July 28, 2022
In addition to her research on food systems as a PhD candidate at the Yale School of the Environment, Samara Brock is the co-host (with Matthew Kessler) of Feed, a podcast addressing big questions and contemporary debates in the field, presented by TABLE, an international academic collaborative on food systems. Brock shared her thoughts on podcasting and the environmental humanities in a Zoom Q&A with Yale Environmental Humanities’s Jake Gagne. The interview has been lightly edited for length.
JG: What motivated you to start this food systems podcast? Were there particular questions you wanted to answer or audiences you wanted to reach?
SB: Shortly after I began my PhD research, the TABLE initiative started as a partnership between Oxford, Wageningen University, and the Swedish University of Agricultural SciencesThey had similar objectives to what I wanted to do through my research. They explore—and I explore—the underlying values and assumptions that shape food systems debates. TABLE wanted to interview people as part of this work to understand the underlying framings that shaped their thinking on food systems issues. We decided that doing a podcast would be a cool format— interviews that other people could listen in on, rather than, for example, printing it up and putting it on the website as text. Matthew, my co-host, and I started trying to figure out what we wanted to do, listening to other podcasts and talking about what inspired us and what we didn’t want to do and shaping it from there.
JG: Yeah, that’s great, and you sort of covered the next question, which was: Can you tell us about the TABLE platform? How did you get connected with them?
SB: So I already knew Tara Garnett. She has worked at Oxford and she started the Food Climate Research Network. And I had heard that she was starting TABLE and then got in touch with her, and that is how I got tapped into what they were doing.
JG: It’s great to hear about the infrastructure behind this type of public-facing work.
SB: A lot of the people who are involved are academics, so they’re doing their academic publishing as well, but they felt that they really needed to start a more public-facing part of their work, because they all work in food systems, where there are all these underlying debates that keep getting reiterated in academic research and in more journalistic articles. You know, the kind of debates that happen over and over again, like, do we need to double food production by 2050? What percent of the world’s food is produced by smallholders? Do we need genetically modified organisms to feed the world? And these kinds of issues that keep arising.
JG: The first season of the podcast addresses the question of scale, and the second season is about power. How did you and your collaborators decide on these themes, and how did you think about who to invite over the course of each season?
SB: The whole TABLE team, which now includes around 15 people across the different universities involved, gets together and tries to decide what the themes are, focusing on contentious issues in the food system. That’s where the issue of scale came from: is local food better or do you need a globalized trading system to create food security? And then the whole issue of power. Last year, there was the UN Food System Summit, which a lot of people felt was overtaken by corporate interests—though other people had other opposing perspectives on that. So the issue of power and food systems and who gets to decide what the future of food looks like—all that came to the fore. The decision on what to focus on is done in dialogue with the whole staff, trying to think through the key issues that are happening in food system debates at the moment.
And in terms of podcast guests and where they come from: prior to my PhD I’ve worked for many years in food systems issues in government and foundations and for NGOs, and so a lot of the folks come from that experience, as well as people I meet through my research. Much of my research, unfortunately, has had to be virtual because of the pandemic, but I’ve still had the ability to “meet” people over Zoom who are talking about interesting food system issues and invited them on to be guests. And then, a lot of the guests also come from connections made by Table staff as well as from the universities affiliated with TABLE: Oxford, Wageningen, and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. They try to bring in people at those institutions who are working on interesting food systems issues.
JG: Can you share a bit about your PhD research and how you see it in relation to the podcast?
SB: I feel super lucky in that I was able to import a lot of my research questions directly into the podcast, so they become some of the core questions that we ask our guests. It’s cool; I get to do interviews for my research that would usually just end up in some sort of Zotero file that nobody ever gets to listen to or see, where you get to pull out a little 10-word quote from an interesting two-hour conversation. So it makes it that much more interesting to be doing research and interviews that you know other people are going to be listening to. And the TABLE team listens to our podcast, so it’s kind of like a peer reviewed podcast. We get intense feedback from people across the three universities that then we use to shape how we present the final product. And then people in the broader community will be listening to it. A lot of the people that I am actually working with through my research will be like, “Oh, I listened to your podcast yesterday!” So it makes it more interesting and also more difficult, I think.
Back to the question, my research focuses on organizations who are trying to transform the future of the global food system and, in particular, it looks at—similarly to TABLE—the underlying assumptions and debates that fuel their work. And in particular I’m looking at how people are conceptualizing the idea of a food system and how this leads them to come to such different conclusions about how it should be transformed. It aligns really well with TABLE’s objectives.
JG: I love what you said about making a public archive of your research in these interviews instead of locking them away in a file somewhere.
SB: Because I love doing interviews, I’m always disappointed by the fact that, you know, unless you’re doing an oral history project, for most academic writing you just pull a tiny little portion of the interview to use, and I’m like, “No, there’s so many more interesting things that were said!”
JG: What have been some of the more memorable or generative conversations for you?
SB: It’s funny—this is a difficult question. There have been interviews that have been interesting for different reasons. Some have been with academics who I’ve read their work for years but never got a chance to meet, so it’s like you’re meeting your academic heroes and asking them interesting questions. That’s been great. And then there’s some that have been super interesting because they’ve gotten really into the nitty gritty of food systems debates. There’s one we did on how food systems are modeled—getting to the root of assumptions behind modeling and how those could be more taken into account. There’s also one that we did on the statistic around how much of the world’s food is grown by smallholders, because that is a very contentious number in food systems debates. So we interviewed Vinny Ricciardi, who had looked in depth at that number and come to a different conclusion than some of the studies, and his findings continue to be contentious. And then I think a lot of the ones that I found most generative are where we’re interviewing people whom I don’t really agree with. Matthew [Kessler] and I purposely tried to take a stance where we don’t want to be the podcast hosts who are really confrontational with our guests. We want to have an open and generative conversation, while at the same time challenging people. It’s tricky to have a productive dialogue with people that you’re disagreeing with but not have it become antagonistic. And it’s interesting for me and my research to think through why I don’t agree with them and whether what they’re saying is changing my own perspective on the issue. One of our interviewees, Jayson Lusk, said, “I try to ask myself what evidence would cause me to change my mind, and if I can’t answer that then I’m essentially an ideologue,” which is a pretty interesting way to think through these conversations too.
JG: How does environmental humanities inform your thinking about food systems and why is environmental humanities important?
SB: We all hold deeply-held beliefs about the world, but these aren’t necessarily surfaced in everyday conversations. So I feel like environmental humanities as this transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary space encourages us to look at our foundational, underlying perspectives when it comes to the environment, and that’s what my research does as well. I think, especially in our current era where there’s so much polarization, it’s important to explore where these deep divides in our thinking come from and to explore how these divides might become less divisive. Because we’re always going to think differently about the world, but could we think differently more productively? And I think that’s the foundational piece that environmental humanities provides.
JG: Anything else you’d like to share?
SB: One more thought that I didn’t say in my answer about generative conversations is that when I’m doing any of my interviews, I think, “You’re always three questions away from an interesting conversation.” And I think that’s true in life in general. If you think you’re sitting next to someone really boring at a dinner party, you just have to think about the right three questions to ask to unlock this potentially amazing universe. That’s the same kind of thinking that I like to apply to the interviews.