Building momentum towards a sustainable food system

Every project I’m involved with aspiring to move from an industrial food system to a sustainable food system reinforces the critical importance of connecting people. In Northland we have a lot of organisations aspiring to improve our food system. They range from environmental groups and landowners working to improve waterways, health workers, farmers and growers, marae-based groups, co-operatives, educationalists and researchers to name a few. The problem is, we are barely aware of what each other are doing.

Collectively, I am sure that there are a lot of us. But we fail to leverage our collective voice.

The development this year of the Northland Food Policy Network encourages me. Its a group of volunteers of similar diversity expressed above advocating to influence policy. Our success will be proportional to our ability to connect with others of like mind to generate momentum for change.

The industrial food system has super-tanker momentum! It has slick and seductive marketing, economies of scale, sophisticated supply chains and political influence. And perhaps most insidiously, it is the normal – the orthodox, with mostly unquestioned legitimacy.

This Guardian article identifies a similar dynamics for those advocating for climate change. Advocates for change are often left to work on individual efforts while the neo-liberal agenda actively seeks to shore up the status quo and feed our oil addiction.

Duncan Green, author of How Change Happens (get if free here) outlines the power gradient that is fundamental to change in this video:

  • power within (when the individual finds ways to change)
  • power with (when connections are made with likeminded others)
  • power to (the capability to decide actions and carry them out)
  • power over ( the power to effect and embed change).

Those of us focussed on food system change have taken steps to make connections and are developing the capability for collective action. Our ability to influence will be determined by our ability to make ongoing connections.

Another useful idea from this video is Duncan Green’s power analysis adapted below. Those with high concern about issues, but low influence have to find their collective voice, translate it into action and engage and influence those who have influence but are not engaged to change. We need to reach out to landowners and supermarkets for example.

influence and concern

Follow this link for more on change, based on Duncan Green’s thinking.

A way forward

Two projects that Local Food Northland are working on are supporting the change dynamics. We are supporting the Northland Food Policy Network and Clive McKegg is leading a project to develop a database of individuals and organisations with common aspirations. We are fully aware that a data base is only part of the engagement equation. We need to engage kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face).

What can you do?

If you want to see a food system that serves people by supporting our health, building our economy and sustaining our environment, one practical step is to help us connect with organisations that you are aware of that want these outcomes too. Please contact us or leave a comment below.

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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.