Food evolution and health in Aotearoa, part three: Consumerism

The first post in this series explored colonisation, and the second explored industrialisation as formative forces in our food system. This post explores the impact of consumerism.

food evolution aotearoa

Consumerism

This video traces the origins of consumerism to the 18th century. It coincides with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. It poses an interesting question: could we design a society where consumerism and high-mindedness are not polar opposites – might we have wealth and virtue, rather than the stark choice of consumerism or poverty?

Consumerism was supercharged after World War Two. Industrial capacity mushroomed to equip the war effort and all of that enterprise had to find new markets. Marketers aligned production systems with a rethinking of societal design, to optimise market opportunities. The industrial machine was at full steam and needed willing customers. Victor Lebow articulated a new creed of consumerism.

“Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption… We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.” (Victor Lebow, in the Journal of Retailing, 1955)

The marketers had new tools to shape the developing consumerist culture. Television offered unprecedented access for marketers into family homes.

“And television achieves three results to an extent no other advertising medium has ever approached. First, it creates a captive audience. Second, it submits that audience to the most intensive indoctrination. Third, it operates on the entire family. “(Victor Lebow, in the Journal of Retailing, 1955)

Another foundation of the consumerist culture were the concepts of planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence as explained in this video (starting at 12 minutes 40 seconds).

Perhaps the purest expression of perceived obsolescence (so far) is the smart phone, with new models offing possibly a marginally larger screen or a flasher camera, generating shopping frenzy. What’s next?

Consumerism and food

At the heart of many of the problems we identify with food is its change of status from something for nourishment to a marketable commodity. The need for industrial food manufacturers to enable food to last on long journeys to market and in warehouses and on shop shelves has necessitated processing. Sugar and salt preserve. Pasteurisation slows down decomposition and dehydration and chemical additives extend shelf life.

Unlike industrialisation and colonisation consumerism appears to march on virtually uncontested. Victor Lebow and his like have shaped our behaviour more profoundly than he ever could have imagined.

 

Conference videos are out!

Thanks to Channel North for doing a great job of covering our conference. Thanks also to Northland Inc for supporting production of these videos. This short video provides an overview of the conference.

We are in the process of uploading videos and you can access them from our conference pages.

Here is the first of our two keynote speakers, Anne Palmer of the Center for a Livable Future  at Johns Hopkins University.

What is policy and how do we change it?

How change happens duncan greenOn the cusp of establishing a Northland Food Policy Council (or whatever we might call it) I have stumbled across a book that has thrown a lot of light on the policy universe. In How Change Happens, Duncan Green shares his knowledge as a long-time advocate for change. The book is available for sale, but is also free on Duncan’s website. The complexity of the policy environment is perhaps best expressed in the author’s quote of former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

“In establishing the rule of law, the first five centuries are the hardest”.

This poses a compelling challenge for New Zealanders. Our nation is less than two centuries old. But hopefully we aren’t in for another three centuries of hard work. After all, we have the legacy of tikanga, British law and a broader and deeper legacy pieced together over humanity’s long social evolution.

Two pathways – global and local

Two trends encourage. The first is the growing body of international policy ranging from law to aspirational statements. Two highly relevant to sustainable food systems are the Sustainable Development Goals and the Global Economic Ethic. The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems are also shaping policy discourse at the global level. This trend seeks to distill universal values and principles to guide our peaceful and prosperous development.  For example, the Global Economic Ethic  advocates of the “principle of humanity” as the ethical yardstick for all economic action based on sustainability, respect, fair cooperation and the Golden Rule. These are underpinned by basic values for doing business globally:

  • non-violence and respect for life
  • justice and solidarity
  • honesty and tolerance
  • mutual respect and partnership.

The other emerging trend is toward greater local autonomy and self-determination. While hegemonic forces herd us like sheep towards a bland global consumerist culture, there is an encouraging shift in the opposite direction towards localism. Ideally, the most basic social unit, the family, will have autonomy to act within the broad parameters of evolving global policy.

global and localIn the context of food, ideally families will have choice to eat food that nourishes without their perception being clouded by commercial considerations – especially the rapacious food and medical corporations that privilege profit over health and well-being.

Valuing pluralism

According to Google, pluralism is “a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, sources of authority, etc., coexist.” In New Zealand, almost two centuries on from the birth of our nation we are struggling to come to terms with pluralism. Nineteenth century assumptions of European superiority created homogenising conceptions of right and wrong. Some are still clinging to a Eurocentric view of the world. From this perspective the only valid law comes from Western sources and the maxim “one law for all” dominates.

Before Europeans arrived here, Māori society functioned on its own indigenous policy framework – tikanga. The Māori Dictionary’s definition of tikanga embraces a range of synonyms for policy and related social regulation:

“The correct procedure, custom, habit, lore, method, manner, rule, way, code, meaning, plan, practice, convention, protocol – the customary system of values and practices that have developed over time and are deeply embedded in the social context.”

Tikanga is itself pluralistic as it varies from place to place, and the authorities are the people of any particular location. Many Pākehā have struggled to accomodate tikanga in an unwavering belief in “one law for all” (as long as they get to determine who makes those laws). An example is the justice system. Although Māori constitute 15% of the population, they account for 51% of the male prison population. But attempts to develop the mare-based justice system are stymied by the “one law for all” mantra. Duncan Green observes that “customary (indigenous) law is often about making peace and reconciliation, rather than establishing guilt and redress” (page 104). Customary law can also be brutal. Duncan green advises us to both avoid a “west-is-best bias and a naive romanticism about the woking of customary systems” (page 106).

However, we can achieve a greater synergy between these two traditions in ways that best serve local communities. Can you see a future where this is the case? Do you pass F. Scott Fitzgerald’s intelligence test?

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

There are signs of hope as co-governance agreements between Māori authorities and the crown become more common. The recent determination of the Whanganui River as a legal “person” is an encouraging sign. Is this any stranger than a corporation being a legal person (as they have been for the last 150 years)?

The interaction of the various actors involved in developing food policy in new Zealand will be greatly enhanced by Māori input. Ever since the accelerated alienation of their land in the mid 1800s, Māori have engaged in the struggle for justice, working through the courts and government. Their longer-term view of investment, focus on kaitiakitanga and commitment to retaining the land make them a powerful constituent of the food movement.

This is an attempt to explore some elements of policy. More will follow.

Food evolution and health in Aotearoa

Our focus at Local Food Northland is about the shift from industrial food systems to sustainable food systems. For us to better understand our current food system reality, we look back to look forward. This is the first of three posts to explore the tides of history that have shaped our food system.

Two hundred years ago was mostly populated by Māori and they ate mostly fresh food – some was dried for preservation or perhaps fermented. Over the last two centuries our dietary patterns have changed dramatically. In conjunction with changes in health care we have longer life spans, but the consequence of our twenty first century diet is an alarming increase in diet-related disease. As my colleague at NorthTec, Nigel Studdart writes:

We are what we eat and what we are becoming is an increasingly overweight and unhealthy population.

There are three major drivers of dietary change in Aotearoa, the impacts of colonisation, industrialisation and consumerism.

food evolution aotearoa

Colonisation

Before the arrival of Europeans, Māori were isolated in Aotearoa and there was therefore no imported food. Neither was food processed beyond cooking, drying or fermenting.

1700s garden

This image from Te Ara is an artist’s impression of a 1700s garden in the Auckland region (drawing by Nancy Tichborne). 

Gardens were community enterprises with crops grown including taro, hue (gourds) and kumara. Helen Leach’s book 1,000 Years of Gardening in New Zealand documents pre-colonial gardening. It includes a drawing by one of Captain Cook’s crew of an East Coast garden with kumara, yam, taro and gourd.

According to Te Ara (The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand) Māori had a life expectancy of about 30. This is low, but better than that of Britain at the time. But “by 1891 the estimated life expectancy of Māori men was 25 and that of women was just 23 (Te Ara). We cannot attribute this to diet, as disease, alienation from land, war, and war’s inevitable consequence, poverty, saw population decline and life expectancy reduce.

Māori adapted quickly to the new foods bought by Europeans, soon producing large quantities of food including potatoes, fruit and meat. By the mid 1800s, Māori were producing flour in their own mills from their own wheat.

Imported foods began to supplement local diets and the appetite for sugar was such that the Chelsea Sugar Refinery was established in 1883. Sugar is increasingly associated with the incidence of non-communicable disease (NCDs). In a food environment where Māori were struggling with the aftermath of war, European diseases, land alienation and the impact of tobacco and alcohol, sugar became another health burden. The world view of the colonialists was shaped in part by social Darwinism and assumption of the innate superiority of Europeans, especially English. In this context, Dr Isaac Featherson said it was the duty of Europeans to “smooth down … [the] dying pillow’ of the Māori race.” Thus the food landscape for Māori in the second half of the nineteenth century was not conducive to health.

The communal approach to gardening was probably one factor that enabled Māori to sustain and recover the population.

Maori population graph

This graph (from Te Ara) shows Māori population from 1841 to 2006.The decline post-Treaty took almost a century to recover. Arguably, the homogenising of assumptions of colonisation continued largely uncontested and dissenting voices unheard through the middle decades of the twentieth century.  The Māori renaissance of the late twentieth century laid the foundation for reshaping the food environment, but the forces of industrialisation and consumerism invoked another form of colonisation that dominated the food landscape as we shall see in the next two posts on this topic.

 

 

 

Localising food, climate change and the implications for food security in eastern Northland

By John Clarke
The 2016 Climate Change Projections for NZ  predict that the eastern half of Northland will experience hotter, drier summers with less winter rain and frosts. Droughts will become more common, as will extreme weather events. Relative humidity will decrease and evapotranspiration will increase. I believe that planning our landscapes to meet these changes will increase our chances of successfully localising our food supply.
Recently there has been interest in developing a tropical fruit industry in Northland. I suggest that by adopting mixed plantings of alley crops on contour with appropriate soil building techniques (such as the Yeoman’s plough on contour), water harvesting techniques (such as swales and vetiver grass), and minimisation of soil cultivation through direct reseeding, I believe that we can reduce risks while maximising production, minimising input costs, maximising soil water absorption, minimising evapotranspiration, and reduce stress on aquifers (from pollution and overuse).
For instance, monoculture banana plantations are decimated by extreme weather events. The world’s main banana crop, the Cavendish, is under threat from the Panama disease fungus which already exists in Australia and there is no known treatment. Therefore, developing a banana monoculture industry would seem high risk. An alternative would be to form landscapes that maximise water collection at swales and on-farm dams (whenever we resort to aquifers for irrigating, we engage in an ultimately unsustainable agriculture). Landscape resilience could be increased by alley cropping a mixture of bananas on contour with an Alan Savory style livestock grazing system and further refine that with multi-species grazing. This would build soil organic matter rapidly and even more so with annual use of a Yeoman’s plough. Nutrient, microbe and water holding capacity of the soil could be enhanced by the addition of biochar and avoidance of soil cultivation.
To increase the protection of the banana crops to strong winds and evapotranspiration, alternate alleys could be planted with trees crops, and banana alleys could be interspersed with nitrogen fixing trees such as honey locust. The bananas (which would ideally be planted in the damper ground below swales) could be planted with taro, and probably within 5 years, with ginger and turmeric.
A mixed cropping landscape would increase food security by better enabling a yield in years of extreme weather.
The photograph of Mike Shepherd’s New Forest Farm below, is an example of the way a farm can be designed to withstand climate change and extreme weather while providing a wide range of yields.
newforestfarm

Permadynamics – New Zealand’s largest plantation

Permadynamics has the largest banana plantation in New Zealand: over 200 productive clumps, each of which produces between 60 and 70 kilos of fruit per year. Klaus Lotz and his family primarily grow Ladyfinger bananas (aka Misi Luki), but they also grow a smaller tangier Cavendish-like variety known as Goldfinger.

This post is based on an article written in Organic NZ Magazine written by Theresa Sjoquist. The article is also reproduced on this website to compile a resource on banana growing in Northland.

klaus-lotz-in-banana-plantation-at-permadynamics

 

Klaus Lotz of permadynamics among his bananas

The local motive

Thanks to all of those who attended our conference. It was all about supporting the shift to sustainable food systems, characterised by strong integration of health systems and primary production systems.

We drew on the experience of those in the state of Vermont in the U.S. While it has a colder climate than ours, and a shorter growing season, there are strong similarities. Vermonters have produced a series of videos, The Local Motive, outlining the challenges and successes in moving toward a sustainable food system. The first is Production. It addresses the challenge of supporting those who aspire to establish new farms or gardens or growing existing enterprises. What is evident is a rich network of support for those that grow food.

Here is a link to the video and others in the series.

the-local-motive

 

Food hubs

At our Local Food Northland Conference, we have a panel on food hubs. Most Northlanders don’t have direct experience of food hubs, so this video from Farm to Institution New England illustrates how food hubs can support the development of local food production, the downstream economy and jobs, and consumers.

Managing agrobiodiversity and our conference

Professor Barbara Burlingame, professor of Public Health (Nutrition) is a keynote speaker at our conference. She has recently contributed to a chapter in Maintaining Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems published by Bioversity International.

managing-agrobiodiversity

Cover of Maintaining Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems executive summary. Photo credit: Planting rice in Nepal. Bioversity International/Sriram Subedi, LI-BIRD, Lamjung.

The executive summary of the 2017 publication is available now.

Ann Tutwiler, the Director General of Bioversity International prefaces the document by stressing the importance of linking up and learning from diverse dimensions of biodiversity.

The book is the first step in the process of creating such an index, which can measure agricultural biodiversity across different dimensions. The concept grew from the observation that juxtaposing data from very different fields connected with agricultural biodiversity can yield novel and practical insights. There is a need to measure and understand biodiversity in rapid, cost-efficient ways, going beyond just numbers, to connect also with policy decisions by countries and companies on best practices to foster diversity. Expected benefits are to be able to identify and steer opportunities for change towards sustainable food systems, and to be able to better measure and manage progress towards global targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Private companies and finance institutions are also interested in its applicability to measure the sustainability of investments, green bonds and company purchasing policies, while farmer organizations and consumer associations can use it to in influence programmes and policies. (page 5)

The dimensions referred to here are:

  • Diverse, healthy diets
  • Multiple benefits in sustainable farming systems
  • Seed systems delivering crop diversity for sustainable food systems
  • Conserving agricultural biodiversity for use in sustainable food systems.

Professor Burlingame contributed to chapter two, Agricultural biodiversity for healthy diverse diets. This chapter focuses on the desirability of diverse sustainable food systems delivering nutritious food to people.

bioversity

This image from chapter two shows a scene repeated around the world as communities come together to improve access and knowledge of healthy nutritious food. Its gratifying to know that in pursuing local food we are part of a global movement.

I am looking forward to learning about this from the professor.

 

Why the food movement is unstoppable

jonathan-lathamIn this remarkable article Dr. Jonathan Latham outlines 5 reasons why the food movement is unstoppable:

  • it’s a leaderless movement
  • it’s a grassroots movement
  • it’s international
  • it’s low-budget
  • it’s a movement of many values.

He asks “could the food movement be the missing vehicle for transformative social change?”

His conclusion encourages those supporting the move from industrial food systems to sustainable food systems.

In the ultimate analysis, the growth of the food movement is the people’s response to the failing ideas of the enlightenment. It represents a tectonic realignment of the forces underlying our society and a clash of ideas more profound than anything seen since the collapse of feudalism and the emergence of the industrial revolution. The outcome of this clash will determine not only the future of our society, but also whether our descendants get to live on a planet recognisable to us today. The portents are excellent. The food movement is prevailing because it takes advantage of the synergies and potentials inherent in biological systems, whereas the ideas of the enlightenment ignore, deny, and suppress these potentialities. It will indeed be a beautiful struggle to turn these portents into reality.

You can read the full article here.