Fusion Power

From Wayne’s archives. Fall 2008.

I’m hanging out in the crowded back yard of a community recreation centre in Toronto’s west end on a warm and sunny fall day, listening to the reggae/funk/country sounds of a local band called Nine Mile, getting ready to cheer on two cooking teams in an Iron Chef competition featuring surprise ingredients from around the world, checking out the 30 different flags indicating birthplaces of the regulars who come to The Stop Community Food Centre, and it hits me that fusion is the answer to the world power shortage problem.

Chill, I’m not thinking about nuclear fusion or even electrical power. I mean fusion as in fusion foods, new ways of combining old ingredients, new ways of giving a taste of power to people who haven’t had much, and maybe a new way thinking about growing power that’s inspired by an understanding of an emerging food system. In my just-released book, The No Nonsense Guide to World Food, I call this emerging system Fusion, the international alternative to today’s industrialized food system. Today, I can see, hear, smell and taste what I was trying to say.

In the style of the famous TV show of the same name, the Iron Chef competition has Joshna Maharaj, who prepares tasty meals for people on low income who drop in at the STOP, sponsor of the day’s harvest celebration, pitted against celebrity chef Ted Corrado of C5 restaurant. The chefs have 40 minutes to learn what ingredients they’ll be given to work with and cook up a prize-winning meal.

The ingredients are a grab bag of confusion fusion, including ingredients that have been fused into regional foods for 500 and even 3,000 years. From the heritage of the First Nations of Canada come venison (deer meat), Jerusalem artichokes, spruce tips and cloudberries. Green-leafed calaloo hails from the Caribbean islands. From South America’s Indigenous peoples come potato, tomato, tomatillo, chili chocolate – ingredients that became part of many world cuisines during Europe’s global trade expeditions and conquests of the 1500s. From Europe, the Middle East and central Asia came diffusion foods that had been exchanged by traders since the beginnings of agriculture and trade routes – onion, garlic, leeks, grapes, wheat, oyster mushrooms and a range of kitchen herbs.

Among Californians who considered themselves cutting edge gourmands, this age-old process of cross-cultural diffusion was christened fusion food during the 1990s, when globalization was considered something new and revolutionary. The infusion of self-conscious fusion by chefs inspired by foodways from around the world and eager to think outside the box of national culinary traditions led to hundreds of new recipes and dishes. At a high-end fusion joint such as Marben in Toronto, the menu features such off couples and strange platefellows as smoked pepper and roasted garlic perogies, ancho scented duck confit tacos, Szechuan crushed Arctic char; and somosa dessert over tamarind crème anglaise.

But what defines the fusion of this era, makes it different as well as politically-provocative, is its appearance on menus for political change.

The acclaim for fusion cuisine coincided with the acclaim for the “end of history” and of a bi-polar world divided by a First World led by Capitalist America and a Second World led by Communist Russia, but anticipated the next phase of history. After a brief interlude when the United States was the only global power worth reckoning with, a multi-polar settled in, with China, India, Brazil, Europe and occasionally a few others weighing in. The inability of the World Trade Organization to develop or impose common rules for food and agriculture, as well as the economic weakness and political isolation of the United States, signal that multi-polar is the new normal.

Multi-polar or fusion has almost always been the norm in food production, except for a brief period when cheap fossil fuels, the feedstocks for cheap fertilizers and pesticides, made an exception for monoculture. But in the tradition of diverse, multipolar or fusion agriculture, farmers got 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, enriching the soil, and so on. Horseradish protect potatoes from potato beetle, while onions protect asparagus from slugs and asparagus beetle, or alfalfa draws down nitrogen and breaks up hard soil for several veggies. Plants from very different families and countries can be fused in an orchestra to create a whole more robust than all of its parts.

The STOP Community Food Centre does the same with the apparently eclectic mix of its companion politics. It’s not a food bank, though it provides free food to community members who run out of money. It’s not a government agency, though it works with many agencies to offer pre-natal and breastfeeding support. It’s not a community agency, though it uses food to bring people together to cook, to eat, to discuss improvements in neighbourhood facilities. It’s not a gardening club, though urban agriculture and community gardens are central to its neighbourhood outreach. It’s not an advocacy center, though organizing to raise minimum wages and social assistance policies is prominent in all gatherings. Like ancho scented duck confit tacos, it’s a fusion of all these elements.

In a multi-polar world, either…or no longer describes the range of choices any more than my way or the highway. The Fusion recipe for organizations as well as foods accepts a wide variety of individual ingredients, depending on the occasion. Local businesses and affluent people are welcome fundraisers, donors and service providers at the STOP. Social entrepreneurs are as welcome as volunteers as public health nurses. Artists are key partners in a Green Barn the STOP initiated, weaving affordable housing for artists and art installations with community gardens and a baking oven dedicated to Herbert de Sousa, a refugee to Toronto during the 1970s who returned to Brazil to found that country’s powerful anti-hunger movement.
I believe this mix of partners, increasingly the norm in food-centred Non Governmental Organizations, is a precondition for success in organizing for a more democratic, egalitarian, sustainable and healthy food system. There are no silver bullets for food problems, which is one reason why food problems have been so hard for governments and corporations to overcome, and one reason why leftists have had comparatively little to say about food and agriculture. No remedy to food-related problems can be designed that doesn’t incorporate personal responsibility, for example; at some point, people who are overweight or who eat foods that cause degenerative diseases, have to accept the need to voluntarily stop eating so much crap. And so it is all down the line. No remedy to food-related problems can be designed that does not require some degree of harmonization among individual eaters, farmers and fishers, processors, distributors, retailers, intellectuals and artists, workplaces, public sector purchasers and governments. The patchwork of collaboration could be called Fusion.

Just as gardens flourish with unexpected companion plants, and meals engage taste buds with unusual companion ingredients, food politics embraces differences that might appear as contradictions elsewhere. Two equally powerful forces supported Cuba’s surprising success overcoming hunger after the collapse of both farm supplies from, and farm exports to, the former Soviet Union. One force is unquestionably the power of non-market public sector institutions to govern education, health and other determinants of well-being. Equally important was another force: personal and informal initiatives, often nurtured by Non Governmental Organizations, 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.

I believe many issues that now bedevil social relationships will assume their proper (minimal) proportions once fusion politics become the norm. There are many reasons to oppose bio-fuels made from corn or palm oil, for example, and many reasons to support bio-fuels from crops that store carbon underground while protecting animal habitat above ground. A recent Canadian experiment conducted by an NGO called 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 pelletized for fuel that heats greenhouses at an efficiency rate 570 per cent higher than corn ethanol or soy diesel fuel.

The hot debate about local and long distance foods will also cool down once the complexities of food are understood. 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 jump to mind – can be carted long distances at a slow pace that requires little expenditure of pollution-causing energy. The heavy-duty and polluting energy in food comes from artificial fertilizers, processing, packaging, refrigeration, and above all, corporate and individual waste. That leaves responsible governments, retailers and eaters some leeway to find a variety of ways to reduce energy required to produce food, and a way out of creating fears and 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, the waste heat from the roasting used to heat greenhouses hat grow winter veggies, as is done by the Saltspring Coffee Company on Canada’s west coast, is about as glocal as fusion imports can get. What’s the point of arguing about that when we can pick our battles more sensibly and argue about chronic disease-causing sugar made from local beets on land that could grow healthy foods?

In much the same way, divisive conflicts over meat – many argue that livestock consume far too much grain that could otherwise be eaten by humans, while others argue that the sheer amount of grains eaten by livestock make meat as harmful to global warming as Hummers – becomes a positive discussion 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 and that’s ideal for lands too hilly or too poorly-drained for grains or vegetables. There’s no need for a polarized debate as long as fusion-style mix and match prevails.

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 or universal education, for example – have been. I think the historical delay in dealing with food and agriculture is a product of their unyielding resistance to industrial methods, which tend to require a formula or algorithm that doesn’t capture the intricacy and complexity of food. Conditions that made the world ripe for Fusion in the kitchen also make it ripe for Fusion-inspired models to succeed in cooking up a storm in the way food organizing and politics are done. Roasted tofu with smoked pepper, NGO confit, caffeinated crème de regulation gouvernmentale and a bourgeois reduction anyone?

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