Eating Information? Food and Metabolism in Epigenetic Perspective

Hannah Landecker (UCLA Center for Genetics and Society)

January 26, 2012, 3:00-5:00 PM

Engineering 2, Room 399

Epigenetics has turned food and its metabolism into a problem that is not just about how the body turns food its basic components–carbohydrates, fat, protein-but how food acts as a signal of the environment–both biological and political. Hannah Landecker will explore what this transformation of metabolism and epigenetics reveals about food, environmental politics, and the increased salience of metabolism as a sight for biological understanding and political and moral contestation.

Hannah Landecker, "Eating Information? Food and Metabolism in Epigenetic Perspective"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
26 January 2012
Rapporteur: Martha Kenney, History of Consciousness
Hannah Landecker, Associate Professor at the Society and Genetics Institute at UCLA, spoke to
us about her new book project, American Metabolism. Although the field that she is interested in
is called “nutritional epigenetics,” Landecker has reframed this research as belonging to a longer
tradition of studying “metabolism.” For Landecker, metabolism is about trans-substantiation, one
substance being changed into another. In recent nutritional epigenetics research, we see new
pathways of trans-substantiation. For example, Landecker showed us an article with a mother
mouse and her pups captioned: “They are what she ate.”

After giving us an overview of the epigenetics research, Landecker focused on the theory that
gene expression is regulated by signals from the environment, creating different phenotypes in
the presence of genetic sameness. In research on maternal anxiety behaviors, trans-generational
endocrine disruptors, and nutritional effects, we witness how licking, plastic, and food,
respectively, are presented as environmental signals. Landecker believes that the category of
“signal” is both incredibly productive and not very precise; it is under-theorized by scientists and
STS scholars. She wonders if, in the field of nutritional epigenetics, “the social” has become a

In the last part of her talk Landecker compared studies of metabolism in the late 19th century to
contemporary research in nutritional epigenetics. Early accounts of metabolism, such as those
by Thomas Huxley, figured metabolism as a set of processes the function like a factory or inner
laboratory. Landecker argued that this was an industrial paradigm for an industrial era. Key
figures and areas of emphasis were: energy, manufacturing, substrate, waste accumulation, labor
and fatigue. In the post-industrial era a new set of figures has arisen: Information, regulation,
signal (timing), functional asynchrony, sleeping and aging. She strongly believes that changes in
the framework for understanding metabolism changes what experiments are conducted and what
kind of knowledge is created. She concluded by arguing that it is important to track and
understand these changes as they are happening.

During the Q&A key questions revolved around the historical specificity of nutritional
epigenetics and issues of social and ethical responsibility arising from this new framework for
metabolism. Jake Metcalf compared responsibility in the factory model with the post-industrial
model. In the factory model, he argued, one person is responsible for the consumption of food;
in the post-industrial regulatory model, many-many humans and non-humans are responsible.
How do we delegate responsibility? Playing off of Landecker’s characterization of epigenetics
belonging to a biology of the in-between, Jenny Reardon suggests that it is difficult to regulate
the in-between. Metcalf replied that we just don’t have the models to make decision-making
viable. Landecker characterized this problem as being burdened by complexity.

This led to the question of what kind of “actionable knowledge” is created by metabolism
research and the figures that underpin it. Responding to a question by Julie Guthman about the
DES growth hormone used in cattle farming, Landecker argued that the current DES problem
was caused by the industrial model, which tried to produce as much meat possible for as little
feed as possible. In other words, the metaphors of a previous generation of science created the
material conditions of today’s farming.

The remaining questions continued to play about this interrelationship between metaphor and
materiality. Elaine Gan, for example, suggested that we think about metabolism metaphors in
Marx. Landecker explained that these were not only metaphors; Marx was deeply interested in
the science of metabolism and believed, for example, that the Irish peasants would not revolt
because they lived off of potatoes. This rich discussion foregrounded the importance of tracking
the relationship between figures, history, materiality, knowledge, and production when
considering questions of science and justice in hot new scientific fields like epigenetics.

Posted in Past Events, Uncategorized.