Monday 3 February 2014

Wheat Rust as Boundary Object: Stories for Addressing Fear, Frustration, Defensiveness, and Disgust must be the emotion most associated with wheat rust. As this illustration from an Ohio State lab studying the fungus shows (in this case, as the spores propagate), there is an incendiary quality to wheat rust not only because it threatens a food staple so central to modernity, but also because it is red, and unfairly attacks the grain right before harvest, when it has already been accounted as a crop accomplished.

As a social scientist and as a person often tasked with translating between the moral fervors of wonderful groups doing excellent work to support and improve the food supply on which we all depend, I became aware of wheat rust as something that was used as a rhetorical tool to emphasize the urgency of the work of physical scientists--in a way that suggests that debate over the ethics of means of managerial science is inherently unethical for the time it wastes. This is an argument we also hear about hunger, as I have discussed extensively in the past. And while I sympathize about the need to act on troubling problems and not just talk about them, I also recognize that the way that we construct our narratives about issues like food science matter--particularly for the ways we experience the attendant emotions, which, around food, are particularly potent.

A remarkable illustration of the emotional baggage of wheat rust was brought to my attention on the recent occasion of the digitization of the records of the eminent Green Revolution scientists Norman Borlaug and Elvin Stakman at my institution--an event that exposed me to how much defensiveness and disgust were alive and well in the relationship between physical and social sciences around food provisioning (as I was berated by a colleague of Borlaug's for my colleagues' general lack of respect for his legacy, demonstrated in the continued insistence that analysis of distribution and power was as important as production, an argument increasingly taken seriously by agroecologists, among the most systemic scientists of the agri-food system). 

Described in the article The Barberry or Bread, an essay on the history of the barberry eradication program as a public effort to reduce the threat of rusts to wheat crops in the decades following this poster, this 1918 poster likens the skeletal red hand of wheat rust to red anarchists; it was also framed as a demon and an ally to the Kaiser. Even today, writing this essay, when I search for "red menace" and "wheat rust," I get over two thousand possibilities. 

In his essay Smokey Bear is a White Racist Pig, Jake Kosek makes an excellent case for how easily we naturalize the defense of something like forests via lovable symbols like Smokey, padding practical or nationalist arguments in sentimental emotion that may not seem exactly rational, but also hardly harmful. But pointing to the harshly racist propaganda campaigns that were used to tie support for more profitable timber harvesting industry efforts to war efforts, Kosek demonstrates how useful it can be to take the time to thoughtfully consider what baggage makes up the strands of our emotional reactions to things like forest-saving bears or wheat-ruining pathogens. know that the first time I found some weird spots on wheat I was growing in my garden (only a mile or so from the test plots where the Stakman-Borlaug Cereal Rust Center still carries out their work on wheat rust), I was horrified! Fearful that I might be ruining work I understand to be important, even if I would always like to help make space for discussion, I quickly clipped the blighty stalks out, stuffed them in a bag and trundled them away, then worried about the possible effects while I was off at a conference. (The wheat was fine when I returned, and all quarter cup of the threshed grains are still sitting in my kitchen while I figure out a proper fate for such carefully tended cereals.) I would like to think that they might act as some sort of talisman or truce flag indicating my interest in parlay with the rust warrior--a boundary object showing I respect their emotional constellations, but also asking whether we might transcend the frustrating rut of mistrust and mutual horror to explore what new stories help today's food needs.
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