Green Cities

Thoughts on Sustainable Food Future by Advocates for Native Knowledge

The National Museum of American Indian hosted “On The Table: Creating a Healthy Food Future” last Friday as part of the Living Earth Festival and Symposium series. The event brought together three distinguished speakers from the sustainable agriculture and indigenous heritage fields to discuss the current state of sustainable farming and the impacts of genetically modified seeds on traditional methods of crop production. Speakers included Ricardo Salvador, senior scientist and director of the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Clayton Brascoupe of the Tesuque Pueblo and Director of the Native American Farmers Association, and Robin Kimmerer, writer, scientist and professor at SUNY’s School of Environmental Science and Forestry. NMAI’s Director of Programs, Tim Johnson, moderated the discussion. Through individual yet overlapping narratives, the speakers addressed modernity’s disconnect with the environment and shallow field of knowledge of nature. Ricardo Salvador spokeon the contrast between traditional scientific method to farming and today’s short term focus. Using corn as an example, he explained that we currently spend 8-10 times more on the production of energy than the product is worth; that today’s quantity-driven agriculture undermines the planet and therefore our own health.  Whereas aboriginal knowledge understands that food science must be practiced based on generations of learning – we forget today what “to need” is. We are also seeing a decline in social health, noted Clayton, who explained the intrinsic link between thriving social health and direct engagement in agriculture. He shared stories of the Tesuque people and made clear that when farmers numbers decline, the health of the land declines – a fragile relationship that is being impacted by climate change. “We watch the pattern of nature and lunar cycles when we decide to plant,” said Clayton, to contrast aboriginal agriculture methods to big industry agriculture that threatens his people and native lands. Extreme winds and harsh rains have made corn growing much more difficult in recent years, a sign that the climate’s health has direct impacts on small communities. Clayton especially underlined the irreversible damage that genetically modified strains of seeds have already done to heirloom varieties and the burden this puts on aboriginal farm communities such as Tesuque Pueblo. Robin Kimmerer called on all to rebuild the web of reciprocity, to guide society down a path of understanding the multidimensional relationships between human gratitude and what it means for the environment. Focusing on the philosophy of indigenous agriculture, Kimmerer explained that sharing is a social tool of resilience, that food security must be rooted in supporting biodiversity and balance of nature and humanity. While we tend to think of food as “stuff,” explained Kimmerer, we must work toward an understanding that language, land, culture, history, identity, family, health are also connected to the food we harvest, grow and eat. As a whole, the symposium called upon a restoration of our relationship with the land. We must redefine our needs and wants, stress biodiversity and climate science to inform decisions going forward, and get back to a community-based approach to agriculture, using examples of native knowledge to fight climate change and harmful GMOs. We must ask ourselves tough questions, such as why we have problems to begin with and what are we really hungry for? Molly Pfeffer, Intern