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Christopher Kortright

Christopher Kortright

Anthropology of Science, Plant-Human Relations, The Political Economy of Evolutionary Theories, Genetically Modified Organisms, Anthropology of Scarcity and Food Security, Anthropology of Utopia/Dystopia, Neo-Malthusianism, History of Anthropological Theory

Not on campus:
Residing and writing in Regina, Saskatchewan

Education:

  1. 2007. Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology (Sociocultural), University of California at Davis.
  2. 2006. M.A. in Anthropology (Sociocultural), University of California at Davis.
  3. 2003. B.A. in Anthropology (Cultural), University of California at Santa Cruz.

Biography:

Areas:

Anthropology of Science, Plant-Human Relations, The Political Economy of Evolutionary Theories, Genetically Modified Organisms, Anthropology of Scarcity and Food Security, Anthropology of Utopia/Dystopia, Neo-Malthusianism, History of Anthropological Theory

 

Ethnographic Project: C4 rice and Hoping the Sun can End Hunger: Tales of Plants, Directed Evolution, Transgenics, and Crisis 

My dissertation research began during the 2008 international “food crisis” which exposed cracks in the infrastructure of global food security and had experts pointing their fingers in many directions for both causes and answers to the situation—many arguing that another crisis was just around the corner. Rice is one of the most important staple foods for much of the world’s population and is the central cereal grain in most Asian. During the 2008 crisis, rice experts became central in global food security debates. One of the founding green revolution institution, the International Rice Research Institute found itself at the center of global media, international development and aid agencies, scientific agriculture researchers and funding foundations much like the 1960s and 1970s. My dissertation, C4 Rice and Hoping the Sun Can End Hunger: Tales of Plants, Directed Evolution, Transgenics and Crisis, examined the interactions between scientific and development apparatuses, evolutionary theory, and the production of ideas of scarcity and hope. My project investigated the evolutionary stories and scientific practices at the heart of a transgenic rice project embedded in the development apparatus at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Between 2008-2010, I conducted fifteen months of ethnographic research at IRRI in Los Baños, Philippines focusing on a specific transgenic rice project—the C4 Rice Project. I did participant observation with researchers as they attempted to change the photosynthetic pathways of rice in both the laboratories and experimental fields. The goal of this rice research is a higher-yield humanitarian rice that uses less resources – one proposed solution to food security.

Part of my dissertation historicizes the C4 Rice Project within the larger history of the Green Revolution and international development where US science and technologies were exported in the name of humanitarian aid and agricultural development. At the same time, these technologies where entangled in the Cold War and capitalist expansion. To understand these intertwined histories, I exploring three concepts/events of crises in relation to food security. I consider the Malthusian crisis, a central discourse in international development focused on the productivity of food and morality. I also explore the answer to the Malthusian crisis by international development and the Green Revolution, which advocated for “high yielding crops.” I do so to better understand how this solution/response has itself run into crisis as the high yield crops have plateaued forcing a reordering of the economics and biology that underpinned this solution. Thus, considering the response to the 2008 food crisis, I argue that the interventions proposed are attempts to move beyond both the limits of capital and biology.

The second part of my research is a posthumanist anthropological look at scientific labor in practice. The researchers at IRRI see the creation of C4 rice as one guided by, and within, the frames of evolution. I explore these relationships in the experimental systems and theories of the C4 Rice Project as practiced in laboratories and experimental fields. Looking at the creative labor between the researchers and plants, I argue that the plant-human relationship in labor is a creativity that is as as much about plants as it is humans. My research is based, in part, on two experiments: EMS mutation experiment involving one million sorghum plants and an experiment on the wild relatives of rice. In these two experiments, I analyzed how the researchers see their work in the spirit and practice of “directed evolution.” They explain that these projects are inspired by past evolutionary adaptations. Their experiments then serve as evolutionary interventions; thus the concept of evolution in these experiments, rather than being a merely retrospective account of the past, is thrust into the future as the “possible” and the “new” plants are seen as consistent with, and a part of, evolution. I argue that this notion of evolution is, in part, a reaction to the political economy of food security and the present food crisis.

 

Peer-Reviewed Publications

2012 “From Doomsday to Promise: Visions of Evolution in C4 Rice”. In International Rice Research and Development: 50 years of IRRI for Global Food Security, Stability and Welfare. Edited by Margreet van der Burg and Harro Maat. New York: CABI. In Press


Courses I have Instructed:

2010 (Summer Session I) ANT 20: Comparative Cultures

Syllabus

2008 (Summer Session II) STS 1: Introduction to Science and Technology Studies

Syllabus

2007 (Fall) ANT 126B: Women and Development

2007 (Summer Session II) STS 1: Introduction to Science and Technology Studies

2006 (Summer Session II) ANT 2: Introduction to Cultural Anthropology [co-instructed with Michelle Stewart]

 

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