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.  

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Food, depression and the disconnect

Are the pies making us depressed, or is it just society?

One of the main problems with contemporary nutritional science is its blatant reductionism. The body systems and nutrition are incredibly complicated and science can only really pluck at stray threads or stare endlessly in pixels and then make gross generalisations - although to be fair, the grossness is usually the fault of the media.  I just Jennifer Bowden's recent nutrition column in the recent Listener magazine exploring the link between diet and mental health. Surprisingly good food for thought, considering my general opinion of generic mainstream nutritional information.  She sites a number of studies that show a correlation between conditions like depression and eating fast foods and commercial baked goods.

I can see a personal correlation here. I started craving high calorie processed foods at the onset of puberty.  Around the time I was eating gorging on spaghetti and cheese toasted sandwiches and pies I was also diagnosed with depression.  I'm not sure if being tired and overwhelmed with emotional turmoil makes me more likely to eat pies or the other way around. Bowden sites several longitudinal studies showing that over a period of 5 years the consumers of more Western, processed foods were more likely to go on to develop depression. It's not all that hard to believe.  This is the first time in history our bodies have been swamped with an onslaught of highly processed flour, sugar and vegetable oil.  After tens of thousands of years of various less-processed diets, we have only had fast-food for less than a hundred and while it's easy to swallow, it's notoriously hard to digest.  I wonder if the food-depression connection has anything to do with serotonin, one of the main brain chemicals involved in happiness, being produced in the digestive system.

Bowden's article has a lot of good points: winter correlates with emotional disorders; and it isn't all that hard to believe that more fresh fruits and vegetables, more home-cooked meals and less bakery pies and late night drive-through snack missions are good for overall mental health.  It certainly puts a different spin on comfort eating.  What is really missing here is the connection between processed food and the rest of Western society which is often experienced as alienating and blah.  Likewise, you can gorge on all the Mediterranean style meals you want and still be eating out of the lap of corporate consumerism rather than growing your own food (which I'm sure is good for mental wellbeing) or supporting community innitiatives (also warm and fuzzy).

One final thing that did bother me about Bowden's column is that she mentions winter and less vitamin D correlating with mood difficulties but, at the end of the article her description of a Mediterranean diet includes lean meats and fat free dairy.  Not only is this a very strange perversion of traditional Mediterranean food; ever heard of Greeks trimming all the far off their roast lamb? Ever heard of traditional fat-free Greek yogurt? It also blatantly disregards the vitamin D contained in animal fats.  To be fair, it's not her version of a Greek diet, she is just describing one that is being used in trials to see if it makes a difference in mental health.  I just wish our residual puritan terrified-of-fat contemporary Western nutritional paradigm would get some more perspective.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Is localisation a happy walk backwards?

There are no answers in this post, only questions.  I have started the fieldwork and interviews for my PhD looking at food sovereignty in New Zealand and one of the main ideals that has come across so far is that of localisation.  I, personally, am a fan of eating locally produced food - seasonal vegetables, milk from a near-by farm, sourdough bread baked down the road in an old-fashioned brick wood-fired oven, etc. But how local is local?  The baker certainly doesn't grow his own wheat, it's not grown around here.  Hardly any grains are grown in New Zealand.  Maybe localisation means that we start growing all the grains, seeds and pulses that are possible to grow in this climate and only import the essential things we can't grow (coffee and chocolate).

I am as likely as anyone to idealise simpler ways of doing things: growing and making your own food; buying or trading locally for other homemade goodies; avoiding highly processed foods with a plethora of unrecognisable ingredients; driving less and walking more; making your own skin and hair care products or living without them...  This all seems to make a lot of sense.  With food, particularly, we have developed and altered it so much that our bodies are having a hard time keeping up.  Critics argue that localisation is just another middle class fantasy that isn't practical for most of the world, although Via Campesina, the international peasant movement, assert that it is an important part of food sovereignty in the Global South.  I am interested in how these different worlds with similar ideals can meet.

I also wonder what this philosophy means in terms of technology.  I have grown up with computers and been attached to the internet and cell phones since I was a teenager.  The internet has done amazing things;  networking, sharing and communication have advanced social justice causes and exposed real conspiracies as well as facilitated the dissemination of a whole lot of cat memes, propaganda and made up conspiracies.  I'm not ready to live without any of these things, except maybe the last two.

When people talk about localisation often there is an underlying acknowledgement of peak oil or 'when the economy inevitably collapses'.  There is this projection of a different world, a less disposable world where resources and the environment are more valued, where we can no longer afford to waste, where we grow roof-top gardens in the cities and permaculture-up the public spaces.  There is no implicit rejection of all modern technology but there is the obvious possibility of it's loss.  Is it possible to envision a world where we can produce our own food but still have the internet - one of the largest power-suckers in the world?

The argument for progress at all costs is old and out-dated; the idea that technology will surely save us seems like it comes from a strange religious cult, but can we walk comfortably backwards while still advancing our collective thoughts, our social justice practices and our communication?