Ferment Radio

#2: Microbes as social actors (with Salla Sariola)

June 24, 2020 Aga Pokrywka Season 1 Episode 2
Ferment Radio
#2: Microbes as social actors (with Salla Sariola)
Show Notes Transcript

Salla Sariola is a social scientist at the University of Helsinki, Finland. In this episode, we will talk about her research on microbes as social actors, and the implications of antimicrobial resistance, which happens, for example, when microorganisms are immune to antibiotics. Salla is also passionate about fermenting vegetables and dairy, as well as permaculture composting. 

Speaker 1:

Welcome to Fairman radio. I am your host, AKA , and my guest today is Sal Sal , a social scientist at the university of Helsinki fin. In this episode, we will talk about her research on microbes as social actors and the implications of antimicrobial or resistance, which happens. For example, when microorganisms are immune to antibiotics, Sal is also passionate about fermenting vegetables and diary, as well as permaculture composting.

Speaker 2:

My name is Salar I'm , uh , uh , working at university of health inky . I work in a , or run a research group, social study of microbes, which is a kind of a world unique research group developing this line of research concerning looking at microbes from a social scientific sociological perspective. One , uh , strong strand within that work is concerning fermentation. We also look at other things that include, for example, of , um , social aspects of antimicrobial resistance. And that's also something we can discuss.

Speaker 3:

I kind of have an imagination that's usually fermentation that is so that it's something which comes from person , no practice. And then it extends towards maybe more professional or work environment. Was it similarly for you?

Speaker 2:

Yes and no. Um, I was working in a department of population health , uh , in Oxford. So some years ago where I , um, was working with global health researchers as a social science and , and it's someone who was interested in bioethics researching on topics and global health bioethics, which as a field of research took me to , um, example Kenya and Vietnam and India working with , uh , global health researchers. So biomedical researchers and epidemiologists, and , um, having sort of these, these colleagues working on pressing health issues. Um, I realized, I learned how concern they were about antimicrobial resistance. So bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics to the point that we can no longer if microbes , um , are no longer reacting to antibiotics, can no longer cure infectious diseases or form very , um , common operations where antibiotics are used to prevent from kind of more dangerous infections. So if antibiotics don't work , um, the doctors will worry that our medicine will go back a hundred years because antibiotics are so crucial to the way in which Western medicine is practiced. And so through these collaborations with biomedical researchers, I kind of the , the , the scale of the concern about antimicrobial resistance became really apparent to me. And I realized also that there were very few social scientists working in , um , in this fight against the resistance, but that's again, repeating a kind of war type metaphor about microbes when microbe are much so much more complex and complicated and have other roles as well. I realized that like, though there are all these biological mechanisms that cause microbes to become resistant, they're very much connected to, or caused by human practice or overuse of antibiotics or people having to use antibiotic in replace of healthcare because they don't have healthcare access. And so these are the reasons underlying or driving antimicrobial resistance are very much to do with humans. And so for , from that perspective, it just seemed so bizarre that there weren't more social scientists going like, Hey, look, biomeds cannot solve this alone . You need to understand health systems. You need to understand , um, the role of development in driving antibiotic use you , what are the socio behavioral, economic , um, reasons , uh , or what is at stake for people? If they can't use antibiotics, you know, they , their livelihoods are at stake. They can't grow their kettle in the , in the same way that they're used to. And so there are lots of things . There's so many reasons why social scientists should be involved. The more I thought about micros, the more I realized that somehow how microbes were absolutely fascinating. So then for me, it started to look like , um , the world is heading towards a , a catastrophe when it comes to antimicrobial resistance , um , and that they are all going to be huge changes in terms of how healthcare is practiced , but how people live with their animal when they can't pump their food with antibiotics and so on. So we , we're gonna be looking at , um , changes in the way that we relate to micros and where we have to do that. And the more I thought about it, the more I started to see microbes absolutely everywhere. And that's not, that's not, that's like stating the obvious because now we know that they are absolutely everywhere, but they just haven't really been the subject of social scientific research. So when I talk to my social sciences colleagues that, you know, I'm developing this field of sociology of microbes, they just go and kind of go like, huh, people first, when they think of social sciences or sociology, they think of kinship relationships, or they think of , um, religion or politics or whatever. And I just think that, you know, we really need to put the microbes into the pay nature . Meanwhile, I was also fermenting myself first as a sort of a , um , as a way of preserving. I'm really passionate about gardening and permaculture gardening and allotment and growing my own food. So as to kind of bypass industrial food production and always was looking for ways in which I can store my yield, because suddenly it's like, you have so much crot that you cannot possibly eat anymore . Crot . And so what do you do with your crot ? And so then , um , fermenting became one way of storing food. And then at some point I, the , all of this started to kind of hang together as a sort of play with microbes where fermentation for me is a method of really like tangibly seeing, or, or at least I know sensory way of experiencing the microbes. It's the closest I can get to . I've seeing their effects. I can taste them, I can smell them . I can see them the , the liquid around the cucumbers, it bottles and fizzes , and it tastes different. So fermentation is , um , is for me, like , um , is , is a method that I've been developing in order to assist social, how

Speaker 3:

You would describe this method or how you would even describe maybe fermentation in that angle of like how you use it or how you approach it.

Speaker 2:

We've run these , uh , fermentation workshops when we come together with a group of people to, to do fermentation together. And then we sort of talk about the process of the , the chopping or the cutting or the vegetables, where they came from their , the kinds of history of, of how they've been produced and the kind of the , the line of , um, agricultural or the industrial processing that, that food comes from and how it is to be engaging with your food, like to the point that you're really making it rather than , um , buying something ready made , or we might come together and engage with the traditions of that particular cuisine or food culture, or the , the legacy of the , the heritage of that particular kind of sour , the over example or the history of the , the VAs or the tools for that , that, and often those workshops, they it's in a way, interestingly, looping time, the present the future, most people have some kind of recollection of fermented products from their , from their childhood. And yet those traditions have kind of stopped with, with modernization or with , uh , super of market foods and the convenience of convenience stores. And so they are sort of an interesting, really invigoration of past practices that now is very hipster that they want to , um , kind of learn again. And there's an increased interest in the health aspects and health Ben and of microbes that people who have felt their effects of industrialized foods, then , um , they feel like they want to start to learn to make their own food , be self sufficient, but also make healthy food rather than processed foods . So the workshops often bring people together that that sort of link between the past and the presence in really interesting ways in science and technology studies, there is a tradition where , um , inanimate or non-human actors are considered actors or having sociality or being social and need to be considered within act as actors in phenomena that is being studied or , um , Asli of, of a network . So the microbe there by that definition is a , is a social actor in the process of fermentation. So if you look at what is a fermentation, that the method , it's not just about people, it's about all the different kinds of, or different actors coming together where they , whether they're human or more than human in this case, alternatively, of course you can, the , the fermentation will workshops are great opportunities for somehow doing social fermentation that is about people. So they provide a , a platform for talking about politics. I alluded to the food , uh , the , the , the kind of in food I alluded to , um , maybe social relationships to are being brought together and kind of reconfiguring a space, which is , um, which is a safe one where people can , um , share and discuss whatever comes to their mind. And, and , and sometimes the discussions are pretty intense and , um, politic politicized and , um , personal, because people talk about their pasts and their experiences. So the workshops can be thought about in two , two ways, one with the microbes, the social actor, and then as being about the humans, kind of coming together as in that fermentation mode. But I think the , the , the radicalness of the fermentation of the methodology is that the , is the possibility of thinking about the microbes is a social category , a social actor there. And that's what I think is so exciting, exciting about doing the workshops to

Speaker 3:

Me, it's also like bringing free different scales working together. So there is this micro scale and microbes doing their job, then this kind of a scale, which probably is the most human scale, meaning like social relationship around food and food preparation. There's also a macro scale of a food system and why they change so much. And, and so on

Speaker 2:

The politics of access to food and, and lack of access to food and what kind of foods are supplemented, what the industrialized processes of , um , selling certain kinds of goods. Yeah . Which

Speaker 3:

Is a scale , which probably is still by many , uh , not so explored similarly as the microbes, because those are the scale, which we cannot really perceive just by our senses . It's more like you need tools to kind of investigate both of the scales.

Speaker 2:

Yeah. I, I think this is a beautiful example of, of , um, of precisely the , around the microbes. You can bring those scales together because the , the microbes are political there. And the , the political is microbial in a way that attempt to get rid of microbes that had been at the , the modern purest idea about microbes only being path H genetic had led to , um, a very industrialized approach to microbes , uh , in, in food production, for example, so that there is only like three or two different strands of, of yeast that is bakers yeast that is being used Vivi like hundreds of, of , uh , wild yeast that you can bake with. And so the , kind of the lack of diversity in , in microbes, in food production or the way in which good clean food is thought about has led to lack of diversity in microbes. That that seems to be kind of distracted through different fields of food production or thinking about cleanliness and, and to a kind of a ABI way of thinking about what is, what is a sanitation environment and what is a clean home, or what does it have to look like in order to , um , to look healthy? And there's always an assumption that the microbes are the , the microbial presence is a bad thing. And now with the , in the light of the current knowledge , um , of that microbes are abundant and absolutely necessary, or for good, healthy ecologies , both inside the gut and in environments. So the microbes were , in some ways , sending a message, a message about like, Hey guys, you have to slow down, you cannot over consume . You cannot create these monocultures. You can't continue to , um , extract from the environment, climate air, water , um , soil, and continue to live like this without there being any terrible outcomes.

Speaker 1:

Western civilization often tries to impose monocultural and lack of diversity, not just in the micro world , but also in societies. Uh , can we become more sensitive to these issues when we work with microbes?

Speaker 2:

Mm . I think we need to, you don't have to, it's not necessary to talk about microbes when you , when talking about social justice and social change and the need for transformation, but you cannot have conversations about microbes without them. That would just be like a fun hobby. I think everything that we do , um, has to, in some way, it has to address the , the , the politics and the, the privileges and the social justices and the, the activism, the everyday fight towards , um, social change, be it black lives matter, or me too, or what have you with the decolonizing practices? I think the , the times that we're living in, there's just, there cannot be an empty space that doesn't include political considerations. I feel, and microbes are not , um , are not an exception in that sense, the possibility of talking about microbes in this kind of way, that they are health producing or that they are even that , that it is okay, that these are products that are okay to eat , um , in as much as anything is okay to eat and is is healthy, and it will make you happy. And, and so on, these are all, this is all luxury enabled by certain healthcare infrastructures and access to healthcare . I think the possible the framing or an option to think about microbes in this way is, is a , is a privilege in that there are people that who to whom it's not at all self evident that microbes are their friends, but they still continue to suffer from a very curable infectious diseases, but simply because they don't have healthcare access, that is a definitely something that, that, that I , I think about. So what is the kind of the macro macro protection of that enables a space that, where it's possible for us to even be playing with microbes in this way rather than die out of a , a pandemic that that is upon us ? Um, having said that it , it's not always straightforward, how the, kind of the lines of injustice , um , are drawn in the sense that the new research shows that an overstated way of relating to microbes is actually also detrimental

Speaker 3:

As we were talking before that microbes , uh , related topics are parts of bigger systems like , uh , healthcare food systems, which also has a key history of being extremely like , uh , oppressive and then , uh , industrialization of , um , of food production or access to healthcare are also a big part of , uh , yeah. Injustice in the societies. Right. And in inequalities.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, there is , um , there is work by , um, scholars that include on the highway and sing Scott Gilbert and others. Who've talked about plantation a scene where , um , the plantation was a , the , the way in which land and labor were organized, that required people and seeds being brought from outside to create these plantations monocultures that they required labor. And that resulted in slavery. And the idea that the logic through with which these plantation were organized , um , were based on dominion over or power over , um , both land and people. The , what we talked about the macro structures is already through and through embedded in the way in which people relate to think about food, think about labor, think about microbes that , um , where both microbes and people were controlled and manipulated and bringing from them from outside creating this , um , this single mono systems , mono crop systems meant that it was possible to produce huge amounts of food, but it was always with power over and at the expense of people's freedoms or , um, at the expense of , um, relationships and circular , uh , relationships or embedded ecological relationships with land and plant , uh , plant world and, and food and animals, as long as we're thinking in those terms of dominion over , um, or in harnessing objects, we , they microbial or humans to our work then that , that those inequalities are just not gonna go away. But in order you have to really think rethink the hierarchies, rethink human dominion over nature. Um , but thinking about the , the rights of the more than human rights of land , the lines of rights of it's not mutually exclusive with , with human rights, but they have to all be addressed together at the same time. It , it can't be that we think of the people issues first. And then we think of the environment and we can't think of the environment and then get to the , the human rights, but it all has to go in tandem. And it , it really has to happen because the microbes are pushing back.

Speaker 3:

I wanted maybe to turn more into this, like a sens part of fermentation. So maybe come back to maybe your favorite taste related to fermentation or favorite recipes.

Speaker 2:

One of the things that has Bo along my mind is that once you start thinking about food from the perspective of , um, microbes or fermentation, rather , um, you realize that so many of the things that are around us are actually fermented like so many things that we don't even think about chocolate coffee , et cetera . I mean, so even like very basic, I mean, daily ingredients have been fermented in the process. I think one of the things that ferment food has done, likewise has , um, done foraging is that they've expanded my pallet . I feel like fermentation and foraging have just opened me up to the flavors that I would have not thought about as , um, tasty or I wouldn't even like, they would just be like a bit too much , um , in terms of the bitterness or in terms of the acidity or sourness or tartness, you necessarily even have words for the kinds of flavor complexities that then both foraging and fermentation have, have sort of allowed me to, to explore and start to really love and crave. One of my favorite , um, Indian fermented dishes is Italys like , so fermented UFO shaped cakes made of rice and Munda . And , uh , it's, they , the flower grounded the flour , and then the batter is fermented. Then they're steamed and you eat that with doll and different kinds of vegetables. That would be one or dosa , which is a similar kind of batter , but it's , um , sold as a , a flat pancake, like a CRI type, but it's savory and not sweet and rolled into , um , with potatoes and vegetables inside. So that's also amazing , um, fermented, bamboo shoots, amazing , um, of them things that I make myself, those are all amazing things, but I , I claimed no mastery over them. The ones that I make myself, I love perhaps most pickled cucumbers, fermented cucumbers. It's a very, very , um, every day and not nothing tricky, nothing , um, that will require anything more complic, then chopping your cucumbers into quarters and throwing all the spices that you kind of have at that point in time and then salt water . And then, and yet from such something so simple becomes something so amazingly rich and complex and amazing yeah. Sour crop also good, but I, the cucumbers have an added structure that I find amazing. I also make a lot of sourdough and my earliest memories of fermentation come from my grandmother, making sourdough and VE, and she would make it comes from a Northern Orne and she would make like a barrel VA of I don't 50 liters of dough every couple of weeks during the summer. And she would flip the entire table top over and there was 10 children and then the , all the adults. And so you can imagine how much bread they ate. And so she would ment that whole barrel. My grandfather would heat of the oven, which was this traditional finished bread oven. And then my grandma was , would roll . We as the kids, we could use the , a glass to cut the ball , to cut the hole in the middle. And we got to eat the little, the round bit that was left over . And, and then she also made the big LA , uh , big lumps and not the ones with the hole in the middle. But I specifically remember that it was our job to do either poke holes into them that with the fork to , um , to make, to kind of allow the air bubbles to, to come out and then cost out the , the center part with the , with the glass and to eat that with butter is possibly like the best thing that, that I , I still think that in terms of what is amazingness and holes on the scent , um, comfort food is ISRI , warm rib bread with butter. I don't get to eat that so much anymore, but it is , that's the best thing in the world.

Speaker 3:

What would , and this is really the last question. Yeah. What would you, what do you hope for the future? Because you also do the research, which I think is, it might be, it is very much, I think, related to social change and also bringing back , um , this kind of micro attention and to, to the lives of, of people. What do you hope for in relation to that ? How , how does relationship should change?

Speaker 2:

I think , um , at the , on the meta level, I want to have more of these continue to have more of these discussions of the , the macro and the micro . And I think the macro is not just, I mean, the , in the , in that the political is always embedded. So in food production who has access to what foods, what kinds of , um , who's left out of what kinds of foods who's left out of , um , access to healthcare , these are all really political, political questions and discussions. And so I think the , the , there's a need to think about that the , the circularity of those, those scales , um, that micros and people and the political structures kind of , uh , connect or bring together. And so I want to continue to have those conversations , um, across, with, and with people working in on different, in different disciplines. So the work that we do on antimicrobial resistance, for example, trying to create some kind of , uh , social change and that not is not just about , uh , the social as an intervention to, to discussions, but really thinking about, are there ways in which we can create knowledge that would illuminate where the , the risks of where antimicrobial resistance spreads in low resource communities? I think they all together the fermentation and the work on the antimicrobial resistance comes together. I under this heading of thinking about post antibiotic worlds. So what are all the things in this everyday life in lots of different places, contexts and practices that have to change in order to imagine what life would be, where we don't rely on antibiotics, where we don't rely on thinking about microbes as, as a threat. Obviously they , there are microbes who are D pathogenic and caused diseases , uh , in certain circumstances for of people. But so how do we ensure that the antibiotics work in those circumstances and how do we make sure that they're not used in ways in which aren't absolutely necessary? So, so how do we create relationships with animals where animals are no fed antibiotics , um , in order to FATEN them up for human consumption? I mean, that's just one example , small example, but there are so many things that have to change. There's loads of things that have to change in order to get to a point where we don't rely on antibiotics or , or just roll them out in, in situations where they're not actually necessary. And, and part of that change has to do with human relationships and imaginaries about antibiotics. And so I wanna be part of that discussion on a myth , a practical level, what is , and what's the post, what will post antibiotic world look like

Speaker 3:

Where we talk in the room? I think there are two flies. So we are two in a room and two flies with us, and I'm pretty sure they will be recorded on the audio, but I'm also thinking this fits the topic. Like let's get rid of this clean, you know, sound, let's have some other beings doing their stuff too in the room. So , uh , I think it's a good background. I don't know, dialogue. They had here flying around.

Speaker 2:

Thank you . Like clean sound.

Speaker 3:

Yeah , exactly . Not clean sound . So whether flies or bacteria or microbes, whatever. Yeah . It's all there . Hey, thank you so, so much. Pleasure .

Speaker 2:

Pleasure . Thanks.