Exploring Food and Politics in 1950s Vietnam


Christian Lentz, who studies agricultural and environmental issues, grows fruit trees in his home garden. (photo by Donn Young)

Christian Lentz, who studies agricultural and environmental issues, grows fruit trees in his home garden. (photo by Donn Young)

As a child, Christian Lentz accompanied his father, a small-town doctor in Rhode Island, on house calls in the countryside. Young Lentz began observing farms as sources of food.

His fascination for Southeast Asia came from his mother, a Navy brat during the Vietnam War, and his uncle, who once lived in Indonesia.

The result: Singular scholarship on how agricultural and environmental issues affect food distribution and hunger worldwide, but especially in Indonesia and Vietnam.

“My current research uses agrarian politics to analyze processes of state formation during the Vietnamese revolution” against French colonialism in the 1950s, said Lentz, a UNC assistant professor of geography.

At that time, farmers supplied food to Vietnamese troops to fuel the revolt. Their support contributed to Vietnam’s victory in the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which brought independence.

Agrarian studies have landed Lentz on the steering committee for the University’s two-year focus on food. His undergraduate course, “Food, Agriculture and Society,” examines food production and its social effects worldwide.

Although one in five people in this country is hungry, Lentz said, “enough food is produced to feed the world. The problem is distribution.”

And so inequality also figures into his work. His future research will include exploring hunger, through work in Vietnam and Indonesia, as a social condition that indicates uneven power relations.

His graduate seminar, “Agrarian Studies,” covers topics including rural-urban relations, biotechnology, rural subjectivity and landscape conversion into and out of farms.

Lentz graduated summa cum laude from Cornell University in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in Asian studies, went on to earn a master’s degree in environmental science from Yale in 2001 and another master’s, in development sociology, from Cornell in 2004. He earned a doctorate from Cornell in 2011.

His thesis for the second master’s grew from work on the island of Sumba in Indonesia. He interviewed farmers about crops, yields and farming strategies — as a severe drought was beginning.

“I left wondering how farmers managed to cope with crisis and produce enough food to make a living,” he said.

Lentz returned in 2000 amidst a locust outbreak, which followed two years of drought and a flood. People had survived on crop diversity, forest foods and sharing. “However, natural hazards tended to amplify inequality among households,” Lentz said.

Lentz became fascinated with Dien Bien Phu while in Vietnam in 2004 studying the language. His program overlapped with the battle’s 50th anniversary: “I took a trip to the mountain town and got hooked.”

He interviewed veterans of the conflict and produced his dissertation for Cornell, “Mobilizing a Frontier: Dien Bien Phu and the Making of Vietnam, 1945-1955.”

Lentz came to Carolina in 2011. Previously, he was an interpreter for the State Department. He speaks Indonesian, French and Vietnamese.

The Carolina Asia Center enabled Lentz to return to Vietnam in 2012 and develop a geography course on the country. Now he teaches “Geography of Vietnam,” a first-year seminar that covers fields, river deltas, rice paddies, cities, forests and mountains.

At home, Lentz grows peaches, plums, blueberries, raspberries and more with his daughter, 7, and son, 4. The children help mix compost, purge dandelions, chase rabbits from the garden and “love to water.”

He’s happy they’re learning that food comes from the Earth and added, “As long as I’m gardening, I might as well grow something I can eat.”

By LJ Toler ’76

Read more and see photos from Lentz’s travels.