North American Observatory Food Sovereignty and Syndemic Project

Background and context

For two decades, scholars in the arts and environmental humanities have been researching and teaching courses that focus on climate. More recently, they have been focusing on the links between climate, environmental injustices, food insecurities and health disparities.
Since the United Nations RIO + 20 Sustainability Conference in 2012, themed, “The Future We Want,” many community leaders and scientists have called for the integration of the humanities and arts into natural and sustainability sciences research and projects.
Humanities for the Environment has been meeting this call and innovating new projects since 2013. Each Observatory has focused on its own place-based challenges. In 2018, all Observatories agreed to focus on food cultures and food systems in an effort to scale up and unify the network’s efforts on this issue. Each Observatory launched a placed-based food-focused project to explore how humanities researchers are uniquely prepared to lead on issues surrounding food and food cultures.

North America: From Dinner 2040 to Food Sovereignty and Syndemic

At the North American Observatory, HfE affiliates from Arizona State University began working on a new food-focused project in 2021. They had previously innovated a community-facing project, titled “Dinner 2040,” launched in 2013, which explored how Arizona might build a thriving future food system. In 2020, affiliates challenged themselves to rethink everything they knew about climate, food insecurities, and food systems after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. They framed their work as an indigenous-focused project informed by the concept of ‘syndemic,’ a term meaning ‘synchronous pandemics.’ Public health officials, doctors, and community leaders are using this term to examine the unequal and linked effects of disease, racism, structural inequities, climate injustices, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, and rising extinction rates. As a concept, syndemic has also been taken up by humanists to contextualize the crucial contributions of the arts and humanities to scaled-up understanding of the links between disease, structural inequities and food insecurities to each other.

To build capacity, the team convened in the first year for reading groups, lectures, and workshops bringing in noted indigenous chefs and knowledge keepers from the Southwest and from New Zealand to read novels, watch films, and raise questions about how to think about the mutually intensifying links between obesity, malnutrition, toxic pollution and its links to human health. These activities were funded by ASU’s Environmental Humanities Initiative, GFL’s Indigenous Knowledges Focal Area, the Institute for Humanities Research, and the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

HfE North American Observatory researchers Melissa Nelson and Joni Adamson, with chef Walter Whitewater (Diné), and Asia-Pacific Observatory Director, Hsinya Huang, at an Indigenous Food Systems event at ASU.

Tracing Inequities and Mapping the Emergence of Food-sovereign Economies of Well-being

In the second year, they applied for and won a Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory seed grant under the title, “From Syndemic to Symbiosis: Tracing Inequities and Mapping the Emergence of Food-sovereign Economies of Well-being.”

Co-led by Rimjhim Aggarwal, Melissa Nelson, Joni Adamson, Joan McGregor, and Juliann Vitullo, the project team was also supported by ASU faculty and researchers, and HfE affiliates, Sara El-Sayed, Christy Spackman, Sally Kitch, and Mauricio Mejia. Other HfE affiliates supporting this work include Ilaria Tabusso-Marcyan, Joan Baron, Nalini Chhetri, Netra Chhetri, Maria Cruz-Torres, Alycia de Mesa, Hallie Eakin, Arina Melkozernova, Tracy Perkins, and Rebecca Tsosie.

The project built on several food-focused courses, co-taught by project leaders at ASU’s pedogogically-innovative Humanities Lab. These included:

In these interdisciplinary courses, students formed teams seeking to solve food challenges with humanities-led projects. (See the links provided above for more on student-led projects in each Lab).

From its earliest workshops and reading groups to its student-led projects and courses, Syndemic to Symbiosis has strengthened transdisciplinary scholarship and exchange between the research team and students and the external communities with which they worked. Specifically, the team worked with key Indigenous leaders in Arizona and New Zealand to research and explore the theory and practice of “economies of well-being” and the “Te Ha Waka” framework. The team is also in the process of analyzing the relevance and application of its findings for other BIPOC communities. Exploring the practice of “economies of well-being” has helped the team identify and propose solutions to linked epidemics, inequities and infrastructural injustices.

Project contributors understand that shortcomings in global food systems cannot be solved with technical fixes alone. This is the reason they are innovating approaches that seek sustainable change and resilient solutions that are humanities- and arts-led.

Moving forward, the team will seek additional funding to advance their work as they continue involving community leaders and innovators, farmers, chefs, indigenous and American Indian communities, Black and Latinx leaders, NGOs, artists, activities, writers and filmmakers tackling global syndemic. They also look forward to potential collaborations with other HfE Observatories which began to be explored at the Humanities for the Environment International Conference on Food Futures, Hosted by the Asia Pacific Observatory, August 31-September 4, 2022, Taipei, Taiwan.

Project activities, from most recent:


February 15: Twila Cassadore Lecture to Humanities Lab. Apache Food Foraging and Cultural Well-being, Sponsored by Arizona State University’s Environmental Humanities Initiative/UNESCO BRIDGES Flagship Hub.


Humanities for the Environment International Conference on Food Futures, Hosted by the Asia Pacific Observatory, August 31-September 4, 2022, Taipei, Taiwan
Reflections on the 2022 International Conference on Food Futures – Humanities for the Environment

April 20, 2022, Earth Day Lecture, Brian Yazzie, “Cooking in Two Worlds,” (Co sponsored by Arizona State University’s Environmental Humanities Initiative, the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems, Institute for Humanities Research, School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies, the Humanities Lab, and the Desert Humanities Initiative.


April 21: Indigenous Chefs Demo & Tasting Food Workshop featuring 3 award-winning chefs (Arizona State University’s Humanities Lab), Sponsored by the Indigenous Knowledges Focal Area, Melissa Nelson, Director


September 27: Indigenous Economies of Well-being Reading Group featuring Dr. Rachel Wolfgramm, University of Auckland, New Zealand, sponsored by the Indigenous Knowledges Focal Area, Melissa Nelson, Director


November 8th: Introduction to Maori Culture and Context with Dr. Melissa Nelson


November 15th: Intercultural Well-being Workshop with local and international scholars: At this event, we explored how we could build symbiotic platforms to enable the co-generation of economies of wellbeing. For our culminating workshop we were honored to have the participation of 8 Māori scholar activists from Aoteaora (NZ) who co-led (with local Native leaders) four breakout groups on o Weaving Intercultural Well-being into Economic Thinking (Led by: Octaviana Trujillo and Tania Wolfgramm) o Design, Art, and Innovation in Well-being (Led by: Wikuki Kingi) o Food Systems and Seed Sovereignty (Led by: Michael Johnson) o The Role of Performance and Dance in Community Well-being.


Oct. 27, 2021: Reading group meeting 1 on: “Regional Food Hubs as Catalysts for Inclusive Wellbeing Economies,” Hosted by ASU’s Environmental Humanities Initiative and HfE’s North American Observatory


Nov 17, 2021: Reading group meeting 2 (in collaboration with Slow Food): Robin Wall Kimmerer ‘s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, Hosted by ASU’s Environmental Humanities Initiative and HfE’s North American Observatory

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Melissa Nelson
Melissa Nelson
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