Forget Food Waste – What about Food Security? (Pt. I)

By Matt Williams, Resident Tutor

One constant challenge at St John’s is how to make sure we produce enough food without producing too much. It’s humanly impossible to get it absolutely right, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that this is the classic ‘1st world problem’. A frightening number of people can’t take it for granted that there will be enough in the house for them to eat. Whilst this is the case for some in our own country, the number is relatively small due to the strength of our economy and social systems. For poorer countries, especially those at the receiving end of empire building and violent scrambling for resources, the problem is far greater. The situation is nerve-wracking in a particular way for those who rely directly on the right climatic conditions for their food to grow. We know well in Britain how hard it is to predict rain, but it is only in the last few weeks when it has begun to occur to most of us that the stakes are higher than a few hours delay at Wimbledon or a drawn test match. Constant pressure from this is the lot of a subsistence farmer: you get the right rain, you get fed. You don’t, you get hungry.

Despite this reality, ‘food security’ and ‘sustainable agriculture’ can sound like grand ideals and interesting concepts that remain a little bit abstract. Just as nappies and babies’ sleeping patterns suddenly become crucial matters when you become a parent, so it is often not until we actually know some of the people involved that issues around subsistence farming appear to be really serious. Although I was already concerned about poverty in general, that is what happened to me when I lived in Central Africa (2011-15). I was never a farmer and was actually there to teach in the theological faculty, but you can’t be in rural Malawi for more than 30 seconds without being forced to engage with chronic hunger and the conditions that lead to it as it quite literally knocks on your door in the form of a suffering human being.

A former student from my elementary Hebrew class (believe it or not) called Maere has set up a project in his home village with the aim of improving the dire food situation there. For various political and cultural reasons, most Malawians have a diet of mainly maize and employ a method of farming that relies heavily on chemical fertiliser. This is a nightmare. It’s not only expensive but risky, since the little pellets can get washed away by a badly timed downpour; worse still, this fertiliser actually destroys the capacity of the soil to produce nutrients. It’s a bit like wearing powerful glasses if your eyes are ok: pretty soon, you’ll be blind without them. For people who have no formal employment – that’s 85% of the population – forking out each year for fertiliser puts them in a vicious circle that is financially crippling and environmentally destructive. That’s why Maere is promoting a method of agriculture that is organic, sustainable and more predictable because of its use of irrigation rather than being fully reliant on rain. He uses mechanical pumps that bring up water from the river by being peddled like bikes.

I’ve helped co-ordinate and fund the venture, called ‘Chilida Farming Project’, since it started in 2016 and, thanks in part to a student bursary from John’s, I’m on my way in August to visit it for the first time. I’ll be having some meetings and sorting out some issues, as well as seeing a number of the folk that I knew from my 4 years there.

So what does this have to do with a PhD in New Testament studies, which is the reason why I’m in Durham in the first place? And how can Maere get away with rocking that red suit in the photo? All this will be revealed in pt. II of this blog post in September, along with news from the project and some ways in which others can get involved.

Until then, “khalani makora mose!” (stay well everyone!)

Matt Williams food waste Maere

Maere speaking at a gathering in his home village. Most of the locals turn out to these events.

Uppsala Nations vs Durham Colleges – notes from an exchange visit to Sweden

Jess Rackham (SJCR President)

A student-staff delegation (representing three of the Durham University colleges) recently visited Uppsala University in Sweden in order to explore the curious concept of the Uppsala Nations: centuries’ old student-led institutions, historically representing different regions in Sweden, but otherwise too dissimilar from Durham’s Colleges….or are they? Here is Jess’ reflection.

I travelled to Uppsala intrigued and left feeling both fascinated and frustrated.

I joined the group relatively late, being asked to visit Uppsala in March. This meant that I had very little knowledge of the University before my visit – I merely had a rumour that their Nations (effectively Colleges) were entirely student lead but no clear idea of how this was possible.

After chatting to the Nation Presidents, Bar Officers and other students, it turns out that running a College by students for students, is actually pretty simple. When students are trusted and respected, they can do great things.

Now it has to be noted that the Nations are, in some senses, simplified Colleges. They have no accommodation onsite which removes the need for students to clean or maintain student rooms. Further, only some Colleges offer food (I don’t think any College was fully catered). However, any food which was cooked and served to students was cooked by their peers. Additionally, law in Sweden specifies that any bar which serves alcohol must also serve food and therefore each student bar served burgers, pizza and snacks throughout each night. The occasional formal dinner or white tie ball was also catered by a student team.

In Uppsala, student responsibility extends further than running a College. Within Uppsala, student representatives sit on the highest University committees – Uppsala’s ‘UEC’ equivalent sees the student need being directly vocalised to staff.  Here in Durham, only the SU President is present in these meetings, that’s one person representing 17,000 students (soon to be over 20,000).

It was this aspect which left me feeling both fascinated and frustrated. As a President of a Common Room, I am mandated to represent the student need and work to ensure that all decisions made are in the best interest of those I represent. Yet often the decisions I seek to influence are decided at meetings that no Common Room President is invited to attend. The question I ask is, why is this the case? I appreciate there are numerous logistical reasons as to why 16 Presidents aren’t invited to every University meeting yet it is debatable as to whether these reasons outweigh the benefits of having of having the student voice heard at the highest level.

Student representation at this high level has proven to work, as shown in Uppsala. This isn’t to equate the two Universities, clearly there are differences, however, we are not so different that a Presidential presence at various meetings wouldn’t work. A proposal which, in an ideal work, the University Executive would take under consideration.

Any business works best through collaboration, collaboration between a diverse range of people offering different perspectives. While the University is a business, it is one that should be focused on the wellbeing of the students. Students who are best represented by the Presidents they elect. And yes, I am biased as a President myself but I don’t see any reason as to why student representatives shouldn’t be consulted on those issues which affect the students.

This isn’t to say that the student voice in Durham University isn’t represented at any meeting, nor is it to undermine the work which has already been done to engage with Common Room Presidents, and the wider Presidents’ Committee. Having representation on SDC, SFAAG, and similar is fully appreciated by students and their representations. I simply think that we could go further – engage with students more and at higher levels, to ensure that the best interests of the students are at the forefront of every decision possible.

As I said, when students are trusted with power and responsibility, great things can happen as highlighted by the structures in place in Uppsala University. They are a leading example, one which I hope that Durham can follow.