Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Food systems and shizen

Our first week in the Comparative Farming & Sustainable Food Systems course consisted of going over the syllabus, which is long and detailed and actually rather interesting. Professor Gerlach introduced the idea of shizen in it, which he described as "a spontaneous, self-renewing sacred and natural world of which humans are inextricably a part." When I look this up on line, I find shizen noho, or "natural farming," a type of permaculture. Gerlach described shizen noho as the "gardeners of Eden" method. This in turn is a reference to a book by the same title by Dan Dagget, with the important subtitle, Rediscovering Our Importance to Nature. Another one for my reading list, I'm afraid…

This idea, that we are a part of nature, and not apart from it, is one that isn't all that startling on the face of it, but the behavioral consequences that naturally (so to speak) follow are profoundly different than the ones modern industrial culture is creating. The situation we're in now (in terms of our food and social systems and the environmental results) arise from the assumption that we are not part of, or subservient to, Nature. I use the idea of subservience quite deliberately: we are used to the idea of dominion, of heirarchy, in our relationship to the natural world—and each other. We operate as though we aren't part of the natural world, as though there are no consequences to what we do (at least, not ones that affect us). This is true in farming and in our food systems.

Our first assignment was to read an essay by Michael Hamm talking about developing sustainable, or healthy, food systems as a "wicked problem," i.e., one that doesn't have a solution, exactly, because not only do people not agree about what the problem is, but that the solution is different for each stakeholder. This is a very interesting concept. The opposite sort of problem he presented was that of a "tame problem," one in which the answer is inherent in the problem itself, and has a clear end; it's complete when solved. A wicked problem, on the other hand, can't really be completed. It's that nebulous, complex, ever-changing and evolving sort of problem that the real world is full of: a complexity of problem.

Class was canceled yesterday due to no classroom and an ill professor, but we got an e-mail assigning us to find a definition of "food system" and to come to class prepared to talk about it. (Wikipedia once again provides a good starting point.) And of course, if we're going to be talking about sustainable food systems in this course, we'd better know what a food system is.

First post on this class: Sustainable food systems class

Cross posted at SNRAS Science & News.

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