New Zealand’s first organic certification organisation, BioGro, was founded in 1983. But don’t be fooled – organic growing in Aotearoa is much, much older.

To reclaim and update a particular cultural heritage, a new book is out this month: Te Mahi Māra Hua Parakore: A Māori Food Sovereignty Handbook. It's a road map for Māori aiming to produce organic kai in a colonised world.

Part manifesto and part gardening manual, the book, by kaupapa Māori researcher Dr Jessica Hutchings, shares success stories and lays out cultural and practical instructions for contemporary Māori organic growing.

In pockets across Aotearoa, Māori are using organic gardening projects to promote self-sufficiency in their whānau and communities. The book documents these initiatives - from a marae garden supervised by a group of "aunties" in Hawkes Bay, to Māori-owned businesses such as Kaiwhenua Organics in Raglan, which grows 42 kinds of salad greens for local markets and trains unemployed Māori youth.

These growers all practice a system they call hua parakore - Māori organic growing. Strikingly, most of their farms' stories are about much more than food; they are about food as a cornerstone of community. Many of the growers cite gardening as a connection to their ancestors, and as a way of restoring cultural identity.

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Hutchings is also clear in her insistence that growing food for one's community is a political act. "Serving up a local dish of ka?nga pungarehu may be seen as akin to marching on the streets, demanding that the government create people- and nutrient-centred food policies," she writes.

Much of the book simply articulates solid organic gardening practices that anyone can adopt; there are chapters on how to make compost and how to plant an orchard, for example. The instructions, however, are flavoured with te reo words and concepts. There's a distinctly Māori take on the reasons for specific organic practices; for example, Hutchings asserts that a major reason to avoid GE seeds is that genetic engineering interferes with the plant's whakapapa.

Hutchings was part of the team that set up the world's first indigenous organic verification system, in New Zealand. Launched in 2011, the hua parakore system requires growers to adhere to standard organic farming practices, but also requires them to ground their practices in a Māori worldview, expressed through six main kaupapa: whakapapa, wairua, mana, māramatanga, mauri and te ao tūroa.

The system is administered by Te Waka Kai Ora, the national Māori organic organisation. So far, nearly 30 growers have enrolled. Fully approved hua parakore producers may display a registered tohu on their products. They range from small vege growers to the Manawatu dairy farm that produces BioFarm yoghurt, one of the leading organic yoghurt brands in New Zealand.

"Māori growers were looking for an organic verification system that could hold a kaupapa Māori or a Māori story," says Hutchings. To set up that system, Te Waka Kai Ora undertook a three-year research project, interviewing Māori growers, healers and other traditional practitioners about what would constitute a hua parakore product.

New Zealand's main organic certifiers treat organic growing as a set of production rules for farmers to follow; but in hua parakore, farming is articulated as a sacred cultural practice. Applicants must answer questions such as "How do you ensure that your mahinga kai enhances the tino rangatiratanga and food security of your whānau, hapū, iwi and wider community?" and "How do you use natural cycles and tohu to guide your tikanga in your maihinga kai?"

"The framework for organics is very similar to our own tikanga Ma?ori for producing food," says Te Waka Kai Ora chairperson Percy Tipene, quoted in Hutchings' book. However, he argues, "new cultural paradigms" are needed for truly Māori organic production: "An inherent part of organics is that the organisations, such as certifiers, can assess the integrity of those who are growing.... The organisations that make those assessments are not familiar with Ma?ori discourse and have no whakapapa to this land. The whakapapa of organics is not connected to our kai Ma?ori. There are also social principles underlying a Ma?ori approach to growing kai which organics doesn't accommodate."

This is a way of gardening that sees beyond the physical. "Everything's got a wairua," Raglan grower Kaiwaka Riki explains in the book. "If the wairua of the land is good, that's because the kaitiaki is looking after it properly. And there is a roll-on effect to the kaitiaki and their wha?nau. That's what's happening to us."

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