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?