Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Faces of Ethnobiology: Karly Burch

Photo taken by Yuki Wada

My name is Karly Burch. I grew up on the beautiful island of Maui, Hawaii, on the foot of the majestic Haleakala volcano, and am currently living in Japan where I have been conducting my research. In 2012, I received a MSc in Agroecology from The Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB) and The Engineering School of Agriculture, Alimentation, Rural Development and Environment (ISARA-Lyon). As a MSc in Agroecology student, I became very interetsed in the intersection between our food systems/food cultures and technology, an interest that intensified with the onset of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (FD1-NPP) disasters in Japan—a country where I had spent two years living before commencing my studies. Following this passion, I designed my MSc thesis as an exploration of Japanese residents’ perceptions and behaviors related to the possible contamination of food with radionuclides following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disasters. Three terms describing my research are: food systems, contamination and culture. 
Anti-nuclear protest in Osaka, Japan in February, 2012 (Photo taken by Yuki Wada)
Anti-nuclear protest in Osaka, Japan in February, 2012
The sign reads "I want to eat food that makes me feel at ease."
(Photo taken by Yuki Wada)

Growing up in Hawaii among many Japanese friends, spending my undergraduate years near the coast of California, and having lived in Japan, fresh fish caught from the Pacific, delicious sushi rolls, and seaweeds of all sorts have always been normal staples in my diet. However, following the FD1-NPP disasters, the safety of foods grown in north-eastern Japan and those caught/harvested from the Pacific Ocean had begun being questioned, and I was drawn to learn more about it. As my MSc research has made me very aware about the long-term, complex, taboo, global and interdisciplinary nature of the post-Fukushima food safety issue, I have decided to further investigate the topic by commencing my PhD studies at the University of Otago's Centre for Sustainability, Agriculture, Food, Energy and Environment (CSAFE) in 2015.

While I am an agroecologist by training, I am very drawn to the fields of ethnobiology and biocultural diversity as I feel that any threat to our food and food systems is in fact a threat to cultural and biological diversity. Taking this into account, my research project proposes using food and food systems as a lense for exploring the threats nuclear technology pose to the society and culture in Japan and throughout the globe, including those in the Pacific Rim such as Hawaii. I also plan to focus on demystifying the complex and multi-scale conflicts between food safety activists and their various government counterparts to better understand how the issue is currently being governed and mediated. One of the project's main aims is to discuss how the threats nuclear power pose to society and culture are often ignored, downplayed or oversimplified into a discussion of ‘benefits versus risk’ in the regulation of technologies. As a result, I hope to open up a space to discover or imagine opportunities for better including these concerns into the governance of nuclear technology and subsequent releases of radionuclides into food systems—the systems humans rely on for health and the basis of many cultural norms.

As the topic of post Fukushima food safety has become very taboo in Japan, I hope my research can help to shed light on the issue, opening up a new discussion on ways to better incorporate social and cultural concerns into the governance of nuclear technology in order to protect the integrity of food systems and address underlying threats it poses to bio-cultural diversity

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