Are Our Ideas About Sustainable Food Out of Date?

Are Our Ideas About Sustainable Food Out of Date?
Scott Lachut, PSFK Labs
  • 11 march 2009

The ways our food is produced, packaged and shipped stand at the center of an ongoing debate about the health of our planet and ourselves, but the key to creating a sustainable system may rely on our collective ability to accept a realistic solution as a opposed to a perfect one. And this involves a concerted effort on the part of not only producers and consumers, but policy makers as well.

If we examine the farming methods in our country, we find a polarizing set of standards – industrial monoculture machines that favor high yields and high profits and smaller outfits that focus on growing numerous crops using a methodology that is less invasive and more closely mimics nature. Within this landscape the prevailing attitude seems to be “all or nothing” and there’s very little room for alternative approaches in between. In his Mother Jones piece, “Spoiled: Organic and Local Is So 2008,” Paul Roberts wonders whether this narrow viewpoint has now seeped into all of our discussions about food, prompting him to ask, how do we fix the current system without the fits and starts along the way? The short answer is, we probably don’t.

Working off of a popular definition for sustainable food put forth by the W.K Kellogg Foundation – ecologically benign, nutritious, produced without injustice and affordable – Roberts discovers only about 2% of the food purchased in the U.S. qualifies under these rigorous guidelines.  As bleak as this statistic might be, he merely mentions them as a point of reference, showing us the distance we have left to travel unless of course, we change the direction of where exactly it is we want to go.

And while the above definition may have our best intentions in mind, it fails to consider the most important point – how do we stay sustainable while feeding the growing population? Former director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Fred Kirschenmann, notes that real sustainability hinges on questions of “whether the food system can sustain itself – that is keep going, indefinitely, in a world of finite resources.” With some estimates placing the world’s population at 9 billion – 70% in or around cities – by 2050, we have to take a hard look at scaling up to meet that need.

Of course, there’s no reason we can’t fold these two perspectives together into one uber-definition, but before we do that, perhaps we need to rethink our priorities. Our conversations can no longer be solely framed around buzzwords like local – our fascination with food miles – and organic – pesticides vs. manure – or a wholesale dismissal of big agriculture – which at the very least needs to be applauded for its efficiencies – but need to entertain a broader perspective as we seek practical, hybrid solutions to our food issues. To that end, Roberts leaves us with several thoughts to ponder:

  • Instead of completely ending the use of synthetic fertilizers, dramatically reduce the need.
  • Accept that shipping globally is necessary for ensuring every nation’s food security, but rethink what we’re transporting and where.
  • Leverage the best practices of farms on multiple scales. Using large operations to produce commodities like grain and smaller outfits to grow locally.
  • Redirect money to support research and farmers willing to risk testing new models – poly-face farms etc.
  • Drive demand by requiring federal agencies and food programs to source from local and organic producers. 

Mother Jones: Spoiled: Organic and Local Is So 2008

[image via “Hungry Planet” appearing in Time]

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