On August 28~29th, we held the 4th FEAST Project research retreat, this time in Shiga Prefecture, overlooking the Mother Lake, Biwako. The retreat is a precious opportunity to gather working group chairs, executive committee members, and those working at FEAST HQ in RIHN to discuss our progress, plans, and goals. For a project leader, the retreat is essential for seeing how the various pieces of the project are developing, how they come together to create a “story,” and whether they adhere to (or evolve away from) the original research framework.
Interdisciplinary projects can be difficult because of the intermixing of backgrounds and expectations for research, especially in the early stages—it takes time for projects to build a common language that makes sense to all parties involved. Add in the difficulty of a bilingual, multicultural working environment and it becomes obvious where confusion can arise. Where retreats in the past had centered primarily on understanding one another and solidifying individual research plans, this year’s discussions were lively and ripe with cross-fertilization of ideas and approaches.
On Monday, the retreat kicked off with group work and a brief orientation to project-level developments, followed by a presentations and discussion for each of the five working groups. On Tuesday morning, we carried out an exercise to help us evaluate our progress in the working groups and as a whole project. The exercise was called “Blind Side” and it is sometimes used by businesses to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a particular element of their operation. For us, it meant identifying what we “knew we knew,” “knew we didn’t know,” “didn’t know we knew,” and “didn’t know we didn’t know.” At this stage in the research (one year in but still early enough to adapt and change) I wanted the working groups to reflect on their progress, understand where there is more work needed, and appreciate that there are resources at their disposal that they may not have fully recognized. The discussions during this session went on longer and more intensely than I expected and were one of the highlights of the retreat.
Two more take-aways from the retreat: 1) the importance of indicators; 2) the creation of new initiatives.
1) The Issue with Indicators: One point of discussion had to do with environmental impact indicators and whether or not we preferred to use one over another. Having a common indicator to which all working groups can refer to helps when integrating research results. However, evaluating the environmental impact of food is not very straight forward: the targets (life cycle of products, farming systems, diets & consumption patterns, cities & regions, etc.) and measures are varied. CO2 emissions seem to be widely used in the literature and are also used within FEAST, but they tend to only tell part of the story. Water usage and biodiversity indicators are also important, but difficult to measure. We discussed the need to develop a set of indicators to integrate our work, but the issue of indicators remains.
2) New and Informal Food Economy: We’ve seen evidence that the emergence of an alternative food system may be linked to the development of the “new economy”— a mixture of sharing, peer-to-peer, open source, solidarity, and commoning of food. At the same time, the new economy of food is very much linked to “informal” elements (ie. non-market based) of the food economy, some of which are not new but actually have long socio-cultural histories embodied in certain practices and customs. As the project has matured, many researchers have moved beyond the confines of the working group structure and have been able to bridge their work via different themes or mutual interests. In this way, a spontaneous collaboration between WG1 and WG3 emerged to look at the new and informal food economy, with both on the ground investigations and eventual incorporation into scenarios and modeling.
All in all, we had two very productive days and I was very impressed by the way everyone was able to communicate with each other and have a deep discussion about the issues and research we feel strongly about.