On Food and Education: Noa Kekuewa Lincoln

For our five-question series on food and education at The Common Table, we ask experts about their strategies and practices for a healthier relationship with food. Here: Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, a specialist in Indigenous Cropping Systems at the University of Hawai’i, explains how core human values are deeply embedded in food and agriculture and that we have so much to learn from island diversity and resilience.

The Common Table: How would you explain your perception of food as an educational discipline or tool to someone who might think that it just means cookery lessons?

Noa Kekuewa Lincoln: Until very recently, food and agriculture were the main industries of virtually every society around the world. Because of that, cultures embedded pretty much all their teachings into the activities of agriculture and food production in various ways. In other words, schooling was done through agriculture: children were taught how to do math, ecology, poetry and numerous other arts and sciences through engagement with agriculture.

Until very recently, food and agriculture were the main industries of virtually every society around the world.

Most cultures also have their cultural values, their world views and epistemology, deeply embedded into their food and agriculture. Through food and agriculture, you taught children, in particular, how to behave, how to get along, in a society and what the cultural norms and beliefs were of a place that allowed them to live their lives well, within those cultures. You still have these very deeply embedded components in a lot of more place-based, more indigenous locations around the world, even today.

We acknowledge it less and less but the role of food in our cultures is still paramount.  When you seek to connect with somebody, it’s often over a meal: all our big holidays are still centred around a meal that brings people together, to commune. Even though we’re not as explicit about it today in our global industrialised world as we were in the past, we are still leveraging food around our cultural identities and values. We are still teaching people through food about our core values. 

We are still teaching people through food about our core values. 

Right now, global society is grappling with sustainability, and environmental management issues that island societies, in particular, have acknowledged for a long time – that the planet that we live on is an island with finite resources. The fundamental ways that humans interact with our land base are still food and agriculture. Therefore, agriculture and food, in the modern context are going to be major teaching tools in terms of sustainable resource management, sustainable land management, environmentalism, and all these huge, large-scale problems that we need to get figured out.

The Common Table: What are you doing, or have you done to change understanding related to food in an educational context?

Noa Kekuewa Lincoln: Firstly in promoting our traditional crop varieties and traditional ways of growing food through a whole system approach. We support growers through research and technical assistance, educate consumers to try and change habits and behaviours, document impact to support legislative action, as well as grow the food and help get it into the food system. What we do is try to leverage those traditional ways as symbols for how to address some of the large-scale problems in our global food and agricultural systems.

There’s tremendous opportunity involved in switching to long-lived, tree-based agriculture.

For instance, one of the crops we work with is breadfruit. It’s one of the only staple carbohydrate-rich crops that’s grown on a tree. For the most part, all of our global staples today are annual crops such as rice, corn, potato, cassava, or kalo taro. There’s tremendous opportunity involved in switching to long-lived, tree-based agriculture. It can represent a fundamental shift in concepts of what agriculture is.

Two hundred years ago, the agricultural systems used for growing food, were extremely diverse. All around the world, there were a lot of very place-adapted practices and technologies that worked with local ecologies to cultivate crops. Yet in just a couple of centuries, they have been largely supplanted by a very Eurocentric concept of mono-crop cultivation based on grass species. 

Two hundred years ago… there were a lot of very place-adapted practices and technologies that worked with local ecologies to cultivate crops.

For us, breadfruit is a great symbol, not only pushing back on industrial cereal cultivation being the sole way to feed the world but also embodying a lot of the other pieces to the puzzle. Breadfruit is relatively high in vitamins and minerals, compared to a lot of processed carbohydrates such as white rice, which is pretty much just empty calories. 

Addressing food and nutrition in our diets is also revitalizing the traditional understanding that food is also a fundamental component of medicine, health, and well-being. In the US at the moment we have the first generation in history where life expectancy is declining and this is largely attributed, in part, to our diet.

When you get into issues of justice, equity, food sovereignty and security, breadfruit cultivation can also play a role. Most people don’t have time to farm in their backyard, in our modern world but they’d have time to plant one tree. If you plant a single breadfruit tree, you can provide half the staple carbohydrates for your family for a year with one simple act. It’s about demonstrating the ability to move back towards a fundamental, ground-level food security – of having essential foods, right there on your doorstep.

It’s about demonstrating the ability to move back towards a fundamental, ground-level food security – of having essential foods, right there on your doorstep.

That’s just one example of how we try to use our crops as symbols to tell larger stories of what can be done with the transformation of our food and agricultural systems.

The Common Table: Who are you trying to reach and teach and why?

Noa Kekuewa Lincoln: We certainly have an emphasis on Hawai’i, just because it’s where I’m from and where my ancestry is from, but a big part of my academic work is around using islands as model systems. I think islanders have a lot to offer the world because, in their mindset, they’re much farther along the path of sustainability. Not because they are unique or amazing people per se, but because of their experience in terms of figuring out ways to adapt when they run up against resource limitations, 

Islanders have a lot to offer the world because, in their mindset, they’re much farther along the path of sustainability.

In the modern context, because islands are small and isolated, they also serve as a kind of canary in the coal mine. Social and environmental problems manifest on islands quicker than on continents because you can’t kick the economic problems down as far the road. Take gentrification as an example. On a continental scale you can keep expanding and keep moving people to the outskirts of a city, but they can still commute and contribute to the labour force. But on this island, you just can’t, we’ve got nowhere left to put people. We’re already seeing major social manifestations of what large-scale gentrification does here on Hawai’i in a way that continents haven’t even begun to think about yet.

The loʻi of Meg and Hanale Bishop in Waiāhole, Oʻahu. Photo: Justyn Ah Chong
The loʻi of Meg and Hanale Bishop in Waiāhole, Oʻahu. Photo: Justyn Ah Chong

The Common Table: Where would you like to take your work in this field? What are your goals?

Noa Kekuewa Lincoln: On a micro level, we’re trying to get our university system to evolve out of a plantation mindset. The generations have grown up under such different perspectives, experiences, exposure to problems, and the solution sets that they want to see. For instance, we have a professor in our department who’s still teaching turfgrass management, because he still thinks that someone’s going to go to college and then get a job managing a golf course in Hawai’i afterwards. Not realizing that 90 per cent of our local university students want to tear the fucking things out. Golf courses are symbols of colonisation, class differentiation, and wasted resources in the extreme. We have so many water issues in Hawai’i. Watching these golf courses get huge water allocations so a handful of rich tourists can come to play golf is a symbol of everything that is wrong here. Having our university teach a class because they expect kids to go and work for this wrong system is so out of touch with the changes the younger generation wants to see happen today.

On a micro level, we’re trying to get our university system to evolve out of a plantation mindset.

So, part of it is about trying to get some of these institutions to understand where things are heading and to evolve and support new directions – and that’s a challenge. Another example: we’re the land grant institution for the state, but we don’t teach agroecology and we only have one person who teaches sustainable agriculture. Yet indigenous culture in Hawai’i has a tremendous amount to offer in terms of thinking about what true, long-term sustainable agriculture could look like.

Hawai’i is one of the most ecologically diverse, ecologically dense, locations on the planet. In the conservation world, they talk about that all the time, but they never seem to take the next step and think about the diversity engineered by humans. Traditional Hawai’ian agriculture was arguably one of the most diverse suites of practices anywhere in the world. Islanders here developed a very extensive set of systems and a variety of practices because they were adapting to all these different microclimates on the island. There is also a limited number of crop species, but within those crop species, they have developed a tremendous crop diversity, to adapt to the ecological variations. 

Traditional Hawai’ian agriculture, was arguably one of the most diverse suites of practices anywhere in the world.

We are trying to get these kinds of indigenous-led concepts into the discussion and the thinking of what agriculture and food education can be. What can we be teaching, sharing and thinking about beyond just refining our current agricultural system to make marginal improvements in nitrogen application to monoculture corn? How do we truly shift or think about transformed ways of growing food that for all of human history, except the last couple of centuries, have been the norm?

How do we truly shift or think about transformed ways of growing food that for all of human history, except the last couple of centuries, have been the norm?

This is not saying that we want to go back to the past but that the past, I think, has a tremendous amount to offer and teach us in terms of how we design more intelligent systems that work more in concert with the natural ecology: systems that honour the land, and the other living things on this planet as having their own life forces and their own will, and that they should be considered in our decision-making as well.

If we don’t take the time to ask what our values are, to make sure we’re teaching those values and how to embed them into our activities and direction, then all we’re doing is arming people to go off, and potentially cause harm.

The Common Table: What is the big picture perspective in terms of the future of food education, in your view, and where is it coming from?

Noa Kekuewa Lincoln: I think a lot of it has to go back to experiential education for the next generation that we are cultivating. We have a lot of emphasis on technology, and the tools with which to do agriculture but tools have no direction. You can take a hammer and you could build a house with it or you could go and smash in someone’s head. Tools only allow us to manifest our values. If we don’t take the time to ask what our values are, to make sure we’re teaching those values and how to embed them into our activities and direction, then all we’re doing is arming people to go off, and potentially cause harm. Even with good intentions, if we’re not more deliberate about really embedding value throughout the process, it’s very easy to miss the mark.

Noa Kekuewa Lincoln is an Associate Professor of Indigenous Crops and Cropping Systems in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. He is the president and founder of Māla Kaluʻulu Cooperative, a demonstration farm restoring traditional agroforestry methods, and the production advisor and board member of the Hawaiʻi ʻUlu Producers Cooperative, a farmer-owner cooperative focused on the mid-tier value chain of several indigenous crops including breadfruit. He is also the co-founder and Vice Chair of the Amy BH Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden which preserves rare native Hawaiian plants as well as traditional crop varieties.  He sits on numerous boards of community-based non-profits, such as ʻAina Momona and Ulu Mau Puanui, and governmental advisory boards, such as the Kaulunani Urban and Community Forestry Council. He received a BS from Yale University in Environmental Engineering, a PhD from Stanford University in Biogeochemistry and Social Ecology, and a post-doc at Canterbury University on Indigenous Resource Management. Despite his academic training, he credits much of his knowledge and practice to learning from indigenous practitioners, farmers, and other place-based knowledge holders.

Cover image: Ulu Dana Farm, courtesy Noa Kekuewa Lincoln

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