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.