Jaci van Niekerk gave a paper at this year’s Oxford Food Symposium held at St Catherine’s College, Oxford University, from 5-8 July 2018.

The Oxford Symposium is the original conference for people with a broad interest in food, attended by scholars in different fields, enthusiastic amateurs, writers and chefs. Contributions are invited, but not obligatory. The three-day meeting is a convivial event with ideas and information exchanged over great food. 

I was really keen on attending the Oxford Food Symposium this year as the theme was ‘Seeds’. I felt it would be a great opportunity to showcase some of the work undertaken by the Seed and Knowledge Initiative (SKI), and it was. I first connected with my fellow symposiasts at the pre-conference outing to the Botanic Gardens in Oxford, the oldest in the United Kingdom.

On a piping hot day, the group, 30 or so strong, made their way around a new exhibition called ‘Plants that Changed the World’. Led by the garden’s director, Dr Simon Hiscock, we witnessed bananas, sunflowers, tobacco, wheat, barley, rubber, various vegetables and many more edible, medicinal and otherwise useful plants.

Adjoining this collection, a large stretch of the garden was densely covered in a mixture of wild grasses and flowering plants. Dr Hiscock explained that these ‘Merton Borders’ represented a new type of planting which is not only climate resilient and attractive to insects, but does not rely on artificial irrigation, and requires no fertilizer. This type of cultivation, highly biodiverse and low in maintenance, is based on direct seed sowing which is much more sustainable than raising seedlings in plastic trays and peat. Perhaps this heralds a new type of Botanic Garden? One which – rather like agroecological farming – works with nature, instead of trying to control and contain it.

After the garden visit we made our way along the winding roads of Oxford to St Catherine’s College (affectionately known as St Catz). As the youngest of the Oxford University colleges, dating back to 1962, St Catz is not one of those ‘Harry Potter’-like campuses one imagines all Oxford University colleges to be. It is still a listed building however, and this became apparent over the next three days as the college’s cooling system was certainly no match for 2018’s Northern summer!

We settled down in a lecture theatre for the symposium kick-off. Many of the participants were clearly regular attendants and greeted old friends enthusiastically. Newbies like myself, however, easily identifiable by our green nametags, were instantly made to feel welcome by the warm and friendly crowd. After two presentations: ‘Seeds of Civilisation’ and the seed conservation work of the Millennium Seedbank, the chefs and winemakers responsible for the evening meal were invited to tell us more about what was in store for us. This happened every day of the symposium and was a nice touch – making visible the detailed thought and hard work that went into preparing amazing meals for us – a refreshing departure from the usual bland buffet fare prepared out of sight at most conferences. London-based Ukrainian chef Olia Hercules and winemakers introduced the evening’s offerings, called a ‘Wild East Feast’ and paired with wines from Hungary, it sounded amazing, but I needed to work on my presentation for the next day, so I unfortunately I had to give it a miss.

The next morning I caught a bus from my guesthouse and settled in for a remarkable line-up of talks – it was a struggle to select which parallel sessions to attend from those in the programme. The morning’s keynote speaker was Dr Åsmund Asdal from the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, who gave an entertaining talk on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. At the seed vault, germination tests are carried out every five years, and Dr Asdal was in the midst of writing up a report on the quality of seeds which had spent 30 years in storage. His team had found that although some were no longer viable, many were still germinating at good rates.

The next input concerned ‘The Sifter’, a free, open-sourced, cloud-based database and research tool, ‘winnowing’ the world’s culinary history, foodways and more. Set for beta-testing in September 2018, the Sifter will allow the analysis of cookbook contents, agricultural writings, and searches for culinary terms in multiple languages.

I decided to attend the morning session titled ‘Revisiting Subsistence Foods’ as I felt it would be a good fit for the work we are doing as SKI and that it would complement my PhD topic, ‘The Foodways of Marginalised Residents of the Cederberg’. The first two talks focused on the consumption of acorns; the first speaker, Cory Straub, gave a historic account of the differences between the people of Athens and those from Arcadia (the acorn eaters), highlighting the way in which farmers sometimes made fun of people who subsisted on acorns, calling those who ate food that fell from the trees ‘lazy’. This made me wonder about the small-scale farmers SKI works with – do they have certain ideas about people who eat differently from themselves, surely they do?

The second talk, by lecturer Andrea Maraschi, tracked the mythological transition of acorn eating from famine food to European delicacy. Andrea ended his talk on this thought-provoking quote from the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss ‘The food of the past was healthier, just because it was eaten in the past’.

Finally, Hanna Simonsen gave an account of the usefulness of Bambara groundnuts (or jugo beans) in Tanzania. Interestingly, all of the sexual taboos associated with Bambara nuts that she encountered in Tanzania accorded precisely with those I found among small-scale producers in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. This illustrates just how closely knowledge or beliefs accompany seeds on their journey throughout a landscape, region, continent or beyond (of course, as long as this journey is not hampered by restrictive seed laws).

Lunch was a feast! Masterminded by food writer Naomi Duguid (also the facilitator of my session later that day), it included a walnut and red bean paté, fresh flat breads and an Armenian/Georgian soup based on black-eyed peas and spinach, flavoured by Persian herbs. The dessert was equally scrumptious – a black and white rice pudding cooked in coconut milk, served with fresh berries and chilled saké flown in from Japan, made to the specifications of an ancient traditional recipe.

I titled my talk ‘Throw away your gogo’s seeds’ The centrality of traditional seed in KwaZulu-Natal. It was well received, with plenty of questions asked afterwards. I was thrilled to be approached by a hero of mine, Dan Saladino – the producer of ‘The Food Programme’ on BBC Radio 4, for an interview.

The other two speakers in my session, Zafer Yenal from the Bosphorus University in Turkey and David Shields from the University of South Carolina, gave fascinating talks. A Professor of Sociology, Zafer talked about the revival of a traditional wheat variety which had nearly become extinct. This had happened in the post-war period when increased commercialisation of wheat had driven the loss of traditional varieties. This has resulted in landraces making up only 30% of wheat varieties currently, even though Turkey is located in the Fertile Crescent – the centre of origin for wheat. Karakılçık buğdayı (black-awn wheat) an heirloom variety, has been successfully brought back from near extinction. Interestingly, a local municipality has been instrumental in this success story, supporting not only the cultivation, but also the processing and marketing of the wheat. This has taken place despite the national government’s support for the commercial production of a limited number of wheat varieties, rather than safeguarding and promoting landraces. Zafer commented that ‘food is culture, not only eating, but producing too. The culture of the field is also important, therefore one cannot simply preserve seed – one needs to preserve the whole culture around it.’

David, professor, author, and the chair of the Slow Food Ark of Taste for the American South, worked with the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation (not to be confused with ‘Golden Rice’!) to bring back the seeds of a whole cuisine – Southern Cookery. As many of SKI’s partners might be interested in this paper, I include the abstract here (see below). Once the proceedings are finalised, I will share all the symposium papers with you. You may want to listen to an interview with David Shields on the Heritage Radio Network talking about this project, the talk is titled ‘The Seed Sleuth, Repatriating Heirloom Crops’.

Replenishing the Seeds that Made Southern Cookery, David S. Shields

Abstract: The most successfully and wide-ranging project in the restoration of once classic ingredients in the United States occurred in the American South from 2005 to the present day. Heeding the pleas of regional chefs to restore the flavour to grains and vegetables by reviving the most important field crops of the Low country and Piedmont South, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation researched the growing systems of pre-industrial agriculture, identified the key components of the field system, sought the recovery of seed, consolidated breeder seed for crops, and distributed seed to farmers to enable the commercial revival of these ingredients. Over two dozen important plants have been revived. This paper documents how we came to formulate best practices for restorations of grains and field crops.

In the afternoon session titled ‘Collisions between Old and New Worlds’, science historian Gabriela Soto Laveaga gave an interesting account of how it came about that a large shipment of hybrid wheat from Mexico to India in 1966, became the foundations of the Green Revolution. The next speaker, Sandra Mian, a food engineer from Brazil, told the stories of Italian immigrants to Brazil who brought their foodways with them, and suffered a psychological hunger for the foods they used to eat. The next talk, co-presented by Professor Elizabeth Hoover of Brown University and chef Sean Sherman – both of Native American heritage – was a highlight for me. Elizabeth is the author of ‘The River is in Us – Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community’, described in a review as ‘rewarding reading for anyone interested in environmental justice or indigenous people.’ Sean is one of the authors of the charmingly named ‘The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen’ cookbook and will be opening a restaurant by the same name soon. Read more about his efforts to revitalise Native American cuisine at https://sioux-chef.com/.

Their talk centred on loss of Native seeds through the colonisation process, as well as the work by Native communities the regain their seed sovereignty through promoting heritage seeds held by family members and the ‘rematriation’ (a lovely term for SKI to adopt!) of seeds held by institutions. Asked about the effect of invasive species when trying to revive native crops, Elizabeth answered in a practical and refreshingly candid way – she said they should be viewed as not unwelcome, but as relatives, and if it’s possible, eat them, otherwise utilise them for other things such as medicine or dye.

That evening’s dinner was called ‘Biblical Banquet: Seeds of Peace’, devised by chef Moshe Basson from The Eucalyptus Tree in Jerusalem. We feasted on pesto and fire roasted eggplant (pictured), fish baked in tahini served with purslane and a freekeh (young green durum wheat that has been roasted and cracked) risotto, among other delectable dishes.

After dinner there was a screening of the film, Seeds: Commons or Corporate Property?  The film is in Spanish, with subtitles available in French, English and Portuguese. It was jointly produced by eight Latin American organisations and draws on the experiences and struggles of social movements for the defence of indigenous and native seeds in Ecuador, Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, Honduras, Argentina, Colombia, and Guatemala.

The third and final day of the symposium arrived all too soon. The convivial eating arrangements meant that lots of connections were made and contact details shared, and as the symposium dates back to the early 1980s, it operated like a well-oiled machine.

I attended a session on ‘Processing and Distribution’ as well as one on ‘Fermentation’, before settling down with the group for the closing prize-giving ceremony and the closing keynote presentation titled ‘Finding Paths Forward’.

Delivered by Dr Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder and the director of the Washington State University Bread Lab, the closing keynote was a fitting conclusion to a successful symposium.

The Bread Lab is a combination of a think-tank and a baking laboratory where experiments with improved flavour, nutrition and functionality of regional and obscure wheat, barley, buckwheat and other small grains are conducted. I believe the work of the Bread Lab complements SKI’s approach well, for instance, take a look at their mission and vision statements:

Our Mission:
The programs of the Bread Lab work to breed and develop publicly available varieties of grains and other crops that will benefit farmers, processors, and end-users while
enhancing access to affordable and nutritious food for all members of our communities.

Our Vision:
Through innovation and discovery, and an appreciation of the culture and traditions that define what we eat, the Bread Lab plays a major role in moving food systems
in more meaningful and just directions.

Dr Jones made the point that genetically engineered crops were not necessary to feed the world, and described his work – which values flavour and nutrition before yield, promotes the addition of value in the community where it is produced, and considers a farm size of 100 acres to be optimal (in contrast the average wheat farm in the United States is 10 000 acres in size). He concluded that, in order to move forward in a just and sustainable manner, we need to:

  • make the best use of our land
  • add time back as an ingredient
  • re-decentralise what we do
  • increase efforts to be inclusive
  • embrace deliciousness
  • embrace beauty
  • increase yield responsibly
  • acknowledge that ‘affordable’ need not be a race to the bottom
  • recognise that seed matters
  • place our crops and seed as art


I would encourage anyone who is interested in (good) food and fair food systems to attend this symposium. Next year’s topic: Food and Power, is sure to elicit much fuel for discussion. I was heartened to learn that a number of symposiasts had suggested ‘Decolonising the Food System’ as a possible topic, this will no doubt feature strongly in next year’s meeting programme. Visit the symposium website for detailed information on the application process.