Learning from Leaders: Rethinking the Value of Food

Sep 13, 2016

The venue was packed. The hospitality was generous. The speakers were great. All in all, it can safely be said that this event was an unqualified success.

Five different – and distinctly personal – voices with very different perspectives on our current food system and its discontents. Although all represented alternatives to the mainstream, this was no rant session. Instead, we heard five people speaking openly and honestly of their recent and current experiences and offering pointers towards what the future of food might look like.

The session was opened by Sean Connelly from Otago University’s Geography Department. As an academic who has devoted a great deal of his time researching food systems, he provided a useful framework for understanding how we value food in contemporary New Zealand. At present, food is treated, above all, as a commodity like any other, a simple fuel that we are encouraged to view purely in terms of how much we get for the dollars we spend. This is the “consumerist” logic which drives the world today and which we see everywhere around us, from the industrial monocultures that dominate the countryside to the supermarkets that dominate our cities.

So what can we do about this? In the first place, we need to think of food not as a thing to be bought and sold, but as a process which involves far more than the simple process of sustaining our bodies. Sean listed six sets of values that we need to have in mind if we are to be more than mere consumers and become what he calls “food citizens”. These are the values of (1) work (how the food system employs people and how meaningful and rewarding that work is); (2) social interactions (how every part of the system, from production to consumption, has crucial consequences for all aspects of our communal lives); (3) health and nutrition (no explanation needed here); (4) the environment (ditto); (5) local economic development (one of the major focus for the DCC and its newly appointed Food Resilience Business Advisor); and (6) justice (ensuring that good food is available to all). These, of course, are the very values that guide Our Food Network and other local food groups around the world.

This was fighting talk, and Sean reminded us that to become a “food citizen” is to engage in a political act.

Next up was Rayna Dickson. Rayna and her husband Mark are well-known locally as owners and managers of “Taste Nature”, Dunedin’s organic food and produce shop. Rayna began by giving a brief history of the initiative, which was the brainchild of Jim O’Gorman (now a celebrated Kakanui vegetable grower). Unfortunately, the venture ran into financial difficulties and it was only through the valiant efforts of John Gadd, Helen Davidson and many volunteers that “Taste Nature” continued to operate. When Mark and Rayna bought the business it was still unsustainable as a commercial enterprise and it took them many years to reach financial viability.

Rayna explained how the shop strives to meet both the ethical standards of a truly “green” business and the commercial imperatives of the current financial environment. Like everything else these days, the world of organics is constantly changing. Many businesses are responding to the call for sustainable practices and products with “greenwash” – claims that, on inspection, are not only worthless but which also threaten those who are concerned to meet honestly the growing demand for better food, farming and commerce. There are also changes within the organic sector itself, as some organic producers increase the scale of their operations. This has happened in the US, where there are real concerns about the integrity of large-scale organics and increasing pressures on the smaller producers who have been the mainstay of non-industrial farming over the decades.

For the consumer, ventures like “Taste Nature” pose a dual challenge. By its very location, away from the main shopping district, the shop fails to meet the current pursuit of convenience above all else: it takes an effort to break the supermarket habit of finding everything under the one roof, with a large adjoining car park. And it also runs counter to the philosophy of getting as much “food” as possible for the lowest price. As a percentage of our incomes, we spend far less on food today than we did a couple of generations ago. (We also spend a great deal more on housing – but that is another matter.) If we want to eat good, healthy food which is produced with fewer environmental costs, then we have to be prepared to pay more for it. This is the price of “revaluing food”.

Mike Barton provided a completely different perspective. Mike is a beef farmer in the Lake Taupo catchment who has been in the forefront of efforts by the local farming community to cope with the massive changes to land management imposed by the regional council as part of the effort to reduce the impacts of nitrates leaching into the lake. Mike farms 150 hectares and currently finishes 300 beef cattle a year on his property.

Although many of us will have followed this story through the news media over the years, I must confess that I hadn’t given anything like enough thought to the predicament of the individuals caught in what was, for them, a truly dreadful situation. Mike spoke with great honesty about his initial reaction of anger and denial, about his efforts to find others to blame for the environmental problems, and his final acceptance that farming practices like his own simply had to change for the sake of the environment.

Since then, Mike has been obliged not only to change the way he manages his livestock to meet the new environmental standards but also to find new ways to market his meat. His farm can no longer carry the same number of animals as before, to the point where the existing system could no longer guarantee the financial viability of his business. With others, he was involved in the establishment of “Taupo Beef Certification”, a scheme which has enabled farmers producing environmentally sustainable beef to sell their produce with a premium (rather like the premium which attaches to certified organic produce). (Search “Taupo Beef” to find a number of interesting items about this.) His business has also been assisted greatly by “My Food Bag”, Nadia Lim’s initiative, which takes some of the lesser meat cuts for its products, which are sold on-line. (See www.myfoodbag.co.nz)

This is not just a Taupo issue. As Mike was at pains to point out, the situation that he and other farmers have had to face is just the first case of what will eventually come to face all food producers. The nitrification of Lake Taupo is the result of an unusual set of circumstances, most notably a high base level of nitrates in the lake water and the rapid leaching of nutrients through the pumice subsoil. But the continuing demand for intensification of production on farmland will inevitably force a realisation that the current system is unsustainable everywhere in New Zealand. Mike explained that his business now runs on a key measure which is quite different from the current norm. For him it is dollars earned per unit of nitrate leached that governs his viability as a farmer. He believes that in the long run, this will be the model for all New Zealand farmers and this is the idea behind a new project which has grown out of the “Taupo Beef” initiative. Called “Food, Farms, Freshwater” – or 3F – its objective (in words from its website) is “for New Zealand and international consumers to value food products that support farmers to farm more sustainably”.

Cath Gledhill spoke next. She is working with the Dunedin City Council as part of the “Love Food Hate Waste” initiative. Again, the website (www.lovefoodhatewaste.co.nz) tells it all: “Every year Kiwis send 122,547 tonnes of food to landfill, all of which could have been eaten. Not only is wasting food costing us money, it is also bad for the environment. Love Food Hate Waste has tips and recipes to help you reduce your food waste and save money.” (One of the recipes is for banana skin cake – who would have thought?..) The campaign has only just begun and will run for three years. It is very much a practical, hands-on affair, as the banana-skin cake suggests. There will be many events and promotions throughout the Dunedin region.

Cath is keen to spread the word far and wide and she is encouraging local groups to work with her to organize “Love Food Hate Waste” events.

Tess Trotter had the unenviable task of speaking last. Many locals will know Tess as the prime mover behind the Friends of Holy Cow. The story has had a lot of coverage in the media but it is very much a heartening tale of what can be done through grass-roots activism. It all began when Merrall and Alex MacNeille’s small dairy farm in Reynoldstown was closed down when one of the cows was found to have contracted bovine Tb. Tess is just one of many customers who had come to rely on the farm to supply raw milk. More than that, she admired Merrall and Alex for the humane values embodied in the farm and its produce. Within days, she had set up a Facebook page (still open now with more than 1000 “friends”) and organized a “Give a Little” fundraiser. This was followed by a dinner and auction event. In all, this has (quite literally) saved the farm. The funds raised have provided Merrall and Alex with the wherewithal to keep their animals fed, organize pasteurization as an interim measure, and even come up with some exciting initiatives which promise well for the development of local food options in the future.

So there you have it. It was a reminder that, in the midst of all the depressing news that assaults us daily, there are some good things going on. Each of the speakers would certainly qualify as the “food citizens” that Sean Connelly defined at the beginning of the meeting, and each left us with plenty to ponder.

Sean himself showed the value of having academics capable of analysing the many issues involved in food systems and making their insights available in language we can all understand. He reminded us of the importance of our Humanities departments at a time when they are coming under threat at Otago and elsewhere in the world.

Rayna emphasized the need for good business skills as well as sound ethical principles in promoting local food. She was also realistic about the challenges that remain. Even as she defended the need for a revaluation of food, she acknowledged that there are far too many people in New Zealand today for whom such additional expense is an impossible burden.

Mike made us aware of the plight of the contemporary farmer. Although his focus was on the specifics of the Lake Taupo environmental crisis, he also mentioned both the increasing costs that have assailed him over the last decade and the sobering statistic that real returns on production have fallen consistently over the last 40 years. If we are to be true “food citizens”, we need to understand more about such things. As Mike said, it is time for us to have more mature conversations about the future of food.

Cath’s work promotes the kind of individual (and family) behavioural change which will ensure that we are all better prepared to meet whatever demands our changing world might have in store for us. Although there is much scepticism at large about the effectiveness of small acts in bringing about major change (climate change is the classic example, of course), this is no reason to sit on our hands. And why not find out how clever frugality can help us live well and balance the family books?

Tess showed by example what a “food citizen” can achieve. She helped provide invaluable financial and moral support to her local farmers in their hour of need. The massive display of practical compassion which flowed out of this calamity reminded us what a true community is about – good people coming together to work for the good of all.

I would like to thank Whirika Consulting (formerly Ahikā Consulting) and the Sustainable Business Network for organizing the event.

Finally, although I have tried my best to be accurate, I will apologise in advance for any errors or misrepresentations. I have had to rely on my memory and notes scribbled in haste while observing proceedings from behind a potted plant.

Andy Barratt