Kayla Byers, Class of 2016, Marylhurst University

Global Connections: Rural Sociology & Food Systems and Society

by Kayla Byers ’16, M.S. in Food Systems and Society

Under the sweltering sun, thanks in part to the sweating crops, the XIV World Congress of Rural Sociology conference took place in Toronto, Canada this August. The 2016 conference theme was “Sustainable and Just Rural Transitions: Connections and Complexities” and with that theme, it seemed fitting to apply to present my thesis research “Not-So-Free Trade Agreements: Discursive Framings of Food Systems Benefits and Burdens Around Free Trade Agreements.”

After my presentation was selected and finalized, I began to wonder what kinds of connections I would see between my research on the U.S. government and alternative food movement’s discourse about free trade agreements, and the dozens of other global research presentations I would attend. After the first plenary panel I attended, it was easy to see that the connections were bountiful and that my M.S. degree in Food Systems and Society had prepared me to take part in these conversations.

My thesis discusses the resulting implications of the discordant discourse about free trade agreements involving the United States. My research illuminated the stalemate that is being faced by the alternative food movement in its attempts to create a more just trading system.

Discordant discourse was a theme that I witnessed throughout the research presentations I attended, though I don’t think anyone else used that catchy alliteration. A presentation on feminism and food sovereignty highlighted the role that discourse plays in defining how women are received in the food sovereignty movement. Another presentation on the innovators of strategic grazers in rural Australia discussed what occurs when the discourse between the traditional farmers and the tech-focused farmers favors one side to the detriment of losing traditional history. Yet another presentation illustrated the conflicting discourses at hand in the Hungarian food sovereignty movement and the impact on the empowerment felt by farmers. I could go on and on with more examples, but the gist is that the narratives we create, and that are presented to us, have a vast impact on all parts of the global food system. What is said, and what is not said, enables or inhibits progress on a global level towards a more just food system.  

When changing careers, like I did when I left a director-level job in customer service to obtain my M.S., doubts of whether a new degree will fully equip you to take part in the conversations you wish to be part of are inevitable. Arriving at the World Congress, I found myself more than capable to not only take in the global information being shared but also participate in these important conversations. Compared to many of the folks at the World Congress who have books and U.N. appointments to their name, I am still in the infancy of my career change. However, through the knowledge I had gained in my courses at Marylhurst and the conversations I had with my M.S. in Food Systems and Society cohort, I could actively participate at the global level.

I came away from the World Congress with a successful presentation under my belt and an increased knowledge of the connections that bind those of us seeking to increase justice in the global food system, and by extension, the globe.