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UC scholar studies Māori perspectives on plant-based kai

25 June 2019

Gathering together many different perspectives on kaupapa Māori veganism or plant-based kai and ethics is just a starting point for University of Canterbury Ngata Centenary Doctoral Scholar Kirsty Dunn.


Doctoral student Kirsty Dunn's research into Māori perspectives on alternative and plant-based diets could act as an intermediary between the rationale supporting Western intensive animal agricultural practices and vegan ethics.

Gathering together many different perspectives on kaupapa Māori veganism or plant-based kai and ethics is just a starting point for Ngata Centenary Doctoral Scholar Kirsty Dunn, who is also a postgraduate member of UC’s New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies.

It is work she hopes will lead to a deeper understanding of kaimangatanga and the broader issues surrounding food sovereignty. During her MA research studies at UC, Kirsty Dunn considered representations of Western meat production and consumption in contemporary fiction and the portrayal of concerns about intensive animal agriculture.

For her current research, which began as part of a UC Summer Scholarship in 2016, she has switched her primary focus from Western ideas and perspectives to Māori perspectives on alternative and plant-based diets and how these relate to dominant ideas about kai and associated concepts such as health, cost, production, sustainability and animal welfare.

It is the start of a journey for Ms Dunn, whose iwi are Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa from Te Tai Tokerau. She is discovering many entry points to kai and its surrounding issues: online searches have revealed a growing community of Māori discussing kaupapa Māori plant-based kai and ethics via social media sites, websites and podcasts.

“In different spaces we exchange recipes, provide tautoko (support) and explore the influences that Māori values, concepts, narratives and experiences have on our approaches to kai and plant-based kai in particular. There has also been some news coverage of Māori plant-based ethics and initiatives including recent coverage of Tūrangawaewae marae in Ngāruawāhia and the incorporation of plant-based kai information into the marae menu.”

These may be seen as part of wider initiatives with similar kaupapa (themes, ethics, ideas), such as those centred around healthy kai, food sovereignty and kaitiakitanga.

Different perspectives, common whenu (threads)

Ms Dunn has identified common threads or whenu (pillars) running through different perspectives of ‘kaimangatanga’ (veganism or plant-based ethics), which Māori have drawn on in different ways. The following are among the pou she highlights.

  • Whakapapa encompasses relationships, connections, origins and layer-making, as well as relationships between people, other species, the environment, ancestors and atua. It is also used in regard to the origins of kai and production processes. Whakapapa informs Ms Dunn’s research into both Māori literature and kaimangatanga.
  • Manaakitanga (or uplifting the mana of others, reciprocal hospitality) is a concept that underpins the provision of more nutritious kai, such as wholefoods, fresh fruit and vegetables, to visitors.
  • Tino rangatiratanga captures ideas about exercising sovereignty over oneself and making decisions that don’t necessarily align with the status quo – in this case, the dominant meat culture in Aotearoa New Zealand. It may also involve drawing on the practices and knowledge of tūpuna (ancestors) and of decolonial diets, namely eating endemic plants species and using plants as rongoā (medicine).
  • Kaitiakitanaga encompasses guardianship, not only of the environment but also of other species, of mātauranga (knowledge) and of resources for current and future generations. Wrapped up in this thread is the concept of sustainable kai.

Finding common ground

Debate on food in the Western context can become polarised between the rationale supporting intensive animal agricultural practices and vegan ethics.

Ms Dunn suggests that the ethics she is exploring have the potential to act as an intermediary between the two, as well as in discussions about alternative plant-proteins and issues such as genetic modification and lab-grown meat.

“Perspectives from tangata whenua regarding plant-based kai ethics, food sovereignty and decolonial diets based on the principles I identified in my research can provide various avenues for critique: they are particularly valuable because they are in and of this place, this whenua.”

This research is an ongoing side project for Ms Dunn. Her main PhD research, “’Into the Dark, We Are Moths’ – Representing and Reimagining Animals in Māori Writing in English”, is being undertaken under the supervision of Senior Lecturer Mr Garrick Cooper (Māori and Indigenous Studies) and Professors Annie Potts (Cultural Studies) and Philip Armstrong (English).

Though born in Auckland and completing her secondary schooling in Southland, Ms Dunn considers Ōtautahi Christchurch her home town. She completed her BA in English with First Class Honours at UC in 2012 and her MA with Distinction in 2015. She was awarded the prestigious Ngata Centenary Doctoral Scholarship in 2017 for her PhD research and received the Australasian Animal Studies Association award for best postgraduate paper at the association’s 2017 conference in Adelaide.

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