking about how do I communicate more effectively with the American people? How do I try to bridge some of the divides that are longstanding in our culture? How do I project a sense of confidence in our future at a time when people are feeling anxious? They are more questions of values and emotions and tapping into people’s spirit.”

What the President acknowledges in this passage is the importance of knowing, intimately, the ordinary routines, values, and beliefs that real Americans use to get through each day—their common sense—and linking that grassroots sort of sense with the policy sort of sense that is concerned with the grand abstractions with which government concerns itself, such as the nation, the economy, the environment and ‘the general Welfare’ (to quote the preamble to the US Constitution). Thus his latter admission that his administration should focus on “spending a lot more time… in a conversation with the American people as opposed to just playing an insider game here in Washington.”

Of course, as Gramsci wrote and Hall emphasized, common sense is both “fragmented” and “continually transforming”—it is by nature mercurial and inchoate, often at odds with itself and internally inconsistent. Policy, by contrast, is designed to impose coherence and stability upon the dynamic and changeable currents of common sense. So while sensible policy must respond to those currents, as I will discuss in the next post, it cannot rely entirely upon common sense to provide the signposts toward good sense.

Why do we eat what we eat?

To take a concrete example, consider recent public policies relating to food, such as recent ballot initiatives to ban large sugary soft drinks in some cities, laws to force labeling of GMO ingredients, or requirements for schools to offer more fruits and vegetables in cafeterias. These policies can only be effective if they can successfully build upon the existing foundation of common sense ways of eating—the collective habits that all of us together practice in our daily acts of munching, dining, snacking, lunching, and breaking fast.

But what would it take to understand the common sense of eating? We are, each of us every day, actively engaged in producing and reproducing common sense for diet. Consider why you eat what you eat. On the surface, it seems a simple matter to list out the reasons behind eating certain foods and not eating others. We might start listing off criteria: cost, taste, aesthetic appeal, freshness, convenience, accessibility, nutritional value, presence or absence of certain ingredients (e.g. vitamins or allergens), whether it is certified organic, fair trade, or local.  Clearly there are many characteristics we might look for in our food, but how do we know that the foods we are choosing among are any of these things?

Let’s think about that question for a minute. First we have our senses—we can taste, touch, smell, listen and look. These sensory perceptions give us direct information that helps us pick out our food. If an apple has mushy brown spots all over it, the tilapia smells extremely fishy, or the watermelon sloshes too much when shaken, then they’re probably bad.

In addition to our senses, we have many indirect means for learning about the food. In the moment, for example, we can read the product labeling. Labeling contains the abstracted information that travels along with the food and tells us about it. From as simple a bit of information as the price per pound and the weight of the food to as complex a bit of information as the percent of recommended daily value of sodium or the USDA organic label, the information accompanying the food itself strongly influences how we know if it is good to eat. It is hard to understate the importance of labeling today. Think of how often you look at the ingredients list, check the seals of certification for organic or kosher, review the allergen information, or consider the calories per serving before deciding to buy a given food item.

But what we can learn about food in the moment is only part of what informs our understanding of what is good to eat. We have past experience and familiarity to guide us as well. If I have eaten kumquats, Oreo cookies, fried okra, or raw cheese in the past and enjoyed them without any immediate problems arising, I’m more likely to try them again in the future. The more we eat a food, the more familiar we become with eating it. After a while, we don’t have to think about the individual food choices much at all: we can rely on past experience to hold true in the future. Since we are social beings, it’s not just our own experiences we draw upon. Chances are we eat a lot of the same things that the people close to us eat because we trust the judgments of those around us—parents, role models, friends, and so on.

This is where advertising and marketing enter the picture. These tactics strongly influence our sense of familiarity with certain foods, usually through the intermediary symbolism of the brand. Whether we acknowledge it or not, many of us have brand loyalties of one form or another that have nothing to do with our senses, labeling, what we have eaten frequently in the past, or what the people close to us eat. That’s the power of marketing.

Journalism can also affect our sense of familiarity with foods. Food sections in newspapers, blogs, TV programs, and so forth may all introduce us to new foods and bolster our confidence in foods we already know. News can also speak to our intellectual understanding of food. In recent memory, reports about the health effects of salt, high fructose corn syrup, or trans fatty acids have all been tremendously impactful on how people make eating choices, both individually and as a matter of public policy.

Which brings us to the role of science in defining which foods are good to eat and which are not. Increasingly, people take into consideration what the experts say when making eating choices. Nutritionists, dieticians, food scientists, doctors and their professional organizations and expert committees frequently enter the public limelight with a new finding, recommendation, or warning about food. These expert opinions, which speak for science, carry great weight in shaping our everyday understanding of what foods are good to eat (or not).

As you can see from this lengthy discussion, the sources of information that feed into any given eating decision are manifold. However, does each of us actually consider each of these factors and sources of information every single time we make a choice about what to eat? Of course not. The majority of the time, we choose by habit, “an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary” (or non-conscious). However, habit is not just an individual trait, but a collective trait. Habit can also mean “customary practice”, or just “custom”, as in the habit of shaking hands when meeting another person or saying “Hello” when answering the phone. Habits or customs are built on common sense, or collective bundlings of wisdom, values, and assumptions that people use to make everyday decisions about all sorts of things, like what to eat.

Wrapping Up

We’ve now covered some basic points on the relationship between common sense and good government. Before I continue the discussion in next couple of posts, which explore the relationship through examples from food and agriculture, I’d like to raise a question as food for thought: why govern?

Why do we elect people like the president, like our senators, representatives, governors, mayors, aldermen? Why do we employ tens of thousands of civil servants, bureaucrats, and other government workers? What is their purpose? What is the purpose of government?

Keep this in mind as we go through concrete cases in the next few posts. I’ll come back to this question at the end of this series.


[i] This thesis might be alternatively stated: government relies on establishing a dominant environmental frame that defines problems between people and nature, identifies acceptable solutions for dealing with those problems, and imagines the sort of futures which those solutions are supposed to attain.

[ii] Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Edited by Quintin Hoare. New York: International Publishers, 1972. p. 419.

[iii] The editor to the Prison Notebooks notes that “[Gramsci] uses the phrase ‘good sense’ to mean the practical, but not necessarily rational or scientific, attitude that in English is usually called common sense” (p. 322).

[iv] Hall, Stuart. “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 10, no. 2 (June 1, 1986): 5–27. He cites Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, p. 362.

[v] Gramsci differentiated between organic philosophy, which belonged to all people, and what he called “the philosophy of the philosophers”, which he used to refer to the theories produced by elite thinkers to be imposed upon the unthinking masses. That sort of ‘philosophy’, although it might overlap with science (think of eugenics), did not equate to good sense. As the editor to Prison Notebooks explains, “The critique of ‘common sense’ and that of ‘the philosophy of the philosophers’ are therefore complementary aspects of a single ideological struggle” (p. 322). One of the refreshing aspects of Gramsci’s perspective is that he rejects both an anti-intellectual herd mentality and the rule of experts, preferring instead to promote the idea that all people are, or can be, intellectuals in their own way. Hall writes that, “[Gramsci] insists that everyone is a philosopher or an intellectual in so far as he/she thinks, since all thought, action and language is reflexive, contains a conscious line of moral conduct and thus sustains a particular conception of the world (though not everyone has the specialized function of ‘the intellectual’)” (ibid). Good sense is a publicly accessible good, which implies that the purpose of good government is neither to impose some pre-formed theory of what’s best for everyone [authoritarianism in the extreme] nor to stand back and let things take their course [laissez faire], but rather to help organize individual citizens’ own capacity for making and following good sense.

[vi] Harvey, David. Spaces of Global Capitalism. London; New York, NY: Verso, 2006. p. 84.

[vii] Dean, Mitchell. Governmentality : Power and Rule in Modern Society. London; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE, 2009. p. 20.

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