A chat with Professor Colin Sage from University College Cork: a geographer working on interconnections of food, agriculture and environment
Colin Sage is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography at University College Cork, Ireland, with research interests in food systems, environmental policy and civic initiatives for social change. He has worked on the interconnections of food, agriculture and environment throughout his academic career. More recently he has worked with artisan producers in Ireland documenting the development of alternative food networks as well as working with urban community food initiatives. At the University of Gastronomic Sciences he lectures Food and Sustainability in the Master of Gastronomy: Food in the World – Food Cultures and Mobility.
photo credit: Marcello Marengo, Unisg archive
What does it mean for you teaching in Pollenzo?
I was teaching at the Masters from the days of Colorno, since the beginning of the Master of Food Culture and Communications. The experience is very enriching because I have the chance to interact with students in a way I don’t have in my University in Cork: students there tend to be more passive.
Here the very nature of the students is more inquiring, they bring more experience, they’re questioning more. They come from different contexts and backgrounds, and I think they are more resourceful.
For the course that I teach here, which is called Food and Sustainability, we use the textbook I wrote 5 years ago (“Environment and Food”, Routledge, 2012). In that I make a reference in the preface to the fact that I thank the Master’s students for all their contributions that helped me enormously in formulating my ideas.
Tell us more about your field of research, now and in the past.
My field of research is less field work based today. I used to do a lot of field work overseas in the past, I did my Ph.D work in Bolivia, living in the mountains for 3 years, I’ve worked in Indonesia and done work on food security in Pakistan and Ethiopia. In the last 20 years I’ve worked much more in Ireland and on European issues, I began to work a lot on quality food producers in Ireland, with cheese makers specifically, helping in establishing the Raw Milk Cheese Slow Food Presidia with Slow Food.
Then I’ve been working much more on urban agriculture, on how do we improve our food system in the cities. About 4 years ago I established the Cork Food Policy Council, a civic organization (a partnership between representatives of the community, food retail, farming, fishing, restaurant/catering, education, environmental and health sectors and local authorities – Ed.). We have a committees with people working in the food industry, restaurateurs, farmers, people from community organizations and health sector as well. We are involved in a lot of public activities, we have a big harvest festival in October, enabling people to open their gardens, pushing the development of urban agriculture, we are encouraging new initiative for growing food in cities.
For the Cork Food Policy Council funding is an issue. I’ve always believed that a lack of funding shouldn’t stop you from doing things. I’ve spent a lot of my time encouraging the local authorities to give us money and we get money from different sources. I’m going to talk about this with the students.
So you’ll give our students some examples of how one can be involved in making changes in the food system?
Yes, being involved is very crucial, but not in isolation: the important thing that I want to convey to the students during my lectures here is that we have to come together to create a different vision for the food system. And how can we can collaborate with other like minded people who think the same way, trying creating a new vision, we can make a difference having a conversation with people who don’t see food as central in their work.
With the Cork Food Policy Council we had some success in the things that we’ve been doing: we’ve been engaging local hospitals and universities in local procurements for food, for example.
What is a gastronome in your opinion?
Do you want me to give an honest answer? I absolutely have no idea what the word gastronome means, I think infact it’s a meaningless term, it’s not one that I embrace. I understand it relates to gastronomy and to the field of food and wine. My interest is more on sustainability. For me the term doesn’t convey very much, but if you ask me how would I improve that term, then I think we have to be talking about sustainable food citizen. People who really understand how food is produced in a sustainable way.
So I’d love to see people engaged. Sustainable food citizenship is a very important argument for me. Maybe we should be call it eco-gastronome.
How do you see UNISG in the area of food studies?
I consider it an important place, if I didn’t think it is relevant I wouldn’t come here to teach. The question is that food is becoming an increasingly important part of the Masters programs elsewhere in Europe and the world.
The whole emphasis on the Masters on sustainable food systems is grown very significantly in the universities programs. So Pollenzo cannot back easily thinking “We have been the first on the field”, because it is really under competition and it is important to continue in maintaining the relevance.
Expertise in the area of food preparation is ok, but I have to say sustainability remains the real core aspect. When I speak to the students they say “This is what we want to hear”, they are very concerned. Time is ripe and sustainability is the challenge of the future and it is always about interconnections, thinking in a broader way, more holistically.
How do you see the future of food in the next 10 years?
I would say the next 10 years are probably going to be the most important decade for food sector in a century.
We are at the turning point in thinking about the way we are become accustomed to eating. Most especially there are real questions about the quantity of meat that is being produced and served. I use the term “Meatification” in my lectures: it is a ugly word, but it explains how much meat is becoming consumed all around the world.
And the contribution of livestock to environmental damage is very significant. Increasingly countries are looking at that question: actually we have to face this problem in the interest of the environment, especially about the climate change.
I think the next 10 years will be vital for the food industry to see how can we respond to the challenge of climate change.
A lot of people are looking at vegetarianism, veganism, alternative lifestyles. The university need to be conscious of that particular audience because these groups are going to grow.
Can you tell us one of your recollections about teaching at UNISG?
One of the funniest stories is dating back to the Colorno days (from 2004 to 2011 UNISG Masters’ programs were held in Colorno, Parma – Ed.) and it is about a tremendous disaster that I have found in travelling. In 2010 I actually came to teach for 3 days in Colorno just with a small bag and a change of shirts. But that was the time of the eruction of the Eyjafjöll volcano in Iceland and all of the flights in Europe were shut down and I was stucked in Colorno for 2 weeks, continuously washing my clothes.
Looking back it seems very funny, but at that time it wasn’t: my children were waiting for me at home, I did not bring the mobile phone charger with me, so I couldn’t call home. It was a traumatic trip!
by Alessandra Abbona
UNISG Communications Office