Interview with Lisa Weasel: Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food-4

Lisa H. Weasel is a molecular biologist, an associate professor of biology at Portland State University, and the author of Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food. This 5-part interview was conducted in February of 2010, and predates last month’s decision by the USDA to deregulate the production of roundup ready alfalfa; the recent lifting of the restriction on GM sugar beets; and now, the approval of an industrial GM corn for bioethanol production.

Part 4; What is your relationship to food?
 I have a very close relationship to food and that’s where this question of bias in science comes in – is it better to have someone doing research on food who isn’t very aware of food choices and comes in and is a total blank state or someone like myself who is very connected to their food supply? Food is a great example because we all have to make choices about what we eat so who can really be a blank slate on food? Every time you go to the grocery store, every time you sit down for a meal your making choices about the kind of food you eat.
I live here at the ecovillage. I grow a lot of the food that I eat myself. I find the biology and genetics behind food crops very exciting and interesting because agriculture is a wonderful example of where nature and culture come together. Our cultural values, our social values, our values around the kinds of agricultural technologies that we want to use, how food is harvested, and how it’s grown, that all goes through to our selection of seeds, whether we do it in the laboratory, or through conventional agricultural…all of those culture values get embedded in the genes of the seeds that we select. To me it’s really this great area where nature and culture come together. It’s a fascinating area for research and it also has a practical impact on my life as well.
We are what we eat so it’s nice to see that whole pathway following through from the more abstract nature culture connections and the values that get embedded in the biology of the seed and then seeing how that plays out in your own health and daily life and well being.

I’m really interested in the feelings that surround food as well. How do you feel when you sit down at the table? Do you feel connected to your food, do you feel like your eating something that makes you feel good? Do you have a negative relationship to food and always worry about how many calories it has, what it’s doing to your heart? — these kinds of questions.
You have 40 chickens at the ecovillage – how big is the community garden? Do you have your own personal garden as well?

Chickens at Ecovillage, Portland, Oregon

We have small individual gardens for people to grow food for their own household use but then we have a large common garden space that we work on together. It’s probably a quarter of our acreage here so maybe an acre of cultivated vegetable crops but then we have a lot of fruit trees and nuts trees here as well.

It’s a permaculture model so we’re looking at integrating all the fruit trees and nut trees and food and fodder for our chickens. We have chicken tractors for the chickens to move around in. We have cover crops that we also use in the residential areas. I participate in and take care of the bees here along with a team of other people.
Where are the personal unit gardens?
 This is our second year here so we’re moving some of the garden plots around. We have a new communal garden space that’s actually closer to the households and then up on the hill here, which is a lot of the original farm space, those are the individual gardens. I also have a community garden in Portland Community Gardens area down the street where I grow more food.
What do grow in your personal garden?
 I like to grow as much as I can year round so in this climate that means a lot of kale, broccoli, winter crops — greens do really well. In the summer I grow a lot of tomatoes and can them so I can have access to them over the course of the year. Beans – both for drying and shelling. Just a whole range of food crops including a lot of winter squash. I think the challenge here is really extending the season – both crops that you can grow in the summer and save and crops that you can grow in the winter. We have fairly mild winter conditions here.
What do you have that you’re still harvesting at the moment?
 Right now this is the low point – especially since we had that very deep freeze in December. I’ve got some kale that I’m growing and mustard greens, it’s really just greens at this point.

How is the ecovillage cohousing working for the three of you?
 This is a wonderful place to raise children because it’s urban but at the same time there’s the farm and children have a lot of contact with nature. My kids can run around relatively freely here because there’s a greater sense of community. There are 36 other households and if people are outside I feel totally comfortable that my children are looked after and I don’t have to always be right there with them.

What does cohousing mean?
 Cohousing is a model that originated in Europe. The basic commonalities of cohousing communities are that every individual family or housing unit is dramatically scaled down. People have their own home with their own kitchen, bathroom etc. so it’s not communal living in that sense but your personal living space is scaled down a lot. On the flip side there are a lot of common shared spaces like this common house.

Gardens at Ecovillage

Because we’re an ecovillage here we have a lot of farm space and shared land as well. The idea is really trying to build community, to live more closely, and have better connections with your neighbors, to eat together. Common meals are a big feature of cohousing (1h7m). There’s usually some sort of large dining hall where people can gather and eat together. There are lots of meetings too which is characteristic of cohousing because we run our community ourselves. We don’t have a building manager or a landscape company – we do that on our own. A lot of cohousing communities operate by consensus.

How big is the ecovillage?
 It’s 3.75 acres. There are 37 households but the housing is concentrated here at the front while the back part is the farm. If the weather is better at the end then I’ll give you a little tour around. We have 40 chickens and we have our gardens where we grow a lot of food for the community meals.

How big are the units?
 The average unit size is around 700 square feet. The one-bedrooms are around 560 square feet and then there are two bedrooms that are 600 or 700; and three bedrooms are 900 and 1,200 square feet. So there’s a range but it’s all downsized. You know 1,200 square feet is sort of the luxury mansion here with three bedrooms and two baths. Most people are really downscaling their living situation because we have this common space. And if I want to have a dinner party, since I don’t have a big dining room in my house, I can just reserve this beautiful dining room and cook here.

How did you first hear about cohousing?
 I went to graduate school in Europe – in England – and I was exposed to the cohousing model there which I found very appealing. Then I did a post-doc in Berkley after England. Chuck Durrett who’s a leader in cohousing consulting and planning – he’s an architect – had an office there and I continued my investigation of cohousing.
I’ve always been interested and I followed cohousing communities in Ithaca, in Emeryville when I lived in Berkley, and in Davis when I lived in California. This was just the right fit at the right time. The ecovillage aspect where we have the farm is a big draw and of course the people are as well. Finding the right fit in terms of a community – the people – is really what makes it work. This turned out to be a great match for me.
Are there any parts of cohousing that are difficult for you to adapt to after having your own dwelling for so long?
 I love it. I love the fact that I don’t have to worry about exterior maintenance, and that we can work together. If you go away on a trip somebody else can always water your garden. Living in a smaller space has also been really wonderful because I had to make decisions about what’s really important. There’s just less clutter in my life. My kids have fewer toys and they want to be outside more.

I think that around issues of climate change and changing our lifestyle and these changes that we have to make — it’s so often presented as a negative change and that you have to give things up. I think that there’s a lot to be gained by downsizing and cutting down material consumption. It makes more space to go out skiing, to go out on hikes. We have really satisfying deep relationships with people here because we’re outside a lot, we’re working together on things. So it’s really just trading in a lot of stuff for more quality of life.
Even biking in the rain. We have this great bike that I love riding. My two kids sit on the back and we have a great time. It’s a much better relationship than having the kids sit in the car while I’m focusing on the radio going or whatever. We’re outside.

March 21, 2011: part 5; The discussion with Lisa Weasel wraps up with her views on the future of agricultural biotechnology, and the ecological complexities of industrial agriculture upon the environment, and its role in the climate change debate.

Liz Crain writes about Pacific Northwest food and drink for various print and online publications. Her book Food Lover’s Guide to Portland was published by Sasquatch Books in July 2010. She is also a fiction writer and editor at Hawthorne Books.

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