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:

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.


Food Futures: Correction to my blog on SIANI

A few weeks ago I wrote this blog for SIANI about food. It’s a story of how our book “With our hands: A celebration of food, and life, in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs” came to be, and why we think it’s important both for the preservation of beautiful cultural traditions in the Pamir Mountains, and also globally important for social-ecological response diversity.

Link to SIANI blog

Link to SIANI blog

The point if this current blog is to make a correction: A Pamiri friend who read the SIANI blog quickly pointed out that Pamiri people are not ashamed of their food, but that it is a much more complex story than that. Of course she is absolutely right and the last thing I would ever want is to misrepresent that. The blog has now been corrected, and here is a more detailed explanation of my own interpretation of ‘ashamed’ as an outsider to the Pamirs.

This Pamiri friend explained that she loves Osh, it’s her favourite food. But that her mother made it only occasionally because it takes a long time to prepare. Many women in the Pamirs work full time jobs, are more than full time mothers, often supporting their parents, or the parents of their husbands, and very often other extended family. Pamiri women are truly superwomen. And it’s very to me to not misrepresent this.

So, using the word “ashamed”, was absolutely the wrong one! However, I think the original rationale behind it is important. Pamiri people, we found, did not like to prepare traditional food for foreigners. They rather prepared modern Russian dishes, with meat preferably, which is a sign of wealth. This is of course not at all unique to the Pamirs. My own grandmother in Austria would never dream of serving a guest a meal without meat, even if she prepares ‘simple’ local vegetarian food regularly for herself. A second anecdote which informed my use of the word ashamed includes Pamiri peoples “second flour.” Many Pamiri households have at least two kinds of flour. The first flour, is (now usually bought) white flour usually from Kazakhstan. The second flour, is a locally milled mixed flour which is much darker in colour and much more nutritious (as it’s often mixed with legumes). Again as a guest, we would only ever be served the bread of the first flour, unless explicitly asking for the second, when it was only brought out with confused and shy manners. No restaurant in the main Pamiri city of Khorog sells local food (with the exception of one seasonal summer dish, and one thermos full of Osh at the local market!), because it is presumed that people will not buy it.

As a final note, an outsider’s perspective will never be complete or wholly representative, no matter how thorough we have tried to be. After three years of work and constant conservation with Pamiris themselves, I am hoping we are not doing the Pamirs a disservice! Dialogue is the way to get through this, so I am extremely grateful for the correction!

Guattari revisited

At the Stockholm Resilience Centre in the past month, there has been an amazing initiative to revisit the classics: Durkheim, Weber, Marx. You can read about that on the resilience science blog

Frederik and I have often over the years gone back to the classics in thinking about our work on food sovereignty, development and cultural heritage in the Pamirs. Over two years ago we were inspired by French thinker, Felix Guattari, and I posted a few first reflections here. Those thoughts turned into a paper (free access here), published a year ago in a somewhat obscure French journal.

Why do I like using the classics in thinking about change social ecological systems? I have found beauty in the way that classics can provide framing my thinking in a narrower frame, much like a poetic style can channel creativity leading to the emergence of something entirely unexpected.

… we borrow from the concept of ‘the three ecologies’, developed by the French thinker Félix Guattari (1989). With this concept he distinguishes between three dimensions—environmental, social, and mental—of the current crisis of nature (both ecological and human) and illustrates how these are affected by the economic system that he considers to be the crisis’ main cause. These ‘three ecologies’ guide our analysis of development issues and the formulation of alternatives.

Implied in the following examples is the call, also emphatically stated in Guattari’s text, to abandon the professed neutrality of “pseudo-scientific paradigms” (ibid: 131) in favour of the subjectivity of aesthetic ones. In other words, to turn away, if only for the purpose of reflection, from the informational, ‘professional’, or ‘academic’ (i.e. external) narratives as a basis for conceiving development trajectories, towards the singularity and aesthetics of popular stories and memories rooted in local culture. Huyssen (2003: 2) relates the “fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures” to the differential treatment of history vs. memory. Development activities predicated on memory will be different from those based on a linear account of history and, arguably, allow for greater flexibility and creativity in responding to environmental, economic or geopolitical changes.

We go on to describe each of these ecologies in turn, the environmental, social and finally, mental:

Perhaps the most important point made by Guattari is that the degradation of the environmental and the social sphere cannot be seen separate from the impoverishment of the mind, or the mental ecology:

“Indeed, if we continue, as the media would have us do—to refuse squarely to confront the simultaneous degradation of these three areas, we will in effect be acquiescing in a general infantilization of opinion, a destruction and neutralization of democracy. We need to ‘kick the habit’ of sedative consumption […] we need to apprehend the world through the interchangeable lenses of the three ecologies” (Guattari 1989: 34).

The “media” to which Guattari refers can be seen as analogous to the role that development organizations play in the region. People aspire to achieve a model of development which they do not only poorly understand, but which, often, causes marginalization and erodes (food) sovereignty.


Afghan women baking wheat bread in a traditional oven, called kitsor. © Theodore Kaye

Food disempowerment

In this post I will argue that taking away staple crops from the producers disempowers farmers and rapidly erodes culture, heritage and ecological knowledge.

The Planetary Boundaries Initiative recently argued for economic/ecological models as food production hits the boundary. I agree, and that’s not a new argument. But in addition to combining ecological and economic models, I would urge we need to be concerned with mental models, particularly in food production and consumption. The food debate is too often centred around the calorie vs. conservation nexus. Perhaps this is the most important issue to deal with. But still, I would like to think there is a way to preserve people’s culture, heritage and pride in food production so that we don’t all end up eating Soylent Green (1973 American Science Fiction film).  My own personal morality when it comes to food fluctuates as much, or more than my intellectual views of food production: from vegetarian, to eat-only-local, to eat-only-wild meat etc. etc. I just say I’m a flexitarian now. I try to make moral decisions when I can. If someone kills a goat for me, I’ll eat it. Harder when trying to choose a protein source in Stockholm…

Do we need to sustainably intensify? Are GM crops needed to feed a 7 million, and growing, world?  Do we spare land to conserve biodiversity or do we share agricultural land? At the crux of it all, do we need to produce more, or waste less? Probably a combination of the two. It’s all context dependent and our arguments are motivated by our own experiences and emotions. And it will become obvious here that my heart and mind are on the side of small-scale producers who remain voiceless in this debate. Not just voiceless, but I would argue often have lost the power to have an opinion on this at all.

Friends and I had recently gone to an event in London on Small-holder farming and the future of food.  It wasn’t a great debate, mostly because the speakers who clearly had divergent opinions decided not to voice them. Sam Dryden of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation described their work at putting the small-holder (her) at the centre. He called the multi-scale complexity of modern farming systems “circles of trust.”

Figure from Sam Dryden at Impatient Optimists.

What I would like to know, is how does Sam Dryden know what ‘she’ wants? How are ‘her’ visions influenced by the development agenda and the agro-industrial machine?

Afterwards, a few friends and I got talking about the article in the Guardian last month “Can Vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about Quinoa.” The article warns that Bolivian farmers can no longer eat their staple grain after global demand has driven up the price of quinoa to the point they can’t afford to consume the quinoa they produce (the price has tripled since 2006). So should we all immediately stop eating quinoa and the prices plummet and all the farmers are even more screwed? Probably not. Eat quinoa in moderation, particularly given how difficult it is to produce locally anywhere in Europe? Flexitarian, yes.

Fine, but many of the arguments critiquing the article centred around the fact that producers are now (should be, but are they?) receiving more income from the quinoa and can now buy more  food from abroad and possibly send their kids to school with the added income. So Bolivan farmers can just start importing rice from China. From a caloric point of view that might not be that bad. What about the culture, the heritage and the history and ecological knowledge that goes behind producing quinoa? The recipes that go with it? Most of all, how is it fair that we, wealthy first world consumers get to choose which colour of organic quinoa we want to buy for dinner that night while the farmer eats low-nutrient, protein void Chinese rice?

This argument was countered with: But the farmer can choose to keep a bit of quinoa for consumption and sell the rest.

As far as I know, people living on or below the poverty have very little decision-making power, and often limited foresight potential. If you are struggling to survive, you’re going to do what gets you more money in the short term. (The sudden commodification of staple crops into liquid financial capital also undoubtedly affects the way in which producers exchange products with each other). Decision-fatigue has been documented as a major contributor to trapping people in poverty (see Dean Spears’ study on farmers in Rajasthan). Poor people have a lot more trade-offs (the life/death kind) to deal with on a daily basis severely limiting their productive capacity, and their energy to make decisions.

Another example of this disempowerment of the producer came up in class at the SRC yesterday, where a researcher told us about her work in East Africa where fishers who have traditionally fished piscivorus fish for consumption are now fishing increasingly more to meet the needs of the tourism and hotel industry. They consume less (if any) themselves, depend on middlemen for loans and become trapped in a low-income, malnourished state.

Thrashing wheat with oxen in Jomarji Bolo, Afghanistan. Tajikistan on other side of the Amu Darya River.

Thrashing wheat with oxen in Jomarji Bolo, Afghanistan. Tajikistan on other side of the Amu Darya River (August 2011) (c) Jamila Haider

Finally, coming back to the Pamirs. Same issues hold as above. Except I understand the mental models behind it a bit better.

On the Tajik side of the Pyanj we hear that farmers have forgotten how to be farmers when their staple crops were substituted for internationally competitive crops though Soviet modernization projects. FAIL. In the past generation many Tajik

farmers, those who are not scraping around the poverty level as migrant workers in Moscow, have gone back to their Afghan relatives to ask for seeds.

Meanwhile, the Afghans tell an eerily  similar narrative:  “Our livelihoods will be improved if only we had access to better seeds and to markets. Our lives would be better if we didn’t have to go to pasture and could buy margarine from the market. Except for that the margarine makes us sick…”

What role do development narratives and global market forces play in shaping small-holder’s vision of their future and their well-being?

Who’s future is this anyways? How do we, as scientists, know what ‘she’ at the centre of the circles of trust wants? My question is how to give people the power to make their own decisions. How to create a global food system based on local producers who can choose to grow and eat what they want?

I hope these berries are OK to eat…

I hope these berries are OK to eat…
I hope this water is OK to drink…
I hope this severely eroded hillside is OK to climb…
I hope this food we are eating with these random men is OK…

Sitting in our landlady’s fruit garden studying our Tajik notes, we are being attacked by white mulberries. These mulberries are very sweet and tasty, but Allison said they look like Larvae…so I’m a bit turned off. Today we hiked up to the botanical garden of Khorog, the 2nd highest botanical garden in the world. The trek there was long and hot and dusty. We cut off the road and hiked straight up a beachy-looking hillside…we survived. The gardens themselves are quite wild and we ate lots of fruit off the fruit trees. Cherries, white, red and black mulberries, apricots, sour un-ripe apples and some strange little red berries… I tried them all. Hopefully I’ll survive. We also ran out of water, so we just drank water coming out of a hose up there… hopefully we’ll survive. On our way back, we were invited by some old men eating lunch getting drunk on the roadside to join them in their feast. We did. Although we were able to avoid the rancid looking looking chicken and just ate their watermelon. Somehow, with a few tajik words, we were able to have a fun conversation with them. After our watermelon feast, we headed back on the road to Khorog. Thankfully after not to long as mini-bus stopped to offer us a ride, which at that point we were more than happy to accept!
Our Sunday was topped off with hand-washing all of our laundry, making hummus and dinner (chick peas and pasta) and apricot jam! We’ll see how the jam turns out…we have neither lemon nor gelatin. I expect it will be sweet soupy mess, but it will definitely beat the dry non with nothing on it we’ve been eating every morning.
Also, check out my roomies blog, she has a link to tons of awesome photos! Which her techno-perseverance has allowed her to link to flickr.

Roof of the world festival

The goal of the festival is to increase dialogue and cultural awareness among various central Asian countries: Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kazakhstan; as well as promote sustainable alternative technologies and natural resource management practices. The evening was wrapped up with a beautiful traditional Pamiri concert.
At the festival I was put in charge of the solar panel/light bulbs for a while. A group of men came by from a village high up in the Bartang valley. They explained that they had no more power, since their supply from the hydro dam had been damaged. So two villages are without any electricity and they are interested in solar panels, which I found totally awesome! The price is $1000 per unit, or $10 per watt, which is pretty steep. I will follow up on what we can do for them.
The festival was also a great place to meet people. Over 1000 people were in the park, from Khorog and surrounding villages, as well as many tourists. Manfred, a German whom I met the day before, biked from Dushanbe to Khorog and on to Murgab, KaraKul, Kyrgystan, China and then to Islamabad. Amazing! He met a French couple who have biked here from…. FRANCE. That’s over 8000 km, and I don’t even want to start thinking about the altitude…

Pamiri Wedding

My first Pamiri wedding! I’m writing all of this down on the computer, because my journal is hopefully on a truck on its way to MSDSP (getting weary about that).  I arrived in a large room, with tables on all the sides and a huge dance floor in the middle.  Food was already on the table, and people began to eat as soon as they arrived.  After a few moments the bride and groom entered to a live band.  They then sat at the head table with a best man and maid of honour on each side.  I was told that the religious ceremony happened a few days ago, but the couple was still not allowed to live together.  So here in the restaurant they signed the legal documents.  The rest of the guests (150 max. in GBAO as a by-law) ate and danced for three hours (also the maximum time limit as set out in a by-law).

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