Medical anthropologist Nancy Chen talks food security and safety in new book

November 21, 2014


Anthropology professor Nancy Chen co-edited a volume about biosecurity and governance. She also authored a chapter titled "Between Abundance and Insecurity: Securing Food and Medicine in an Age of Chinese Biotechnology." The book will be available in December 2014.

Nancy Chen, A medical anthropologist and a professor of anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, looks at the intersection of food and medicine to engage concepts of culture and citizenship. Her most recent research explores the transforming food landscape in China, and more specifically, issues related to food safety and biosecurity. 

In a chapter Chen authored in an upcoming volume, Bioinsecurity and Vulnerability,  she explores how China’s recent history with food safety is both a troubling and perplexing situation. Food is the frontline of medicine (this is something Chen explores in her 2009 book Food, Medicine and the Quest for Good Health).

But with a series of scares - such as  recent scandals such as contaminated milk, condiments like cooking oil, pet food and even drugs like fake heparin being sold on the market -Chinese consumers must navigate fears related to their food safety on a daily basis. 

Simultaneously, a rapidly growing population is raising serious concerns about how the Chinese will meet these increased food demands. Chen points out that consumers are forced to balance their health and wellbeing on the hand vis a vis concerns of vulnerability and scarcity (the historic famine of 1958-1961 is still prominent in Chinese social memory).

Genetically modified (GM) foods is seen as the solution to the problem and considered an answer to future food shortages.Chen writes: “It is hard to escape survivalist accounts in which science and technology rescue China from a Malthusian fate of too many people and not enough food. Over the next three decades, it is estimated that the population will increase to 1.6 billion and food production must increase by at least 60 percent to match this growth [...] Such framings of necessity help to locate biotechnology as a savior rather than a problem.” 

Chen shows that in the Chinese context, biotechnology is synonymous with biosecurity. She argues that food security trumps food safety, promising a sustainable economic future to boot.

The Global Food Initiative

Earlier this year, the University of California launched the Global Food Initiative, a cross campus program that addresses ways to a sustainable food future.

As UC President Janet Napolitano comments:  “The issue of “food” is not just about what we eat. It’s about delivery systems. Climate issues. Population growth. Policy. All of these and more come into play when you begin to think about the colliding forces that shape the world’s food future.”

Nancy Chen’s research embodies these issues related to the future of food. For Chen, global food is inherently linked to social justice. “They are one and the same. We cannot consider one without the other,” Chen remarks.

This core value of social justice is reflected in Chen’s scholarship on food security and safety - as well as in campus wide research. Discover more about UC Santa Cruz’s unique position in the center of the organic food movement >>

She continues: “Biosecurity is an evolving apparatus in the Chinese national context that simultaneously addresses its past, in the historical memory of famine, and its future, in the forging of biosovereignty through knowledge making and the ownership of genomic data.”

Food security and food safety are juxtaposed. Many Chinese are unaware of the environmental complications of GM crops such as rice and soy, but as Chen writes, “the greater fear of not having enough food for an expanding population supersedes concerns about the safety of consuming GM rice.”

The book will be available in December 2014. The publishers have made the introduction available for download