Metabolic drift? food, fertiliser and the biology of history in Malawi

Presented by Megan Vaughan

Monday, 21 September, 2020 - 16:00

This paper is a work-in-progress. It arises from a larger study of what the medical literature labels “metabolic disorders” in different African sites that has expanded into a consideration of metabolic systems as social as well as biological phenomena. In the paper I trace the recent evolution of a mono-cropping and artificial fertiliser dependent food production regime in Malawi and think about it metabolically and historically. I call this a ‘Monsanto metabolism’. Since soils and fertiliser are so central to this story, this takes me into what may or may not be an unnecessary diversion into Marx’s metabolic rift theory. Using colonial nutritional and production data from the mid-twentieth century, I paint a picture of a rural biological and social metabolic system already deeply and unevenly affected by capitalism, and maintained, with many inherent instabilities, by the work and knowledge of agricultural producers, but particularly through women’s labour. In the final section of the paper I examine the polarised debate over the sustainability of the new food production regime in Malawi and question whether it is useful to think in terms of “healing the metabolic rift”.

I am particularly interested in hearing how this case compares with that of rural South African food systems. Thanks for reading – and I apologise that it became rather heavy with the gritty detail.

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