When we set off on this journey I never imagined that I would learn so much about food. I did not consider that what I knew, thought and felt about food would change so much nor that I would be exploring the connection between food, learning and higher education.
As it turned out, I have come to learn quite a lot over the last year about the various ways that food is connected to our identities, our relation to our environment, to humans and non-human beings, but more broadly on the various processes of production, processing and waste surrounding food. All of these processes and the different relationships, practices and experiences they create have diverse, and often competing, kinds of knowledge systems behind them – distinct paradigms and cosmologies and as such this has become a key topic in Enlivened Learning.
I am calling this total system of relation to food, involving relationships, knowledges and practices, the foodscape. This is not a made-up term as there seems to be increasing use of it, especially in Geography (not to mention by certain photographers who make cities out of vegetables – just google it). I guess a foodscape is the particular way in which we relate to, know and intervene upon particular aspects of the environment involved in our sustenance.
It is strange to think how, without a conscious intention, so many of the posts Kelly and I have written here over the last few months have been about foodscapes: Blackfoot Buffalo hunting and the extermination of the herds by the settlers; Blackfoot knowledge of the land, plants and animals in Alberta; the cultivation of corn and the rise of Meso-American civilization; urban gardening and dry compostable toilets in Oaxaca; communal agriculture amongst the Quechua Lamas in Upper Amazon in Peru (choba choba); extractive forest reserves and the struggle of indigenous communities, rubber tappers against rich landowners in the Amazon region in Acre, Brazil; the Landless Movement’s (MST) struggle for rural peasants and against agribusiness across Brazil.
Before we head into the other higher education initiatives we visited in Latin America I wanted to reflect a bit and try to synthesize some thoughts, experiences, readings, sharing some of what I have learnt around all this.
What was noticeable within almost all the learning places we visited in our journey was the centrality of foodscapes in their knowledge and pedagogy (teaching/learning practice and philosophy). This in turn made me consider the almost complete absence of learning about foodscapes in my own educational trajectory.
No doubt people have different experiences of this, but what I remember from my formal education in respect to this is learning about the digestive system in biology, and maybe a bit of nutrition, a vague memory of something called Rural Studies when I was 14 (where we learnt about sheep and the teacher dissected a rabbit). I remember that cooking classes, or Home Economics, was fun but all I remember from there was making a swiss-roll and profiteroles. I do not remember ever really being taught where my food came from, how it was grown, produced and processed and where, what knowledge was involved in these processes and what kinds of foodscapes exist or have existed.
This has prompted me to think about how much of our food system involves an escape from food. The systems industrial society has created for sourcing, processing and selling food has meant an ever-greater distance and disconnection from the importance of wholesome food relationships. Our foodscape has then become a food-escape.
In contrast, the centrality of foodscapes in the places we visited reflected a greater concern, reciprocity and care for the land, the environment and all its beings, for sustainability in the use of resources for the production of food and shelter and in the water system and in the production of waste. Many of the places also showed a much greater awareness and care for the economic relations between those involved in food growing with concepts of cooperative work in growing food being key organising nodes (especially in indigenous communities – ie. comunalidad in Oaxaca, Mexico, choba choba in the Peruvian Upper Amazon with the Quechua Lamas).
As well as the communal production of food we also noted the great importance of cultural activities surrounding cooking and eating. As Gustavo Esteva, founder of Unitierra put it, the term comida in Mexico means much more than the English term ‘food’ – it is not just about material sustenance but the whole complex culture that surrounds cooking, sharing food and eating together. Perhaps this is much closer to the notion and movement surrounding ‘slow food’ which started in Italy in the 1980s as a re-assertion of local culinary cultures and practices of sourcing food in the face of the onslaught of globalised industrial Fast Food culture and agricultural production. I write more on the Fast/Slow food battles in the next post.
I have been wondering and learning about the consequences of our Food-E-scape – how we have become so dramatically cut off from the sources of our food, from the beings we eat and the landscapes they inhabit, from how they are killed and processed and transformed and stored and transported.
We, collectively in contemporary society, or at least the highly industrialised urban part of it, seem to learn (and educate the newest generations) so little about how our Food-E-Scape is severely transforming and destroying bio-diversity, soil, waterways, increasing pollution, affecting the climate and using the Earth’s resources in an unsustainable way.
It has also come to my attention how this lack of education or mis-education is actually being promoted by the few large corporations that are in charge of the agro-industrial Food-E-Scape, especially in places like North America.
As I recently learned in reading Michael Pollen’s excellent 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and watching several well-made and informative documentaries King Corn (2007), Food Inc. (2008), The World According to Monsanto (2008) abattoirs, meat processing plants, chicken factory farms and even high fructose corn syrup processing plants all refuse access to their facilities to those interested in learning what goes on inside.
Further, agri-industry and bio-tech industry lobbyist, scientists, lawyers and managers wield tremendous power in Washington D.C. and are involved in drafting the legislation to oversee the industry or, as is often the case, convince politicians that no oversight is necessary. Huge pressure is also exerted on the government to keep the subsidies going for farmers to increase the production of commodities like corn and soya which are largely responsible for the current shape of US industrial agriculture.
A recent state-wide referendum in Washington State to introduce labelling on genetically modified foods was defeated at the ballots even though the pro-label group had a large early lead in the polls, after millions of dollars of Monsanto cash supported the advertising campaign of the anti-label side. So millions of dollars are being spent by large agri-business and biotech companies on keeping us ignorant of what we eat and also to reassure us that genetically modified foods are “safe, healthy and good for the planet”.
But I have also been considering the omission of our educational institutions (schools and higher education) of engaging more with our foodscapes. By this I don’t mean just things like campaigns on healthy school lunches, though these are also important, but more awareness of the various aspects of the totality of our foodscapes. How different might learning be in these institutions if learning was also grounded in the foodscapes we are immersed in was a core part of the curriculum, regardless of what degree you did? A part of a wholesome education. As Kelly wrote in the previous post, quoting David Orr, all education is environmental education by virtue of what you teach and omit.
I remember a conversation with Jailson de Sousa e Santos, founder of the Observatório das Favelas, a grass-roots community organisation involved in education, research, capacity building and media communication in Maré, Rio’s largest favela (shanty-town). Jailson started ESPOCC, the School of Critical Communication to engage students in the field of media literacy and critique and give them tools through which to combat the toxic dominant media representation of favela communities in the country.
Jailson, who grew up in Maré and is also a Geography professor in the State university, talked to us about the model of the human being that is promoted in formal education – including universities – painting an image which has stayed with with me. This being – a veritable homo academicus – has a huge head in which to fit a large brain needed to think and record facts, a large hand to constantly write down things and a big ass on which to sit all day on a chair. I imagine the rest of its limbs atrophying from underuse, the rest of its faculties, de-sensitized fail to experience the world in all its wonderful complexity and relatedness. How is the stomach of such being? (We do apparently have millions of neurones there too, so have scientists have recently told us!) We don’t really learn with our stomachs, we don’t think or feel with our guts in these institutional settings.
Travelling backwards up the Americas for thousands of miles to Southern Alberta another image of the human being comes to mind from what Ryan Heavyhead a Blackfoot teacher at Red Crow Community College spoke about in his approach to teaching. Ryan runs a year-long Phenology class for the Kainai Studies students at Red Crow (Kainai is one of the four Blackfoot bands which is resident in this territory).
Phenology is the study of plant and animal life-cycles and the relationship of these to seasonal change. Ryan’s class, as I have written about elsewhere, involves getting students to find a place and sit and learn it for five hours a week until the beings of the place become more familiar, and begin to show you things. This goes on for one year – a whole period of lunar cycles – the important marker in the Blackfoot calendar. After this year was completed the students were so transformed by the experiences they asked for a continuation of the course which Ryan created as a second year ‘Traditional Blackfoot Foods’ course. Here students learn to forage, gather, hunt and prepare traditional foods of this territory, sourcing them at particular times of the year.
Ryan’s immersion in the Blackoot foodscapes was impressive. He, and his wife, had re-learnt much that was forgotten in this territory about sourcing and preparing traditional foods, with the ‘old ways’ forgotten through the imposition of residential schooling (see post on this) but also the encroachment of settler lifestyles and their own foodscapes.
Ryan, amongst the many interested things he taughtme, said something that has stayed with me and is relevant here. That for the Blackfoot the relationship with non-human beings is essentially a relationship of food and that to really enter such relationships is to become fully human. At first this idea might seem strange, from a Western educated mind-set it might bring forth ideas of the ‘survival of the fittest’ of the struggle for survival through domination and consuming another. It reminded me of the Upanishad quote (an ancient Hindu sacred text) translated by Yeats in a film I once saw: “Everything in this world is eater or eaten. The seed is food and fire is eater.”
But this is to misunderstand the respectful and reciprocal characteristic of the relationship to plants, animals and place in the Blackfoot knowledge system that Ryan articulated. To enter a ‘food relationship’ does not mean that you just eat the food, but that you come to learn about the plant and animals being you are eating, about their life-cycles, their environment and their relationship to other beings.
It also means that you are indebted to the being that you eat and to their kind, as in so many hunter-gatherer groups, and so must reciprocate by not taking more than you need and by giving something back to them and the environment. The relationship of food is then not solely one of consumption and domination but of deep respect, gratitude and reciprocity.
How distant these ideas and practices seem from the agro-industrial oil and chemical fed machinery that extracts produce from the Alberta landscape now. Narcisse Blood, a Blackfoot elder who also taught at Red Crow College, lamented the waves of monopolies in this region, first, he told us, there was the Hudson Bay Trading Company and “Now we have Monsanto” monopolizing and transforming the agricultural landscape through a destructive form of farming.
Cut to the isle of a giant supermarket, could be anywhere, but say in the US, where the products of those fields end up. I stare down a neon-lit corridor of brightly packaged food – a cornucopia of diversity. What a multiplicity of flavor combination and shapes and consistencies and colours! But the sheer diversity of products and company names hides their often common source in only a few large parent companies which own most of the homely and rustic seeming brand-names.
I read the labels on a few products, the diversity of ingredients also hides their often common source in a variation of corn, most frequently high fructose corn syrup or some corn (or soy) additive or preservative. This is the relation of food to many of us – one of reading – oh homo academicus… More recently I have learnt how much the seeming multiplicity of the US diet and by consequence of US people is made of corn. You can trace back the carbon we have in our bodies which bridge our cells to their original source and this in an average North American is around 70% corn!
As a key institution of social reproduction, our education system (including our universities) surely has a role in shaping how we understand and relate to our foodscapes and the kinds of knowledges and technologies it creates in relation to this. (I write more on the conflicting knowledges and technologies shaping our foodscape and those of many other places around the world in my next post).
On a theological – or maybe spiritual note – I was really struck by what Cezar Añorve, an architect from Cuernavaca, Mexico, and in his word ‘cacologist’ (an expert on caca), said recollecting one of his last conversations with philosopher and theologian Ivan Illich. Cesar has spent most of his life promoting awareness of our how we might deal with our poo without polluting water (see the posts on this), in this he was influenced by his life-long friend Ivan, whose works entailed a critique of industrial civilization and the possibility of a post-industrial world built on a more local and human scale, emphasizing values of friendship and conviviality. Ivan died in 2002 and in his last conversation with Cesar, he had told him that “The highest offering we can give to God is not our head or our hearts, but our guts”.
I have often thought of this phrase in relation to the large scale damage being done to the ecosystem through the unsustainable agricultural practices and technologies being developed which are negatively distorting life itself in some many directions (see next post on this). I have wondered what it might mean to offer our guts to a higher value or principle, one that seeks to support the continuation of the web of life in its intricate and delicate balance.
I also often think of Ryan’s comment on the Blackfoot relations to non-humans as being one of food – meaning not just consumption but also interest, respect, gratitude and reciprocity acknowledging the role they play in the perpetuation of life. In the foodscape I have been raised in, we were not taught to think enough with our guts, nor extend our gratitude and interest (in practice not just prayer) to the beings that give us life. But this does not mean things cannot change. To change how we think about and relate to these beings and their environment, thinking with our guts, may well be a big step toward such transformations.