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.

Dispute over Lab Notebook Lands Researcher in Jail

I thought some of you might find this article interesting: basically a woman was jailed (with a $100,000 bail) for stealing ~20 of her old lab notebooks, flash drives and other materials from her former place of work. There’s also underpinnings of the subjectivity in science in the controversial nature of her earlier work. Its kind of a sad story all around, but relevant to some of what we’ve discussed this past quarter.

Dispute over Lab Notebook Lands Researcher in Jail

Science and Justice Moving Forward

akargl Says:
November 29th, 2011 at 2:40 pm edit

The quarter has gone by so fast! I’m looking forward to the interesting things we’ve brewed up for next year, and to conversations about what else to do. For my part in the blog part of these conversations, I’d like to offer a provocation:

A main thing I’d like to see in S & J’s future has to do with the kind of re-worlding going on in the occupation movement, including the hope its form may signal for the ongoing struggles with inequality within it. How might we re-world the space in which we find ourselves in such a way that we resistance-occupy it? Continue Reading Science and Justice Moving Forward

ideas, new spaces for s&j

egan Says:
November 29th, 2011 at 2:25 pm edit

Not sure if we’re supposed to be posting these, but here are my thoughts on expanded spaces for science and justice. Perhaps openings for future discussions:

1. Universe… and Pluriverses
I’m still holding out for multiplicities: other worlds and pluriverses that are historically constituted, precarious, and aleatory. How to speak about “justice” as shifting practices of inclusion and exclusion, without the promise of a Universe or the melancholy of relativisms? Continue Reading ideas, new spaces for s&j

Op-Ed Thread

icarbone Says:
November 22nd, 2011 at 12:32 am edit

I think this may be a bit more of a rant than an Op-Ed at this point, but maybe you all can help me focus it a bit.

Frustrations over socioeconomic disparities and the influence of corporations on the US political system reached a critical point on September 17th. Protesters swarmed to Zuccotti Park for Occupy Wall Street, and since then demonstrations have been springing up in over 1000 US cities. The Occupy movements have empowered a growing community to push for Continue Reading Op-Ed Thread

Op-Ed Pitch Thread

icarbone Says:
November 22nd, 2011 at 12:35 am edit

The occupy movements have empowered a growing community to push for significant societal change. This change need not be confined to Wall Street. The OWS movement should inspire us all to reclaim science, technology, and the health of the natural world. The fearless abandon that protesters are exhibiting across the country can be our greatest asset in movement away from fossil fuels and towards renewable alternatives in the United States. This article will encourage the Bay area to continue building a community, and to extend the occupy movement to the greatest political and environmental threats that the global community faces.Continue Reading Op-Ed Pitch Thread

Information, but Meaning? The Value of Genomics

Science & Justice Working Group Meeting
Andro Hsu with discussion by Ted Goldstein and Whitney Boesel

November 9, 2011

Engineering 2, Room 599

4:15-6:15 PM

Andro Hsu (VP of Products at GigaGen and former science writer and policy advisor at 23andMe) will join us for a discussion of what we are learning—both about policy/society and biology—as increasing resources are put into turning the ever growing amounts of genomic information into something of value. Ted Goldstein, PhD candidate at the UCSC Center for Biomolecular Sciences and Engineering, will provide a response to Hsu presentation.

Reading Responses: Experiment

carbone Says:
November 7th, 2011 at 5:00 pm edit

This weeks reading reinforced in me a feeling that certain research methods are more narrow in their approach, and this characteristic can be both limiting and powerful. I come to this class as an applied physicist. My personal motivations are less focused on unlocking the secrets of the natural world and more focused on using physical models to produce objects that provoke societal change. I agree with concepts along the lines of “inertia of belief,” but I also sympathize with Pickering’s point of view. Every bit of understanding that we have is based on some model that may or may not be grounded in some experiment or academic Continue Reading Reading Responses: Experiment

Wordle Coding

The images below were recently passed along to me from another Sociology grad student. They were made at the Wordle website, where you can generate a word cloud out of any text. The more often a word appears in the text you enter, the larger it appears in the word cloud. I was introduced to this tool in a graduate qualitative methods class in the Anthropology department at Indiana University, Bloomington. Continue Reading Wordle Coding

“Another World is Plantable!” Film Screening with director Ella von der Haide

Documentary on Community Gardening and Food Justice in North America 2010


Urban community gardening is a phenomenon that is spreading throughout the world. At the core of the films are gardening activists who explain how and why their gardens are a “green oasis” within the city, as well as projects of resistance that bring “another world” into being. The films also show the critical and ambivalent ways in which the gardening movements can be instrumented by neoliberal regimes.

North America has a vibrant  community garden scene that is currently developing into a broad social movement for food justice. Through the local production of ecological food for subsistence and for sale at farmers’ markets, community gardeners not only construct an alternative to the agro-industrial business and “food deserts”, they simultaneously create a new local self-reliance and new discourses on justice.

In a series of four documentaries, film director Ella von der Haide features urban community gardens and their connections to emancipatory social movements in South Africa, Argentina, Germany and North America. The community gardens portrayed in this film, in New York, Detroit, San Francisco and Vancouver, are all engaged in different social change processes, from anti-racist resistance and post-colonial healing to indigenous self-determination and queer-feminist environmental politics.

The director will be present for Q&A.

More information on the film and research:

Information on the director:

Ella von der Haide is a Dipl.-Ing. of Urban and Regional Planning, Garden Activist and feminist Filmmaker from Germany.


Sponsored by: SJWG, Film & Digital Media, and Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems

October 27, 2011, 4:30-6:30 PM | Studio C (Room 150 in Communications Building)