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An anthropologist shows the systems behind what’s on the dinner table

Food’s new frontier

Food. For most of us, abundance makes it easy to take it for granted. But for anthropologist Alex Blanchette, there’s danger in detachment. He argues that industrial agriculture has never before entailed such radical transformations and control over plant, animal, and human life.

Food systems—encompassing technology, biology, politics, cultural norms, and other forces—are becoming increasingly standardized. And as we cultivate uniformity across livestock and crops, we may make our food sources less able to resist new strains of disease and climate changes. Cultivating sameness cultivates vulnerability. Blanchette takes this further by arguing that the standardization of life forms also leads to the standardization of the ways that people live.

Blanchette’s provocative critique of the sociocultural facets of corporate-controlled food systems was honed at the University of Chicago, where he wrote his dissertation after spending two years working on one of the nation’s largest factory farms. This groundbreaking study delved into the enormous impact of a hog farm and slaughterhouse on migrant communities, rural cultures, financial stability, health, and values about life. His work is sending contemporary anthropological research in important new directions.

At Tufts, Blanchette is an early “cluster” hire in the School of Arts and Sciences, holding a joint appointment in anthropology and environmental studies. He has already expanded the undergraduate curriculum. The Environmental Studies Program launched a Food Systems and the Environment track last year, which includes courses he teaches.

“Students have a heightened interest in a host of issues around food and agriculture and what it means to be truly sustainable,” says David Guss, chair of the Department of Anthropology. “Alex is the best person today to talk about these issues—he has extraordinary breadth and versatility, and he sees this discussion as part of a global picture.
We couldn’t be happier that he’s here.”