Monday, October 15, 2012


I recently got ethical approval from the University of Waikato Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Human Research Ethics Committee.  The process involved writing quite a long document to demonstrate that I have enough understanding and sensitivity not to endanger anyone in the course of my research.  It gave me many good opportunities to think about my research and clarify my objectives and resolve some childhood issues to boot.  Anyway.  Part of the ethical process I am going to follow is to write a blog post about ethics (this one).

If you want to know more about the ethics of my PhD research you can contact me using the form below or my email (confustulation (at) gmail (dot) com), alternately you can contact my supervisors: Dr Tom Ryan, email: tryan (at) or Dr Kellie McNeill, email: k.mcneill (at)

For general information about my research you can read my handy-dandy information sheet:

Shared Lunch: An Ethnography of Food Sovereignty in Whaingaroa and Beyond

Researcher: Isa Ritchie

General Information Sheet

I am currently undertaking a PhD in Anthropology looking at food sovereignty in Whaingaroa and wider New Zealand.  I want to look at grass-roots community-based initiatives that are involved in growing food or redistributing food that would otherwise be wasted, and to investigate how these might relate to the global food sovereignty movement.  I want to look at things such as food foraging, sustainable farming, community gardening, land sharing and wwoofing.

My research involves participating, observing and getting involved with community food-based activities.  I will try to actively help out and not just get in the way.  In doing this I hope to get a really good understanding of what’s going on.  I will also interview people who are involved in these activities to find out more about their thoughts and values.  I will then link this with what I am reading about food sovereignty on a global level. I am doing this research because there is not very much academic literature around this topic at the moment, particularly New Zealand based literature and I think it’s an important topic.

No one is paying for this research but I do have a scholarship from the University of Waikato to help me to do it.  The participants involved in this research may just be doing what they were already doing while I participate and observe; they may casually tell me things they want to tell me or they may sit down with me and answer questions for an hour or so.  All of this is voluntary.  Even if you know me outside of this research please feel no obligation to participate.  Participants decide their own level of involvement.  I want people to participate in this research only if they want to do it.

This research will be published as my thesis, copies will be held at the University of Waikato library, by the Anthropology department, and by me.  A digital copy will also be accessible online.  I hope that this research will lead to formal publications and that information about this can be widely disseminated to inspire other communities.  I am also open to co-creating future publications and presentations with participants if they are interested.  I will also present findings in an appropriate form to the Whaingaroa community.

This research project has been approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Any questions about the ethical conduct of this research may be sent to the Secretary of the Committee, email, postal address, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Te Kura Kete Aronui, University of Waikato, Te Whare Wananga o Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton 3240.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Personal is Political

The personal is political, according to the second-wave feminist slogan.  It is something that comes up in my mind from time to time as I am constantly navigating between public and private, as a writer and a researcher, choosing when to voice things and when to keep my discomforts to myself.  My masters research is an example of this.  I chose to leave criticism to the voices of others, between the lines, rather than taking it on myself.

The recent controversy over comments made by Summer Burstyn about a kiwi soldier killed in Afghanistan that lead to a 20,000 strong facebook lynch mob/hate group are a pretty obvious example of why moderating one's private thoughts can be a bloody good idea.  Sometimes sensitivity is more important than having an opinion, but this example frightened me because I relate to Burstyn's anti-war sentiments (if not to personally attacking dead people).

Robyn Morgan is explicitly personal in her memoirs.  I would be terrified of doing that myself.  I'm particularly uncomfortable about being public about 'private' things - notably sexuality and spirituality.  I have been wondering recently if my own discomforts are a product of social pathology; the dregs of repressed Victorian culture.  Probably.  Although I fear becoming one of those embarrassingly public people, if I overcome my discomforts I will still have a choice to disclose or not, navigated consciously rather than as an automatic reaction to discomfort.  After all, feminism is all about choice.

Lately I have been journaling binary existences - mapping my research in one notebook beside my bed and my personal writing in another.  Writing is always a process of externalising the internal and to some extent, making public the private, whether it is a fantasy world, deep dark secrets or documenting one's perception of events (bearing in mind that nothing coming from human beings is truly objective). So, in this blog post I am allowing the private and public to converge in an open way, crossing my two, normally separate blogs.

Writing fiction is, in some ways, safer than writing 'fact'.  Revealing personal facts can make us vulnerable to judgement.  We put ourselves on the line - hoping that people care enough to read it and that they don't criticize us too harshly.  Impersonal journalism or academic writing, is a safe way of writing 'fact': Play the game, follow the rules, and no one gets hurt.  It can be challenging in an academic system that's constantly changing; challenging itself, acutely insecure, reacting to criticism in precisely the way that fundamentalist religious groups do not.  My recent experiences of academics is that every time a theory is challenged they instantly agree and abandon it.  Perhaps that is one take on the meaning of my new word: reflexivity.

I write and research because I feel compelled to do something important (but don't necessarily know how).  Hence my PhD research topic exploring food sovereignty, and also the allegorical nature of my fiction.  I am often challenged by the thought that it won't attract a great deal of attention unless I really screw up and get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time like Summers.

In this globalised world anything we do can be looked at as either very significant or almost completely insignificant.  That is how I feel about my PhD, I alternate between the two.  I like to think that the interconnectedness of people means that one person's actions have a ripple effect, like some Zen Buddhist proverb, that a bunch of people growing fresh vegetables in a garden can contribute to greater positive change.  After all, we are not in isolation.  The things we do always have some effect.  Growing carrots may just be the most radical thing we can do.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Open Source Food

Imagine a world where DNA is open source and owned by the commons and can't be patented and exploited by corporations.

One of my ideas upon embarking on this food sovereignty/democratisation PhD was inspired by the internet and its freedom of information: the democratisation of knowledge, and how this ideology is being reflected in free-food activities like dumpter-diving, community gardening, land-sharing etc.  Knowledge and information can be reproduced and shared so easily, whereas food is limited by its tangibility.  I can't download an apple, but I can find someone on Oooby who has heaps to spare and wants me to cart some away.  I can find a food foraging website that can tell me where the nearby apple trees are, or, for a more long term investment, I could find someone who has heaps of land and wants to land-share and let me plant out some apple tree cuttings from Freecycle or some-such.

I'm really interested in ideas and activities around food and freedom.  The internet and the concept of open-source is inspiring.   This article on 'seed sovereignty' discusses how the Creative Commons concept is being taken up by the food sovereignty movement as a potential way of protecting DNA from corporate patenting.  If the original DNA of a plant is owned by 'the commons' (i.e. everyone), then a company like Monsanto who is only altering commonly owned DNA, as with modifications of open source software, cannot claim ownership over the DNA.  I'm not sure how feasible it is, it if companies like Monsanto can't patent DNA and sue farmers whose crops are unintentionally fertilized by Monsanto owned DNA etc, it would remove much of the profit motivation for GMO.

Along similar lines, this guy interviewed on National Radio is trying to practice open source living for a year, including only eating open source food.  I'm tempted to follow suit.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The real Planeteers: Food Sovereignty and La Via Campesina

If you grew up in my generation you probably watched Captain Planet and wanted to be a planeteer.  It wasn't just the magic rings, it was because saving our planet is the thing to do.  The more I look into the global politics of food, the harder it is to separate 'saving the planet' from saving ourselves as a species.  The struggle between the strangely named villains in the Captain Planet cartoon and those they attempted to exploit is parallel to the struggle between all-too-powerful corporate agribusinesses and the small farmers and peasants who produce most of the worlds food.  

“The global food crisis of 2007-2008, marked by skyrocketing food prices, urban food riots and the continued displacement of the rural poor, was a clear indication that the dominant model of agricultural development has not succeeded in eradicating poverty or world hunger.  In desperation, in Haiti, Bangladesh, Egypt, West and Central Africa and countless other locations, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets demanding affordable food.  Behind these highly visible events lurks the very real and ongoing human suffering caused by the lack of what key necessity for all human life – food.” (Wittman et al, 2010, p.1)

I've recently been reading about food sovereignty, a concept I wasn't too familiar with, but was more and more inspired by.  The UN has long promoted 'food security' which has been used as an excuse by large corporations to further dominate global food production - food sovereignty, on the other hand is a concept developed by La Via Campesina, the international peasant movement.  It is a direct challenge to the dominant agricultural model.  I must admit, before getting into the literature I had never heard about La Via Campesina.  But now I can't stop thinking about how awesome they are:

 “As an alternative model, peasants, small-scale farmers, farm workers and indigenous communities organized in the transnational agrarian movement La Via Campesina argue that the current, and linked, food, economic and environmental crises are in fact a result of decades of destructive economic policies based on the globalization of a neoliberal, industrial, capital-intensive and corporate-led model of agriculture.  La Via Campesina formed in 1993 and now representing 148 organisations from sixty nine countries, has become of the strongest voices of radical opposition to the globalization of an industrial and neoliberal model of agriculture, claiming that “the time for food sovereignty has come” (Wittman et al, 2010, p.2)

In 1996 at their second international conference LVC’s peasant and farm leaders no longer saw any potential in the 'food security' concept or the 'access to sufficient and nutritious food' that the concept promotes (maximum production) does not specify where said food originates, how and by whom. :

“Governments and agri-business have pursued  food security in promoting increased agricultural trade liberalisation and the concentration of food production in the hands of fewer, and larger, agri-business corporations… these contemporary policies aimed at food security offer no real possibility for changing the existing, inequitable, social, political and economic structures and policies that peasant movements believe are the very causes of the social and environmental destruction in the countryside in both the North and South.  To counter these … LVC proposed a radical alternative, one “directly linked to democracy and justice”, that put the control of productive resources (land, water, seeds and natural resources) in the hands of those who produce food.”(Wittman et al, 2010, p.3)

Food is political - despite your views of your own dinner plate.  You can't look at the global issues surrounding food production and scarcity (despite the masses produced) without making the connection to the failings of neoliberal ideology.  This is what has gotten us into the terrible mess we are in globally - there exist some universal truths - corporations are in it for the money and do not (as non-human profit-driven entities) care who gets exploited or who starves unless they can use the social awareness around a tragedy to further line their pockets. I have just read about at least a dozen examples of such underhanded manipulation.  Despite the obvious flaws here, supporters of the neoliberal ideology (or devout followers of neo-liberal religions) seem to think that the worlds food problems can be solved by exactly the same bullshit free-market theories that caused them in the first place:

“Some proponents of neoliberal globalization would have us believe that the crisis is the result of shortages and market failures… that the best way to keep up with a growing population is to prevent national governments from intervening in the market…”   (Wittman et al, 2010, p.1)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Ecologic and a Defense of Fair Trade

Does Fair Trade artificially inflate the market?  Well, I recently read Ecologic by Brian Clegg... so the basic premise of the book is to re-examine green issues and green-washing using reason/logic to as not to get too crazy.  Overall, the book makes some good arguments but tends to take giant leaps in the opposite direction.  For example, experiments on electromagnetic sensitivity didn't prove it existed (far from it) but they could not and were not designed to prove that such a thing does not exist as he suggests.  Proving something does not exist is pretty damn difficult - or perhaps impossible, if it's something we are not able to measure.  You may have no reason to believe in fairies but proving they don't exist is a whole different ball game.  Science isn't supposed to focus on immeasurable things, true, but assuming they don't exist is a tad arrogant and scientifically, just as preposterous as assuming they do exist.  I'm not one to wear tinfoil hats but I do tend to lean towards the side of least corporate interest in 'green' issues like climate change, GE, etc.  

One thing this book fails to do is acknowledge the huge influence of corporate interests like Monsanto and the ownership of genetically engineered grains (owning DNA is a concept I can't get my head around).  From a food sovereignty perspective, the point that Clegg makes about vitamin A in GE grains is null and void if it's owned by a corporation that only has an interest in its own profit margin.

Anyway, back to Fair Trade.  I cannot believe that someone attempting to use 'logic' can so easily adopt the obviously neo-liberal argument that Fair Trade could be artificially inflating the market.  Sure, it means that people start to get a fair living wage for their work (and when fair trade is done properly it shouldn't be just the small farmer who benefits, it should be the seasonal workers as well).  Oh, goodness, someone is being paid a fair amount that their neighbors are getting less - this seems like more impetus to promote Fair Trade to the people who can afford to pay for it so that it isn't just a couple of coffee farmers.  The more awareness is raised, theoretically, the better this could get.  The 'artificially inflating the market idea' seems particularly ironic: Fair Trade should really be the most free-market version of justice there is - it's entirely based on consumer demand.  Perhaps it is the concept of justice and morality (heaven forbid!) interfering with the market (which is the most natural and sacred structure on earth, evidently) that makes these economists so uncomfortable - I mean, if it was just fashion creating market inflation - say diamonds becoming popular due to clever marketing, well, that would be more natural, somehow - and the money would be going to the people (not artificially) shaping the market and those who own the shares.  Excuse the sarcasm.

Anyway, that is enough angry ranting for one day.  Wait a minute... stupid F^*(#@&(@%# neo-liberal bull#!@$!@$#% exploitation%#$&@$% that's everything wrong with the world!

Okay.  That's enough.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Garden of Praxis: a children's story to explain sociological theory

The following was developed for an honours theory paper.  It is a children's story about praxis.  The italicised sections of text are told in more of a fairy tale narrative using the first names of the philosopher characters: Georges Hegel, Karl Marx and Paulo Freire.  The non-italicised text uses their last names and gives more description.

The Story of Praxis

This is the story of Praxis, a mythology of sorts, stemming from the human tradition of fairy tales and Pakiwaitara observable all over the world in every corner of history.  It is an example of the praxis of story telling, and a reminder that this is all we ever do as we weave the fragile webs of academia. 

“The Garden of Praxis”

In the city of logic, in the land of modernism, everything was black and white lived a man named Georg.  Georg was bored of the city and its limits, he longed for something different, something bigger and more wonderful. 

Praxis grew out of an age of modernism, where logic was the primary dogma.  It all started with Hegel, for it was his idea of synthesis, of incorporating frameworks rather than excluding those that aren't 'right', that made it possible for Praxis to exist at all.  Or we could go back further and claim that for ideas to be synthesized they must have been separated in the first place, and we could accredit this to Descartes work, a century or two before, because he is well known for severing the body from the mind.  Or we could go back further to the Greeks or to the pre-literate societies we know so little about, because as Hegel himself points out, we are repeating this cycle throughout history.  But for now we will begin with Hegel, the mender of the schism was mended by Hegel, a pioneer of holism and the open mind.


One day a beautiful thing fluttered past.  It was a bright colour Georg had never seen before.  He told the people of the town, but they didn't believe him. “There is only black and white.” They said
Georg went to school and studied all the knowledge he could find.  All the modern books were black and white, but some of the oldest, dustiest books seemed to be different, they spoke of colours and plants and creatures, their pictures were strange and beautiful,  and there was a chance, Georg imagined, that they might once have been colourful. But there was nothing quite like the beautiful thing in the bright new colour he had seen flutter past.

So he went exploring. Outside the city limits he found a whole new world with a bright blue sky, filled with creatures and plants Georg had never seen before and each one seemed to have more amazing colours than the last.

Hegel, as a child in the 1700s was curious about the world, he wanted to understand it, not just in the objective way that scientists do.  He wanted to understand how his internal experiences related to what was happening in the world around him.  He read books and poetry, he studied the ancient philosophers and the contemporary, he watched the French revolution unfold and the siege of Napoleon and he sought to understand the intricate patterns of humanity, of mind and nature, the subject and object, of psychology, the state, history, art, religion, and philosophy. 


Georg went back to the city.  He tried to tell the people about the amazing world, but they did not believe him. “There is only black and white” They said.  “If there was colour, then our city could not possibly exist.”  That did not make sense to Georg.  He knew that it was possible for black and white and colour to exist all at the same time.  So he went back outside the city limits and he asked the creatures there.  The creatures said nothing, so Georg watched and observed.  He saw how the rain seemed to make the plants glow, he saw how the smaller plants must grow into large trees, he saw the seedlings and he thought “If I could bring this into the city, then they would understand.”

So Georg went about collecting the seeds of all of the magnificent plants, the trees and flowers and the sweet fruits.  He gathered them together and brought them back to the city of Logic.  He found some bare ground that no one was using and he dug it up, mixing the black and white, turning it to grey.  He planted the seeds in the ground and watered them, like the rain.  And he waited.
The people stood around and they said “This will not work.”

Georg waited and waited, white the people called him names, convinced that he was a fool.  They forgot about Georg and his astounding ideas that must be crazy and they went back to their lives and their jobs, meanwhile Georg waited, and waited and waited.  Nothing happened.  He went back to the amazing world outside the city and he watched and observed more.  He saw how the leaves would fall from the plants and turn brown on the ground, he wondered if this ground was different to the ground in the city because of the leaves falling for so long.  He put mounds of leaves into a bag and brought them back to the city of Logic.  He sprinkled them onto the earth he had dug up and he watered them again.  The earth turned brown and still he waited...
One morning Georg noticed he was not the only one watching and waiting, a group of children gathered round, they pointed at the ground and smiled, and talked to eachother in hushed voices.
Georg looked closely at the earth he had so lovingly prepared and saw, to his utter joy and amazement, a tiny shoot emerging from beneath the dirt and leaves in a bright, beautiful colour.
The people gathered round again.  Some still said he was crazy, some moved quickly along and went back to their jobs, some were interested and they stood with Georg and watched the miraculous garden grow.  Some people became angry and yelled at Georg, “it is all an illusion, an illusion.” they said “This is a waste of time, we all know what is really real and it is black and white.”
But Georg didn't listen to them.  He said “look, we have room enough in this city for the black and white and for the colours.  We don't just have to have one or the other.” And he watched and waited, as more and more shoots began to grow and more and more colours emerged.

Hegel became a professor at various universities and wrote books about his ideas.  Throughout his life he had witnessed much conflict between people, countries and ideas and he discovered a solution; very different ideas could be incorporated together in philosophy, contradictions could co-exist, and indeed, all sides of a story would be necessary for absolute knowledge to exist.


Many years later Karl came along and saw the beautiful garden that Georg had created.  It had grown wild and some people liked it, others said it was a mess and that the city should go back to being black and white. 
Karl sat in the garden and he thought and thought.  He thought about all the good work Georg had done in creating the garden and bringing colour and new life into the city of logic and he came up with a name for the garden.  “This is the garden of Praxis!” He said, “Because this garden was created through the great ideas of Georg, combined with his real work.” He thought of all the scholars sitting up in the black towers of logic, thinking all day and never doing anything.  “What use is that?” He wondered.  He thought of how the people in the city lived, spending all their time working hard and never being happy, and he had an idea “If we all grew these gardens, we would have enough sweet fruits for everyone to eat, the people wouldn't have to work all day, and they could be happy and enjoy their lives.

Karl tended the garden, and other people helped him.  Together they explored the world for new seeds so they could plant more seeds of sweet fruit trees and vegetables, in every colour and flavour imaginable into the garden.  They dug up more land and made the garden bigger. 
Along came Marx, a man from the upper classes who chose to spend his life campaigning for the working class.  Marx is well known for many things, particularly for the role of his ideas in the Russian revolution and other similar movements around the world.  It was he who re-created the concept of Praxis, originally a Greek word related to action.  Marx saw Hegel's Dialectic as revolutionary in it's ability to include many different perspectives previously ignored by people in power.  He borrowed Hegel's concept of integration and also Feuerbach's idea that the physical world and material satisfaction are important.

Marx was a very practical man, he is well known for saying “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways—the point however is to change it”. To Marx, theory and philosophy were useless if they did not seek to change the world, and action, without theory could be futile. To remedy this Marx constructed Praxis as the synthesis of theory and praxis.  Praxis was about taking philosophy out of it's lofty tower and putting thoughts to work in the real world in order to change the world.  Praxis was revolutionary.
When Karl was very old and tired, he handed the garden over to his friends and followers.  One of them was Paulo. 


Paulo liked what Karl had done with the garden, and he had been happy to help him, but he also had ideas of his own.  “We have been growing so many plants in this place.” He said to the other gardeners, “But not everyone in the city is able to eat them.  Why don't we teach the other people in the city to grow their own gardens, with the fruits that they will enjoy, then everyone can have enough delicious food to eat and enjoy their lives.”  “How will we do that?” asked the other gardeners, “What if they don't want to learn?”  Paulo thought about this for a while.  He saw a boy on the street and he asked him “Little boy, what is important to you?  The little boy said “I like to play sports with my dad.” Paulo nodded, “Does he play sports with you enough?” “No,” said the boy, frowning “He is always working so that he can feed our family.”  Paulo was very interested in this, he asked the boy “What if you and your father, and your whole family could grow your own food together, delicious food like the fruits in this garden, and then you would all have more time together and spare time to play sports.” The little boy looked at Paulo and smiled, then he ran off to find his father.

Paulo went back to the other gardeners.  “I have figured it out!” He said.  “This is the way we can teach people – we must find out what they really want to learn and why, and then we can help them to learn it.  This is the best way to teach because we can do it with love and humility, with respect and creativity, and through this we can help people to think for themselves, to choose their destiny and to grow their own food.  Together we can turn the whole city of Logic into a garden of Praxis!”
Freire drew on Marx's ideas.  He envisioned society as one liberated through education.  He didn't agree with the kind of education he saw in schools, where children were treated like knowledge banks, being deposited full of information.  He didn't see education as something that should be instructed or forced on people.  He believed in learning empowerment.  He thought that if people could learn about what they were passionate about they would learn much more quickly.  He thought critical consciousness was necessary in real learning and communication.  He wanted to help people in developing the ability to act  reflect on action and act in light of their reflection.  This is his action-reflection cycle.

Freire believed that through praxis human beings create and recreate society.  He thought that praxis required self determination, intentionality, creativity and rationality.   He developed a system for people to learn about the world through a process he called 'dialogue'.  He said   “Dialogue cannot exist, however in the absence of a profound love for the world and for men.  The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love.  Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself. It is thus necessarily the task of responsible Subjects and cannot exist in a relation of domination. Domination reveals the pathology of love: sadism in the dominator and masochism in the dominated.”  Freire's ideas have been used, with great success in Cuba, with their literary campaign, and other places around the world.  Although they have amazing potential to educate people they have not gained much popularity in the Western world, probably because they create a gateway for people to become more political which is something governments would find difficult.

So what is praxis?

Praxis is the union of the mind and the body, of thoughts and actions, of theory and practice. 
Praxis is empowering and transformative.  It is the process through which philosophy can impact reality, to create positive change.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What am I doing and where am I going?

When I first had this idea for a PhD topic I was pretty excited about it.  Now I'm at that natural point, which occurs early on in any thesis, of wondering what the hell I'm doing.  Defining my topic is tricky.  I want to look at free food, at food activism, at food democratisation (what does that mean?)... what's all this about food sovereignty?  I've come across twenty or so books published in the last three or four years with this in the title... and pretty much nothing on food democratisation.

Before I go completely insane and words stop having any coherent meaning at all I need to re-capture that excitement.  What was it that inspired me?  Who do I want to interview?  What is it, particularly about 'free food' - outside of the monetary system that is so special when there's lots of really neat local ventures that use ordinary money that I could also be tempted to look into?

Kaiwhenua organics down the road, Mike who sells his organic milk raw and Aaryn who bakes sourdough bread in the traditional wood-powered bakers oven he built himself would all make really awesome case studies, and there's no reason why I couldn't write about them in the future.  But I probably need to stick to the 'free-food' concept lest my thesis becomes too sprawling.

So what is free food?  Although I don't like the sentiment of they saying "There's no such thing as a free lunch", I agree that nothing is really free, that is, everything is interconnected.  Food has to be produced by someone/something drawing resources from somewhere else - even wild foraged food is produced within and by its eco-system.  I want to focus on food outside of the monetary system, but community garderners may spend money on garden supplies.  Even freegans subsisting entirely out of supermarket dumpsters are likely to use money for petrol get to the dumpsters - if they're car-free they may need bike repairs - there are very few people in industrialised capitalist society that don't use money at all.

I want to focus on practices that either generate food (largely) outside of the corporate food system and aren't bought or sold using conventional currency or that glean food that would otherwise be wasted, and, therefore, do not contribute to the corporate food system.  I'm interested in concepts such as abundance, scarcity, freedom, community and participation - and I'm interested in what people involved in this sort of thing think and their lived experiences.

Well, that clarifies things a bit.  I suppose, in looking at the literature, there's not much written specifically on this topic - especially in New Zealand - and so everything I'm reading is sending me in a slightly different direction which makes my head spin and my brain turn to jelly.  Maybe it's time to invest in some ginkgo tea - or better yet - find a ginkgo tree and forage.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Food Bill - not what you think?

It sounds so ominous - a piece of legislation that has attracted more attention in New Zealand in recent months than even our rushed through anti-terrorist and anti-piracy debacles.  When I first read about the potential for this legislation to criminalise the gifting or bartering of home-grown vegetables and home made jams or of seed saving and WWOOFing I was a little bit terrified.  I even tried to read the legislation to see if all these accusations were true or just some kind of fast-spreading internet fear virus perpetuated by the scare-mongering media.  Somewhere in the hundred or so nonsensical pages I discovered that I can't actually read legislation.  So I waited and read the things people posted on Facebook, sometimes anxiously and sometimes cynically, depending on my mood.

However, I've just read an email that significantly altered my perceptions.  Maybe this is old news and my passive way of receiving information is not particularly effective, either way, it's news to me.  This was one of the email attachments.  So, if we can believe anything a Govt. website says at face value, the current food legislation makes sausage sizzles and bake sales illegal (somewhat ineffectively), whereas the new Food Bill, far from stripping our food sovereignty down to its knickers, actually frees us up, legally, to do what we were already doing anyway.  Apparently: "The Food Bill takes a flexible, risk-based approach to the production of safe food" and appears to focus on commercial food manufacturers and the safety of the food they produce.  That doesn't sound too bad (especially if you're not a food manufacturer).

So what about growing food at home and giving it away? 

5. What’s not covered in the Food Bill?

The Food Bill does not cover food grown at home or made for personal consumption, any food given away or shared with anyone.
It is an age old Kiwi tradition for people to grow food for themselves, share their excess homemade food with friends or neighbours, or to hold pot luck dinners. The Food Bill will not prevent food being given away or shared with anyone, including food grown at home.
Technically bartering is counted as trading under the current food bill, although Govt. expresses that the bill is aimed at commercial bartering turning a blind eye to all that under-the-table zucchini swapping that we are going to do anyway without tithing to the IRD.

Now to the nitty gritty.  We all know that seed saving/swapping and WOOFers are really neat and important (at least in my opinion), so is this law actually a threat to such lovely activities?  That's an interesting one.  It turns out it was, originally, and maybe it's only since we all kicked up a fuss on Facebook and started signing online petitions that the bill has been altered:

9. Will the Food Bill cover seeds or WWOOFers?

No. The sale or trade of seeds for planting and providing food to Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOFers) was unintentionally captured in the original Bill. The Minister for Food Safety has asked MAF to ensure food producing plants, plant material, seeds and providing food to WWOOFers are not covered. The change will be made in a Supplementary Order Paper (SOP) when the Bill is again considered by Parliament.

Unintentionally captured my ass.  I bet there was someone who had a vendetta against these unregulated free-spirited activities - or maybe that's just my paranoia kicking in.  Either way, they're safe for now.  On the subject of paranoia, I was suspicious that all this food tightening was in line with US law as part of a forecasted free trade agreement.  Who know, maybe it is, but apparently it's not some kind of World Trade Org thing: 

15. Is the Food Bill about meeting obligations under the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement and obeying the Codex Alimentarius?

No. The Food Bill is the result of our own Domestic Food Review. The Bill is not copied from or influenced by the legislation of any other country. It has been written in New Zealand for all food sold and made in New Zealand, whether it is for the domestic or export market.

So, if we can trust the good old Govt. it doesn't seem too scary after all, influenced, so it seems, by online participant driven activism and public outcry.  Or maybe it's all a scam and they're just telling us what we want to hear.  Until I learn to read legislation I will never know.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Collaborative Consumption

When Ray Anderson, founder and CEO of Interface, the worlds largest commercial carpet company, decided to go environmentally friendly he also realised he had so stop selling carpets - and rent them instead.  This seemed to work out well for their customers who had the carpets serviced and replaced when they got old and meant that Interface could take the old material and recycle it into fancy new carpets.  What a wonderful idea.  Last year on a visit to our local recycling and refuse centre, Xtreme Waste, I was struck by how much waste is created by corporations - like Coca Cola with their plastic bottles - and yet the responsibility and cost of their disposal is redistributed to people and the environment.  Why aren't these companies made responsible for the waste they manufacture and market?  Imagine a world where it was illegal to sell a plastic bottle, one simply rented the plastic for a period of time, consumed the content and returned it to its manufacturer to deal with at their cost.

I'm currently reading What's Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers.  It's a damn good book documenting and promoting the development of a new consciousness around consumption where possession and ownership are overlooked in favor of the use and usefulness:

"The relationship between physical products, individual ownership, and self-identity is undergoing a profound evolution.  We son't want the CD; we want the music it plays.  We don't want the answering machine; we want the message it saves... in other words, we want no the stuff but the needs or experiences it fulfulls.  As our possessions "dematerialize" into the intangible, our preconceptions of ownership are changing, creating a dotted line between "what's mine," "what's yours," and "what's ours."  This shift is fueling a world where usage trumps possession." (Page 97.)
This book explores a number of examples including tool lending libraries and the like, car sharing, clothes swapping, spare room rentals, and land-sharing networks (of particular interest in my line of study) where people who have unused land allow people who want to grow food to garden on said land and the produce is shared.  It also briefly describes the beginnings of some of the bizarre practices (now so common they are part of the cultural goldfish bowl water that we barely notice) like credit cards (to spend all they money you don't have on things you don't need) and rented storage space (to house all the stuff you don't need, but can't bare to give away.)  The latter, according to this book, has grown exponentially since it's post WW2 creation, so that every person in the United States could comfortably stand in the amount of rental storage space the US has.  Sometimes when I read about these ridiculous things I want to start quoting the Cheshire Cat and hanging from the rafters.  But when I read about the changing consciousness around ownership it gives me tingles and warm fuzzies. 

Monday, May 7, 2012


Well, that might be an overstatement.  I officially enrolled in a PhD at the start of April.  So far, I've read one book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, by Tristram Stuart and taken quite a few notes that may or may not be relevant and useful but are definitely interesting.

So basically, from farm to table, the developed world wastes around 50% of all the food we produce.  That's pretty scandalous.  Stuart comes across as a pretty frugal sort, and, as a freegan/journalist he has seen the inside of a few dumpsters in his time.  He doesn't like waste.  That's for sure.  I don't like the thought of wasting billions of tonnes of perfectly good food while more than a billion people starve in this world, and while not cleaning your plate won't do much - directly - to influence the starving children in Africa, Stuart argues that conspicuous consumption in the West and our great hoarding of surplus means there is less food for the poor to eat on the global market.  I'm not 100% convinced.  Yes, this system is F#%*ed but buying less and wasting less might just lead to producing less globally - rather than the equal redistribution of rations.  If developed countries stopped buying so much of the world's grains there would be less money in that industry and poorer nations might well focus on making cell phones or bio fuel or something else.  As I have heard many times: we don't have a food shortage, we have a distribution problem.

While visiting friends up north who has massive permaculture gardens I was impressed with his attitude to abundance and waste.  "We don't have waste." Mike said, throwing a bunch of edible vegetables in the the scrap bin.  "Everything that doesn't get eaten goes back into the soil."  I liked that.  I enjoy abundance.  That's a pretty human thing, isn't it?  Scarcity scares me.  I reckon animals behave much better (for the most part) in states of abundance - there's generosity and no need to fight over scarce resources.  That's the feeling that I get being at Burning events, where no money is needed and there's a culture of gifting.

Abundance can make people behave irrationally - wastefully - indulgently, but it can also bring out the best in people.  Stuart describes “…the ceremony known as ‘potlatch’ observed among native peoples such as the Kwakiutl, in the American north-west, Canada and Alaska.  In the potlatch ceremony, chiefs  invited guests from neighbouring villages and gave away box-loads of fish and whale oil, dried fish, heaps of blankets, furs and ceremonial masks.  Fish oil would be poured onto the fire or guzzled  in competitive feasting events. (Stuart, 2009, p.176)."  Despite the appearance of irrationality, potlatch is said to have  benefited the society as a whole.  Similarly in Melanesia and New Guinea the ‘big man’ encouraged extra production in order to give more food away, generating more food production and redistribution between villages.  Through overproducing the contemporary food industry resembles a potlatch – resulting in an epidemic of obesity – yet much of the food is not redistributed to those who need it most.

Over-producing food also means that when crops face devastation, rather than suffer a famine, developed countries simply waste a little less than usual.  If this kind of abundance wasn't over-exploiting limited natural resources and contributing to environmental destruction - or so unevenly distributed - it would be a pretty sweet deal.  If we could produce food in a more sustainable way, distribute it more evenly, and efficiently recycle the waste in the ways that Stuart suggests (his preferred options are in this order: Pig feed, bio gas, compost) then would producing more than we can eat, and the resulting abundance, be such a bad thing?