Words: Angela Clifford

It’s like walking away from the house and out into the darkness of the farm. You know, that kind of moonless night, where the first moments are so black that there’s a period of complete disorientation.

Your senses carry the resonance of the light you’ve just left.  And it’s not until you’ve stood still and quiet for a period of time that the sky and its celestial bodies reappear.

I’m writing this in the middle of May, and the last six weeks have been like that for the New Zealand food story. All blazing lights and energy, and then darkness and disorientation as food experience was amputated from food.

And now, a period of contemplation as we search for what is left.

It’s as if someone has come and rubbed all the words off the whiteboard, but if I look closely I can still see the gentle outline. And here we all are, holding the pens, deciding what to write back.

Do we want to carefully copy back each phrase? Did that sentence serve us well, bring happiness in a sustained way? Was that sentence true, or one written for us as a supposed version of ourselves? What about the words that don’t even make sense, now that our language of life has been changed forever?

There’s an overwhelming desire to just fill in the board immediately, with all the things, making it look busy and happening and bright… But the end of the story hasn’t been written yet, so it seems wrong to do more than decorate a border around the edge.

And, if you’ll forgive my mixed metaphors, the night sky is the same. I can see the planets start to reappear. Their significance and weight making them the first to come back. Our food solar system is dominated by agriculture.  It’s the way we’ve seen ourselves since colonisation, a trading nation which was the paddock and ocean for the motherland.

But agriculture has some unique challenges ahead of it, not all of them related to this pandemic. Industrial production systems have led to imbalance and prevented firebreaks developing between species. And if this virus is a school shark, then climate change is surely the great white circling.

If there’s a blue planet in our food system I’d call it Te Ao Māori or an indigenous worldview. It’s been the furthest from our view in recent years, hidden and forgotten, but holds with it significant understanding of our place in the world and the connection we have to it. The re-emergence of this indigenous knowledge could shine a pathway forward for us all.

And there are some food system planets that have been eclipsed for the moment: tourism, events and hospitality. What will they look like when they reappear? It’s too early to get a true reading.

But even as recently as the last few days, I can see some constellations. A small group of stars that have begun to re-imagine hospitality in New Zealand.

How can a restaurant become the hub or centre of a community? How can a community support its existence? How can that establishment feed people? It’s a wild reframing from a traditional business model. Restaurants had the smallest of profit margins and that was because they supported a network of other small businesses, from growers to cleaners and other suppliers and services. How can we better support hospitality establishments that manifest the gathering of us as a community moving forward? Why should they take all the risk on their own? What happens if they all decide the risk is just too great…

Local food networks are constellations as well. A cluster of growers, catchers and makers, juxtapositioned with eaters. This crisis has made these networks shine brightly as people have realised that ‘knowing their farmer’ or ‘knowing their fisher’ has tangible benefits for food access. The opportunity now is to support these relationships towards longer term resilience.

If everything has been thrown in the air, what opportunities are there for different pairings or combinations as things resettle? Can agriculture and tourism become better bedmates? Why is there such a division between food and wine in New Zealand? Can different primary sectors work more closely together?

And finally, there is us, as eaters. Have we finally worked out that we can cook, and that we do love food and that eating good food keeps us well?

We’ve reached a major crossroads. Never has there been more opportunity for positive change. Which path will we take now?

Angela Clifford
Angela is the CEO of Eat New Zealand. Committed to connecting people to our land through our food, her work gives her a unique perspective across all aspects of the New Zealand food and beverage landscape, from production to food transformation to food experience.

Angela is also the co-owner of The Food Farm, an organic permaculture farm, with her husband and three children. Besides feeding themselves, they teach others how to grow their own food. She knows how to milk a cow in a paddock, gut a chicken, find porcini and grow field tomatoes. These are her proudest accomplishments to date.

You can follow her work and life @TheFoodFarmNZ and @Eat.NewZealand on Instagram.

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