Jan 15, 2021 • 40M

A Conversation with Nicola Harvey

Listen now | Nicola Harvey is a journalist and farmer based in New Zealand.

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A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.
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Nicola Harvey is a journalist and farmer based in New Zealand. We connected about the podcast she produced for Audible, “A Carnivore’s Crisis,” because we share concerns about the tech-meat burgers by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat that are being hailed as a climate-change savior while still encouraging monocropping in farming, processed foods with dubious health effects, and other food-system ailments.

I wanted to get her on to chat about that, as well as her forthcoming book on “food citizenship” and whether New Zealand is as great from the inside as it looks on the outside. Listen above, or read below


Alicia: Hi, Nicola. Thank you so much for coming on.

Nicola: Hi, Alicia. Thanks for inviting me.

Alicia: How are things over in New Zealand?

Nicola: Ah, look, to be honest there — oh, I hate to say it considering what's happening out there in the world. But to be honest, they're quite normal. Well, the country has sort of come through Covid relatively unscathed, and we live pretty much as we did this time last year. So, it's a nice place to be.

And I do feel so — Oh, heavy hearted for the rest of the world, because certainly heading into the holiday season when people want to be with family and many aren't able to and here we are over here making plans for family Christmases and holidays. So, I would rather not delve too much into detail because it will probably just make people in the U.S. a little mad at you.

Alicia: [Laughter.] Well, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Nicola: Yeah, sure. 

So, I'm actually located in the middle of the North island of New Zealand. And for those who are from this part of the world, they may sort of recognize that as next to a very large lake called Lake Taupo. 

But for those who don't know the country, it's split into two islands. The North island is the most populated, full of small towns. And where I grew up was on a farm about three and a half hours south of Auckland, which is the largest city. And I was there for about the first eight and a half years of my life, so certainly not my entire childhood, and then moved into a small town and then soon after university left New Zealand and was overseas for 20 years. 

And what I ate is an interesting trip down memory lane because I grew up in the 1980s. And it was a very bland diet of mostly meat and vegetables. 

And then I recall a cookbook arriving on the scene called the Womens Weekly Cookbook. And all of a sudden, there were spices in our diet and recipes for things like spaghetti bolognese and a very mediocre chili con carne served with corn chips. And so, that was sort of the meals that we looked forward to as kids because it was something different. And I think anyone growing up in New Zealand or Australia will remember that. 

I suppose my fondest food memories come from when I was in my twenties, when I actually headed outside of New Zealand and started to eat more broadly from cuisines around the world. And that certainly was the case in Melbourne.

Alicia: Nice. Well, you identify as a farmer and are at work on a book about farming and food citizenship. I wanted to know how you define food citizenship.

Nicola: I mean, that's an interesting question, ’cause I think just to to backpedal slightly your use of the word identify as farmer is something that I just want to dwell on for a minute first because it has become a big topic of conversation for me of late, especially with other women working in the agriculture sector. 

So before I answer the second part, what is food citizenship to me, I think it's worth saying that I identify as a farmer as opposed to someone else or another title within that space because it is a specific and purposeful act to claim a voice in that space. As you might know, I think it's the same in the United States, that the majority of people working the land all claiming the title of farmers tend to be of a certain ilk. And here in New Zealand, that is over the age of 60, or certainly over the age of 45, white and male. 

So to be a woman and to claim that title farmer, is to have a voice in a space where the female perspective has largely been marginalized. And that's unfortunate because historically, and certainly in this current day and age, women are disproportionately exposed to things like food and security. Women are often at the forefront of climate change impacts, especially when it has to do with the land and our ability to access good food and care for our families via food and things like that, or care for ourselves. 

So, that is why I claim the title farmer. And it tends to amuse people here because it hasn't been considered something that has been contentious, that I have had many conversations on Twitter and Instagram with other women who are purposefully entering into that space and claiming that title. 

And then that leads on to what I'm thinking about when it comes to food citizenship. And it's actually a title or a concept that was introduced to me by a professor at Colorado State University. His name is Michael Carolan. He champions that as a term as opposed to say conscious consumer when it comes to running a line of activism or action by your food choices. 

And it's this idea that food impacts so many tenants of our life. And to say that we can shop our way to, for example, a healthier planet is to disregard a number of different ways in which food impacts people's lives, whether it be culturally or economically or through workplace experiences or justice. 

And it also to run that idea of conscious consumerism flags that some people have more dollars. Therefore, more votes. And so the idea that food citizenship might be centered in the food debate is to say that people value different things within the food scape, and that there is no shame in that and there is no hierarchy as far as I'm concerned in what one values over another. 

And so I'm interested in it from a New Zealand perspective, because we are here starting to think very seriously about ideas of food sovereignty. Who has access to what, who has access to land, who are the farmers producing our food for locals as opposed to food for commodity? So it's been a point of fascination for me for about the last two years. 

And I'm just slowly starting to unpack it from a local perspective. But that's what I understand it to mean, from a — I suppose an academic point of view. And certainly the work of Professor Carolan is that it is simply an acknowledgement that food is many things to many people, but to be an active participant in the food scape is to do more than shop.

Alicia: Right. 

And as you mentioned, you live in New Zealand. And I actually got a press release today about visiting Auckland in 2021, as it is a culinary and cocktail, I don't know, great travel destination. That's what landed in my inbox today, which was really funny because I was going to talk to you. 

And to people around the world, I think, especially those of us with more progressive politics, we look at New Zealand — we look at how you've weathered the pandemic, and we're like, ‘Wow, why can't we be like that?’ [Laughter.] And so I wanted to ask, how does that, as you were just talking about, how is that manifesting in local food politics? Is that global perception off of New Zealand? How would you like to see food politics there evolve, if at all?

Nicola: This is such a big question. And it's so topical here in the moment, especially in the wake of Covid, which has had an impact on New Zealanders. Perhaps not to the extent of other countries, but it has impacted those who are on the cusp of food and security. And I'll dive into that. 

But let's just backpedal. Ok, progressive politics in New Zealand and how it's perceived overseas is such a fascinating thing, because we have a well-known Prime Minister. Jacinda Ardern, young woman, mother, charismatic leader who communicated her way and our way through Covid with much effectiveness, and that has translated very well internationally. The reality here, as often the case with good communicators, is more nuanced, and it's not as rosy as perhaps those abroad would perceive it to be. 

When it comes to food politics and our progressiveness, that definitely starts in agriculture here in New Zealand. The primary industries are a huge earner for the New Zealand economy, which basically means a huge number of people are farming in some capacity in New Zealand. And a lot of land is used for agriculture, be it dairy, beef and sheep, forestry, growing fruit for export. 

And throughout Covid, the primary industries were highlighted as probably the key economic driver to get the country out of a potential recession. 

And the regulations that have come through the pipeline in the last couple of years from the progressive Labour government that we have now were initially seen as quite confrontational to some of the farming sector, who were not used — say that again, were not used to having their way of doing things challenged. 

And what Labour is trying to do is to position New Zealand and New Zealand's agriculture as a legitimate, clean green industry globally. So there's a lot of regulations around water quality, because the dairy industry has been culpable of a lot of pollution over the last decade to 15 years. And the water quality and rivers and streams are not great. 

They're looking very closely at methane emissions, as is the world. But there's some interesting research happening here in New Zealand that really pushes this idea that if we're to tackle agriculture’s and — agriculture's impact on global warming, that we need to take a really close look at what the gasses do in different ways. So there are millions and millions of cows that dot the countryside in New Zealand, but then they are a problem that can be solved in x way. And then we also need to look at fossil fuels, which is the same the world over.

So it's not to bundle them all together and say that agriculture is the biggest emitter in New Zealand, which it is in terms of statistics. But it's to understand how we can actually get to zero emissions collectively across the board, because that is our progressive government's target, is zero emissions by 2030. And we're not doing a very good job of it yet. We're trailing behind some of the European countries. But that's not to say we don't have good intents to get there. 

So that's the landscape in which we're working. And then the food that comes out of that agricultural sector, the majority gets exported. So this is a big point of contention in New Zealand. We produce the most amazing food, but the majority gets sold either as commodity or as high end food into affluent markets in the North. And what's left for New Zealanders is still good quality produce, but it's expensive. So most people will go to the supermarket and pay the same for New Zealand projects as they potentially would if you went to a supermarket in Shanghai. 

So there's a real sense of disparity emerging, and people are starting to get quite angry because there's fewer dollars around. Certainly this year, a lot of people have either lost jobs or lost hours. And we're just simply not able to purchase the food that we're growing here in this country. 

So the push for this idea of food sovereignty is gaining a lot of momentum. And the way that we're seeing it played out is small food producers are starting to just push aside the middlemen and get rid of this idea that we must produce for the commodity market, and setting up structures where they can take their food straight to the people who need it. There's a big push from fisheries and small farms to go from farm straight to consumer, and at a price point that makes it affordable. 

And that's a big kind of middle finger to not only the government's push to increase commodity and high-end value food exports for the dollar, but also for conventional farming and conventional food systems. So that's probably the most interesting thing that's happening for me at the moment is a little bit of a political rumbling, from a grassroots level where food producers are just saying, ‘We don't want to be part of this system anymore. It's not serving our people as it should.’

Alicia: That's really interesting to me, especially because I'm on an island colony that is also making these big grassroots push — pushes towards food sovereignty that are really difficult, really challenging. Especially because here being a colony, not having control over wages, not having control over how things are exploited, how things are imported. I now want to take a deeper look at what's going on over there, because that might be, might have some interesting things that are applicable to the situation as well because I think island nations probably have a lot more in common around this than maybe they think, just because of so many cultural and political differences. 

But you recently produced an audio series called ‘A Carnivore's Crisis,’ and I wanted to know what was the inspiration for that, the background. And how did you make it all happen, because it's really so expansive?

Nicola: Yeah, it really was a big project. 

It started from a conversation that I had with my Australian husband actually, who I drove to New Zealand to farm with me, but also one of my closest girlfriends who's another producer and she's based in Sydney. 

So, she felt very strongly that I had left her behind. So, we started talking about ways that we could work together. And it was three years ago, and I had made the decision with my husband to leave Sydney. I worked in Australia for, as I said, almost 20 years, with a short stint in London in between. And worked in the media over there, and held a number of senior editorial positions towards the end of my stint in Australia, and was with BuzzFeed for the final couple of years as managing editor. 

And I just was at the end of my teether. I was burnt out. The hours were too long. The emotional, physical drain was just too much. And during that time, my husband and I had a miscarriage. So we lost our first baby. And it's incidents like that, or moments like that in one's life, I think, people take stock.

And for me, in the weeks and months after that food took on a very peculiar and specific role. And I used it to try and heal myself to try and become not just physically strong, but also a little more emotionally robust. And it also just served a very specific health purpose. I cut out all of the things that I knew weren't feeding me, and started eating in a way that would sort of build my immunity and resilience and all of that kind of stuff. 

And that started a conversation about, ‘Well, do I need to get closer to my food source in order for me to really make a good goal of this?’ And we had an opportunity through my father to work on a piece of land that he leased. And because things just weren't going that well for us in Sydney, we said, ‘Yes.’ 

And so we made this transition from working in central Sydney on to a rural property and trying to become farmers three years ago, right at the time where some of the big research reports were coming out from the likes of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the eight Lancet Commission and Oxford University that were taking a really good hard look at what the global agricultural sector was doing to the land and to ecology and diversity and the drain on resources. And I'm sure for your listeners who are interested in the food space, that information won't be new. 

But what jumped out at me from the media coverage off the back of that was how focused it became on one tenant of the research, which was an increase in plant-based diets, and a decrease in meat and dairy across the board for Western societies or Western countries would have the biggest impact. And yet within the detail of the reports was a lot of regional nuance, and a lot of findings and suggestions about how to best farm certain land and certain countries sustainably. And I didn't see that being reported. 

And I was curious about that, because obviously we'd found ourselves on land, farming cattle right at the time where cattle farmers had been pinpointed as environmental enemies and certainly degraders of the environment. Yet here in New Zealand, we operate a very different farming system to what a lot of big cattle ranches or what feedlotters do in the United States or in Australia, or in the EU. 

So, that was the start of the audio documentary series, these conversations about what is missing from this debate or from this conversation, and is the plant-based diet the best course of action from an environmental point of view? And that's a very important thing for me to raise, that we were looking — or I was really concerned about the environmental impacts. We didn't dive into the health implications, or the moral or ethical implications of eating meat at that early stage. I was really focused on, ‘Is the land going to be degraded by what we do here by running cattle?’

So, that was the start of it. And then we pitched to get some development money from the Australian Documentary Conference, which I'd been involved with in my previous job in Sydney. We received a little bit of development money, and then Audible, which is a Amazon subsidiary funded the commission. And they were really interested to tell the story, or help tell the story, and were also interested in pushing it out to more of a, I suppose an international audience. 

So we started thinking about, ‘Well, what's the other aspect of the conversation that we — my production partner Naima Brown and I — don't have a lot of experience in?’ And that was certainly the food and cooking space. 

And so we started having conversation with a British chef named Rachel Khoo, who was at a point in her career where she wanted to dive into something a little — I suppose a little more challenging for her audience, maybe. She'd been fronting TV shows and writing beautiful cookbooks. And she was now based in Sweden with two small children, and she was also thinking about the environmental impact of her — not only her family's eating lifestyle, but also the way that she was writing recipes for others. 

That was the style of the conversation. And so we just started developing it over the course of about six months. We were fully funded by Audible, so we had obviously budget to travel and to hire crew. And we divided up the storyline to basically try and canvass the export market and export touchpoints from New Zealand and Australia. 

So thinking about New Zealand and Australia as it's — colonies, directing their food products up into the UK and what that meant from an environmental point of view now, and then looking at the West Coast of the United States because a lot of Australian and New Zealand beef ended up in California. But California also is the hotspot for some really interesting food tech and plant-based product lines coming out of the likes of companies, such as Memphis Meats and — well, Memphis Meats has not to market yet with lab grown meat. But Impossible Burgers and Beyond Burgers, and some of the other interesting Silicon Valley startups. 

So it was, from the first conversation through to when we locked off the documentary, around 13 months of production. 

And then unfortunately, we were due to release the podcast right in the month where countries started to shut down due to COVID. So our commissioners made the decision to hold the documentary through ’til August, when it was initially slated for March. And unfortunately in that time, the foodscape completely changed, went into flux. And it would have been nice to have added another couple of chapters or episodes into that storyline to take account for what was happening in the meat processing lines, and what was happening with food logistics and people's ability to actually access good, healthy food during COVID.

So yes, that was how it sort of came together. The details of it, I would encourage anyone to go and listen. But I can dive into that, if you want me to unpack that as well.

Alicia: Oh no, they should listen to it. 

But I wanted to hear, what surprised you when you were creating this series, if anything? And did it change how you personally relate to meat or to these plant-based meat products that you were mentioning?

Nicola: Yeah, that's an interesting one. 

I think the most surprising thing for me, when I started having initial research conversations with people and trying to book talent or put together our production schedule, there were — there was a lot of fear, which surprised me enormously. I had to work very hard to get people on microphone and to put them in a space or into a conversation with me or my fellow producer Naima, where they felt comfortable to share detail and to be honest and truthful. 

And these people were primarily coming out of the farming space, but also food manufacturing, cooks, chefs. I think that was a byproduct of the two years of a lot of vitriolic conversation around diet choices and activism via food. 

So a lot of the farmers who we spoke to, before we turned on the mic, were very cautious with me. And I was accused on a number of occasions of being a vegan spy or a vegan activist. There was an assumption that I had an agenda. 

And that goes both ways. We had a very long and involved interview conversation with a UK food writer who I had — admire enormously, and they ended up pulling out of the documentary because upon reflection they thought our agenda was pro-meat and that we were working for the meat lobbyists.

Which, again, is not true at all. I may be a farmer, but I'm also a journalist. And I come from a public broadcasting background, which means a lot to me. And so my sense of journalistic integrity is incredibly important, and goes to my reputation and how I actually get work. I was taken aback by that, that they just said, ‘No, we don't want anything to do with it.’ 

And that just continued throughout the entire production process. There were so many phone calls once we were in sight, or — I had a producer travel to a valley in, north of the UK And suddenly, I had a dairy farmer on the phone to me saying, ‘You need to explain this to me again. How can I trust you? Are you sure that this is — that you don't have an agenda?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, this is what we want to do. We just want to give a platform to people to share their experiences and their expertise, and then try and craft a narrative out of those voices that offers a broad range of opinions.’

And so, I think, the end result for me hearing all of those stories and how much discomfort and animosity has kind of driven the conversation over the last couple of years led me to make a couple of decisions in my own life and in my own diet. And that has been to spend a lot more time having more conversations to try and find a space where we can talk about food and the environment, and farming’s impact on the environment in a way where — that it doesn't descend to argument. 

And my diet choices and the role that food and cooking plays within that is really important. I often have these conversations over a meal, and that gesture of sharing food is often a way to calm the space. 

And the consequence of me learning what I did throughout the course of the documentary has shifted my diet in that eating red meat is still part of it, but a minor part. And the reasons for that are very firmly focused on environmental impacts. I do believe that in the West, we need to drastically reduce the amount of red meat consumption. But that's not to say that it needs to disappear entirely because meat serves a particular role, or plays a particular role in a lot of people's cultures and diets for health reasons. 

When it came to looking at some of the replacement products or plant-based manufacturing that's going on, I have a lot of views on this and the way in which corporate or food manufacturers are peddling protein as opposed to actually producing good food. I don't eat it. I wouldn't touch it. The majority of our weekly diet is either vegetarian or plant based, but there would — nothing would convince me to purchase a plant-based burger patty. I think that they are doing consumers a massive disservice with the products that they are producing.

Alicia: Why do you think that?

Nicola: Because I think that corporate food or big food especially has co-opted some very genuine attempts to try and make eating for the planet a little easier. But the actual product that is being produced, I'm a little skeptical over what the various isolates are doing from an environmental point of view but also for our health. It's essentially baking recipes. 

And given what I said earlier, I made a conscious decision to cut out processed foods from my diet for health reasons. The plant-based burger, to me, is a processed food. And so it just doesn't serve a role, or doesn't have a role to play in my diet. 

But what I am concerned mostly about from an environmental point of view is where those ingredients are coming from, how they're farmed or how they're produced. There's an New Zealand manufacturer that I visited during the documentary, and they make high, really good quality, plant-based sausages and burgers. And the bulk of the bulk of the ingredients comes from Europe, and Canada and the Pacific Islands. 

So the Pacific Islands produce the coconut ingredients, which is great. It's good for the Pacific Islands economy. Canada is where a lot of the grains are coming from. Hemp is coming from the EU. 

And some of those ingredients, like pea — well, pea and pea-isolates, soy, corn, barley, wheat, the way that they are farmed in some of the big corporate farming spaces is as monocrops. And those monocrops might be rotated, but they're certainly not a diverse farming system. There's typically a lot of inputs in terms of fertilizer, in order to produce those crops over and over again in the same soil spaces. 

And to think that that is environmentally beneficial is concerning to me, knowing what I know now about the way in which soil has degraded over the past 40 years with the advent of conventional farming systems, not just in New Zealand but the world over, and the increasing use of inputs, whether it be fertilizers or pesticides and herbicides. 

So that's where the plant-based products are coming from. They're coming from big monocrops. Me, personally, I just would prefer to eat plants that are growing in vegetable gardens locally as opposed to products that are processed and manufactured abroad.

Alicia: Right. 

No, I agree obviously. I like to hear other people's articulation of how this works. And obviously, you know so much more than me so it's nice to hear that in such depth.

But for you, is cooking a political act?

Nicola: Is cooking a political act. How would you describe political, or how would you define? 

Alicia: Right. 

This is a question I ask everyone. And I suppose it is a bit of a trick question in that — in the answer, one must be defining what political is for them. 

I talked to Amanda Cohen, who's a chef in New York City earlier today. And her immediate response was ‘Yes, of course, it is because food, what we buy has all these impacts on the environment, on labor and on our bodies, on health, and these things are regulated by governmental bodies, etc, etc.’ And so it's really a question that is about how you view — people personally define what politics means in their own lives, or what politics means more broadly. 

Nicola: Yeah, totally. 

I mean, the reason I push it back onto you, because I've been thinking a lot about that term of what — there is a phrase that's bandied around a lot at the moment, which is ‘Food is political.’ And it's just said as a throwaway without- 

Alicia: Right. To placate. [Laughter.]

Nicola: Oh, completely.

The ability to unpack that is so important, especially at the moment. So when I'm thinking about this idea of what food citizenship means, citizenship, of course, plays an essential role in the political space and in politics writ large. 

I would say cooking is an act of citizenship for me. And what I mean to say by that is when I cook — when I put together a meal, I'm actually thinking about a very small, personal set of concerns which I hold on to because the ripple-on effect, I think, has a political consequence. 

So when I say that food, as I elaborated earlier, played a particular role in my life, when, around my miscarriage but also around the birth of my first child, my daughter. And the thinking behind that was food is the basis of my health and good health, and I wanted to never have to enter the public health system or hospital system again, as long as I could avoid it. So many hours waiting. So I didn't want to be a burden on an already overstretched health system, both here in New Zealand and in Australia, so if I could do anything to avoid being in that space I would. 

That has weighed heavily on me, because food, and certainly cheap food — there's a lot of research around this, that people purchasing cheap food are basically just offsetting — or offsetting might not be the right word, but pushing the burden onto a different part of our society. So to eat a certain way is to potentially develop health concerns, or health issues later on in life. 

But to spend time, the alternative to spend time now if you can afford to, or if the food that you have access to is at the right price point, is to have less of a burden on the healthcare system. So that in itself, for me, is a political act, but it's also about citizenship and that I don't want to be a burden on it on a system that's already stretched. So I don't know if that's a particularly useful answer. 

But there are a bunch of other ways in which cooking and food works in our house in a similar way. So it's also about knowledge, sharing, and trying to unpack the ways in which we cook for others as a gesture of community or friendship or culture. 

When I say culture, I mean acknowledging the past and current situation that colonialism has in New Zealand. So when we serve meals, what are we serving? Are we paying attention to local ingredients? And local is to say foods that can and should be growing here, not just local that happens to be tomatoes grown in glass houses down the road. 

So it's a really complicated question, and I'm not answering it particularly well. Why don't I summarize it in saying that, yes, cooking is absolutely political. But it is deeply, deeply personal in the politics that I live out. I'm also aware that to have any kind of political sway or influence, I need to live my words. 

And that was part of the reason for leaving Sydney and coming to where I am now to farm and to learn this stuff from the inside of the industry. It's one thing to say, ‘I care about worker’s rights and justice, and I care about the soil and the environment’ and to not do anything about that. So, yes, the answer is cooking is deeply, deeply political. But for me, and I hope for many others out there, it is also incredibly small and personal in the way that those politics are played out.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much for taking the time.

Nicola: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Your writing has been such a beacon for me this year, Alicia, so thank you for all your good work.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much. That means so much. And I love ‘A Carnivore's Crisis,’ and I can't wait for your book as well.

Nicola: Yes, me too. Need to finish that. [Laughter.]  

Alicia: That's the thing I say when someone's like, ‘I can't wait for your book.’ Yeah, I'm like, ‘Oh, me too. Can't wait to read my own book.’

Nicola: Yeah, the idea of writing a book sounded great when it was just a concept. And then sitting down for the hours has been the challenge.

Alicia: Exactly, exactly. Yes. Well, thank you again. I hope you have a great day-

Nicola: Well, good luck with your — and happy holidays for you.

Alicia: Thank you. You too, you too.