Essential Christmas Reading List and Beyond Organic
This is going to be one of those newsletters. I have so much I want to talk to you about, I barely know where to begin and it puts me under pressure to try and reign in the words otherwise it’ll just all be too much. Reigning in words isn’t much my strong point.
I need to tell you why I am getting entirely disillusioned with the word ‘organic’. I’ve been ‘the organic lady’ for so long, that you must know that if I’m disillusioned with all it has come to mean, then a broader conversation is necessary. Speaking about whether something is organic or not just isn’t enough and now that it has become a ‘marketing’ term it’s in a whole load of trouble in many quarters. It’s pretty much in the hands of big food now not where it should be – with the answer to our food system challenges – in the hands of small scale farmers.
IFOAM’s (International Federation of Organic and Agricultural Movements) has the right solution to it being the grass-roots initiative it needs to be with their PGS assurance but for the most, for now, it is an in-affordable assurance for the very types of farmers we need to be buying from.
I have also seen some heinous examples of ‘certified organic’ farms. Where I know that I have found far better farmers with the right philosophy doing incredible work without certificates. I have sadly also come across – certified organic farmers who I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Who cannot hide poor farming behind a certificate – yet attempt to and believe the certificate exonerates them from a poor interpretation of a solid and holistic good farming philosophy. It is not about not just using pesticides for crying in a bucket – it’s about how you treat everything interconnected on a farm. It is supposed to be an interconnected philosophy of care and respect.
Sadly, without government leading the way here, organic certification is a business. It is in the interests of the certifying bodies to pass certification to collect their fees and it does nothing for transparency or to facilitate a real connection to the farm. Too often I am told that I cannot visit a certified organic farm or worse that the certifying body does not have to even tell me who the farm is. It isn’t what we are looking for – real relationships with real farmers doing things in a compelling way and bringing us untainted food is what we want. No certificate can replace that and I’m fed up in spades of watching the certified organic space being taken over by large food when I meet so many smaller – non-certified – just good, clean farmers – doing a better job often. There are countries where certified organic means something. I had an incredible meeting recently with a French retail chain that gets it right, that can only sell certified organic as the way in which it has been implemented there works. We are not yet there in South Africa and still, we have a very different context here – where traditional and rural farmers need to connect to the food system, not just for food security for themselves but so that food income can flow more adequately to the people who need it. We need their food, their traditional farming skills, their virgin soil, indigenous produce – and they need income. Right now – the food system excludes their access to market and their access to you. The food system has large corporates shaping the entire infrastructure and it is difficult to access food that is treasure to us. This is why the work of Siphiwe Sithole – the larger than life African soul who has delighted our space beyond words walking in with her rich belly laugh and produce grown in Mpumalanga, is a very important figure to us, to the food revolution at large, she is modelling the type of buying and selling relationship that helps us make a difference. Not only to our own health by being able to access nutrient dense African indigenous food but to health of the whole and this includes the economic health of all, we have a wide disparity of wealth to fix here.
Traditional – indigenous – African – Rural – are words as important as organic when it comes to supporting different forms of agriculture that can affect meaningful change here.
Europe doesn’t have the same context as Africa –– we need small scale African farmers that we can connect to so that wherever possible, we can exit the dominant conventional food system shaped by big food, big corporates who take the lion’s share of the profits while farmers go out of business and don’t have enough income to pay the labourers an adequate wage to feed their families.
With all that said, organic – is a word that has an original meaning. We can’t keep letting the corporate marketing world take ownership of words and divorce them from their essence. Authentic – Real – Honest – Natural – Organic – Artisanal – oh my hat – while we’re at it – what are people doing with that word? I recently saw the word ‘artisanal’ used on a loaf of bread in a large retailer where there were volumes of it – that is not artisanal! An artisan is a person – people don’t pump out volumes-based product with mechanical efficiency. Yet the word artisanal is just the latest of them to enter the funky perversion that happens when a retail mind set cottons on to the next trend.
Those words all came into space when the dialogue about what was necessary and relevant was taking place and one by one you watch people grab those words and bastardise them to manipulate in order to just make money through manipulating people into buying something that is made out to be of more value than it actually is.
I’m not interested in the words anymore – I’m not interested in the labels – I’m interested in the real character of the farmers we choose to bring us food. I’m interested in their philosophy – I’m interested in what drives them and it’s the philosophy that I trust or distrust before I even walk the farm because I know now and am sure after years of visiting so many – that the philosophy will be seen and felt in the farming practices as you walk it.
I won’t be dumping the use of the word – but will be hell bent on redefining it – back to – its original meaning. I’m interested in the meaning of words. What they are meant to convey. I’m interested in the ongoing evolvement of the conversation about what truly sustainable food is as it alters shaped by a changing context.
Like the word ‘organic’ – a word coined by Lord Northbourne in 1936 when writing one of the original organic texts – Look To The Land. The man who coined it wrote about it as a philosophy to return to, in response to in the rise of industrial agriculture. It was a responsive word to address a rising problem that we all live with now. It is relevant to the dialogue around industrial agriculture – it is not relevant when it comes to talking about rural, traditional farmers. It has no place there. We do not need to bring it near people who have never used pesticides or artificial fertilisers or even been a part of the problem in the first place. That would be obnoxious really. I shall never forget reading the last paragraph of Lord Northbourne’s, ‘Look To The Land’ and how I cried, the words impacted me so deeply – the book ends off with this sentence that if you don’t feel moved, you probably didn’t read the book deeply enough to let the summation penetrate:
“We have tried to conquer nature by force and by intellect. It now remains for us to try the way of love” (Northbourne, 1940).
I used to feel and behave like a food activist because that is what was required of me when this journey began 7 years ago. I have felt less like a food activist for the past couple of years in this store – and more like a bewildered shop keeper – trying to carve out a different way of selling food in this paradigm. I felt like the food activist in me was sort of over, that the time to be fighting against was behind me and it was more fighting for the viability of the store while still trying to find farms and still living the food writer I am and trying to connect you to the best produce without the core elements that make traditional retail successful – volumes – large capital and swanky, manipulative marketing.
Recently – just as the plans for the new store are taking shape and I have had an influx of formidable and incredible food writers and thinkers flock into the space – the food activist in me has risen again.
I want to fight for small farmers and I want to deepen our fight for real food sovereignty. I am back on a mission to get back out there and find the small farmers – the traditional farmers – the rural farmers – the indigenous foods we need to take back our power from a food system reduced to a systemic rape of our land and our right to longevity on earth for generations that need to come after us.
This fire has risen in me once again, in a different form and after having been around a different block trying to work out how to make a form of retail work – that can never and never will conform to the old school traditional model, I know where I need to focus again – I have a fire in my belly to find more small scale farmers. We need to go deeper. I have been so deeply impacted by the work of some incredible women around me lately.
When Lord Northbourne coined the term ‘organic’ – it was about how farming was meant to be an honouring and mimicking of and working with – natural systems – not a chemical rape of soil, land, animals and water. It was not about people running around with clip boards assessing whether a farm is organic or not and making it a marketing advantage – or not. It most certainly isn’t relevant either to traditional and indigenous farming. Neither it is superior to the inherent wisdom of traditional, rural farmers. It would be an abomination and further insult to use this word around farmers who were never a part of the problem in the first place.
It has been a starting point for us to talk about the horrors of conventional farming but it is not the definitive part of the food revolution conversation. It is time to move beyond that. The wisdom of people around me tells me this – they are saying something profound and I am listening and responding from a place deep within.
We are talking as much about food sovereignty, access to food and water, climate change, soil erosion, traditional farming, the rights of indigenous people to live on land their way, farm their way, about the loss of biodiversity and worse – the loss of the rights of people to access food and enter the food system – as we are about pesticides and GMO’s. It’s equally about the marginalisation of small scale farmers as it is about the role of big food and big retail in perpetuating the disaster alongside and in conjunction with the agro-chemical corporates.
Dr Tracy Ledger in her vital food read on the state of the South African food system tells us where the money goes – who benefits and who is getting hurt in her ground-breaking book that I am going to suggest to you as vital holiday reading – An Empty Plate. I want to suggest it because the information will empower you even further – to understand the forces that are shaping your South African food world, your perception of food and manipulating it to their profitable advantage. You can’t make empowered choices until you are able to properly understand the nature of your enemy and confront it. Tracy helps us to do this.
How we think about food and how we purchase it – who we allow to sell it to us and what we allow them to do in the pursuit of money and what effects that has on the food system – something we equally need to talk about. I can’t even begin to address all these themes in the newsletter and my time of being able to write so many in-depth articles is also critically challenged by the demands of keeping Organic Emporium sustainable. It’s why more and more it is becoming evident – especially with the gathering of cosmic sisters with much to offer and contribute in the food revolution lately – that our harvest table concept needs to be a place where we gather to have these vital conversations, around the food so important to addressing change. The best is that I no longer need to write reams to try and make people understand – there are so many other people doing just that now. I can focus more on bringing you all into a place of dialogue, great eating and community which is what our eatery will be.
Tracy Ledger wants us to look at how the South African food system works and how our behavior as consumers shapes it. Mpho Tshukudu and Anna Trapido want you to re-look at the role of African traditional food to restore health and are talking about the grand intelligence and wisdom inherent in it while they are reviving traditional recipes into something silly delicious. They tell us that we don’t need any more western world concepts to fix problems we never had to begin with – Africans don’t need to ‘diet’ or reduce calories – they need to just return to their grandparent’s food and we need to follow suit.
We only need to return to an African way of eating and relating to food. Siphiwe Sithole from African Marmalade tells us that the return to eating African indigenous and traditional foods – right for our life, right for our soil – is the roadmap to resurrecting our own food sovereignty. Buying from small scale farmers so that money flows from those that have to those that don’t, yet whose work is vital to saving the health of the whole, flows where it needs to and doesn’t get stuck in the retail bottle neck is mission critical. We need to be buying from farms whose produce does not come off the backs of the exploitation and abuse of farm labor. Insisting that retail pay farmers adequately and in better proportion to the money they make selling smoke, mirrors, disease and loss of longevity. You would be horrified in the extreme to learn about how big retail treats farmers, but you need to know – Tracy Ledger opens up that view and tells you the real facts about how far an impact your food choices have on the lives of others.
Dr Tracy Ledger explains in her book – how it all really works – the corporates are making obscene amounts of money in that gap that sits between you and the farmer – the big food processing plants and big retailers.
Retail is an expensive and very specific game and having tried to make it work on only 50m2 – has taught me much about the pressures of it. The sheer volume of profit a larger retailer expects to make and what needs to be done to move the volumes needed to achieve it, as Tracy puts it – is the elephant in the room nobody knows how to talk about. Corporates with far too much power and far too deep an ear much influence with government.
Standing chatting knee and soul deep in a chat with Tracy in-store today – that same knowing and pressure arose in me – that the answer is in grass roots pressure upward. Government is not protecting the rights of people to access the food system or even to access water. It is protecting the interests of the big corporates. It’s short sighted and perpetuating a grand rape of the nation. The way forward for us is to just keep on keeping on, the alternate food space is shaping. What was a dusty road for pioneers who refused to believe in anything else – is becoming viable and a road to be paved.
Let’s talk more about our own indigenous foods. Let’s talk to African growers. Let’s talk about moroggo and the great African greens. Let’s cook with them, let’s buy from the small traditional farmers growing them. Lets up close and personal with rural grown sweet potato varieties, all knobbly and gnarled and the incredible wisdom of the people who grow them for us using traditional knowledge that trumps all, let’s eat knowing it makes a difference to the flow of income, to our health because their produce is untainted, to the soil that they look after, to the communities that sit disenfranchised and yet ripe with knowledge and a history of growing food without chemical inputs.
I am ashamed to say that I cooked amaranth otherwise known as imfino, imbuya, tepe or morroggo for the first time the other night. I took advice on what to do with this dark green nutrient dense crazy delicious green from Siphiwe and from customers excitedly relating memories of it in-store on Saturday. Emotional memories, it is a large deal for people to be able to access food that is rightfully theirs and have it placed where it belongs, in the spotlight as the clever food it always was.
It is delicious beyond words and to know that the answer to our food problems as much as the great inequality of wealth lies with traditional farmers, excites me beyond belief.
Find my recipe for amaranth or imbuya or tepe or imphino with cream and ground nuts below. Let’s start there. There will be so much more to come. I already have a gathering of people who want to cook for ‘The Table’ for you while they show you their traditional recipes.
We have copies of ‘Eat Ting‘ and ‘An Empty Plate‘ in store now. I was going to leave ‘An Empty Plate’ for next year but after getting into it last night I had to get it in for you before the holidays.
These two books are the great South African food reads for this year, buy them for friends who are interested in being empowered further in their food journey and to excite you to get into a relationship with our own indigenous foods and deepen your understanding of the belly of the beast of our food system. These two great books hold hands – the one explains how the food system is shaped in South Africa and empowers you with knowledge to better access the alternative food space and the other makes the journey even more exciting by giving you tantalizing recipes to use when you buy African food that has always been here and that we need to return to.
For short snippets of news – watch our Facebook and Instagram pages for information.
There is just too much to cover in the newsletters alone. Just yesterday I visited a new great local farmer building a food forest. I have to get news to you about him too as you’ll meet some of his incredible produce in-store next week in the form of the most beautiful heritage tomatoes and strawberries. I took our photographer and Sam there yesterday and we all said the same thing – that the strawberries and tomato was the best we had ever tasted, I can’t wait to bring you news of this new entry into our space too next week. I shall be loading up pictures of the tomatoes and this incredible farmer on Instagram through-out the day. Short snippets of info will always be there and on our Facebook page – this place has to be the place where the larger conversation about where we are at happens.
Jan arrives today with more of the heritage chickens, Brennaissance Boran arrives back in today, Penny has just started a new loaf alongside her already perfected 36 hour ferment. She walked in today with a rustic round black sesame whole-wheat sourdough, the coconuts, cassava, amaranth, wild mangoes and delectable rural orange and white sweet potatoes are in. We have great onions coming in next week too from the food forest farmer we visited today with delight and new types of kale.
I’ll just keep on posting updates and vlogs when I can’t find the time to type on Instagram and Facebook.
I almost had a gammon recipe for you to use with pastured pork Christmas gammons but I burnt it to a crisp and need to go back to the drawing board with that. For now, all I can say is you need to be very careful when you smother gammon with honey – with the temperature that you cook it in. This I now know for sure☺
PS – the wild mangoes – pop them in a blender with a dash of vanilla, some boekenhout honey and a double thick yoghurt – you won’t be sorry.
Bye for now, we have the last couple of crazy weeks left before we end off this year with you on Christmas Eve and then take some respite until January the 9th.
Then it’s a big push and a kick into a bigger place where we can interact with you better and bring you, the farmers and the incredible food voices in our space closer together.
And we shall finally – eat – together – too. And I can’t wait.