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Interview with Prof. James Lin on Feast and Famine: The Global Impact of Food.

October 15, 2020

This Autumn, the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies interviewed Dr. James Lin to learn more about his research interests and new seminar, JSIS 478  – Feast And Famine: The Global Impact of Food. Professor Lin received his Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2017, and was the first faculty to be hired as part of the Jackson School’s new Taiwan Studies Program. Read on to learn more about his inspirations  and how our daily food choices intersect with major social issues today.

“The production and misproduction of food has led to global labor exploitation, toxic pollution in the form of DDT and other agricultural chemicals, and widescale famine.”

Could you tell us a little about the inspirations that led you to develop this course?

I’m currently working on my book, which is a history of agrarian development in Taiwan and the developing world.  As part of my delving into the literature on agriculture and food, I was inspired by the wide ranging scholarship on how food intersects with states, societies, and political economy.  In our modern industrialized society, food production seems hidden away or taken for granted, but in fact food affects major social and political issues, such as how nations protect their economies and secure their borders.  I wanted to teach a course where food is the central lens in understanding the world today.

Why is a course on food particularly important today?

Food intersects with the major headline social issues today: global poverty, national security, technology and intellectual property, capitalism and neoliberalism, climate change.  For example, what is central to the US-China trade tensions today is not just mobile apps like TikTok or semiconductors, but also soybeans.  China imports soybeans in massive amounts from the US as feed for its pork industries, thus fueling the domestic demand for meat of 1.3+ billion people.  Most of us don’t think of soy as a particularly impactful food, yet it has tremendous political and economic consequences when it is subject to tariffs and wrapped up in the larger “Cold War” rhetoric.  In an effort to wean itself off of US soy, China has invested in and acquired land in other places of the world like Brazil, engendering new fears of Chinese “land grabs” and neocolonialism in the Global South.  These global chains demonstrate how salient food is for understanding international issues.

What are some key insights that you hope students will take away from this course?

My hope is that students can learn not just more about the importance of food, but also take away a critical perspective regarding social, political, and economic issues.  Historically, the production and misproduction of food has led to global labor exploitation, toxic pollution in the form of DDT and other agricultural chemicals, and widescale famine.  Even what we might consider as “good” food phenomena, such as the rise of organic foods, were actually rooted in a conservative, profit-driven, and nativist reaction to industrial scale agricultural production.  Organic foods in France, for example, was wrapped in a racial discourse that emphasized how native French produced foods were pure, and that consumption of organic French foods returned France to its rightful position as a superior people and society.  We will read about organic foods, ecological consequences, labor exploitation, famine, and other social food issues in the course, which I then hope will inform students’ understandings of the world.

How has studying and teaching about food impacted your life?

As a consumer and as a citizen, seeing food from a critical lens informs my daily decisions.  I realize, for example, that the uniform, red tomatoes I grew up buying were not always like that.  Color uniformity, resistance to bruising, and industrial ripening were recent introductions to tomato growing and production, and those affect how these tomatoes taste (or more specifically, their lack of taste).  Heirloom varieties, which may lack the attractive deep red hue, uniform plump shape, and year-round availability, may make up for those with taste.  Though the short-term concrete result may be that I can put together a better tasting BLT sandwich with an heirloom tomato, it also means that I see how my everyday decisions are in fact informed by larger historical and social trends of industrialization, mass consumerism, and capitalist integration into everyday life.