Professor of Geography
Chair, Department of Geography
As a geographer, my work spans the fields of political ecology, cultural economy and science and technology studies (STS). Much of my research has centered on the politics and cultural meanings of food provisioning, in and between different parts of the world. Although different projects have focused on different geographic regions and scales, one of my enduring interests lies in the expert knowledge that goes into both food itself and all the meanings that surround it. The experts I have tracked down in my fieldwork range from small-scale green bean export farmers in West Africa to lobster traders in Hong Kong, from French gardeners in the 18th century to Danish industrial ecologists in the 21st. Using multisite ethnography and sometimes archival work, I try to understand the social worlds they work in, the practical and ethical challenges they face, and how these influence the broader workings and politics of food supply.
My current research examines the expertise behind contemporary efforts to measure food's environmental "footprint." The experts in question practice what is known as life cycle assessment (LCA), a technique for analyzing the cradle-to-grave environmental impacts of all kinds of goods and services. LCA practitioners take pride in using complex, data-intensive models to get at the big picture of products' "lives." Many LCA studies of food, for example, have shown that distance to market—aka food miles—usually matters less than on-farm environmental impacts. Many food manufacturers and retailers now look to LCA to help them determine how best to "green" their supply chains. One complicating factor is that LCA's subject matter is itself very complicated, which makes it a difficult tool to apply to everyday decisions about what to buy or eat. In addition, LCA's models cannot capture products' unquantifiable or localized impacts on environmental and human wellbeing. In the case of food, such impacts clearly matter. My research examines, among other things, how LCA experts try to overcome these limitations. It also considers the larger implications of efforts to use "life cycle thinking" to define and improve the overall sustainability of food.
My past projects have resulted in two books. French Beans and Food Scares: Culture and Commerce in an Anxious Age (Oxford, 2004) compares the "cultures of commerce" of two fresh vegetable trades between Africa (Burkina Faso and Zambia) and Europe (France and Britain). The story is less about food scares per se than about how the relationships and technologies of globalization are culturally and historically constituted. Research for that book gave me ideas for the second one. In Fresh: A Perishable History (Harvard, 2009), I trace how the meanings of freshness in food have changed along with the technologies that are supposed to protect it. While much of the book focuses on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it aims to shed light on today's appetites for this ephemeral food quality. [more about Fresh].
2016 "Wicked nutrition: The controversial greening of official dietary advice." Gastronomica, 16, 2, 69-80
2014 "It's complicated: Corporate sustainability and the uneasiness of life cycle assessment," Science as Culture, 10.1080/09505431.2014.942622.
2014 "Footprint technopolitics," Geoforum, 55, 178-189.
2013. "Calculating sustainability in supply chain capitalism." Economy and Society, 42, 571-96.
2010 "Freshness from afar: the colonial roots of contemporary fresh foods," Food and History, 8, 1, 257-278.
2010 "Perspective and power in the ethical foodscape," Environment & Planning A, 42, 8, 1868-74.
2010 "Ambiguous appetites: a modern history," Food, Society and Culture, 13, 4, 471-91.
2009 Fresh: A Perishable History, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
2008 "The triumph of the egg," Comparative Studies in Society and History, 50, 2, 400-23.
2007 "Supermarkets and imperial knowledge," Cultural Geographies, 14, 3, 321-42.
2004 French Beans and Food Scares: Culture and Commerce in an Anxious Age, Oxford.
2004 "The ethical complex of corporate food power." Society and Space, 22, 4, 513-31.
2003 "Cleaning up down South: supermarkets, ethical trade, and African horticulture," Social and Cultural Geography 4, 1, 27-43.
2001 "On the trail of the global green bean: methodological considerations in multi-site ethnography," Global Networks 1, 4, 353-68.
2001 "Gardening on the edge: The social conditions of unsustainability on an African urban periphery," Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 91, 2, 349-69.
2013, Keynote Address, "The Renaissance of Life Cycle Assessment: A Social Scientist's Perspective," International Conference on Life Cycle Management, Gothenburg, August 26.
2013, Keynote Address, "Moral Economies of the Cold Chain," Anglo-American Conference of Historians on Food in History, London, UK, July 10.
2012, Keynote Address, “The Political Metrics of Food’s Footprint,” World Rural Sociology Congress, Lisbon, Portugal, August 30.