Archive for January, 2010

A sure sign of a food system that needs help

This weekend, as I was reading up on gardening in Indiana while my boyfriend watched a football game, I caught a commercial on television for Pepsi Throwback edition, advertising that the product was “made with real sugar.” The first thing that came to mind at this commercial was not shock at the fact that regular Pepsi isn’t already made with real sugar; I am well aware of all the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that goes into our soft drinks. Instead, I was floored by the fact that the company was marketing something made with real sugar as a novelty item.

When foods made with real sugar, a natural product, are advertised as innovative, is this not a sure sign of a food system in trouble? A backwards system where foods made with the chemical, the man-made are normal, and those foods made with “the real thing” are out of the ordinary? Has our world really come to a place where foods that are “natural” or “real” are mere novelties? If so, we have all but finally reached the world of Sci Fi, where food has been reduced to a tiny, man-made, chemical-based pill, and real foods, like vegetables, roast beef, seafood, or, gasp, sugar are considered quaint and outdated.

When did we start eating a diet composed largely of man-made, highly processed and refined “food products” instead of real, live food? I cannot help but read the Pepsi commercial as Exhibit A in the case for food system reform.

Maybe the commercial struck such a cord with me because I had just finished reading Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry‘s Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, which eloquently makes the case for a return to real, sustainable foods: to fresh, organic, locally-sourced produce, meats, and dairy products. Lappe and Terry outline the problems with our current food production system, and, although their complaints are not new – in fact, the organic, sustainable, local, hippie (whatever) community has been making the case for food reform for at least two decades – their book is a succinct and accurate assessment of the problems with modern industrial agriculture and of potential actions we can all make to take back control of our food.

In circles of environmentalists and sustainabilists (of which I count myself a member), it has nearly become common knowledge that modern means of food production – industrial-scale vegetable and grain farming using a plethora of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and other fossil-fuel based inputs, factory farming of animals for mass consumption of (too much) meat, high processing and use of additives and preservatives in conventional “food products,” and the transport of all of these food items thousands of miles to their destination on our supermarket shelves – are unhealthy for both humans and the environment. Writers such as Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, Jonathan Safran Foer, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, and others have popularized the problems with the way we produce and consume food in this country. Even the new Obama White House has begun an attempt to spread a message about the importance of eating locally and sustainably through the creation of a new organic garden on the Lawn.

So, if the ailments of our food system have become such a widespread topic of conversation, why is nothing substantive being done to change things? Part of the problem is clearly the downturn of the economy and insurance and real estate market busts that have distracted our national attention from the real problems with our government and economy, such as the issues facing a society reliant on cheap fossil fuels, and lack of access to affordable health care, meaningful education, and healthy, sustainable food. Grub authors Lappe and Bryant argue that in order to spur change in our food system at the national level, we need to start “voting with our pocketbook,” or so the phrase goes. We can start changing what our food system looks like (and what our waistlines look like, too) by buying only sustainable food options – less fast food and processed junk food, and more organic produce and whole grains. Though most people immediately assume organic food is more expensive than conventionally farmed and produced options, Lappe and Bryant show that if you buy whole organic, local, sustainable ingredients and cook more from scratch instead of buying processed, quick-fix foods, a sustainable diet can actually save you money. You can also grow your own food, no matter where you live, from just a few seeds and soil, for not only huge savings but also the assurance that you know where your food comes from and where it’s been.

This last point is the reason I was looking at gardening books this weekend. While my boyfriend, Paul, and I live in a city apartment, we have a small, west-facing balcony on which I plan to grow as many of our own vegetables as possible this summer. I am in the process of planning a substantial container garden to grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, salad greens, peas, beans and kale this spring, summer and fall. Living in south-central Indiana, our growing season consists of more than 175 days of frost-free weather, which I can extend even further by planting frost-tolerant kale in the early spring and late fall. Though I am a novice gardener and this first season may not produce as much as I would like, I am hoping to produce at least some produce for Paul and I to enjoy through the summer and fall, to help us live healthier and more sustainably.

There are many things we can do individually to change the way we think about food; growing your own is only one of many things to do. You can purchase food directly from farmers at your local farmers market, ask your grocery store to carry more local, sustainable, organic or fair-trade products, eat less (factory-farmed) meat, start tracking the “food miles” traveled of certain items in your diet and try to cut back on fossil-fuel intensive products, and more. If more people adopt a sustainable diet, the entire food system will begin to be more sustainable. Maybe then we’ll stop seeing commercials advertising products made with the real thing – “real sugar” – as a novelty, and eating “real food” will once again become the norm.

Sustainability as a learning endeavor

More often than not in life, we wait until something ends to look back and reflect. History is just that – a look backwards at what has happened, a chance to comment on the implications of an event or experience. A chance to see just really what have we learned from the past. People wait until they near the end of their lives to write an autobiography. We wait until the end of a war to write into history books the winners and losers. We wait until the end of our schooling to look back and see just what have we learned.

But why should we necessarily wait until the end to reflect? With education in particular, waiting until the end to look back only leaves us dissatisfied with our experience. We think, I wish I had taken advantages of more opportunities in college., or I wish I had known about that in the beginning. It appears we could learn a lot more if we simply took time out to reflect on things during the process. I think the best education can come from constant reflection and thought during an experience. Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, but nearsightedness is better than being blind. Looking while you are in the thick of it is better than not looking at all.

As this first semester of my graduate education concludes, I am taking the chance to reflect on my experiences thus far. As a dual-degree student in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, my chosen concentration is Sustainable Development, or Sustainability. “Sustainable development” has always been a favorite pet phrase of mine, since I first came across the term while writing a high school history paper on the current situation of the global environment in the context of American environmental history. “Providing for the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” is the World Commission on Environment and Development, or Brundtland Commission definition of “sustainable development” I read. While researching global climate change, resource depletion and environmental conflicts worldwide, the idea of sustainable development was a breath of fresh air amidst all the pollution. It seemed to be a solution with real potential to create a healthy, livable planet, an idea with the scope and interdisciplinary aspects needed to focus the ingenuity and creativity of the world on a sustainable future.

Sustainable development has proven thus far to be an interesting subject and context as a learning endeavor. For me, sustainability is a necessity for any future our planet and the human species is to have. This term, I have learned that ecological economists and sustainable developers might say that sustainability is about limits – limits to growth, limits to resource availability, limits to planetary capacity, limits to consumption. But I say, it is also about embracing the a profound challenge and tremendous opportunity that these limits bring. Sustainable development, I think, is about using our immense human capacity for creativity, ingenuity and entrepreneurship to create a sustainable future in which all people can live. This is bigger than the “weak sustainabilist”* idea that all inputs to current economic systems of production can be substituted for with enough innovation and creativity. This is about thinking of a new way to live, about rethinking our individual, consumerist, unsustainable lifestyles, about rethinking the entire socio-economic system in which we operate. It can be done. People are starting to think. Activists, writers, thinkers like Will Allen, Paul Hawken, Anna and Frances Moore Lappe, Annie Leonard, Bob Doppelt, Hunter Lovins, Bill McKibben, even New York Times columnists Nick Kristof and Tom Friedman are thinking this way. Organizations and thinktanks, more than I can list, are thinking and doing this way. It is possible.

But sustainability is also personal. Not only have I begun to attempt to live my own life sustainably in my first semester on my own, but I have also come to realize that sustainability has a more personal meaning for me. If, in my life, I could contribute to creating a sustainable world in which there is abundance for all, I would have lived a life worthwhile. If I could live to see a world where people live in safe, sustainable, healthy and happy communities, where people have lots of meaningful, sustaining relationships, where people eat good tasting and nourishing food grown without harm to the environment, where people engage in worthwhile work that doesn’t degrade the environment or come at the expense of another person, where people live in harmony with nature – if I could live to see that kind of world, I would have lived a good life.

Sustainability for me is not just about overcoming the myopia of consumer culture, or about living on a farm and raising chickens, or about shopping only at thrift stores, or about buying organic vegetables from the coop. Sustainability is more than just living my own life sustainably. It’s about contributing to a sustainable whole. And teaching others about the merits of sustainability.

This is where my final point comes in: the educational opportunities presented by sustainability. Sustainable development and sustainable living provide immense opportunity for educators and people globally to teach creative thinking, community-mindedness, ecological connections – a potent antidote to the business-as-usual philosophy promoted by the corporate world and most conventional educational institutions. If we are to create a happy, livable world for all, we need to start thinking differently, and we need to do it now. Using the concepts of sustainable development and sustainable living as a teaching and learning module in classrooms, living rooms, and coffee shops, at workshops, faith gatherings, and fire circles, on front porches and street corners worldwide will help us begin to care for one another and for the earth. We need to think both globally and locally, to value relationships and social contact more than flat screen televisions and mansion-size homes, to learn to take time to enjoy nature and its awesome beauty and wealth. If we can begin to learn and teach these things, then perhaps we may all live to see a sustainable world.

*A note on “weak” versus “strong” sustainability: These terms are used by people in ecological economics and sustainable development to depict two different views on sustainability. “Weak sustainabilists” hold that the concept of sustainability can be worked into our current socio-politico-economic system via substituting newly discovered resources, capital, technology, and human innovation and labor for limited resources currently used in the capitalistic, production-based system. “Strong sustainabilists,” on the other hand, hold that true sustainability does not come from infinite capacity to substitute, and that there are some resources that are inherently limited on this planet and for which there are no substitutes (e.g. clean air or fresh water). “Strong sustainabilists” believe in a deeper, more inclusive and conclusive concept of sustainability that diverges significantly from the current economic paradigm described above.