Monday, October 16, 2006

VU broccoli book studies Guatemalan influence on Nashville dinner table, and vice-versa

Vanderbilt University issued this press release announcing the publication of Broccoli & Desire, a anthropological and economic study that focuses on the journey of broccoli from Maya farmers in Guatemala to dinner tables in Nashville. The book has been added to the Hispanic Nashville Bookshelf, a collection of books, movies, and music with a connection to Hispanic Nashville.

Have you considered how many hands it took to get the broccoli you just purchased from the field to your table? Did you know that it quite possibly came from Guatemala? Did you ever consider that someone grew that broccoli for you so they could send their kids to a better school?

Anthropologists Edward Fischer and Peter Benson answer these questions and more in their new book, Broccoli & Desire, tracing the complex connections between the hopes and dreams of Maya farmers in Guatemala and the health and dietary choices made by shoppers in Nashville, Tenn.

“The idea behind this book was to link Maya farmers with Nashville consumers who don’t know anything about each other, yet are intimately connected,” Fischer, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies at Vanderbilt University, said. “The two groups are tied together in a web of desire and a web of economics.”

Fischer studies cultural anthropology and political economy, with a focus on the Maya of highland Guatemala. While conducting his research there, he noticed that poor Maya farmers had started to grow new specialty crops such as broccoli, cauliflower and snow peas for export.

“After asking around, I learned that some of the larger, corporate agriculture operations in the area had tried to grow some of these crops, but gave it up because it was such labor-intensive, grueling work,” Fischer said. “They then started contracting it out to small Maya farmers.”

Fischer found that there are now hundreds to thousands of these farmers growing broccoli for export to the United States. He decided to follow the broccoli on its journey from field to grocery store, interviewing farmers, importers in Miami, Fla., and consumers in Nashville. He found that despite the obvious differences between the farmers and consumers, they were bound by a common driver: desire.

“Consumers in Nashville and across the United States have a desire to eat healthy foods and live well. These desires are constantly present in popular discourse about living the good life,” Fischer said.

“We often think of the Third World as having needs while we in the First World have desires. Peasant Maya farmers, for example, are struggling to get by, how can they have desires?” he continued. “But they do. They want to save money, buy a truck, send their kids to Catholic school. And these desires drive them to produce crops that they know they can sell, like broccoli.”

In the book, Fischer and Benson explore moral, sociological and historical issues surrounding the economic connection between these two groups and its roots in the victimization of the Maya people throughout history. Through profiles of individual farmers and consumers, they illustrate the stark differences between how the groups attempt to satisfy their own desires for a better life and the vastly higher level of risk the Maya must assume to do so. One such profile involves a farmer named Pablo, a married, 39-year-old Kaqchikel Maya farmer.

“For farmers like Pablo, surviving, meeting the basic needs of human existence, is always present as an imperative that must be met and satisfied,” Fischer and Benson wrote. “But there is something else at work here… Export agriculture is compelling for farmers like Pablo not because it is the only way they can survive but because it plays into the desire for ‘something more,’ or ‘something better,’ a diffuse desire with which the average American broccoli consumer would also be familiar even if the particular desiderata differ.”

Broccoli & Desire has been published by Stanford University Press. More information is available on the press Web site,

Peter Benson is a graduate student in the Harvard University Department of Anthropology and a former student of Fischer’s.

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