Food and the Environment: Investigating Leakages between Industrial and Natural Food Chains

Late modern societies spend vast resources to keep human and natural food chains separate: Avoiding farmed salmon or GM-food from ‘escaping’ into natural environments, or keeping rats and bacteria from entering industrial food chains, are only a few examples. The attempts to separate human and natural food chains have roots at least back to the earliest forms of agriculture, when certain areas were manipulated for the production of human food, but have intensified with the industrialization of human food chains since the beginning of the Modern era. As described by Bruno Latour in his study of “the pasteurization of France”, the sterile and controllable laboratory environment of science has become the model for modern food production. The general tendency, closely related to industrialization and food safety measures, has been to counter nature and natural processes all through the food chains. This is evident in today’s closely monitored corn or fish farm monocultures, and in the processing and packaging measures of the food industry. The process of isolating human food chains from the natural environment has been paralleled by a process of separating the food chains of nature – encompassing all its living organisms – from influences of various sorts from human food production: While pesticides, GM-food, and antibiotics are employed to isolate plants and animals in the human food chain from damaging effects (insects, bacteria, fungi, vermin) of natural  food chains, environmental measures are taken to avoid leakages of these very substances into nature’s food chains. Similarly, industrialized food is treated with packaging, additives, antibiotics etc. in order to stall natural processes or keep out organisms and other materials, leaving pollution and byproducts which others in turn strive to keep out of natural food chains. The coinciding projects of food safety and environmental protection, which both in part grew out of concern for the consequences of the industrialization of human food chains, seems to have reinforced the efforts to separate human and natural food chains.

This working group aims to explore the increasing attempts to separate human food chains from those of nature. The points of leakage between natural and human food chains provide excellent focus points to investigate the meanings, practices, and infrastructures of such attempts: The battle against leakages both ways is carried out by numerous actors and institutions, involving vast amounts of work, scientific knowledge, technology, substances, bureaucratic regulations, political decisions, and much more. By emphasizing the historicity of the separation between human food chains and natural ones, this working group will aim to arrive at a better understanding of the continual leakages between them. This, we hope, can shed light on some of the present day challenges related to the connections between industrial food chains and our natural environment. The working group will explore questions such as:

  • How and why have human food chains been separated from the food chains of nature?
  • How have leakages between the natural and human food chains been understood and sought controlled?
  • Which actors and institutions have been involved in the processes?
  • Which knowledge and technologies have been employed in the attempts to counter leakages between the chains, and why have certain attempts failed or been successful?
  • Why do leakages continue in spite of all the efforts to avoid them?
  • How can we better understand the relations between the new human food chains and natural ones?

The working group welcomes papers focusing on any part – production, modification, transport, consumption, etc. – of any food chain, which pays attention to its relations to nature or the environment. We will consider pursuing the publication of an anthology or special issue of relevant papers coming out of the workshop.


Håkon Stokland, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, NTNU

Terje Finstad, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, NTNU