Seeds and Ideas: Food as a method in development practice

Where do ideas come from? is the fundamental question we address in this ‘Thought for Food’ publication by Hivos and Oxfam. We explore how new ideas that exist outside the mainstream discussions about development can be brought into its narrative and influence its course. And how food in general, and agricultural biodiversity in particular, can help facilitate this process.

Seeds & Ideas: Food as a method in development practice. Download here: https://hivos.org/sites/default/files/seeds_and_ideas-food_as_a_method_in_development_practice.pdf

Seeds & Ideas: Food as a method in development practice. Haider & van Oudenhoven 2015.

You can download the pdf here. We hope it’s of interest! And here’s a short summary

1. How do endogenous ideas emerge?

Drawing from an exchange between Nietzsche and Foucault, we argue that norms, behaviours, actions and ideas become established when the serve a certain purpose, when they are useful. The purpose, and therefore the utility, lies in the eye of the beholder. In a development context, problems are defined by external agencies and responses designed as one-liners: poverty alleviation, market development, combatting malnutrition. From this perspective, the utility of field lies in its productive function (to combat malnutrition for example). To a local cook and farmer, the utility of the field is broader still. We draw on the example of lashak mack (rye pea field), and the soup  that is made of it in the Pamir Mountains.

To the Pamiri cook and farmer, the function of lashak-makh is broader still. They use the harvest from these fields to make a flour called hazorza, which means ‘mix of a thousand’. The crops are not separated, but harvested and milled together, and the hazorza flour is used to make bread or a nutritious noodle soup called osh, which is rich in protein and energy and has a cooling quality when working the fields in summer. Many kinds of osh exist, made with different mixed flours that come from different combinations of crops grown at different altitudes, and many songs and poems are recited about Osh. The soup and the cultivation system are interlinked; the agronomic utility of the cultivation system is connected to the nutritional and cultural utility of hazorza and osh, and strengthened by it.

Many (agri)cultural norms and practices have functions that are not readily apparent. Is it possible to know which knowledge, practice or idea that seems irrelevant now will be useful at some future point in time? And if it is possible, who are the people to decide on what practices should remain and which ones could go? Who decides on change?

We bring in a few more examples of how introduced seed varieties can become ends in and of themselves, especially when so much scientific legitimacy stands behind the improved varieties. To move the locus of power from outside organisations to people and communities who receive development assistance means, firstly, to shift the responsibility of who defines problems and solutions to those very people and communities. The ‘inevitable gap’ becomes less inevitable when the perspective on development is derived more from within, becomes more endogenous. Food may be one way to achieve this.

Food as a Method Part 1: Food is intimate and unimposing, it is a common vocabulary and it is simple but not simplistic.

During the course of our work in the Pamirs, ‘food’ proved to be a useful tool to break down or at least circumvent power relationships and help gain a deeper understanding of this place and its culture. With ‘food’ we simply mean the act of cultivating and preparing food, of eating together and speaking and thinking about it. But the experience of working on a book by no means proves that this tool would necessarily be useful in other hands or for the exploration of other questions in different cultures. Would it be something that is useful for development practitioners for their work in agricultural communities? Would redefining and redirecting development efforts around food (in its broadest sense) be meaningful? We will explore a number of qualities of food that suggest it might.

2. In autonomous spaces, where do ideas come from?

Through listening and trying to learn these skills from farmers, mothers and shepherds, our conversations with them created a space where we could speak as equals. Where power relations, if not absent, were less apparent than if we had been there as researchers or development workers. This, we felt, was a space far away from the ‘problems and solutions’ defined by the outside world of development, a relatively endogenous space in which people could speak freely and ideas could emerge. And often they did.

At times, however, we were struck by people’s seeming lack of endogenous ideas about their future; a lack of initiative in changing things that weren’t working, or protecting things people were proud of. Where were those ideas and where had the energy gone? A strange contradiction in a conversation with a wealthy shepherd in the Wakhan valley of Afghanistan suggested we ought to look at power in yet a different, more subtle way.

Food as a Method Part 2: to excavate memories and inspire ideas. Food is evocative, tangible, requires action and is a vessel of values fundamental to identify.

Food is a vessel of many things. It is not by accident that preparing it evokes memories and ideas that are otherwise buried. Using food as a method helps create a space in which novel ideas emerge and can be expressed, and where old ideas can be excavated, dusted off and become part of an endogenous perspective on development. The question that remains is how, once ‘small’ local ideas emerge, they can take root and thrive alongside or in competition with more powerful ones.

3. How do ideas take root?

To cook food with people and to eat together from a shared dish allows us to understand ideas and solutions for rural development practice as springing from the relationship between people, their communities and their landscape. Just as plants and animals are part of an ecological system, and seeds need to be understood in the agricultural system of which they are a part, ideas about food and the development of agricultural landscapes need to be understood in relation to, and as a result of, other ideas and the people who carry them. This way of understanding how ideas interact has been called an ‘ecology of ideas’ (Bateson, 1972).

In such as an ecology, as an idea becomes established, it increasingly connects to other ideas until, eventually, the idea becomes crucial to the survival of the system as a whole. Throughout this paper we have discussed some of the ideas that Pamiri farmers shared with us about their future: raising their children to maintain a connection to their land and traditional livelihoods, growing grains and pulses together in lashak-makh fields, using food and local plants for medicine. In other words seeking and adopting a type of development that does not destroy important local and traditional values. But if these ideas find no soil, no social or institutional network into which they can be incorporated and nourished, they cannot flourish and survive. Ideas are not singular entities and cannot exist as such; they need a support structure, or an ecology of which they become a part.

The reason that, viewed from the perspective of an ‘ecology of ideas’, food has such evocative power, and that phrasing ideas in the language of food may help them spread and gain relevance, is that food touches on most elements that make up daily life: health, livelihood, agriculture, science, spirituality, trade. The more such linkages are allowed to persist, the more these elements remain seen as integral parts of the food system, and the greater the power of food to help new ideas connect to an existing ecology and take root.

3. IMG_4233

Lashak-makh. A field of rye, barley, pea, grass pea, lentil and faba bean. A mess, traditional ecological knowledge, or something else? Photo by F. van Oudenhoven.

Yet unfortunately this is not usually the way development programmes introduce their ideas (or their seeds). The way in which the organisations and donors behind these programmes are organised requires that the building blocks of human life be compartmentalised into sectors that can be managed within the framework of projects: productivity, income generation, health, culture, thereby severing the same linkages that make food such a holistic and overarching concept. Imagine how an improved seed variety, designed for monoculture, would fare in the colourful chaos of a field of lashak-makh? It would not survive its difficult soils without a substantial dose of fertiliser, or competition from other plants without the use of herbicides. The agricultural system must change if the newly introduced seed is to succeed; it must be compartmentalised. And so the seed becomes divorced from the soil and the traditional practices that connect farming and communities, such as seed saving and selection. It will no longer have its place in prayer, in food and in social networks of exchange—the very things that give a local seed its relevance and that enable it to adapt to changes in its environment and culture.

The same risk exists for ideas. Let’s return one last time to the dichotomy between ideas as singular monuments and ideas as networks and interactions. Even though external ideas are part of networks as much as local ideas are, we have in this paper pictured them as more ‘monumental,’ as one-liner solutions to problems whose conception often occurred elsewhere. In many ways they are more monumental—and they take root as a plant’s taproot might: central, singular, and straight. In being monumental and more rigid, they are less able to adapt to a new home, and less sensitive to it.

In contrast, what we have called endogenous, or local ideas, are the ideas that spring from everyday processes of innovation and learning; the way a farmer learns when working her fields. Having no one source or origin, and, perhaps, also no fixed goal or direction, they evolve and adapt when faced with something unknown, drawing on a reservoir of related ideas, whether prayer, technical knowledge or folklore.

We do not argue that all ‘small’ local ideas are good and all external ‘big’ ideas are bad. Both are needed, but they need to be able to interact on a more equal level. It is in facilitating such interactions, through engagement and experimentation, through the collective interrogation of ideas, and through being modest about introduced ideas and judging them against the wisdom of ancestral knowledge present in the places where they work, that we argue development organisations have a very positive role to play.

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