Tuesday, June 10, 2014

You can permaculture anything, so how about a thesis?

Permaculture is not just about gardening, as many people seem to think. I just completed a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) which was very little to do with gardening. I have learnt that permaculture is a good system for designing good systems. It involves a whole lot of principles that can be applied to just about anything, and since I'm doing this PhD thing, I thought I would experiment with applying it to my research. The following is a presentation I did for the PDC.

First of all, I sang a song, because that's an appropriate thing to do, right? It's a song about the Monsanto because that is one of the nasty things that motivated me to look for positive alternatives, so it's totally relevant.

Wait, what is food sovereignty?

So that sounds like it has a lot to do with permaculture to begin with...

Then I tried some funky mind-mapping (not my strong-point), because in permaculture there is this thing with interconnectedness and stuff.

Then I tried looking at the permaculture principles in light of my research

And this thing, which, as it turned out, was totally compatible with my notes already:

And then there's the permaculture flower:

So through this process I realised that I was doing this whole research thing backwards (as I usually do things), so I ended with the question that I should have probably started with:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The problem with 'nutrition'

One minute coffee is good for you, the next it’s bad, blueberries will save you from cancer, no, they won’t, red wine will.  Chocolate is a health food, sugar is the devil. After studying food and nutrition formally and informally for the past decade, I could tell you a thing or two, but the things I can tell you won’t make any sense unless I clarify something first: there is a problem with the way we have been taught to think about nutrition.  Actually, there are a few inter-related problems. I will do my best to explain them.

The body complex
Now, here’s the main thing: the body is incredibly complex, probably more complex than we even realise. We seem to simultaneously know too much and not very much at all: it's very confusing. Nutritional research usually works in one of two ways: 1) controllable experiments on rats, 2) much much more variable studies of human beings. The main problem with this is that the much more scientific studies of rats are hard to extrapolate to humans, because we are not rats, and more importantly, because we do not live in controlled environments. The research on actual human beings can hardly tell us anything because there are so many factors that unless something is really obviously good or bad for us the difference is not statistically significant. The other problem with the latter is that correlation is probably a much more major factor than we’d like to think, eg: people who drink a glass of red-wine a day are probably eating more ‘healthy’ bourgeois food like vegetables than people who are drinking five beers a day.

Media sucks
The media particularly suck at reporting science, especially relation to nutrition, for example: this neuro-psych experiment looking at people's behavior after consuming a serotonin-decreasing drink resulted in media reports that cheese and chocolate help people make better decisions.  Obviously this is not science, by any stretch, but it makes a good story because people like the idea that cheese and chocolate are good for you.

People’s bodies are different
Yes, we are all biologically and genetically very similar, but we are also very different. Partly this is to do with lifestyle, and the way our different digestive systems have experienced life so far, partly it's to do with the way our immune systems, as well as endocrine and other bodily systems interact with our digestive system and the food coming into our bodies.  It's well known that not everyone can digest or tolerate gluten or dairy or peanuts or a plethora of other things.  Suffice to say, nutritional advice is often given out as if it is relevant to everyone, all the time.  This makes absolutely no sense.

Nutrition has become a moral issue
There is a naughty and nice list when it comes to nutrition.  Fat tends to be considered immoral and sinful along with almost anything else that is indulgent and delicious.  Apparently 'callories' are bad (so getting energy from food = bad?). It used to be common knowledge that cholesterol was evil, but actually it's a very important substance in human health, wait a minute: there are good and bad types of cholesterol (actually LDL and HDL are lipoproteins, not cholesterol as such - public health advice tends to treat people as if they are stupid).  This puritan religious discourse continues: healthy food is hard work and morally good. This is echoed in advertising and is absolutely ludicrous.  Perhaps we will reach a kind of healthy-heaven if we use trim dressing. Perhaps we will burn in hell with all the other lovers of saturated fat and the chocolate biscuits that give you devil's horns.  I very much doubt it, but the moral value of nutrition is something that most people take for granted.  People who over-eat or are obese are considered to have no self-control and are blatantly discriminated against. People who are skinny must be morally superior, especially women, after all, there is only one ideal image of feminine beauty that we should all revere, and Barbie doesn't eat at all.

Nutritional value means different things
I was quite confused when a friend of mine once remarked that mushrooms have no "nutritional value".  It turns out that they aren't particularly high in calories (not morally bad?), they aren't a great source of macro-nutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates), but they are nutritionally very complex and are a source of lots of things like potassium and vitamin B6, so how, exactly, don't they have nutritional value? Sometimes nutritional value is just talking about calories, other times it's talking about other things we know about that might be "good for you".

Nutritionism, as described by Scrinis, is the focus on the constituents of food, on vitamins, fiber, minerals, amino acids, types of fat, anti-oxidant and so on, rather than focusing on whole foods.  This reductionism is great for selling vitamin supplements and for advertising products but it's not actually very helpful for people who are trying to decide what to eat or to understand healthy food.  One obvious problem with this goes back to the body/health/food being so very complex.  Identifying vitamin C and Omega three may be helpful in situations where there is a problem with deficiency, but supplementing is inferior, in practice, to consuming whole foods.  Supplements are often dubious in quality and sometimes taking a substance in isolation is actually more harmful than taking it in a complex form.  Vitamin C, for example, is commonly known as ascorbic acid, but that is only the name of the most active component of a whole lot of things that are naturally found together. It didn't surprise me when the research came out a few years ago that Vitamin C didn't help treat the common cold, the experiments on mice were using only ascorbic acid.  Whole foods contain a whole lot of complex things that we are just beginning to understand. We know of hundreds of important compounds like vitamins and minerals, but there is a lot we don't know.   Remember:  Nutritionism is only one fragmented western perspective on food/health. It does not integrate well with other views.

Things keep changing
Not only do the chances of coffee saving you from Alzheimer's or giving you cancer seem to change from week to week, every five minutes there's a new super-food from the amazon that will probably cure all your problems, and make you a more morally superior person.  Aside from the constant instability in the nutritional landscape, our food has actually changed.  Wild fruits, before we selectively bred them for hundreds of years, were lower in sugars and higher in protein and micro-nutrients.  We have never-before had access to so much energy in the form of processed grains and processed oils. Chances are, our bodies, which are still very similar to how they were 10,000 years ago, don't really know how to deal with this stuff.

Good nutrition is a privilege
Ironically, the cheapest foods now, are the more processed. A century ago only the wealthy could regularly afford white bread, now it's mostly the domain of the poor.  Bread has become somethings almost mythical: soft and light, like a cloud, and totally unlike any other food ever known in human history.  While the middle and upper-classes can afford to buy whole-grain sourdough with only four ingredients or, better yet, go gluten free, there are plenty of people who make do with processed sausages and the budget-brand loaf.  While some can afford to drink their glass of red wine and eat a variety of vegetables, other people learn that vegetables spoil quickly and that red-wine is best consumed by the cask in order to forget how terrible life can be.  Moral judgement when it comes to nutrition is a privilege.  'Healthy food' is a privilege, and in a 'developed' country we have the vague idea that there are thousands or millions of people in the world worse-off than us, and there are.  While there are many people in the world who would be grateful for any calories at all, the wealthy are watching their waste-lines and trying not to cave-in to temptation because the over-processing of food has left a legacy of over-fed and under-nourished people.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Feeding People: problems with how we think about poverty

There's a woman in our small town who feeds people. She makes soup and Jam and drops it off on the door steps of people who need it. It's the old people who know, and they tell her: so and so is struggling this week, they could do with some help. She often comes home to find a bag of apples on her door step or other seasonal produce. She also finds the containers returned to her door-step, cleaned. She says it's like Christmas, she's so excited to find those cleaned containers. She doesn't know how they know to return them. They just do. She feeds people because her family has always done it. Where she comes from the haves feed the have-nots. That's just what's done. They don't seem to have that culture so much in New Zealand, she says.

The other day a woman came up to her on the street.  "Are you feeding people?" the woman asked. "Now why would you think a thing like that?" The woman who feeds people replied. "You're feeding people. I know you are, " the response came in a snarl. "You shouldn't feed people. You should stop. You know why? Because if you feed them the drug addict parents don't need to spend their money on their kids food. They can go right ahead and spend their money on drugs. You shouldn't let them. They should have to spend their money on feeding their kids."

"Come here," said the woman who feeds people. She gestured with her finger. "Come closer." She didn't want to yell, she kept her composure, as she always does. The other woman leaned in. "I don't care what you think. I don't care what you say about those parents, you know, I don't care about any of that. The only thing I care about is that those kids get fed, so you tell me not to feed people, I don't give a damn." Then she went right on with her day.

There's a problem with how we think about poverty in this country. There's a big problem.  People like to think that there isn't real poverty in New Zealand but there is. There are hungry children living in cold, damp, drafty housing. There are kids going to school with no lunch because after the bills are paid there's nothing left over - if the bills can be paid at all. The bills have all gone up: rent, power and especially food. While the minimum wage and benefits have only moved sluggishly, everything else has sky-rocketed. We do have a problem with poverty in New Zealand and it's only getting worse. The Salvation Army is on the news imploring people to vote for the political parties that are going to do something about it. They have too many people waiting in line outside their food banks.

We'd like to think there's no real poverty - not like in other countries. We'd like to think that anyone who is struggling to get by is just not trying hard enough - not working hard enough. We'd like to believe that with a bit of hard work and kiwi ingenuity, anyone can get to the top. We'd like to think that poor people are just not budgeting properly, that they're making bad choices, that they're degenerates, wasting their money on cigarettes and alcohol, that they're drug addicts, and maybe sometimes they are, because when you have very few choices and a crushing tonne of social pressure those "bad choices" seem like they might make the present just a little bit more bearable. I can't believe the lack of empathy that people show people who are less privileged than themselves, all that ugly, hateful, beneficiary bashing all the simplistic judgments and advice: they should just... Just what? Has it not occurred to us that if the problem was that simple to solve we would have solved it by now? If it was such a simple choice, people wouldn't choose poverty, would they?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Is 'Food Sovereignty' Relevant in New Zealand?

This is one of the major questions I'm currently pondering in my thesis looking at food sovereignty in New Zealand: Is the term relevant here, and how is it relevant?  It is rarely used here, even among food activists, local food producers and people involved in community food initiatives, but the people who have heard of it, who I have spoken to, resonate with it, and the people who haven't heard of it are interested to find out more.

The term 'food sovereignty' came out of the Via Campensina conferences in 1993 and 1996. Via Campesina are an  international peasant movement representing small farmers, migrant workers and indigenous people who want to have/protect the right to grow food. They were disillusioned with 'food security' (a term that is commonly used here) because the United Nations was working with big corporations like Monsanto to grow many tonnes of genetically modified corn for 'food security'. These big companies tend to push indigenous people off their land, exploit migrant workers and sue small farmers for saving seeds which are contaminated with the corporation's patented DNA. Not food security at all, just mass production.

Via Campesina deliberately constructed 'food sovereignty' to be about people and communities having the access to land to grow food. It is constructed so as to avoid being co-opted by corporations or other large, powerful organisations. It embodies principles of both social and environmental justice, check them out here.

So there is a bunch of academic research on food sovereignty in all sorts of places from disenfranchised indigenous people in South America to the ethnic minorities in the United States, from the anti GE movement in the EU to food struggles Malawi. This is a global movement so it makes sense that it would be relevant in Aotearoa, although there is very little literature. I have come across one publication looking at the term in New Zealand, so far, which focuses on Te Waka Kai Ora, the Maori organics organisation, and there are a bunch of non-academic references including Facebook groups and websites.  The question of privilege arises because some of the academic criticism of food sovereignty complains that the movement glorifies people's empowerment over food rather than addressing the reality that most of the world's rural poor don't have a choice outside of subsistence living.  In 'developed' countries it is more clearly a choice. I want to have a discussion about this, what do you think:

  • Is food sovereignty relevant in New Zealand? 
  • Do we have a food sovereignty movement?
  • What does food sovereignty mean in NZ and what does it look like?
  • How is it relevant?
  • How do we deal with the uncomfortable issues around privilege? 
  • In using the term are we co-opting a peasant movement to suit our relatively privileged ethics?
  • We do have real poverty in New Zealand and it often comes with social alienation. How can the food sovereignty movement (if there is one) address this? 
Please join in the discussion by posting a comment below.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Food, freedom and privilege

Right at the start of the Cold War the US and the USSR squabbled over how to construct human rights for the United Nations. The USSR wanted to talk about positive rights, eg: the right to have food, whereas the US only wanted rights worded in the negative: freedom from hunger.  It is a concise summary of the perspectives of these two very different empires.  It is an interesting thing to consider: what is more important, freedom to or freedom from? Are they even that different?

Freedom has been a recurring theme in my research so far.  There is a strongly held belief that people should have the freedom to choose what to eat, and in order to do that, they need the freedom to know what's in their food.  It has come up, recently, in relation to GM food and labeling. For years activists have been calling for compulsory labeling of GM ingredients but this seems to be an unpopular policy choice for businesses. I can see how it might be hard to institute. It is a shame that this freedom is considered little more than an inconvenience by corporate interests. Tracking down every last ingredient could be costly and time-consuming, not to mention things like GM animal feed which might have residue in the product.  The longer we don't have food labeling, the more difficult it will be to separate the contaminants.  So here there is both a demand for the freedom from GM and the freedom to have knowledge that might make that possible.

Food sovereignty has been closely connected to the anti GM/GE movement in Europe, and it's just one of the many food freedom issues. One of the great things about local food (yes, that's a value judgement) is that it takes freedom to a whole different level. If you know the woman baking your bread, the family who milk the cows that produce your milk and the group of people who make your pesto you can have an idea or their integrity and the integrity of the product. Of course, this analogy just reeks of privilege. There are plenty of people out there who can't afford pesto.

Which brings me to my next point. Freedom is a privilege. I'm really not saying that it should be, but unfortunately it often is. The freedom to easily participate in society is something many people can't afford and too often these are the people who crowd our prison system. Food freedom is a middle-class luxury too much of the time.  Farmers markets are mostly populated by well-dressed (if sometimes eccentric) white folk.

Whaingaroa is somewhat of a bubble, where class and privilege seem to break down a bit more than usual.  Lots of people here are on low incomes but have a high quality of life because they can grow their own food, share, and participate in community activities.  I know foragers and people who want to plant as many public fruit trees as possible. It's easy to help out in someone's garden and then share lunch with them or take home some of the harvest.  These are the invisible (and nontaxable) things that can overcome issues monetary privilege. It's certainly not the default world, but maybe it's a step in the direction of positive food freedom.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Staple Crops: New Zealand's biggest food weakness

"Staples?" a friend remarked. "Yes, it's very hard to get them from New Zealand - the ones that fit my stapler come from China." But seriously, the lack of locally-grown staple foods is a massive weakness in the food sovereignty and food security of this country (and probably other 'developed countries).  It's easy, in this sub-tropical climate to grow masses of tomatoes and zuccini in summer and brassicas all winter long. Those of us who don't garden can often access locally grown foods if we try, but the foods we have come to know as staples: grains (wheat, oats, barley, rice, rye etc), sugar, vegetable oils and dried legumes (chick peas, lentils, kidney beans etc) are mostly imported.  Even for avid vege gardeners, things like potatoes, kumara, garlic and onions are generally store-bought, supplied from big companies rather than more local soil.

Many of the people and communities I am researching have identified this as a major problem. They are able to grow all the fresh food they could ever want, but most don't even bother growing grains to mill into flour to bake bread and even though legumes are easy to grow, most people only grow fresh beans and lupins for mulch because the sheer quantity of chickpeas or lentils they consume makes it seem like too much hassle to even bother. I've only come across a few examples of people who do go to the effort and they are only growing enough to feed themselves.

Growing staples can be fiddly and most prefer particular climates.  Most grains don't like to get too damp and might do better in the climates in which vineyards abound.  Maybe rice could be grown in the temperate wet-lands up north.  I think the local organic co-op sources chick-peas from down south somewhere.  So if it's so tricky why bother?  Well, let's assume we can only rest on the laurels of contemporary society for so long before we're forced to change.

So, in the hypothetical situation that some global crisis happens and we don't have access to cheap imported foods anymore, what are we going to do?  Well, for a start, the obesity epidemic would no longer be a public concern. Neither would diabetes.  We wouldn't have to worry about the worst dietary evils: processed flour, sugar and trans-fat rich vegetable oil.   In fact, the more I think about it the more positive effects this crisis might have.  On the other hand - the most vulnerable members of society would go from being likely candidates of obesity and diabetes to likely candidates for starvation unless we figure out how to address this critical weakness.  I'm optimistic and envision every spare scrap of usable land overflowing with the food crops we can grow easily here all year round and accessible to anyone who wants it.

It would probably take a major food crisis to get New Zealand on a healthier diet. Never underestimate humanity's ability to adapt to a crisis.  But in the mean-time, there are lots of things we can do to strengthen our food supply.

1. Grow food.  This is obvious, I suppose, but most people don't do it. If you don't have land, find someone who does and garden with them or garden on their land. Land-sharing is an awesome way to produce and share produce. Get involved in community gardens that already exist or talk to people about starting one.

2. Buy local. This is such a popular slogan now, but seriously. The more local food we buy, the more we build healthy community economies rather than sending our cash off-shore. Increased demand for local food means increased supply.

3. Talk about it. You never know what the conversation might yield - you might find out about so-an-so who grows potatoes down the road or get organised with a group of neighbors to share in the growing of staple crops.

4. Track down the few NZ growers of grains and legumes and support them. I have heard of a couple in the South Island. If you know of any, can you please post them in the comments on this page?

5. Figure out how to live without staples.  Invent ways of eating less grains, sugar, veg oil etc. Think up interesting recipes and try them out. I made a chocolate pudding with Kumara a while ago. With all the intollerances going around there is a demand for grain-free recipes. Be creative.

Any other suggestions?

Monday, June 3, 2013

A Forager's Treasury: Johanna Knox

This book is both delightful and delicious.  No sooner had I bought it than I had to buy another one. The first copy has become an unexpected gift for a friend.  Everyone I know seems to be interested in food and foraging, to some extent or another and it's fantastic to have a contemporary resource based in New Zealand. A Forager's Treasury covers a range of plants, what they look like and what they're useful for. It also has a great recipe section at the back of the book - not just for food, but for skin care products as well. It even looks at plants that can be used for dye.

As Johanna points out in the introduction, times of economic scarcity bring about renewed interest in foraging.  This is also true for vege-gardening and considerate consumption patterns in general. People seem to take advantage in times of relative abundance and not worry too much about waste but in times of scarcity we tighten up our belts, preserve, conserve and forage.  I especially love how this book opens up new potential foods. As a child I was always told onion flowers were inedible, despite their distinctly oniony aroma, and I believed it until I read a Blog post of Johanna's about tempura battering them.  I still haven't tried it, but one of these days...

I first became aware of Johanna Knox about four years ago when she commented on one of my early Masters blog posts. I love how the internet works in linking people with similar interests and activities. I became a regular reader of her blogs, particularly Star-Cooked which had a lot of interesting information about solar cooking and foraging.  She has heaps of other blogs too.  It was through Johanna and Sandra that I became really interested in blogging and my Masters took a different direction.  I met Johanna in person at a Cafe in Wellington a few years ago. My toddler proceeded to lie on the floor of said cafe, her older child behaved in a much more socially responsible way, sitting at a table, while we talked about all sorts of things - food, politics, economics - fun stuff like that. I love meeting like-minded people.

Food foraging seems to intuitively relate to the concept of food sovereignty in its associated values and practice as well as in its vulnerability.  In order to forage for food people need to have the access to suitable wild landscapes and the knowledge of what to eat and when and how to prepare it. One of the key issues for food sovereignty is of people and communities having access to land.  We are lucky in New Zealand that there is heaps of stuff growing everywhere, but like most other places, we are faced with fewer and fewer truly 'public' spaces. We don't have commons for growing food or even many parks and road-side verges that aren't at risk of being sprayed with potentially harmful chemicals.

Dumpster-diving is often described as urban foraging.  The difference is that it relies on (and minimises) the waste created by corporate food systems rather than pre-existing organic matter that would simply bio-degrade and be recycled naturally.  Some people I know intentionally eat as much foraged food as possible - munching on plantain and dandelion leaves - in order to make use of what is already available as well as intentionally lessening dependence on 'the system' and saving money. I, personally, prefer the idea of munching on puha pakoras.