Rumen Nation: A Story of Sustainability in the United States

Considering the past and future of the cattle industry in the United States, Rumen Nation brings scientific and social context to the history of upcycling, greenwashing, and life-cycle assessments in the quest (and rhetoric) of sustainable food production. Drawing from archival research across twelve different institutions and ethnographic fieldwork with farmers, scientists, feed companies, and cattle, I argue that early twentieth-century obsessions with cattle as “the ultimate feed converters” led to the building of an intricate intellectual and material network between universities, chemical companies, policymakers, and agribusinesses that is difficult to disentangle today. The project challenges previous studies focused on the ecological impact of livestock agriculture by demonstrating how humans have long attempted to simultaneously capitalize on and “green” their industries by harnessing the inner workings of animal bodies. Since the late 19th century, agribusinesses used science to argue that the conversion capabilities of animal bodies adequately metabolized potentially dangerous chemicals. Healthy ruminants had the biological capacity to filter out the materials fed to them and tinkering with feed rations enabled farmers to control meat, milk, manure, and methane outputs. Expanding on significant scholarship on the ideology of “efficiency” in environmental management, I argue that this focus on the “efficient” conversion of trash-feed into good-food went on to inform definitions of “sustainability” that continue to impact farmer perceptions of environmental issues today.

Pharm Farms: Agriculture and Animals in Human Medicine

Pharm Farms analyzes the intersection of industrial agriculture and human medicine through the early twentieth-century pharmaceutical farm. The production of pharmaceuticals, from oxytocin to insulin, had long depended on the blood and tissue of agricultural animals before their laboratory synthesis. To produce just a few ounces of medicine, the pharmaceutical industry relied on the massive scale of industrial livestock production. This project aims to explore the ways human health has depended on agricultural animals, and how the manufacture of medicine shaped industrial animal agriculture.

Electrified Bodies: The Brief History of Stray Voltage

The electrical grid is not experienced by all of us in the same way. During farm visits, I documented cattle farmers complaining about cases and potential sources of “stray voltage,” citing low production numbers, animal fears of water, and overall discomfort expressed by their herds. Electrified Bodies addresses how anthropocentric projects like electrification have impacted ecologies; systems and individuals that are considered settings rather than actors in their planning. As in many cases of technology production and use, nonhumans often remind humans of their flaws and limitations in their design and planning. The story of stray voltage is one that takes on scientific and legislative dimensions, as humans attempt to make sense of how nonhumans experience electrified landscapes differently.

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