Climate change, pesticide contamination, soil-depletion, loss of land, power politics, mass pollinator die-offs, and a host of big business practices threaten the long-term availability of healthy food. In part one of this symposium on the future of food, Maria Armoudian speaks with a panel of experts about the problems facing our food and the politics of food insecurity.

Joining Maria Amoudian on this panel are:

Annie Bartos, Lecturer in the Environment at the University of Auckland. She is an expert in feminist geography.

Daniel Hikuroa, Senior Lecturer in Maori Studies at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in earth systems science.

Mike Joy, Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Environmental Science at Victoria University, Wellington. He is an expert in freshwater ecology.

Gerhard Sundborn, Senior Lecturer in Pacific Health at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in Pacific health.

This panel discussion was part of The Big Q 2018 Symposium Series.


This discussion has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: I thought we should start with the big picture and with the big problems that we are facing in terms of our long-term sustainability and availability of food. This interaction between the environment and food production is something that is really key to that. Mike Joy, this is a big part of what you have been studying, I wonder if you could start by laying out these interactions and what is happening and how they are feeding each other?

Mike Joy: Just to start out, it is very hard to separate New Zealand out from the global issues. We are very much a global producer of food, so I have to kind of switch between the two of them. But I wanted to give some feel for the kind of place that we are in with food globally. We are in dire straits because of a few things. But I am a freshwater ecologist who has come to food, because when I look at the impacts on our freshwater it comes mostly from farming, from food production that causes our problems in freshwater and it was just going from that to look for the cause that got me into the whole understanding the food system.

I guess the one statistic that puts our problems into some kind of understanding is that around six billion of us on this planet get our food from fossil fuels. We are basically eating oil. So, the Haber-Bosch process where we found a way of converting fossil fuels into nitrogen fertilizer is what grows the food that feeds most of the population on this planet. The green revolution, the fossil fuel inputs into our food system has allowed this massive population boom and it is coming to an end in a number of ways.

One of the big ones, and very few people seem to understand this, is the energy return on investment. How much energy we have to put in to get the energy back out again which is the energy that we need to stay alive. And as that reduces, and it is reducing, it has gone from around thirty units of energy for every one that we invest in getting it. Globally it is below fifteen, some say as low as ten. As that number goes down and you have to put more energy into getting the energy then what happens is that you need exponentially more energy. So even if the population of the planet wasn’t growing, and it is by around eighty million extra mouths to feed a year, but even if it wasn’t, the fact that we need more energy to make energy means that once we get past that point to keep the same amount we need so much more. I think the best way to understand it is if the nearest service station to you at the moment is maybe ten kilometres away, in the next few years it is going to get up to one hundred kilometres away. So you are travelling two hundred kilometres there and back to fill up your car to go six hundred, then we are getting close to the point where it doesn’t matter how much the fuel costs it is just not worth going there and we start to get into real trouble. And a big part of that is animal agriculture. I think the best statistic to understand just how pervasive and just how much our food system overwhelms the planet [is] if you take the biomass of humans and our animals in one hand, the biomass of those mammals and the biomass of wild mammals on the planet the ratio in 2010 was 98% us and what we eat and 2% wild animals. And when you get that through your head you realize why we have a biodiversity crisis like no other time in history, but also how much we dominate this planet and food systems. And then there is a whole lot of spinoffs that come from that: thinking about things like area of land needed, so if you are talking about for one gram of protein you need one square metre if it is beef versus point-two of a square metre if it is rice.

To just come back to the New Zealand situation, I have just done some water foot-printing work on dairying in Canterbury and it takes 195,000 litres of water to make one kilogram of milk solids and that works out to 13,600 litres of water to make one litre of milk. And the biggest part of that is the grey-water footprint, it is how much water you need to dilute that water. It is about thirty-five times overshoot is another way of looking at it. So you either need thirty-five times more rainfall in Canterbury to dilute that much nitrogen, or you need thirty-five times less nitrogen in Canterbury to have more liveable healthy ecosystems and drinking water there. And I can see very soon, and this may be part of the solution, is that every product will have a water footprint on the back of it so you will be able to read the water footprint and the energy footprint. The energy used in creating that will be a key part to consumer choices on that kind of thing. So there is lots and lots of statistics. But the understanding that the greenhouse gases that come from agriculture are mostly from methane, and that figure we get for New Zealand of forty-nine percent of our greenhouse equivalents coming from agriculture, I think is a gross underestimate because it turns out that the figure that you would have heard of methane being twenty-one times more of a greenhouse gas than carbon that is averaged over a hundred years. We don’t have a hundred years to think about this. If you take it over twenty years it is eighty-six times more of a greenhouse gas than carbon, so if you apply those numbers then you would soon see that the agricultural part of our greenhouse gas emissions is way worse.

MA: Mike Joy, a couple of things that I read in your work. One, this was also related to dairy farming and nitrogen. You wrote about things like dead zones and you also wrote about the sort of feedback of climate change and how that affects food as well. So I wanted to see if you could talk us through these things like pollution, we have got the water, but there are also these other problems that you didn’t mention just now, and if you could give us a sense of how urgent it is what we are dealing with? Which of these problems is the one that is really going to create a food crisis?

MJ: I think they all go together and it is very hard to separate them out. But the reality is if we are going to feed this burgeoning population, the only way that we are going to do that is that animals cannot be in the picture. I mean that is the simplest thing to start off with because the inefficiencies, whether it is land or methane or pollution, is so much higher with animals. And even if you forget climate change and you forget everything else, just the efficiency of energy transfer with the amount of energy we have coming into the planet versus just the basic metabolic rate of energy use of humans, then if animals are in there the sums don’t work.

MA: So you are saying we need to go vegetarian individually?

MJ: That is the biggest difference every single one of us can make is to get animals out of our diet yeah for sure. And you can frame it as a choice but we won’t have the choice very much longer. We will starve, it is as simple as that.

MA: Anne Bartos, how would you respond to this?

Anne Bartos: The way that I see it is that we need to be thinking about the food system as it relates to wider political-economic structures, but also then how those political-economic structures intersect with the body. I teach a class and I think by the end of the semester my students say “Anne I don’t know what to eat, what should I eat?” And I like to challenge them to think that it is actually not as straightforward as simply reducing X or increasing Y, because those are rooted in systems of inequality, those are rooted in systems of capitalism for better or worse. What I am really interested in thinking about is how do our food practises and our eating habits in particular, how can they reduce suffering and inequality, how can they reduce violence basically of the body and non-human bodies and the planet that we are living in and the future generations, the violence that we are doing mindlessly through our mindless eating, for example.

I am a qualitative geographer. I love scientists giving us data but sometimes I am really overwhelmed with numbers and it doesn’t really make that much sense to me in terms of what am I supposed to do with these crazy numbers that tell me all of this water goes into producing this pound of animal flesh. And I think that if we think about our bodies as eating bodies, as bodies that are then related to those litres and litres of water or those mines that we are destroying just to get more phosphorous or nitrogen or whatever that we are putting into our soil that is then killing all of those bacteria that live in the soil that we absolutely need to survive, I think those kinds of interrelations of the wider political-economic system – they are hard, they are sticky, they are not straightforward. There are not a whole lot of answers but there are things that we need to be thinking about as opposed to saying let’s cut X and then we can increase our kale nutrition content and we are going to have all these farmers growing kale. So I think recognising that bodies are involved and people are involved and the ways in which we relate to the food system are intersectionally related based on our gender, our class, our ethnicities etcetera.

MA: So that would also imply people who work on the farms, people who serve the food, and all of these societal systems that are involved in the making of the food that we then make a decision about. Well I couldn’t ask for a better segue to Dan Hikuroa. Dan Hikuroa is both a geographer and a Maori scholar and so those two things intersect actually quite beautifully. How do you see this?

Dan Hikuroa: I am glad that you have raised those points, Anne, around understanding that there is power, economic, and social structures that dominate but are almost invisible at the same time. And so it is those invisible dominant structures that we need to address that have led to those outcomes and those dire statistics that Mike shared with us. So Kaitiakitanga is a principle and is a practise drawn from Matanga Māori, the indigenous knowledge, born out of generations of having lived within these environments and born out of an ontology that is a kinship-based relationship. So when we talk about food we are actually talking about our kin. And the approach traditionally was that you are eating your kin but your kin are there to provide sustenance for you as part of that relationship. And kaitiakitanga is about balancing that relationship and so everything you do is about balance. So there is the practical implementation of knowing how to farm kumara but then there is the realisation that you are doing that from within a structure that says, “Hey this is related to us in this part of the whakapapa”. Interestingly, many academics, scholars, and even grassroots communities around the world need to recognise that that worldview where we see ourselves as part of the ecosystem and not as abstracted from it is critical in changing the way we think about everything we do including food. And what’s more, people may have felt they weren’t part of that debate and weren’t part of that indigeneity because they didn’t themselves feel like they were part of an indigenous culture. But we are all indigenous to this planet and we need to start drawing from this indigenous approach, because this is the only one we are getting folks.

I believe the principles and some of the practises that are being born out of things like kaitiakitanga, and this is just for the New Zealand context, there will be equivalents around the world that could well be some of the places that we try to start to find those multi-pronged solutions. And I am also glad there was mention of consumers and the capitalist markets. We have the technology which Mike described which enables us to convert hydrocarbons into nitrogen, that enables us to do it, but we have the capitalist structure that encourages us to do it for profit. Neither of those are really consistent with nourishing our bodies in a kinship-based relationship with everything we see, feel, hear and touch around us and I believe it is both the approach and some of that knowledge that may provide some of the solutions as we move forward.

MA: One other thing I would like you to address for us is this concept of food sovereignty. What are we talking about and how does it apply here?

DH: In the New Zealand context, the concept of food sovereignty was captured in a Waitangi Tribunal report where it says that the Treaty relationship was one that allowed the crown to govern but Māori to retain Tino Rangatiratanga over all their taonga. Taonga is often understood as treasure, but I like to think of it as “to be treasured” because something you do treasure can be a river, can be going for a walk on the beach. So Food sovereignty fits into that concept of that report which means having the ability to make the decisions on the food that you have a kinship-based relationship with. So for food sovereignty in Aotearoa New Zealand that is based firmly within the Treaty discussion. But another great thing of that Ko Aotearoa Tēnei report is that it said it is time we moved beyond pointing fingers about past wrongdoings, not forgetting they happened, but start to seek mutually beneficial relationships as we move forward. and the key thing for that is the Crown to recognise Māori to have sovereignty. What does it practically mean? It means that the kumara seeds that are based overseas and that people deem to have ownership of they don’t actually belong to them, the sovereignty belongs to Māori of New Zealand. And while that tends into a rights-based argument, which I try and never get into because Māori only ever understood rights alongside responsibilities, which seems to be forgotten in a lot of the legal systems in this mutually beneficial Aotearoa New Zealand, having rangatiratanga or food sovereignty over kumara, for example, could provide us with a means forward. And that also segues into removing the commodification of food, not by smashing the capitalist system but by starting to grow your own without the need for nitrogen. We’ve got a worm farm over in Māori Studies, we have got a vegetable garden, we dine in there daily.

MA: Gerhard Sundborn, let’s look at this from the population health perspective, issues around food security, issues around public heath – how do you see this?

Gerhard Sundborn: I think we are right in the middle of a crisis right now. In particular I look at [cardiovascular disease] and heart disease and Type Two diabetes and things like that, and I think that the crisis that we have is that we are swimming in sugar. I understand that there is not just one thing that we should do, but I strongly advocate that we should target sugar and reduce sugar intake as a leading priority for our health system and our food system. But I do understand that by targeting one thing there can be unexpected consequences. Over the past two to three decades saturated fat and salt has been targeted by public health as a means to reduce obesity and [cardiovascular disease] risk and things like that, and heart disease rates have come down and a few other good things have happened. But unfortunately, I think with industry having to strip a lot of their products of saturated fat and salt they have replaced it with something else, and that something else has been sugar. So sugar intake across most Western countries has increased astronomically over the past two-three decades and that has driven huge increases in unhealthy weight, Type Two diabetes. Here in New Zealand we have 250,000 diagnosed type two diabetics, a further 100,000 don’t know they have it, and we have got about another 1.1 million who have pre-diabetes, so a large proportion of them will transition to Type Two diabetes. I think that is one thing that high sugar intake is driving. So those are just some of the things.

I think we do need to focus and there is some simplicity in focussing on one thing. When you talked about balance before, there is no balance with sugar intake here and in Western societies. From our latest international nutrition survey, we know that children consume about thirty teaspoons of sugar per day. The American Heart Association recommend they should only consume about three teaspoons of sugar. We have products like baby foods with the Plunket endorsement on them that recommend for a four to six-month-old baby they have a fruit puree that has been concentrated that has four teaspoons of sugar in it. For goodness sake, that is a four to six-month-old. Our cereals have about four to six teaspoons per serve. When you move on to sugary drinks and juices it is quite easy to see how we consume around thirty teaspoons of sugar per day.

Moving around to the politics, our politicians need to acknowledge their role in the food system. We have held symposiums every year for the past four years and we have invited the Minister of Health and members of the previous government to come to our symposiums around sugar and the problems it causes, not once have they attended. In 2011 and in 2016, the previous Prime Minister, John Key, [as well as] Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce attended the Coca-Cola factory on two occasions for openings yet not once had they thought over the last four years it was worth coming to our symposium around sugar and health. So I am hoping with the new government they may take a more proactive role.

MA: It sounds like the government is wrapped up in a system that our other three panelists have described as harming in multiple ways – this sort of neoliberal capitalist system and with blinders on, that they are not seeing the problem outside of the economics that is sort of disembodied, bifurcated in a way. Now I don’t know about focussing on one thing, Mike Joy do you think we should focus on one thing or do you think we need to take a systems approach?

MJ: What I was saying about animals, it is not a choice. Anne’s talking about a choice. I am saying we don’t have a choice. We can choose between spinach and kale but we can’t keep having animals because we will all starve if we do that, and we won’t have any drinkable water, and we won’t have oceans with life in them if we keep going. And I think that it is a bit like sugar in that it is not necessary but it makes money. And so I give the example in the [European Union], they looked at the value of nitrogen fertiliser in their food production and it was somewhere between 20 and 80 billion dollars long-term. [That’s] what it brings into their food system, but it costs between 70 and 320 billion for health and pollution costs. It is a complete loser. It is exactly the same as dairy in this country in that if you do the sums on the externalities, you wouldn’t do it. It is the capitalist system that drives stupid decisions like that. I’m sure it is the same for sugar. You can make money out of it but we can fix nitrogen naturally through plants, that is what we used to do but there is no money in that but you can create something and then sell it to people and have a big fertiliser industry in this country, then that is the way we go.

MA: So in terms of food politics what do you see that needs to be done? What is missing?

MJ: Including externalities in the pricing of things and I am sure it would be the same if you built the health externalities into sugar and then taxed it somehow. I mean, I don’t know the process, there are so many ways of doing it but we have got to get those prices and the reality into the balance.

MA: Anne Bartos, what do you think?

AB: I think your question Maria is what needs to be included in food politics. I think absolutely the externalities make complete sense. I think we also need to be thinking about who is disposable in this process, right? Whose bodies are deemed worthy of engaging in with those fertilisers and putting them on to the fields and whose bodies can then sit in their comfortable restaurant where they don’t really understand what is even on the menu but they think it is good for them so those bodies are deemed worthy and valuable in some ways. And I think a politics of food needs to look at all of the ways that the food system creates and destroys communities, perpetuates inequalities, keeps systems of oppression front and centre and then therefore we all become depoliticised about the food that we are eating. So it does seem like a choice unfortunately, when it is not actually. Like you were saying Mike, it shouldn’t be a choice. It is not a choice, but when we are so removed from these bigger systems of oppression and inequality and injustice then it is not political. You can make some silly decision and think you are changing the world when you are actually not.

MA: Dan Hikuroa? Governance, politics.

DH: The trouble with politicians is they get voted in and do what they like and it is a popularity contest every X number of years. And the challenge for us is that these realities are the problems that our politicians need to hear  – “Well actually, we care about this and we are going to vote for people who are going to find solutions”. So the politics is we need to move beyond the voting cycle and start thinking about the future of food because the future of the planet is inextricably linked to it.

MA: Gerhard Sundborn, could you go over some of the things you have tried in terms of a sugar tax and the difficulties and obstacles that you have encountered in trying to peruse that?

GS: We established Fizz, which is a public health advocacy group to educate the general public in what are the issues, what are the costs of high sugar consumption in sugary drink intake. I think we need to politicise the public and get them up to speed on what are the effects of consuming particular foods on the environment, on our health, and things like that. We think that a tax needs to be part of the solution. I just read a paper about the tax that has just been introduced in the [United Kingdom] on sugary drinks. They projected that that would earn about 520 million dollars in its first year of the tax, but because it was given two years lead up before it was brought in, industries have already reformulated so many products it has taken thirty thousand tonnes of sugar out of consumption each year already. And now they are predicting that it will be only $240 million. So a tax is a hugely strong tool to change behaviour and that of industry too. It gets them to reformulate and bring things down. So I think fiscal measures around taxes is one thing but advocacy and bringing the public along and educating is key to getting change. But we are just going to keep pushing and we think it is not a matter of if, but when, and it may be a bit longer than anticipated.

MA: Suppose we just keep going as business as usual Mike Joy how long do we have?

MJ: It’s about what bit is going to hit us first. But Gehart talking about the tax, they anticipate it and then change happens and so it is really hard to guess. But business as usual is going to mean just more and more polluted rivers. The reality that hits me every day is how we refuse to let go everything we have, and all we are doing is passing this on to the next generation, polluted rivers, polluted oceans, you know the whole thing is just a generational selfishness that we have got to do something about.

MA: What do communities need to do?

MJ: More and more people who do not go to the supermarket is going to be one of the good ways we can change the bad behaviour.

MA: Like going to farmers markets and growing your own?

MJ: Yeah.

MA: Anne Bartos?

AB: I think it is really excellent, inspiring, and exciting seeing community activists getting together and doing really good work. I think just to remind us that there are still different bodies doing that work and that some bodies are excluded from that kind of positive, feel-good gardening work, for example. And then some people don’t have access to those gardens or are living in isolated areas or living in apartment blocks and you know we have incredible migration coming into the city every day where people are losing their food sovereignty knowledge, their knowledge that they are bringing from other countries but don’t have access to land. And if we are going to talk about access to land – what a big elephant in the room – access to land is really important and it is not just about who has access to their own private garden in their backyard or who has access to a community gardens in their neighbourhood, but what are we doing with this land and who is excluded from doing what with that land. And in the meanwhile we are continuing to destroy it like Mike’s been saying. We are just destroying this land and building on beautiful soils. We are just building stuff. What is the value of that? What are the externalities?

MA: This act of destroying the soil itself was something that you wrote about Mike Joy. There is a certain point where soil can’t feed us anymore.

MJ: That is the point that we are getting to in many places. The area size is getting smaller because we keep building on it and making it into deserts and salinating it so that it gets smaller and smaller as we need more and more of it.

MA: Gerhart Sundborn what about this inequality issue that Anne has alluded to, access to land, access to gardens, being able to participate?

GS: I think realistically with how society develops, fewer and fewer people are going to be able to produce food from community gardens or gardens themselves. So I think because of that we need to have really good strong policy regulation from our governments that protect fertile lands like Pukekohe which is some of the most fertile soil in New Zealand. I think the value in community gardens and things like that is especially for our young and for our children to know how and where food actually comes from. But I think to hold governments and regulatory bodies to account to ensure they protect our fertile lands is key.

DH: To me the fundamental thing missing from the argument is the difference between food and money. One of them will nourish us, one of them isn’t very palatable. So the difference there is that yes, it does make seventeen billion dollars, it could be costing us twenty-four, but actually it is food we are after because food is what nourishes us and so maybe if we focussed on making less milk for food for the local market we might actually be better off when all those externalities are involved, where our farmers are still surviving and so our are rivers and coasts and oceans and people. I mean, I am from a dairy farming family. I am not pointing the finger at anybody else here. I am living it, but I think the difference is one of those will sustain us and one of those won’t.

MA: What about this idea of responsible leadership in the food space? How does this sense of shared responsibility arise?

AB: I think that one way we can think about our shared responsibility is thinking about relations of care. And caring relations are not just about what and who we care for but also who and what we are not caring for. And I think that once we start to unravel these particular caring relationships and especially what we put into our bodies as eaters and the impacts that then has on these varieties of externalities I think ideally illuminates some sort of map of these power relations, of these caring relations, and non-caring relations and then that can help us see where our responsibility is. Yes, it is in individual actions and individual choices, but it definitely comes back to these policies that are being raised and who we are electing, and what kinds of things we are holding our elected officials accountable for. We have a responsibility in democracy just as much as those people we vote in, and those people they are going to disappear after how many months, but I do think that shared responsibility is as much ours as it is those we vote in. And it is also how we perpetuate this and continue to make it an apolitical thing. The more that we politicise food, the more that we bring the politics of food to the attention of everybody those eaters that don’t know about the taxes or what candidate sits on what platform I think that that is where we get our shared responsibility.

MA: Or how as you alluded to earlier the structure of the society, including the structure of the buildings and the structure of the industries and how all that limits our ability to actually participate in a meaningful way in a political system. How do you engage the public to show that each of these things are closely connected? That the health of our animals, farms, rivers, people are connected?

GS: We have got to educate our public, we have got to speak to our own friends and families about the issues and politicise each other around those issues. I think the more the public and people understand the connections between economics, our farms, water, health, the more likely we are to see some sort of political pressure be put on our leaders.

MJ: A map I use a lot in my talks is a map I use of nitrate levels in our rivers. And you put the map of intensive farming in New Zealand and the map of nitrate in our rivers overlaid, you would not be able to tell the difference between them. It is clear as that, and yet how many people know about that? How to get it out there? And if I have learned anything is that governments only respond to what is in the news and so the way to make change politically in that field is to make a lot of noise and to get it in their faces in the media.

DH: One of the approaches is maybe drawn out of Māori philosophy where everything that we do on the land is connected to the rivers which is connected to the oceans. So all those individual mappings as you mentioned in those different articles can be bought together under that conceptualisation. But if you look at the real big post-Treaty settlement entities, they are the ones that are really looking to this philosophy and other conceptions around this thing called the blue economy. We are really looking to account for those externalities and understand that nothing happens in isolation, it is a system here and we need to understand all moving parts of that system.  Mapping it and its compartments is critical but also about conceptually bringing them together.

AB: I think people like Mike Joy are really good at this, at being the critic and conscience of society and really taking that on board as academics. I think that most of us who are academics we should and can do a lot more to help educate. It is not the only solution but I think it is really important and I think Mike is a great example of that. I think that also when reading these maps and seeing these maps, I think that one of the things that we do is that we are too fast, our society is too fast, we are doing things way too fast so that we don’t have to really pay attention. So we can absorb these quick tidbits of information and then out of sight out of mind. One of our challenges as a society interested in social change is we need to slow down, we need to be present, we need to be embodied, we need to see and feel. And then I do think that once we kind of go inward and acknowledge that we do have feelings that come up we can kind of see that these are cultural and political and social and environmental. Then I think it is easier to figure out what to do and how to connect those dots and see the relationalities between what seem at first completely isolated issues but we really need to pay attention and it is our jobs to help educated but it is everybody’s job to just be present.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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