a handful of soil
Photo: Ehsan Hazaveh

A world beyond our feet: Rethinking our relationship with where we grow our kai

The health of our soil is intrinsically linked to the health of our people, and a new book aims to centre matauranga Māori in the quest to stop treating our soil like, well, dirt.

We hardly ever think about it, even though it’s literally under our feet. But in the coming years soil will become an increasingly crucial issue.

Nearly 99% of the world’s food production comes from fertile soil. The quality of our food is dictated by the health of the soil it is grown in. Yet, this vital resource is disappearing and being stripped at an alarming rate.

Urbanisation and infrastructure required to meet population growth are crowding out healthy soil space. Fertile tracts of land are being ripped up across the country, to make way for housing in the Bombay Hills and Pukekohe, or for highways such as the Kāpiti Coast Expressway. 

Fertilisers and pesticides are yet another strain on our soil health. Mainstays of our industrial agriculture and home gardens, these chemicals are pushing our soil to its limits. Relentless agriculture strips nutrients from the soil without replenishment. The quest for ever-greater productivity is killing our soil. “It’s like this idea of running a marathon and then running it again with no time to replenish in between,” says Jessica Hutchings (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Huirapa, Gujarati), kaupapa Māori researcher, activist and grower. 

It turns out we’ve been treating our soil like dirt. So it’s about time we start giving it some aroha. Even more, it’s about time we start listening to Māori voices when it comes to soil.

Te Mahi Oneone Hua Parakore: A Māori Soil Sovereignty and Wellbeing Handbook; and students from Te Wharekura o Maniapoto (Photo: Supplied by Hōhepa Heii)

Hutchings, alongside media studies academic Jo Smith (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha), has recently published Te Mahi Oneone Hua Parakore: A Māori Soil Sovereignty and Wellbeing Handbook, a book applying hua parakore, a Māori organic framework, to soil. The book shines a light on the importance of looking at this taonga from a Māori perspective. 

We tell our kids not to play in the mud and are quick to clean dirt off our shoes. The same goes for our food. By the time we put it in our supermarket trolleys, it looks remarkably different to how it came out of the ground. Onions with not even a trace of dirt, spotless carrots and spic-and-span kūmara. Edible symptoms of an “industrialised food system that separates us from nature”, says Hutchings.

We need to reconnect with our soil, and in Aotearoa it’s vital that we take Māori pathways to do so, says Hutchings. Very little has been written by Māori about soil previously so this new book lays the groundwork for seeing it through the perspective of tangata whenua. For Māori, soil is whanaunga, holding ancestral connections and acting as a source of kai, shelter, paint, storage and even as protection in war. This sees a shift from western science and industry which for the most part seems preoccupied with reducing soil to mere economic units, to a focus on the intrinsic relationship between soil and Māori sovereignty, wellbeing and spirituality. According to Hutchings, there is “absolutely massive potential to transform our whole relationship with soil”. 

While there is little existing literature on Māori soil science, Māori soil knowledge is rich. Māori managed mutually beneficial relationships with the soil through practices such as modifying soils using gravel, sand, shells or charcoal or fertilising soils with weeds and ash. Tangata whenua have always been soil scientists. 

Historically, mana has gone hand in hand with being able to provide for people through growing kai. Ensuring that the mana of each area of land and the soil that it is made up of is continually enhanced by our actions is an inseparable part of this. For Hutchings, defining what elevating our soil looks like is up to Māori. It means holding the Crown to account as a Treaty partner for the policies it upholds that continue to degrade this resource.

“One of the ways we could elevate the mana of soil is to recognise her personhood status,” Hutchings adds – just as the Whanganui river or Urewera National Park were in the last decade. It’s not hard to imagine that giving soil this type of status would shift the mindset when it comes to taking care of it by individuals, communities, industry and policy makers.

Beyond education and creating awareness, Hutchings believes that we need more support for Māori hua parakore, or organic agriculture and horticulture. This means growing practices that encourage biodiversity throughout our soils rather than the monocultural industry that dominates in Aotearoa. “When you fly over the motu, and you look down, it’s bloody straight fences and dairy cows, chicken and beef. Where’s the diversity?” says Hutchings. Thinking about doing things differently poses a threat to the business-as-usual approach to food production in New Zealand. 

Jessica Hutchings speaks on a panel at last year’s Food Hui alongside Te Rangikaheke Kiripatea and Manaia Cunningham (Photo: Supplied)

While controversial, the Organic Products Bill submitted to parliament earlier this year is another opportunity to think about doing things differently in this space. And the growing interest in gardening since national Covid-19 lockdowns is another sign that change is on the horizon. The objective is to harness this enthusiasm and maximise the opportunities to create small Māori food systems that are self-sustaining and community focused.

There are already models of Māori food sovereignty popping up across the country. Papatūānuku Kōkiri Marae in Māngere, South Auckland, is one example profiled in the book. The marae uses organic seedlings and regenerative planting processes to serve the kai needs of whānau on their two-acre plot of land. Its Kai Ika project runs alongside this – an initiative that sees Pākehā waste become Māori delicacy as fish frames and heads, destined for landfill, are instead redistributed to whānau. Offal from kaimoana is repurposed as soil fertiliser in the marae gardens. 

Also profiled in the book is Te Wharekura o Maniapoto, a school in Te Kūiti, a town in the heart of Ngāti Maniapoto. The school is another model of the potential to combine Māori food sovereignty with sustainable soil practices and cements the importance of passing down this knowledge to rangatahi. The school has restored the once unfertile clay of the school grounds to healthy and fertile gardens teeming with worms, insects and helpful microorganisms. Tomatoes, local varieties of kamokamo, cabbage, kūmara, rīwai and more grown in the garden are so plentiful that students are not only able to take home kai to their whānau but also provide for the wider community and even gift kai to the Kiingitanga for annual events like Koroneihana and Poukai. 

“It’s just our absolute automatic right to be able to provide for ourselves on our own land,” says Hutchings. Soil sovereignty is directly linked to aspirations of tino rangatiratanga for Māori. “It’s all tino rangatiratanga. Sometimes we just need to focus on specific things like soil sovereignty or food sovereignty in order to really accentuate the importance of that kaupapa.” 

By re-establishing this traditional gardening knowledge to protect our soils, Māori are empowered to practice manaakitanga, whanaungatanga and kaitiakitanga, values and practices often strained by the pressures of rising living costs, urbanisation and the ongoing impacts of colonisation. 

It’s hard to overstate the urgency and importance of looking after our soil. As we deal with nationwide water shortages, Hutchings believes that we’d be wise to look ahead. “In 100 years’ time this will be the water conversation – and you can’t grow soil.”




The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.