THE FOLLOWING EXCERPT IS FROM OUR chat between urban farmer Michelle Lai, founder of pop-up farming project Growell, and Jade Chen and Melanie Chua on 19 September 2017. The decline of an urban food conscience is turning into a food security, health and environmental crisis. Michelle Lai taking on this challenge by undertaking practices and hands-on experiences working with restaurants, soup kitchens and ground-up collaborations. This conversation IS PART OF THE ARTIST-WRITER PAIR SERIESREAD MORE in the upcoming Energy Issue.

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[On her early farm explorations in Peru]

The turning point (in Peru) was when I saw how food came together, the producers, the market. This was not only the high-end restaurants, but also in the street side stalls.

The diversity and connection to food was very real. One particular moment I remember was with one farmer I spoke to. He reached out to hold up some quinoa and threw it back to the earth. He said: This is my connection to the soil. It goes back to, literally, roots.

Sustainability is a buzzword (which) I don’t think too much about right now. The main motivation, for me generally, is to keep in tandem this respect and continuing an education and connection with the environment and with one’s food.

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JC: Urban farming has been cast as a panacea “for fast-paced living”. Do you see that as true still?

ML: For city people perhaps. For others, really it’s an entry point for many other perspectives to come about.

JC: People are becoming aware of the impact and effects of environment, for example with climate change or natural disasters, and environmental conservation. Your workshops in composting and urban foraging could be seen as making sustainable choices for an urban environment. How much of a factor is sustainability in promoting an interest for urban farming and a green culture?

ML: The more I think about sustainability, the more I don’t know what it means. It’s a buzzword (which) I don’t think too much about right now. At the back of my head, I have some benchmarks for what I deem as good practices (in ‘sustainability’). I’m a bit lost to what are the best practices adopted. The main motivation, for me generally, is (still) to keep in tandem this respect and continuing an education and connection with the environment and with one’s food. That’s what I hold at the back of my head.

JC: Yea, I do wonder what ‘sustainability’ actually covers. Say, if I’m saving water and turning off my taps, does that mean I’m an eco warrior?

ML: For instance, remember the 3Rs taught in schools – reduce, reuse, recycle – I really followed that! And I’ve not really thrown a lot of thrash, til now! But the government hasn’t really had a system for teaching the (body of) knowledge. Ways of recycling have become so much more complex. What we’re doing is not progressive and becomes quite backdated.

JC: Are you referring to the blue cans we have for recycling (in public areas)?

ML: That’s one. What about the lack of compost systems for inorganic and organic waste? What are the incentives to get people involved? Can they rehaul the infrastructure? There’s the question there – if they want to be ‘green’, but no real initiative is done, then it’s only a word.

In Singapore, a lot of time we’ve not prioritised that because of time constraints and the pursuit of other material goals. We probably have lost that connection a long time ago. When we get to know our food, we can begin to pick out what’s important to our values.

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MC: Earlier you mentioned how we don’t ask about the origins of our food. for example, when you brought up how prawn heads are reused to make up the dish lor mee. (Such knowledge) is hard without channels for information, a grandparent or just information for what MSG is used in which foods.

Do you think when we miss out looking at our food on those deeper levels, that has a direct impact on our well-being? If our notion of the food that feeds us as a society is superficial, how much of a difference is it our personal and social well-being?

ML: Rather than the standpoint of consumer awareness, it’s important to see the whole link with the environment. I haven’t thought it too in depth myself, but there’s a lot of life when something grows. And we can copy and paste from gardening textbooks, but when we get into it, it opens up a world of knowledge—that we can’t be alone, humans have to live in tandem with the earth and one another.

Rediscovering what’s important … could be labels to define us as consumers, or it could begin to inform us as consumers and how we want to lead our lives and what it means to feel alive.

I don’t want to come across as hippie. But that awareness and respect is crucial. In Singapore, a lot of time we’ve not prioritised that because of time constraints and the pursuit of other material goals. We probably have lost that connection a long time ago.

When we get to know our food, we can begin to pick out what’s important to our values. Rediscovering that is important and then we can re-discover- for ourselves. It could be labels to define us as consumers, or it could begin to inform us as consumers and how we want to lead our lives and what it means to feel alive.