The future of food is relational ❂

LinYee Yuan, founder of MOLD Magazine and Field Meridians, on how to design resilient local food ecologies.

What do you see when you imagine the “future of food?”

Unfortunately, you might be thinking of Soylent, or of test-tube meat, or of other “innovations” that aim to make the process of sustaining ourselves with calories more seamless and efficient. However, LinYee Yuan—the founder and editor of MOLD Magazine, and now also the founder of Field Meridians, a Brooklyn-based artist collective creating tools for ecological resilience—has a thing or two to teach us about the actual future of food. Here’s a hint: Instead of relying on high-tech products, a better food future would actually be fairly low-tech, and rooted in the natural processes, relationships, and abundance of communal, interconnected life.

I first discovered MOLD Magazine back when I worked at Kickstarter, because the publication’s inaugural print magazine was launched as a Kickstarter project in 2017. My job was to “curate” and “elevate” (lol) the best, most culturally significant projects seeking support on the platform, and I remember my team got very excited when MOLD launched. Here was an ambitious, thoughtful project that aimed to explore the future of food by examining “how design can help feed a hungry planet”—while simultaneously looking extremely design-y and, dare I say, elevated.

Long story short: I’ve been reading and loving MOLD since the early days, and when I launched Dark Properties a few months back, LinYee was at the top of my list of people I wanted to bring into the fold. Since its inception, MOLD has covered everything from microbial fashion to farming in prison to soil futures to a 75-year hope for Palestinian freedom, and so much more.

Below, LinYee and I chat through the understanding she’s cultivated around the “future of food,” and how she’s begun to put her MOLD-derived learnings into practice through a non-profit venture called Field Meridians (tip: if you live in NYC, you’re gonna want to join some of their upcoming workshops on birding, flowers, fungus, and more).

I hope you enjoy our discussion. As always, I welcome you to respond to this email with your thoughts, feedback, or dreams—I’d love to hear from you. ⚘

~ Willa

Willa Köerner: How has your definition of the “future of food” evolved since you founded MOLD back in 2014?

LinYee Yuan: Although MOLD launched as a very design-focused project, over a decade after starting it, my definition of “the future of food” has completely evolved. Now my answer is not at all related to designing products or selling things, but instead focusing on life—and on designing and building local, resilient relationships and food ecologies (a concept we’ll be exploring on MOLD over the next year in an editorial series called “Relational Architectures”).

Can you unpack the idea of a “local food ecology,” including how we might move in that direction?

As a culture, we don’t tend to have community-wide relationships to our food. But it’s crucial to understand how to produce food within your own community—whether that’s in community gardens, in your backyard or on your stoop or balcony, in a communal kitchen, or anywhere in between. We need to start knitting together local responses to how we eat, which in turn can produce new ways of understanding our relationship with food, with others, and with concepts of seasonality and regionality. When we learn how to collaborate on these questions as a population, and understand our food with more intimacy, that can foster so many new ways of collaborating as a community of people, plants, soils, microbes, and more—along with noticing how these living neighbors then respond and nurture the broader environment.

Community economics provides another layer of relationship, so part of this is also about supporting small business owners that are in your community—including cafés, restaurants, beer makers, bakers, and anyone else creating food locally. These are all people who are collectively weaving together an entire local food chain.

Eating is a deeply sensory and deeply human activity. It’s not just the act of ingesting nutrients; instead, eating is the convivial act of sitting together and sharing a meal. What that means culturally, and what that means socially and sensorially, is profound. The only thing we do that engages all of our senses besides eating is having sex. So if you put those two things on the chain of priorities for what it means to be human, they’re both very, very high up. It’s all about sustaining and reproducing life.

Perhaps because of my time working at Kickstarter, where projects were always claiming to be “the future of this or that,” I think I assumed that “the future of food” would be a very productized, disruption-focused, bio-engineered thing. But what I find refreshing about your definition of food’s future is that it is not about technology at all.

Right. I’m a child of the eighties, so I similarly expected the future of food to be pulled from The Jetsons, where you push a button and a robot cooks you breakfast, or your daily calories come in the form of a pill, or something like that. But after working on MOLD for 11 years, I’ve found that the future of food is actually about relationships.

Overall, we’re so far removed from understanding anything about the food that we eat that just this initial act of brokering relationships with your food can be quite transformative. It doesn’t have to be this full-blown homesteader, prepper identity of growing all your own food so that when the hypothetical “end of the world” comes, you can be self-sufficient. Instead, it’s about growing your own food so you understand what that actually takes—and so you can share with your community.

The goal of technology is often to create seamlessness—but in that quest to make things more convenient and slick, we lose a lot of the tactility and hummannes—the organic quality of the matter of life. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on trying to find that middle ground where futuristic technologies can be useful and beneficial, while also keeping us connected to what makes us human.

Technology in its current iteration is a handmaiden to capitalism. It is being used as a tool for mining and extracting things like attention, capital, and labor. It’s also highly privatized, and the promise stemming from that version of technology is only going to serve a capitalist system, and continue taking us away from the things that make us human.

When we first embarked on the exploration of MOLD, I was deeply interested in things like lab-grown meats, and in the promise of bioengineering as a way to move away from things like plastic. My interest in those things still exists, but what I realized is that in order for us to produce food with those kinds of futuristic tools, they can’t be privatized. To participate in a tech-enabled food economy, the job of the individual is just to consume. But as humans, we are never going to be able to have a creative, collaborative relationship with tech-enabled food futures because they’re not really about us—they’re about selling a product. 

So, full circle, I realized I didn’t want to support a food future that only enabled participation through consumption. That’s not the future that I want to be part of.

You’ve spoken about how a student project inspired you to focus the magazine’s editorial lens more directly on our global food crisis. This feels important, because as a group of thinkers and activists, students are incredibly inspiring. As students collectively parse through our world’s many crises, their thinking often seems to speak to the truth in a way that older, ingrained perspectives or ways of operating simply cannot*. How do we bring some of that student energy back—where undertakings can be strategic and innovative, without fully packaging themselves into the same old products or ways of thinking?

Embracing a student mindset, or a beginner’s mindset, is advice many spiritual folks would share. I think that’s really important because we’re living in what Arundhati Roy would call portal time. This is the time for us to step back and take stock of the world, of our lives, and of the work that we’re doing—whether that’s professional or spiritual or physical or political work—and make sure that how we spend our time, and how we spend our attention, aligns with our personal and collective values.

And students, to your point, have the luxury of time for reflection, creativity, and criticality. They’re given space to be curious, to imagine, and to make things without a business objective. If we can move towards creating more spaces to do that kind of imagining together, we’ll be much better prepared for what’s on the other side of the portal.

[* This interview was conducted prior to the Palestinian solidarity encampments being led by students around the world, but I’m adding a note to say: Thank you, students, as always.]

There’s also something about being a student where you have a dedicated guide, or a teacher, who’s in it with you—that’s so important. It makes me want to ask, do you feel like a guide who’s here to help steward in this locally oriented future of food?

I think of my role as holding space for conversations and ways of thinking to unfold. So much of what I write and talk about, I didn’t come up with by myself. I wasn’t sitting under a tree as an apple fell on my head to give me this idea, or whatever. That type of origin story is always a myth. But I do know that I have devoted a lot of energy, time, and resources to synthesizing a lot of the things that I read and research and am inspired by. 

I’m very thankful for having many kinds of guides in my own life, from friends, to writers and authors and academics, to farmers and stewards and scientists. Also, I teach in the industrial design department at Parsons, and in that capacity and in others, I always try to share what I know. Skill sharing and knowledge sharing is a critical act to engage with right now, because we all have skills and knowledge to offer to our communities—and this is an all-hands-on-deck moment. 

This is actually one of the reasons I started Field Meridians, the nonprofit sister of MOLD. It’s structured as an artist collective that uses social practice to create tools for ecological resilience in our neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. We do this through site-specific programming, publishing, and radio.

We started Field Meridians two years ago as an answer to the question, “What’s next?” Right now we’re wrapping up MOLD’s six-issue print magazine, so it felt like, “What are we going to do after the last issue comes out?” I realized that what I wanted to explore over the next five to 10 years is what it means to work with my neighbors to co-design ideas and solutions for ecological resilience—including what the future of food would look like in our neighborhood.

Photo by Mona Layne from Field Meridians’ Solstice Kitchen series.

In many ways, MOLD seems like the foundational research for Field Meridians. Now you’re really walking the walk, bringing this idea around the importance of local food ecologies back home to your own neighborhood.

100%. It’s easy to write and talk about these things, but putting it into action is a totally different skill set and a different kind of creative collaboration. I’m excited about the messy, chaotic humanness that it’s bringing into my life. I used to throw a lot of parties and produce events professionally, but I stopped doing that because of the stress of wanting to control things. But now that I’m in my 40s, I no longer feel the need to control everything. I’m excited about what adrienne maree brown has talked about as “the work of the facilitator,” which is once you get everyone into the room together, your job is to help locate the conversation that only the specific people in the room, in that moment, could have together.

As the next project for Field Meridians, we’ve launched a Nature School. I’m encouraging people within my community of cultural workers and creatives to offer skills related to their practices as a bridge for inviting neighbors to engage with the act of noticing the nature that surrounds and supports us here in the city. For example, I sent a photographer friend of mine our call for workshops and was like, “You should participate.” He responded by offering to photograph the events, but I was like, “Actually, I would love for you to host a workshop.” Just making that shift from doing the thing to teaching the thing is a small but really important lens for thinking about, how do we show up in our community to help build what comes next?

With the Nature School, we’re building an artist-driven, urban-ecology curriculum that aims to generate tools for resilience. We’ll host workshops of all kinds, and after every workshop we’ll publish a free curriculum online so people can download it and use it in their local context. Some examples include a guide to birding, a Zen Buddhist meditation grounded in the four elements, and a how-to for building an earth battery. Later on we’re going to be prototyping a mobile seed library kit that we’ll open source so people can use it to make their own physical seed libraries.

One thing that came to mind while you were talking about these programs is this sense that a lot of people see things like birding, meditating, and gardening as cute hobbies, rather than as future-building skill sets. Do you see the workshop approach helping to move people beyond “this is a fun thing to do once or twice,” towards more of a systemic, world-shifting practice?

We’re trying to tap into a worldview focused on engaged noticing and participation. Anybody who gardens, anybody who birds, anybody who goes mushroom hunting will have a different understanding of seasonality and time and the environment—and that kind of understanding is a real gift. Skill sharing provides an opportunity for people who may not want to bird every weekend, for example, but who may want to understand the perspective of somebody who does bird all the time. I’m so thankful to be in community with Indigo Goodson, for example, who will be leading our monthly birding program. With her perspective as a poet, as a new mother, and as a Black woman, she bridges so many entry points for talking about the future of our community—which is what this project is really about.

There’s something about food that defies homogeneity, and inspires everyday creativity across cultural lines. Right now, especially with social media and the sorts of lifestyles and aesthetics the algorithm tends to push on us, I feel like homogeneity is something we need to actively fight.

There’s an idea I love from the activist and scholar Vandana Shiva, called the “aesthetic of biodiversity.” She talks about how the web of life is actually a food web, and about how being in relationship with our food can have deeply transformative ramifications for how we relate to the world around us—as well as on our overall worldview. What I’m excited about here, especially within the context of our audience (which has a lot of designers in it) is this idea that not everything should be in Helvetica. I love Jerome W. Harris’ piece for Amalgam magazine, “Against, but in the spirit of, Modernism.” It probes at this question of, “How do we engage as cultural workers, and as creative workers, to train people to embrace difference?”

Capitalism does not like unruliness. It does not like variation, because unknowns create problems within industrialized chains. But if we can get people to embrace the idea that difference is life—that difference is actually the texture of living worlds—we can get closer to breaking out of this oppressive training that teaches us that everything should be the same all the time.

That’s what the aesthetic of biodiversity comes from. It’s about, “Wow, there are more than three kinds of beans in the world. There are so many different varieties of black beans alone, then there are borlotti beans, there are lima beans, there are corona beans, the list goes on.

Shout out to the Rancho Gordo Bean Club.

Exactly. But that’s what’s so critical about breaking out of this synthetic, tech-enabled future that we’re having pushed on us. If we can just get funkier, more unruly, messier, and more chaotic, I think we’ll come through the portal in a more vibrant, and hopefully livable, place.

All included images were provided by LinYee. The designed spreads are from MOLD, and the photographs are from events hosted by Field Meridians. The portrait of LinYee at the top is by Vincent Tullo.

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