Friday, 5 October 2012

A World Where Students Graze on Campus?: Taking a "Bite" out of OWU's Sagan National Colloquium

This year, it turns out that we're not the only university thematically celebrating and using food to bring campus and area community members together. Less than an hour away from us, Dr. Chris Fink--assistant professor and chair of the Department of Health and Human Kinetics at Ohio Wesleyan University--has organised OWU's semester-long Sagan National Colloquium under the theme of "Bite! Examining the Mutually Transformative Relationship between People and Food". Chris is also heading over to this year's Terra Madre conference in Turin, Italy, in just a few short weeks, as is Colleen Yuhn, founder and chapter leader of Slow Food Columbus and Operations Manager of The Greener Grocer, who was also present at the SNC event I took a few Denison students to yesterday. There, we heard Polyface, Inc.'s Joel Salatin address a crowd of at least 200 on guiding principles and lessons that could be gleaned from his most recent book, Folks, This Ain't Normal.

Following introductions by Chris and one of his former students (coincidentally, also Chris), Joel took to the stage and, referencing his book, discussed the relatively of what it means for modern Americans to be living under "normal" conditions. In age of convenience and technology, we are living in conditions far beyond what it means to have lived historically normal. Normalcy in the past was one in which children were seen as economic assets rather than economic liabilities. Families had backyard patio gardens and the finality of death was much more unpredictability (yet expected) than our ability to better "control" its conditions. Our food systems were not segregated as they are today and the advancement of technology has altered agricultural processes, the process of change of which has yielded positive impact but far worse negative consequences. The most prevalent example of this shift in "normal" was well reflected through Joel's discussion of grains. In sum, not only have our collective practices as they relate to grains altered the worth and composition of grain itself, but we have inadvertently inverted the relative values of our chicken, pork and beef.

Unlike his previous talks, from what I was told, Joel offered some very clear directives on how we could potentially balance our foodways and return us to a different "normal," a normal where we know from where our food hails, and a normal that doesn't require long distances and terrible conditions to get from farm to fork. Perhaps touted as "radical" change, there is much promise; but one can't help to wonder if we could feasibly expect students to essentially graze from one end of campus to another, with crops planted throughout the millions of acres of lawn space both on and off college campuses. The world being imagined includes an adage of us all being active "participants in a nest of abundance," a rather prophetic take on a new normal where we have integrated systems that are fundamentally more productive and efficient. The food we would conceivably eat would be pronounceable and revered; such sanctity toward food, life and our ethical and moral obligations would potentially be translated to human lives that are also valued, where citizens and other countries would be kinder and more dependent on one another. And so, Joel warns, we must be careful of such things as GMOs which play around with the boundaries that haven't yet been breached and instead aim to reintegrate our food processes into the carbon cycle.

While I agree that we shouldn't be "afraid to plow new ground" and step into the kitchen, and meet the farmer, I wonder how far and to what extent our courageous steps can take us in effecting the change for which Joel advocates. (Indeed, one might ask whether one's sense of "normal" is complimentary or counter-intuitive to another's.) It seems that for change to occur, we must acknowledge the amount of time it would take to shift our cultural mentality and gradually cultivate a new food system. On another level, and given another point-of-view (one which more or less supports GMOs), I wonder if it's possible to find a balance and still appreciate the advancements of GMOs while working to implement Joel's suggestions for a different normal world, one which brings us back to the past and advances us forward by tempering the technology we have in place and are continuing to develop. At some point, and if nothing else, it's quite clear that wondering and dreaming can only go so far; if we want change to occur, it must begin with each one of us bravely taking a risk and facing success, another roadblock, or something completely unknown. After Joel's talk, he signed copies of his book and took a few moments to chat with the students and take a group photo with us (thanks, Colleen, for taking it!); for this, and other photos, from our quick trip to OWU, click here.

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