Stuff: The young researcher exploring how food heals people and planet

Stuff: The young researcher exploring how food heals people and planet

Summer Wright (Ngāti Maniapoto, Pākehā) is a dietician undertaking her PhD at Massey University, investigating the opportunities for Māori businesses in plant-based kai. She is also a co-convenor for climate action and health advocacy group OraTaiao.

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SUMMER WRIGHT: I’m 26. I grew up in West Auckland and have family all over the place, including Ōtorohanga.

My research looks at the potential for future foods and plant-based foods for Māori aspirations for social justice and wellbeing. Plant-based foods interest me, because they can foster healthy and sustainable diets.

I’m new to the co-convenor role with OraTaiao, but I’ve been working with them for three years now. We see climate action through a human health lens.

One day I was feeling upset, but also compelled to act. So I Googled, and they came up: a health professionals group.

Being born in the mid-1990s, environmental disasters were just a given – something that we expect to happen. If humans exist, we use nature in that way. Later, I realised that maybe, that doesn’t have to be the case: why is it the status quo that we expect environmental disaster? In fact, it’s not normal.

Nature doesn’t have to be destroyed for us to lead healthy lives. It’s the opposite. We will lead healthy lives when nature and ecosystems are intact.

At 18 or 19, I saw some really violent factory farm footage. It deeply disturbed me. Most of us are quite alienated from food systems, from the way food is made. That set me on a path to change my lifestyle, so I didn’t consume factory farmed foods.

The way animals get commodified, nature and ecosystems get commodified. That’s what we do to make money. I realised we’re hurting animals, damaging the environment and top of that, we create unhealthy food systems that hurt people.

A Ministry of Food could reorient food away from being a commodity for trade.

After you finish the course as a dietician, you’re an expert on food, but you don’t get much education on how food impacts health in a broader way. The way we eat food affects the environment and the environment impacts us, through climate change. A healthy diet is not just about how many nutrients you get out of a piece of food – a healthy diet is also a sustainable diet.

Māori already had their food systems before colonisation. So there’s already a vision in place of what that could look like. Māori especially face challenges with health equity that are underpinned by poor nutrition. But if Māori could self-determine the ways they make healthy and sustainable food – including plant-based food – then maybe they could simultaneously address other issues.

There are challenges. If it was easy, then it would already been happening!

I see food as a lever to address social justice, environmental justice and human wellbeing.

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