From paddock to plate: The holistic application of anthropology in agricultural discourse

This essay was authored by Abby Georgeson for the AgriEducate Essay Competition, winning first prize in the Arts Category. The competition encouraged students from across the breadth of university degrees to apply their knowledge to agriculture and food security. More information on the competition can be found here. Each week we’ll be publishing one of the winning entries so stay tuned for more, or sign up to our monthly Newsletter so you don’t miss out!

The need for academic rigour in the agriculture industry is well established. However, few disciplines are as far-reaching in their use and effect as the field of anthropology. Grounded in the pursuit of understanding human behaviours and social relationships, anthropology reaps benefits that other fields fail to reach due to its broad gaze; while it can evaluate the abstract, business-related elements of agriculture, it can also be used to understand and promote the understanding of the practical, lived experiences of the individuals in the Australian agricultural industry. By virtue of its broad reach and methodological willingness to assimilate cross-disciplinary knowledge, anthropology must be appreciated as a valuable voice in discussions of productivity and sustainability in Australian agriculture and its place in global food security.

In terms of disciplinary skills, ethnographic fieldwork has been the classical domain of anthropology, allowing a close examination of the “intimacy” of social relationships (Appadurai, 1997:115). For agriculture, this means a wealth of detailed information about regional centers, farmers, corporations, and consumers, the composition of these groups, and the dynamics that emerge between them. Through the scope of the minutiae of life, the anthropologist extrapolates the lived realities of their subjects into the wider framework of ongoing social and historical processes, affecting both the local and the global. Accordingly, through anthropology, the current status and potential of Australian agriculture can be brought into focus.

There are numerous theses based on agricultural anthropology, touching on the countless forms, issues, and experiences of the industry. One ethnographic account of animal husbandry in North Carolina details the rise in ethical pig farming, and the ways that consumer interests alter industry practice; another, an interdisciplinary analysis of the reasons, means, and effects of indigenous timber extraction in Indonesia (Weiss, 2014; Ellen, 1985). Both represent fundamentally different perspectives of agricultural processes, and the environments and peoples implicated; nonetheless, the lessons of both can be applied to the Australian context and further towards the global food economy.

To demonstrate this, the topical issue of coal seam gas ventures in northern NSW will be used to showcase the methodological benefit of anthropology. In this, there is a large rift between those in favour for regional jobs growth through mining and those in favour of environmental protection and agricultural longevity. The case for both is clear, but without academic rationalisation, there is little room for reconciliation. With its objective stance and ready inclusion of indigenous and otherwise marginalised voices, anthropology holds great leverage in policy-making, holding the key to ongoing collaboration and constructive debate through its intermediary capacity.

Certainly, as stated on the AgriEducate website itself, an informed industry and
understanding on a wider societal level is paramount to the productivity and sustainability of the Australian agriculture industry. Through anthropology, such cooperation can be realised.

Another benefit of anthropology is that it dismantles the bounded categories of academia, favouring active engagement with the language and interests of multiple fields of enquiry in order to best represent the topic at hand.

This provides a unique opportunity for cross-disciplinary collaboration and with actors in the industry to identify and consider alternatives and future directions for Australian agriculture, in order to enhance productivity and sustainability in the face of looming global food security concerns. These two paradigms increasingly show themselves as going hand-in-hand, but disciplines that can handle this duality are a minority; only anthropology can synthesise these and situate them in a real-world context.

Herein, productivity can be measured and improved through careful analysis of the present situation of agriculture. An enlightening ethnographic account of a post-mining West Virginian township highlights this; it shows the real-world negative effects of industry collapse and the ways of life that have subsequently emerged (Stewart, 1996). While not related to productivity or sustainability discourse, by virtue of the vignette this account paints, it can serve as a basis for considering the present and future policy and planning directions in the region. With the input of information from other fields, it becomes a simple task for the anthropologist to assess the present and future requirements for enhancing productivity. Similarly, Australian agriculture could be treated anthropologically, generating change through consideration of the ontological experiences of related parties.

Likewise, sustainability is essential to contemporary Australian agriculture. Recently, much of the farming discourse in anthropology has centered on the consumer’s contribution to the changing face of agricultural practice. Amongst other reasons, ethics (Weiss, 2014; O’Kane & Yuliani Wijaya, 2015; DeLind, 2010) have increasingly played a role in shaping the sustainability narrative in agriculture. However, the sustainability paradigm of anthropology is not only social. In keeping with the dynamism of anthropology, the definition of “sustainable” incorporates all spheres of sustainable development and practice, be it economic, environmental, or industrial.

Additionally, by virtue of the ethnographic focus on the “local”, anthropology has also analysed some of the contemporary food security concerns pertinent to Australian society, such as the “Malthusian trap” generated by urban spread (Lang, 2010:1815). Significantly, discussions of productivity and sustainability, as well as recent analysis of global processes played out locally, anthropology is already contributing to the global food security debate. Admittedly, since anthropology is the “study of humans”, it does have an at times overwhelming social focus. However, the paradigms discussed here have all been grounded in posterity; all of the major considerations of agriculture, be it productivity, sustainability, or the global food network are founded with humans in mind. Accordingly, the thoroughly human pursuit of agriculture is ripe for analysis by an equally humanistic discipline.

As an aphorism in the field goes, “anthropology is the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanist of the sciences”. It’s assimilation of a broad scope of practices makes anthropology one of the most dynamic perspectives available to agriculture, encompassing everything from production to business and consumption. A sincere engagement of anthropology in this sector shows promise, due to its ability to provide synergistic proposals to improve the present condition of Australian agricultural productivity and sustainability, and envision its future in the global food economy.


AgriEducate website, viewed 30 May 2018, retrieved from

Appadurai, A. (1997). Discussion: Fieldwork in the Era of Globalization, Anthropology and Humanism, 22(1):115-118.

DeLind, L. (2010). Are local food and the local food movement taking us where we want to go? Or are we hitching our wagons to the wrong stars?, Agriculture and Human Values, 28:273-283.

Ellen, R.F. (1985). Patterns of indigenous timber extraction from Moluccan rain forest fringes, Journal of Biogeography, 12(6):559-587.

Lang, T. (2010). From ‘value for money’ to ‘values for money’? Ethical food policy in Europe, Environment and Planning A, 42:1814-1832.

O’Kane, G. & Yuliani Wijaya, S. (2015). Contribution of Farmers’ Markets to More Socially Sustainable Food Systems: A Pilot Study of a Farmers’ Market in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), Australia, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 39(10):1124-1153.

Stewart, K. (1996). “An Occupied Place” In Senses of Place, Feld, S. & Basso, K. (eds.). Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Trigger, D., Keenan, J., de Rijke, K., Rifkin, W. (2014). Aboriginal engagement and agreement-making with a rapidly developing resource industry: Coal seam gas development in Australia, The Extractive Industries and Society, 1(2):176-188.

Weiss, B. (2014). Eating Ursula, ​Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies, 14(4):17-25.

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