New Internationalist

Fusion time

Issue 418

With industrial agriculture getting a failing grade for its inability to feed the hungry and its high ecological costs, Wayne Roberts thinks we need to mix and match to restore a sustainable and fair food system.

I’ve got to thinking that Fusion may be just the answer to the world’s power shortage problem. Calm down – I’m not thinking about nuclear fusion for electrical power! I’m thinking about Fusion foods, which offer new ways of combining a wide range of ingredients, and the possibilities of  growing people-power in an emerging food system.

Upscale chefs have created some confusion about Fusion by using the word to brand their out-of-the-box and expensive approach to mixing ingredients from many lands and cultures. Food history shows that Fusion cooking came out of the cultural inventions and sharing that happened whenever ordinary people from different places met, when working as sailors and migrant labourers, or thrown together in servitude. What else is Creole cuisine, concocted from the cooking pots of African slaves and indigenous peoples of the Caribbean during the 1500s, but Fusion?

In today’s world, Fusion also appears on menus for personal, political and food change. Fusion savours the collapse of the bipolar world of the Cold War, when the US and the Soviet Union presented the world with two offers that couldn’t be refused. This was followed by the downfall of the ‘new world order’ that US governments and the World Trade Organization tried to impose after the Soviet Union disintegrated. China, India, Brazil, Venezuela and a revitalized Europe are only the first to step away from the demands of a unipolar world and announce that multipolar is the new normal.

Fusion perspectives on food may be just the first popular expression of the new energy released by this wider range of options

A multipolar world opens up new ways of seeing options in many areas of life. Fusion perspectives on food may be just the first popular expression of the new energy released by this wider range of options.

Sustainable agriculture fits well with Fusion perspectives. Before the era of cheap fossil fuels that could be used for fertilizer, mixed farming of diverse crops was the norm. Earlier this year I volunteered at one such postcard-perfect mixed farm, owned by Allister and Margaret Veinot, on Canada’s Prince Edward Island. I was amazed at how lightly mixed farmers step on the earth. The sheep feed mainly on pasture, the greenest crop that can be grown on marginal land that’s too poorly drained to be planted with crops for human consumption. A local beekeeper pays rent of two buckets of honey a year in return for permission to store a hundred hives on the pasture. Blueberry pickers pay to pick in two hectares of forest on the farm. The manure from the sheep is composted in the vegetable garden and greenhouse that supply a nearby farmers’ market. Culls and weeds from the garden provide nutrient variety in the pasture-based diet of the sheep and other livestock. By Fusion-style mixing and matching, the Veinots, the island’s first certified organic farmers, run a zero-waste operation that requires few energy inputs from afar – the multi-polar opposite to the monoculture standard in over-specialized and industrialized agriculture.

Likewise, to manage pests without toxic pesticides, sustainable farmers learn to get by with a little help from companion plants. Companion planting is about putting odd couples together in a garden or farm so that each overcomes the weakness of the other by warding off pests or enriching the soil. Horseradish protects potatoes from potato beetle, while onions protect asparagus from slugs, and alfalfa draws down nitrogen and breaks up hard soil for other types of vegetable. Plants from very different families and countries join a farm orchestra that creates a whole with more vitality than the sum of its unfused parts.

No more either/or

In a multi-polar world, ‘either/or’ no more describes the range of choices than ‘my way or the highway’. I believe this mix of disparate partners, increasingly the norm in food-based non governmental organizations (NGOs), is a precondition for a more democratic, egalitarian, sustainable and healthy food system.

There are no simple formulas or silver bullets for food problems. No remedy can be designed that doesn’t incorporate personal responsibility, for example. At some point, people who eat too many unhealthy foods causing degenerative diseases have to make the up close and personal commitment to cut the crap. Likewise, any remedy requires collaboration among many actors – individual eaters, farmers and fishers, processors, distributors, retailers, workplaces, childcare centres, public-sector purchasers, government agriculture departments… and on and on. This patchwork of free-flowing and networked collaboration and partnership could be called Fusion – an option for an engaged democracy that governments seem reluctant to embrace.

Just as good gardens flourish with unexpected companion plants, and tasty meals engage a range of complementary taste buds, food politics embraces differences that might appear as contradictions. Two equally powerful forces supported Cuba’s surprising success in overcoming hunger in the ‘special period’, when it went cold turkey to end its addiction to Soviet supplies and markets. One force was unquestionably the power of its public institutions to govern education, health and other determinants of well-being. Equally important was the second force: a glasnost of personal and informal initiatives, often nurtured by NGOs, which were responsible for the unprecedented expansion of self-managed food gardens in Havana and other cities – the key to Cuba’s ability to produce and distribute adequate food for all. Seemingly far apart on the political spectrum, public power and the power of one come together in the new Fusion scene.

Fusion trumps conflict

I believe many of the heated conflicts currently bedevilling the relationships between people working on various aspects of food issues will assume their proper (minimal) proportions once Fusion perspectives become the norm. There are many reasons to oppose biofuels made from corn or palm oil, for example, and just as many reasons to support biofuels from crops that store carbon underground while protecting animal habitat above ground. A recent Canadian experiment conducted by the NGO Resource Efficient Agricultural Production has established that switchgrass – with deep roots that heal damaged lands and rebuild carbon stores, while providing nesting ground for birds during early summer – can be cut and pelleted for fuel that heats greenhouses at an efficiency rate 570 per cent higher than corn ethanol or soy diesel fuel. There is no good reason for a polarized debate about farming for fuel, fabric and fibre as well as food, when all can flourish together in farms that produce renewable materials for many purposes.

There is no good reason for a polarized debate about farming for fuel, fabric and fibre as well as food, when all can flourish together in farms that produce renewable materials for many purposes

The hot debate about local and long-distance foods will also cool down once the Fusion-loving complexity of food is understood. There is little need for a sharp split when most studies agree that long-distance transportation of food accounts for less than 15 per cent of the total energy consumed in food production. Some foods – grains and coffee spring to mind – can be carted long distances at a slow pace that requires little energy or pollution. The heavy-duty and polluting energy in food comes from artificial fertilizers, processing, packaging, refrigeration, and above all, corporate and personal waste. That allows responsible governments, retailers and eaters some leeway to find a variety of ways to reduce the energy required to produce food, and a way out of creating unnecessary divisions based on unnecessary conflicts. Fair trade coffee, shipped as dried beans to be roasted and packaged in reusable or compostable packages close to the customer, with the waste heat from the roasting being used to warm greenhouses that grow winter vegetables – as is done by the Saltspring Coffee Company on Canada’s west coast – is about as ‘go local’ as Fusion trade can get. What’s the point of angst or arguing?

In much the same way, needless conflicts between vegetarians and carnivores – many argue that meat requires far too much grain that could otherwise be eaten by humans, or that the sheer amount of grains eaten by livestock makes meat as harmful to global warming as Hummers – can identify points of agreement in a Fusion framework. If livestock eat pasture grasses, the food many animals evolved on, the animals are healthier, provide leaner and more nutritious meat, and feed on a farm crop that’s raised with a light touch with minimal fuel inputs and a tolerance for biodiversity. A parting of the ways is not how to imagine the eclectic future of sustainability, which is why dialogue is the kissing cousin of fusion.

As essential as food and agriculture are to the individual and collective well-being of all people, they have not been the subject of general or comprehensive social movements in the way that other issues – think national independence, gender equality, union organization, public health, the right to vote or universal education, for example – have been. I think this delay in the development of unified food movements results from the unyielding resistance that the complexity of food, farming and fishing have always offered to the simple algorithms that make industrial production and centralized politics possible. Until more diversity-tolerant ways of mixing it up became more acceptable, there was little space for unifying movements that embraced the panorama of food issues. But the time for a more sophisticated food politics is long past due. The kind of imagination that has made the world ripe for Fusion-style cooking in the kitchen, can also make it ripe for a Fusion-style cooking up of a political storm.

Wayne Roberts manages the  Toronto Food Policy Council and is the author of the No Nonsense Guide to Food, published by New Internationalist.

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