INTERVIEW: Nastasha Alli, 2018 Food Sustainability Media Award Winner

by Zeina Najjar
Monday, 17 December 2018 17:52 GMT

Seeing eye to eye with a water buffalo on challenges faced by Filipino farmers, on a trip to Zambales in Luzon province. For the Yangil tribe, who live in the valleys of Zambales, restoring soil fertility after the 1991 eruption of nearby Mt. Pinatubo is still an ongoing challenge, exacerbated by extended dry seasons. Credit: Nastasha Alli, 2017 (Luzon, Philippines)

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Where did the idea for the story come from? What did you see or hear about that sparked your interest?

I’ve been making regular trips to the Philippines to record interviews for my podcast. On one of my visits, I got really interested in finding out how people in my home country sourced dried fish. I was introduced to someone my age working in the fishing industry, and found it fascinating that they could choose to work in the city, but instead dedicated themselves to helping these local fishing communities. Using the starting point of food opened me up to all these other issues I explored in the piece, like overfishing. It opened my eyes to the reality of how fast the decline in the fishing industry is felt in local communities in the Philippines.

Your story has such an engaging start, about what breakfast in the Philippines looks like and how it might have to change because of pressure on fish and fishing. How important do you think it is to make these food issues personal for people, so they see themselves as part of the problem or the solution?

It's really important to make it personal because that’s what prompts people to take action and see the urgency of their situation. Food is such a great way to make it immediate for people. Living in a city like Toronto, you’re able to meet people from all over the world. You’re able to learn about backgrounds and cuisines and taste some of the food. Establishing that personal connection gives people a greater personal connection to care about something that does seem very far away. It’s hard to imagine yourself as part of the solution, but if you can bring it down to an everyday level for people regardless of where you’re from, it’s a great opportunity to make it more real for people.

Is food sustainability an ongoing interest for you? If so, how did you become interested?

To be honest, it started about three years ago after I started creating my podcast. It’s specifically about food culture in the Philippines – I started it because I love listening to food podcasts but there were none about my country. When I started doing deep dives about ingredients like cocoa or coffee, I started learning about the challenges these producers or farmers faced. It was sometimes a simple thing that they’ve mentioned, like saying it hadn’t rained in two months. That’s when my journalism sense really kicks in – when they share small snippets that trigger bigger questions.

How well do you think food sustainability issues are covered in the media today? What role do you think journalists can play in addressing the challenges within our food systems?

There is still a difference between how food sustainability issues are covered in the West and in the developing world, especially the Philippines. There is growing coverage there, and I’ve written for a niche online news site. But the role of journalists is to act as communicators and translate how urgent some of these issues are, especially around the effect of climate change on local farming communities.

To give one example, on the island of Siargao – a major surfing capital – a lot of people are going to the island for international competitions. But the amount of food needed far exceeds the supply local farmers can provide, so they’re having to import a lot of rice, etc. A lot of people are visiting the Philippines for its surf and beaches, but what do you eat when there and how do you give people the opportunity to support and be aware of locally grown foods?

 What are the main obstacles you or others face in reporting on these issues?

For myself especially, I think it’s a resource issue. For others, it’s about space to have your stories heard. I’ve been diving deep into these issues and stories over the last three years, and I’m doing all of it as an independent freelancer on my own budget. Day to day, time and financial resources are a challenge.

For others, I’ve been seeing a lot of people on Facebook and Instagram posting stories of places they visited - short interviews and videos. It’s interesting because I see the need for a lot more in-depth coverage of food sustainability. The space to develop and unravel the complexities of those stories could be an issue of connecting journalists with people on the ground who have local access and experience issues first hand. It’s pulling in those threads and shaping those avenues.

Can you tell us a little bit about your experience since winning the Award?

Absolutely. I got back from the award ceremony in Milan a few days ago, and the experience there was way beyond what I thought it would be. The most exciting part for me was attending the conference and hearing the speakers. Meeting people from the BCFN Foundation was also really cool. Seeing physically that large organisations are invested in highlighting these stories a lot more is great. The key for me was meeting the finalists of the BCFN Yes competition for young researchers and scientists. That was the tipping point for me – hearing about how much work they’ve put into all issues they’re working on, like making communities more food secure, allowing people to access more healthy food.

The overall theme from the conference was that if you can if you can make it personal for the audience, it’s relatively easy to have the other blocks of the story fall into place. The key is to find the personal angle to it. How do you make it so that the person who's reading it immediately feels the need to react?

What’s next for you and your food sustainability coverage? Do you have any plans to cover any other related issues?

I still plan to travel back to the Philippines every year and to keep my podcast going. It’s really great to do these deep dives around farming, agriculture, the preservation of regional cuisines. The industrialisation of food systems is pushing regional specialties aside.

I’m also really looking forward to attending the Thomson Reuters Foundation training session and exploring audio and newer media further. Sound is really something you can use to draw people in and make it personal.

Read Nastasha's winning entry here and visit the Food Sustainability Media Award website.

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