‘Food Sustainability’ – Living Organically

Hearing the term ‘food sustainability’ may confuse you. What does that exactly entail? Food security? Sustaining the land/water? Reducing the carbon footprint generated by food production and consumption? Bettering and maintaining human health?

Our answer: It involves all of these issues that intertwine with each other – food production, distribution, and consumption all affect the extent to which food is sustainable (in all security, health and waste), and they all affect each other, one way or another.

Following up from my first reflection, my reflections will focus on two things: some with regards to my personal relationship and connection with food and how that has grown, while others will focus on delving into the heart of food sustainability, by sharing insights from our different experiences here in Japan and reflecting on how these experiences shape my understanding of food and how it can become more sustainable in the current-day context.

Today, I want to share about the farm I mentioned in my previous reflection: Ono Farm. For a little bit of context, we have currently joined the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) programme, which is a platform that allows us (Wwoofers) to be matched with farms (hosts). We chose our farms based on how well they fit into our travel fellowship: they are environmentally conscious and the first is a vegetable farm, then we’re moving on to a poultry/egg farm (which we are currently at), then to a dairy farm, as well as visiting various places in between.

The first farm, Ono farm, is one of the pioneers in organic farming in modern Japan. As we heard over our meaningful dinner conversations, people in Japan mostly farmed organically in the past. However, after the green revolution, most farmers in Japan turned to commercial and more efficient farming methods. This caused a sudden shift in the way farming was done in Japan – commercial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides boomed in popularity and even now, farmer Masako described how she is sadly greeted with herbicides the moment she walks into the supermarket, and how their neighbours (out of goodwill) offer to spray their fields with herbicides when they are overgrown with weeds.

At the time, it was an amazing innovation: growing food more efficiently, making more food and earning more money off it. Many subsistence farmers saw the potential in turning their farm into something profitable. Unfortunately, as with economics, the price of food fell as well as supply increased with the ease to grow food, causing farming to be deemed as a labor-intensive, low-output job even now.

Most people don’t see, or perhaps choose to ignore the hidden trade-offs that come with these chemical pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides. Its impacts on health are often always dismissed with skepticism. When asked about how they felt about this skepticism, farmer Yuuji replied that it would almost be delusional if you deny that what you pour onto the land where you grow your food wouldn’t affect you when you put it in your body. It’s true – while hard to prove with science, it is basically common sense: would you eat pesticides? (No.) Then should you spray it on what you’re eating? (Definitely not!) The farmers believe that whatever food you make should be something that you would want to eat. Many non-organic farmers nowadays don’t even consume their own produce, rather they sell their produce and buy others’ to consume. This is likely due to the sheer amount of chemicals they see themselves pour onto their crops, and how cheap and easy it is to get other food at supermarkets.

Organic farmers have to embrace the trade offs when making crops without such chemical additives. That means that there are constantly many herbs and grasses competing with their crops, they have to invest in natural fertilisers for the land that are harder to find (for instance, Ono farm uses ground oyster shells – which would otherwise be wasted!) and we often find many pests feasting on their precious crops, such as slugs, birds, ladybugs etc. But as a result, their crops taste way better and they are happy and safe eating their own produce as well. I’m feeling safer and happier too, and I really don’t want to go back to eating non-organic food. When we stopped by Kyoto for a few days, I felt so pained eating at expensive (relative to countryside food/wwoofing) restaurants and yet finding their vegetables so plain as compared to what we had at Ono farm.

(Protecting the crops with hay – eliminates plastic use!)

I am so amazed at their dedication as organic farmers. They had to endure, and still are enduring so many hardships. When they first started out, people thought they were crazy, and the community didn’t accept them with warm open hands. They could only find barren land with weeds growing up to their chest, and had to work really hard every single day to barely produce anything. While they have overcome those initial hardships, farming organically isn’t easy – like I mentioned, pests, weeds and erratic weather (climate change!) can easily ruin their hard work. They can’t sell their produce at exorbitant prices as not many consumers are aware of organic food, and most importantly, they want the food they produce to be more accessible to the public so they try to make the prices more competitive. We see them toiling constantly from day to night every single day while we get tired just from one trip (and they tell us to take breaks while they go farm some more – we were spoiled). They are such amazing people with huge hearts and I constantly feel so inspired by them.

Organic food tastes way better too, but we just don’t notice it. Due to how we season our food, we often miss out on the natural sweetness of fresh crops. Only when we had organic produce at Ono farm did we notice the difference. I normally dislike green peas, but when we had fresh, round and huge peas from the farm that we harvested, I was really surprised at how sweet and juicy it was, unlike any other peas I’ve tasted. I even came to love peas by the end of our stay – yes, that’s how much I enjoyed them, and also when I realised that the food I normally know and taste probably doesn’t truly taste like that. For instance, I never knew that strawberries could have such a strong and pleasant taste – all I’ve known is that it is sweet, sour and juicy, and never more than that, until I had organic strawberries.

(Beautiful organic peas!) (These organic strawberries… were so good…)

(to be continued)

The First of Five: Songwriting in KL

One city in, and I have another song out! I’m posting it from a train station before my computer dies and I lose wifi, so I may revisit it later and make some more edits, but for now the link can be found here:


This song, apart from my voice and electric guitar, also features: birds in the Botanical Gardens, metro announcements and sounds from the MRT/LRT/KLIA, the small drum I found on the hostel roof, the market on Petaling street, a short tune we heard outside a restaurant near the climbing gym, some passing cars near a temple, construction, and rain.

Also, I previously had an idea about how to name these songs, but I actually ended up abandoning that on this one, because no specific recording from the city really stood out more than the others for me. But I did title it ‘rains’ because it rained just about every day I was there.

As can be seen/heard in the song, I spent the most part of last week essentially wandering alone. I had a good time walking around, learning a new metro system, and finding some tucked away places. My highlight of the week was probably going to a show at an indie music venue in KL called Merdekarya (I highly recommend !!). I signed up to play their open mic towards the end of my week because I felt I hadn’t been getting out enough, and ended up having a really nice night meeting other bands and hearing great music.

Looking towards this coming week in Bangkok, I’m hoping to spend more time exploring the music scene, which is quite large there. I’d also like the chance to include more conversations I have with other people in my next work.

That’s it for now, hope you enjoy the song!

Waiting For The Bus

An introduction to my Travel Fellowship:
Traveling, Listening, Songwriting: A Personal Exploration of Urban Sounds in Southeast Asian Capitals

In a few hours, I’ll be sitting on the steps of Golden Mile waiting for my first bus.

Okay, so it’s not my first bus. Not the first bus I’ve taken to Malaysia, or taken to KL, or taken this week, or taken alone. But it’s the first of what I expect will be a deeply personal journey.

I’ll be traveling (mostly) overland from Singapore to other Southeast Asian capital cities in this order: Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Vientiane, Hanoi, Phnom Penh. In each city, I will be exploring how ‘the urban’ is reflected in sound and in listening. I will record the sounds that stand out to me (this is to say, I’ll be recording urban soundscapes, not a problematic ‘local music tour’ vibe). Then — and this is probably the deeply personal part — I will weave those sounds into original songs which I write and record in the very same city, using electric guitar and vocals. My framework is mixing an Urban Studies influence with the concept of travel as listening: by literally listening to the city I am in, I hope to not simply absorb from the places I visit, but also create something knew with what I have learned.

The goals I’ve set out with are these: 1 capital city = 1 song, and to have every piece of the song recorded within the city. This means no synthetic or pre-recorded loops (and, unfortunately, possibly quite lower-than-studio-quality sound despite the many cables Arts has generously lent me). So expect it to get weird! Tuk-tuk outtros and a stranger yelling in the street as percussion!!

If it’s sounding like a bit much at this point, never fear because it’s a bit much for me as well. Thus, out of anxiety that I didn’t know how to operate any of the equipment, I used finals week to put together an example song in Singapore. Here is the link to it on SoundCloud, where I’ll be publishing all of the songs (and where Annette is currently my only follower, no thanks to you all!) https://soundcloud.com/isabella-nunez-331676613/beach-the-doors-are-closing

I’ve titled this song “beach : the doors are closing” and, unless I change my mind, I might try to follow this format for the other songs: one name for the lyrics I write and one for the urban audio clip that stands out most.

To explain the framework and background for this fellowship, I’m going to include another link which I included in my application. It’s a Google Drive link because it’s really quite low in the quality department, but that’s actually kind of the point: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1YJdFLdHrRQtBR_GQYdAhBFjwiwkDCaN7/view?usp=sharing

The file is called “Voice Memos” because it’s an amalgamation of voice memos from my phone from last year when I lived in Bogotá, Colombia and started writing songs with my roommate. If you give it a listen, you’ll hear a few originals we wrote, and you’ll also hear the fact that we lived close to a highway, and the fact that we didn’t much care about sound quality when we made these recordings. I had many thoughts on these recordings and this time in my life, which held many firsts: moving away from home, living in a capital city, traveling alone, traveling with instruments around Colombia, trying to teach myself guitar in the music room after work, and writing songs which were actually shared with someone other than myself.

So, this Travel Fellowship is personal because songwriting is inherently personal. But I think it is also very much something shared. Not only is this the first time I’ll be bothering to put songs I’ve written anywhere other than the Notes folder on my laptop, but the songs’ production will itself be shared with whatever sounds these cities hold.

In this way, my summer is an exploration into the balance between the individual and the city. It is private and it is public. It’s individual and it’s shared. It’s like waiting for the bus alone.

And, hopefully, it’s something we can all enjoy hearing!

A Journey To Becoming More ‘Human’

As our plane TR804 took off towards Kansai International Airport, I stared out of the window at the wide, blue sea that sparkled in the sun; beautiful yet surrounded by our human mess – reclamation work, oil refineries flaring and scattered ships breaking the the continuous blue of the ocean. What a pity, I thought, what humans do to this beautiful planet. It’s also hypocritical that I said this as I rode on a plane running on fossil fuels.

As much as I’d hate to admit, I’m an urban, wasteful human integrated into the world’s globalised capitalist system. Riding on a plane to another country is already enough of a hint. Yet on this travel fellowship, we’re trying to explore a basic building block of life – food. Why do we have to travel so far and wide in search of something that should be commonplace?

But if I think about it, what do I even know about food? Coming from Singapore where all kinds of food are available 24/7, I see food everywhere. But in return, I know nothing about it; my food comes from all over the world and is grown in very different climates, but none of that is reflected in my daily meals. I don’t know when (or where) plum trees fruit, or how long it takes for a watermelon to grow, or how fish are hunted, or what the food on our plates even looks like before it reaches us (like tofu – did you know that it’s made from soymilk?). When have I actually learned about food, let alone how to put food on my plate?

These questions arose over dinner conversations (and post-dinner reflections) with the hosts of the first farm we are visiting and currently at – Ono Yuuji and Masako, who run a small-scale organic farm in Awa, Tokushima (Shikoku, Japan). They happily pointed out the plum trees, the watermelon and pumpkin seedlings in their small garden and greenhouse, but we quickly realised that we have no idea what we were even supposed to be expecting – what is common in May, and what is planted for summer.

I was embarrassed to admit that I know absolutely nothing about what I’ve been eating my entire life and how privileged I have been to be able to pick food up at markets and eateries to my convenience. I consume so many vegetables without even knowing what the seeds looked like as it was eased into the ground, how hard it is for it to grow, who pulled them out of the soil, when its harvest period is and how far it travelled to get to my plate. And I’m not the only one.

I realise that with exploring something that is so vital to us, food, we end up also questioning how human we really are. Have we lost our roots as human beings? The three essentials to a human life are: food, water and shelter. It is scary to think that I, and many humans like me, don’t have the ability to procure any of these with our bare hands.

Sure, you can argue that we aren’t meant to do these with our bare hands, that humans can communicate and delegate tasks for a reason. But if we do that to a point where none of us have a grasp of the process, do we feel the same connection to these essentials? Can I really understand, appreciate and love my food if someone I don’t even know from somewhere on the other side of the world made my food and isn’t even thanked for it (or worse, if it was industrially farmed with no human touch)? Perhaps there isn’t a need for this ‘human connection’ to whatever we consume, but when I have my mum’s homemade food, when I eat the food I painstakingly spent the entire morning harvesting in the fields, the love and appreciation I have for my food makes it taste a hundred times better (on top of the fact that organically grown food naturally tastes better). I feel so much more motivated to not waste any bit of what’s on my plate, because it has suddenly become so precious to me. We take all that we have in life for granted, because this human connection; this love that we can have for our food, water and shelter isn’t consciously there most of the time. And if we don’t treasure our resources, it can be so easy to waste our precious resources away. I find it really sad that society has come to this point, where our capitalist and globalised market has disconnected us from our surroundings.

On this travel fellowship, I want to find this love, connect with it, and explore what it truly means to live as a human (i.e. what and how we should eat). And on top of that, connect to the earth: the foundation that allows us to even have food and water. This is a personal, and perhaps slightly spiritual endeavour, and what I believe is a key to making our food sustainable; but who knows, perhaps I may be proven wrong. Perhaps it is fine to stay disconnected, to harness technology and innovation to the advantage of humankind, to the point where we can care for all humans with technology alone. That is what I hope to explore at least a little more of: what it means to be truly living (sustainably), and what we should learn as urban, wasteful humans.

On Passports

One of the most important documents while embarking on a travel fellowship is the passport. Indeed, travelling anywhere in the modern age most definitely involves a passport. On this sleepless night, I investigate the history of the passport and its ramifications. 

Sitting on the corner of my table is the red, dog-eared pamphlet stamped with memories of exciting experiences abroad. I think of those who move through life without it — a barrier not only to travel, but to all forms of security. Indeed, I regard my passport as the most important piece of paper I ever own. It bears the mark of my citizenship on its cover, and a biometric page with my stunted portrait on it. For such a small document, the passport is as complicated, fraught, and powerful an object as has ever existed.

I wax lyrical about the passport, but for many, including myself, the passport is mostly a booklet that reads like a diary — tucked away in our cupboards and hotel safes when not in use, or between the skin of our clothes as we roam the streets abroad. Flipping through the pages of my passport gives me a hit of nostalgia, each visa conjuring up vicarious memories of countries travelled, and the respective comfort zones transgressed. However, the inscription on the reverse of the particulars page betrays much more colourful history, and indeed, a larger purpose. It reads: “The President of the Republic of Singapore requests all authorities to allow the Singaporean citizen named in the passport to pass without delay or hinderance, and, if necessary, to give all assistance and protection.” On this sleepless night, I decided to do a little bit of digging into the document that drives travel, and indeed, this fellowship. 

The earliest use of the term passe-port I could find was of 15th Century French: meaning “to pass a sea port”. According to Craig Robertson’s The Passport in America: History of a Document Benjamin Franklin required an official looking document to send a congressman to Holland. Franklin, ever inventive, wrote out a passe-port in French, and voilà, the passport was born. Its historical and biblical antecedents might be of some interest too. In his book, Robertson cites an example from the book of Nehemiah from the Hebrew Bible of papers of having “letters … so that they may provide him safe conduct”.

Indeed, the earliest passports were not conceived to let people travel freely as we think of them today. They were conceived as a way of keeping people in — to account for people and to make sure that they did not wander into places that they were not supposed to go. This is the document that best indicates to the state that you’ve been avoiding military service or dodging the law. And in the years between WWI and WWII, the passport — thanks to an international bureaucracy — evolved from a standard sheet of paper folded into half twice for all governments to identify “the criminal, poor, insane, and to a lesser extent, immigrants”. One only has to pay attention to the myriad of insta-stories of passport-flaunting during our Week 7 LABs, to realise that the passports from across the world are standardised in size and form. It is no coincidence.

Within living memory, this quaint little red (or whatever colour yours is) booklet tucked into the pocket of your jeans has existed as the material summation of modernity’s most complex problems: the rise of the nation-state (and nationalism), international relations, and technological advances in policing and surveillance in a “social-media era”.

Of course, rather broadly, the passport is generally thought (by normal people) as something that confers the rights and privileges of citizenship upon its bearer, with permission to travel abroad and return under the nation’s protection”, and in doing so regulates the flow of human traffic, shoring up boundaries and creating new ones. My pessimism is perhaps only fuelled by the late-night whiskey and digging of library archives. After all, what bliss it is to live with the most (is it?) powerful passport in the world — the Singaporean passport.

What We Seek to Uncover

A brief description of our Travel Fellowship titled: Indian Utopianism in the Modern Age: Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh and Roger Anger’s Auroville.

Our travel fellowship will take us to multiple places in India, notably, Chennai, Auroville, Delhi, Chandigarh, and Amritsar. Our specific experiential inquiry will be focused on the ideals of utopia in Chandigarh and Auroville. To understand why we chose these two specific cities, one has to return to the history and etymology of utopia. 

Arguably, the term was coined by Thomas More in 1516 in his seminal book of the same name. Derived from Greek, the word is portentously ambiguous — its literal reading denoting “good place”, but its phonetic prefix “eû” denoting a no-place, or an impossibility. Throughout history then, our quest for utopia has been commonly linked with our innate desire as humans aspiring toward progress. Indeed, in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891), Oscar Wilde writes that “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country in which humanity is always landing … progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

Borne out of the independence of a post-war India and the partition of Punjab, at the behest of then-Indian Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Le Corbusier — mostly known as an architect than an urban planner — sought to create a version of utopia based on his ideals of modernism on the plains of Punjab. Le Corbusier sought to build a utopian city centred around the vehicle — his ideal embodiment of human technological and intellectual progress. Of course, his ideals of modernist architecture also informed the style of state buildings and housing — themselves towering monuments of béton brut. For Corbusier, and arguably, the Indian government, the ideals of modernism in urban planning and architecture were quite literally, a way to build something positive out of the destruction of the war from the past decade. Thus, we want to ask if the city’s inhabitants have bought — and indeed, lived — into Le Corbusier’s idea of Utopia, 70 years after its conception.

In reaction to the crass worship of modernity in Corbusier’s Chandigarh, another city (a town actually) called Auroville was established by a figure called Mirra Alfassa — known to the townsfolk as “The Mother”. Planned by architect Roger Anger (himself a product of the architectural modernism movement), Auroville is ostensibly a socialist utopia, “a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities […] to realise human unity”. Indeed, it’s a town without any central currency, operating an almost completely agrarian society which its inhabitants upkeep. Its ideals fly in the face of Chandigarh’s with its focus on individual autonomy, self-knowledge, and spiritual life — religious or otherwise — all while rejecting emotional and psychological dependence on technology. Whether the people living there have aspired to this ideal of a romanticised, almost socialist community in the past four decades, remains to be seen.

As indicated by the title of our Travel Fellowship, our project is not only about utopia. While the idea and questions of utopia will figure heavily into our inquiry (and is possibly even the frame of our inquiry), there are many other aspects of our project that should not be overlooked. For example, how religion of these cities are practiced and differ from one another are also worth looking into. Of particular interest is Amritsar, which also lies on the plains of Punjab, but has been indicated to us as a completely different city — at least in religious ideals — when compared to Chandigarh. The personal lives of the architects that planned these cities are also of immense interest to the architectural enthusiasts (for some, more than just enthusiasm) within us. Le Corbusier for example, is perhaps one of the most illustrious figures in architectural modernism, but is also marred by his ideas on race. Finally, India is a country that constantly seeks progress, as evidenced by its “Smart Cities Mission” and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). These, we figure, will also feature in our project as potential comparisons and ways forward in the conclusions that we might arrive at during our Travel Fellowship.

As I type this, I realise I risk portraying our Travel Fellowship as an academic endeavour. However, I must insist that we’ve never had such ambitions. Rather, what drove the undertaking of this Travel Fellowship was an immense interest in India, architecture, and urban planning as a whole. While I do not discount the possibility of this travel experience being explored further as an academic pursuit, our intention, at least for now, will be to explore what these cities in our own way by experiencing it through photography, word, and sound.