Archive for the ‘the Fight’ Category

U.S. Food System: a recap post of almost everything I learned this year & announcement of new blog

This is the last installment of The Local Foodie Fight blog as we’ve known it. (Hah.) Sorry I up-n-disappeared for a while. It’s been harder than I thought post-grad and interning 40 hours a week and I had meant to post a “recap/this is what I learned/final summation” from this past semester but it took a while and so here it finally is. Nothing too revelatory or groundbreaking. If you have followed the blog at all over the past 4 months, nothing here should be new but I think it’s a helpful post to kind of tie everything together–well as much as that can possibly be done. After this post, this blog will become strictly a place for recipes and restaurant reviews.

Problems

The majority of the food production problems the United States and most of the world is experiencing with regard to sustainability is the result of the Green Revolution, which happened from around 1943 to 1970. This “Green Revolution” isn’t what you would initially think. It actually refers to a series of research, development, and technological initiatives that increased industrial agriculture in volume, largely replacing many small family-owned operations. The initiatives were essentially intended to do one thing: increase the amount of food calories that were produced in order to feed an increasingly larger population.

The initiatives that were pursued during this government-motivated movement involved the development of high-yielding grains and commodity foodstuffs (like heavily subsidized corn and soy), expansion of irrigation infrastructure (which led to issues of soil nutrient depletion, groundwater depletion and erosion), and use of genetically modified seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides (which would later prove detrimental to human health and specific ecosystems). Furthermore, this reliance on corn and soy translated into a dependence on more heavily processed food that utilizes ingredients like soybean oil and high-fructose corn syrup. I highly encourage you to conduct an experiment over the next day: look at the ingredient label of everything you eat. Unless you are allergic to soy (my roommate is, it’s a tough lifestyle), or you follow a macrobiotic or raw diet, I would bet at least 25-50% of the food you eat has at least one of these ingredients.

This cheap, fast, processed food has gone on to contribute to obesity, heart disease, cholesterol problems, and other health problems and also poses increased risks related to food borne-illness due to the high quantity of food being turned out and the cross-contamination that results, coupled with insufficient federal standards. This has also resulted in an agricultural economy that has power concentrated in just a few hands and pockets, namely giant corporations like Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield and Monsanto, which weakens local economies and cultures across the globe and contributes to global warming through the carbon output of the transportation used to move this food such far distances. Furthermore, this has led to a growth in organic labeling but also has contributed to misleading marketing that has further confused consumers and created a divide between people and wholesome, nutritious food. This divide is a cultural side effect of our current food system that will take much work to fill.

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Additional challenges

There are several challenges this movement is currently facing.

It can’t be just ‘trickle down’ or ‘bottom-up.’ Too many authors and scientists are preaching about green development while sipping from McDonald’s cups and Dasani bottles. And too many urban gardeners don’t understand how government involvement affects what people are able to do in their personal lives and how to make behaviors more practical for people on tight budgets. Leaders of the movement need to be more united, informed, and responsible for their personal actions and the message those actions send to the public. Throughout my research and while speaking to experts, there has seemingly emerged two somewhat distinct “camps” of thinkers in the field of sustainable food system development: people who believe progress will come from the “top” (government regulations, subsidy revisions, legislation, corporate restructuring, breaking up monopolies, changing company practices) and those who believe progress is going to be motivated from the “bottom” (individuals, families and communities making changes in their personal lives). It is with optimism that I believe both sets of changes are happening and both will continue to happen until both collective needs and personal needs are met in a way that is equitable, as well as ecologically and economically beneficial. Not only will the possibilities made through political action trickle down to consumers, but consumer action and demand will rise up to influence those who possesses the political power and what decisions they are driven to make.

The Farm Bill requires intense overhauling. This is an issue many organizations are lobbying hard to change. The USDA needs to begin incentivizing biodiversity instead of monoculture commodity crops, to encourage farmers to grow more fruits and vegetables, and help end our obsession with high-fructose corn syrup and processed foods created using corn and soy surpluses. We should also move away from free trade agricultural policies, which encourage agribusinesses to buy crops from countries with poor environmental standards and labor conditions, and move more toward food sovereignty and local, domestic farmer support. These sorts of efforts would also pave the way for cafeterias at schools and other institutions to fund and provide infrastructure that would allow them to purchase food from regional food producers more often. Improving the food of young eaters would start a generation on the proper track toward health and wellness, instead of death and obesity as they currently are. Lobbying on Farm Bill work will largely fall on organizations, but those organizations need support from investors and foundations and feedback from individuals in order to their job, so ultimately we all have a role to play.

Environmentalists aren’t on the same page with each other, let alone with economists and financial experts. In just a few short months of following the different approaches to food production, I’ve heard too many varying opinions and stances on how to deal with our food system woes. For example, William McDonough asserts that our food security issues need not be battled with population control; Lester Brown sees population stabilization as the most important factor in regaining stability of our food system. Food sustainability advocates need to be on the same page in order to maintain credibility and convince skeptics. They also need to think like economists just as often as they think about making progress toward a greener world. My former professor, Terry Sankar, has invented a vertical wind axis turbine which is currently priced at about $30,000/each. His goal is to get that number down to about $10,000, because if you can make turbines cheaper, you get more people buying, you get more people on board with clean energy. You have to use economics in a way that benefits all involved, instead of in a way that produces one-sided profits. This is how we need to think. Create, invest and innovate in order to increase the feasibility of products, services, and projects that are better for the planet and humanity.

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Seeds of change and planting more

Throughout the past decade, a movement has started to slowly take shape. For example, while food industry monopolies have taken hold, in some areas, small farmers like Michael Heller, owner of Clagett Farm in Virginia, have worked toward converting previous corn fields into fruit, vegetable and livestock farms. Organizers have begun to educate community members on methods of urban agriculture, and we have a lot of development in this area. Innovations include: green rooftop farms, neighborhood gardens, hydroponic window farms for tiny apartments and compost bins within homes to produce richer, more nutritious soil while cutting down on the trash sent to landfills. These are small movements in the grand scheme of things, but they are seeds of change.

However, these efforts, while important, are isolated. They need to be more sophisticated and organized in order to draw these initiatives together and be impact. Some tactics I propose include:

  • Better education and more recruiting for students to agricultural, urban agriculture, and sustainable farming educations, as well as training on how to manage these businesses effectively. (More universities are beginning to offer urban sustainability and food science degrees, and I see this trend picking up more in the future.)
  • Increased education within elementary and middle school about nutrition and our food system (The Farm to School program being a great example of how to connect children with producing food while also teaching about nutrition.)
  • Better public relations and strategic communications campaigns that convey the benefits (health, social, longer term economic gains) of organic food, urban agriculture, and supporting local farmers–incentives drive change

There is not any one solution or method that will bring us to a sustainable system of producing our food. After all, sustainable food production is not a goal, just as sustainability is not a goal–it’s a process, which fortunately is gaining acceptance. Improving our food system is no longer an option or a would-be-nice.

We often lose sight of our common interests as humans. There are countless special interest groups, government agencies, struggling families, corporations–the list goes on–and so many conflicting opinions and politics. Most of the time I feel like I’m on the “environmentalist side”, but as the last few months have passed, I’ve come to see it shouldn’t be about sides and winning arguments, it should be about finding our similarities. Or our…

Common ground.

This is going to wrap up my study, but I will be taking my intellectual thoughts, etc over to a new home. I hope you keep checking back here for the occasional (weekly, I think) local recipe/restaurant review and I also hope you consider expanding your green horizons through my new blog over at Talking on Common Ground.

I’d also like to just say thanks to everyone, especially all the food/fitness bloggers, who have followed me and become my Twitter friends and left comments and feedback and told me they enjoy this blog because in all seriousness I never thought anyone would read it.

OK, now hop on over to the new site and I’ll catch you on the flip side.

What many environmentalists haven’t learned: economics says personal action drives change

Lester Brown, if you ever read this, it is not meant to be a personal attack. I find you to be an exceptionally influential person in the field I care so deeply about. However, I felt compelled to use what I noticed about your visit to AU to talk about an issue that I have wanted to express for a while, and that is the importance of personal responsibility and individual action and how those coincide with one’s future aspirations.

I wrote this blog entry a couple weeks ago

…but never posted it because I wanted to cool down and look back on what I wrote a little later to see if I was just fired up or if I was maybe on to something.

And I think I was on to something.

The purpose of the following entry is not to bash the Baby Boomer generation, although it does hint at that in places. It is not to say, “Hey! You got us into this mess! You help us figure it out!” Far from this, it is meant to serve as a way to empower members of my generation, it is meant to help us understand that we each, in our own lives, hold more power than any corporation and any politician does. We have a wallet, we have knowledge, we have the freedom to use both as we wish. But most important of all, and forgive me for sounding trite, but we have each other.

As Barbara Kingsolver said in her commencement address to Duke in 2008, during what I consider the greatest piece of advice that someone could give our generation:

“You can be as earnest and ridiculous as you need to be, if you don’t attempt it in isolation. The ridiculously earnest are known to travel in groups. And they are known to change the world.”

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And so this a variation of what I had written that night, when I came home downtrodden and–I’ll admit, almost near tears (OK, maybe I was just having a rough week…):

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Lester Brown and the Dasani bottle and why I got so mad

Last night, I heard Lester Brown speak on campus. For those of you who don’t know who he is (I didn’t until the event) he’s the author of over 50 books on global environmental issues, he’s the founder of the Worldwatch Institute, the Earth Policy Institute, and basically the inventor of the term “sustainable development,” (evidently, a legacy he wishes to renounce, saying that we have a “language problem” in this movement and instead should use the phrase, “saving civilization.”)

And guess what? He’s 86 years old, which is pretty impressive.

But here’s a couple other things about his talk:

  1. He drank from a McDonald’s cup during the first half of the presentation.
  2. He drank from a Dasani bottle the second half.
  3. He quietly slipped away to take a cab home (he lives in D.C.) after answering three questions out of swarms of students who were dying just to shake his hand.
  4. He appeared to have done so partly because his books, which were meant to be at the reception after for people to buy, never arrived. (Which appeared to have been some sort of dealbreaker?)

(First, let me just say he isn’t the first environmental activist who I have seen speak who does all of these things, so I’m not singling him out. I am merely using him to make a point. And yes, I am sure he was just given the Dasani by someone at KPU or whoever. But if you were speaking on such a topic, wouldn’t you have said, “Sorry, I have my own bottle–mind refilling it at that water fountain?”)

These four seemingly innocuous actions stood out to me more than anything he said throughout the hour he spoke.

We, (and by we I mean the younger generations, say, everyone under forty or so)—we, the ones born into the “Age of Irony,” are the ones that quite literally must change things. We must pick up the pieces of the broken systems our grandparents left us with. Our lives, and most certainly our children’s lives, depend on it, according to statistics. A couple such statistics:

“By 2025, there will be no glaciers left in Glacier National Park.”

“Our population may only stabilize before 10 billion people because at that point the mortality rate will begin rising steadily due rising levels of hunger.”

I could rattle off others, but you’ve heard them all before.

Brown raised a point in his talk about how economists need to learn ecology. He said, “The World Bank uses all kinds of economic models to predict and explain trends. Why haven’t they looked at our growing population and asked, ‘How will we feed these people?'”

I don’t disagree, but there are also way too many ecologists out there who don’t understand basic economics. And I mean, basic. They might understand advanced economic theories. But they don’t seem to understand the concept that communities bound by solid belief systems, even just one, can change things. Living by a principle, when that principle is shared by a group, can change things. We’re currently seeing an example of this in one New Jersey community who is setting a precedent with a group of businesses who are pledging to stop selling and using products that have the endocrine-disrupting chemical triclosan in them (OK, maybe I used this for-instance because I wrote the press release and pitched the press conference that announced this to the media…) But, this is just one for-instance. There are countless others.

We can use a basic law of economics to create social change and influence more environmentally beneficial behaviors. It’s quite simple:

  1. people refuse to buy products that harm the environment
  2. they tell their friends
  3. issue campaigns promote education even further
  4. companies must create products that don’t harm the environment
  5. those that fail to evolve based on consumer demand can’t keep up in the marketplace.

The environmentally-conscious companies thrive, the environment thrives, humans thrive. It’s basic economics and it’s basic environmental morality.

If you participate in the easily avoidable actions that are driving our problems (ahem, drinking bottled water), you are subscribing to the idea that your actions don’t mean as much as some other person’s. In reality, it is the sum of our individual actions that drive change.

It’s easy for people like Lester Brown to stand before an audience of twenty-somethings and say to them, “Look at these problems which were set on course over a hundred years ago! They must be fixed! Here is this puzzle, please solve it and while you do, I am going to tell you about all the statistics of this dire situation.”

And yet, with a Coca-Cola bottle in hand. Talk about taking Ghandi’s everlasting, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and just tossing it right in the garbage.

How can the leaders of this movement expect to inspire us to change if they are still doing the same old messy things? And perhaps more importantly, how can we expect the people who scream, “You’re a crazy fascist for threatening to take away my bottled water” to take this movement seriously when its leaders are drinking bottled water as they speak before us, preaching principles of conservation?

Final point: This wasn’t all just about a Dasani bottle. If you thought that it was, I apologize for not having been able to make my point clearer through this extended metaphor of sorts.

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My take-away message

I submitted a speech to AU’s School of Communication for our commencement ceremony a couple months back. I wasn’t chosen but they seemed to like mine and a couple others enough to have our messages up as runners-up (take a look if you love that mushy stuff…self-promo #2…reaching my limit, aren’t I?).

But, here is what my advice would’ve been more like if my speech didn’t need to be SOC-oriented:

“Don’t think about thirty years from now in terms of where you will be career-wise. Don’t think about which organization you will be working at, trying to fix our broken world. Instead, think of the organizations that will have wrapped up their work because there is no longer a need for them. Dream up a world where there is no Worldwatch Institute, because our commonly held beliefs finally came to unite us, so we were compelled to take up different efforts on our own, to watch out for the world and each other in our own lives, no longer requiring an institute to facilitate. Imagine a world where we don’t need organizations to rattle off statistics. Imagine there were no statistics to report.

Even better, imagine living out these statistics…

  • living modestly, in a neighborhood where you grow most of your food within a few miles
  • being part of a community that is self-sustaining because that is what makes people happiest and because that is what makes the most sense
  • having a child who learns about what your generation endured and how it was able to turn things around
  • writing a book, and then having it available online (or whatever the current technology called for! On the current “iPads”?)
  • being part of a generation, a community, that was constantly learning to evolve.

And imagine how much better life would be.”

I know we’re not there yet, remotely, but these “far-fetched” dreams are important. They keep us positive and positivity restores our faith that what we do, here and now, actually matters. It all matters.

How positively overwhelming that is. How positively empowering, too, right?

Communicating the benefits of urban agriculture while innovation grows

The area of urban agriculture has grown by leaps and bounds in just a few years. I think the more people start to realize the feasibility, and soon necessity, of producing their own food, the more it will develop and become even more feasible, affordable, and mainstream. So what are some of the innovations we have seen?

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Innovations in urban agriculture

  • Hydroponics is a method of growing fruits and vegetables in water, which conserves the use of vast areas of farmland and allows crops to be grown in desert areas where they otherwise would not be able to. Further, it is able to also conserve and re-use water that is lost during evaporation or field run-off in traditional soil farming. Also, there is no risk for parasites or weeds to infest the controlled systems in which hydroponic plants are grown, therefore making them largely non-GMO and free of pesticides and chemicals. Bonus: you can grow hydroponically basically anywhere–in an apartment or a house. Eve Bratman has a hydroponic garden on her houseboat that she made entirely on her own from used water bottles and empty jugs.
  • Permaculture is still a bit of a flimsy term, in my opinion, only because it can mean so many different things, and isn’t widely known about. But it basically indicates an “ecologically designed system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor.” Permaculture is currently being used in different ways in different places and in all of those places, there is not a unified “permaculture” there are just isolated tactics that build on the idea of a permaculture. For example, think of worm composting, or vermiculture, which is one such tactic which is being carried out in various cities in the country, some even offering workshops and providing free worms and materials to those interested. This provides a sort of mutual symbiosis between two living things–the worms benefits by being fed, humans benefit by receiving rich soil and not filling landfills with compostable garbage. Perhaps a ” perfect permaculture” is the pie-in-the-sky goal we set to achieve, but it is through these mutually symbiotic relationships that we are able to do get closer to that.

    Photo credit: cafedirect

  • Rooftop farming, which can often be combined with hydroponic growing, is typcially used in areas of urban sprawl where soil/ground space is limited, to utilize unused rooftop spaces where sunlight is ample. Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn is one case study that has really taken this concept to a whole new level. They also offer various workshops on cooking, gardening and how the farm works. Their farm grows primarily vegetables, and is open from June through November.
  • Sack gardening is a way for people to grow vegetables in small sack containers, usually when the contamination of the soil around them is too high. It is typically done on a smaller, individual scale, in places where food scarcity is a problem, and in both urban and rural locations.
  • Window farming is another way of using hydroponics, but in a specialized manner and primarily in urban settings. It is a way of using water bottles, water, hydroponic seeds (usually herbs and lettuce and greens like that), along with an low energy-intensive air pump which circulates the water, to grow plants in your window. This type of method is barely “farming,” however, if people were properly instructed on how to best go about making their own, it could be worth looking into. Also, if you live in a city and the view of your outdoors is the brick wall of the building next to yours, this could actually prove to be an improvement to your home, from an aesthetic viewpoint. (Not to mention that having plants in your home has been known to have all sorts of health benefits.)
  • Seasonal cooking would basically just mean knowing what is in season and planning your meals around those items. The fortunate reality is that a lot of us have access to local, fresh fruits and vegetables. However, many people don’t know what to do with a lot of those fruits and vegetables. It would be great to see more community and cooking classes, mobilizing people to learn how to cook just to start, but also to learn how to use local ingredients. Because if the option is there, there’s no reason not to choose local over imported. Epicurious offers an example of a map that can help to inform people about about what to expect is in peak season from their CSA or farmer’s market and how to therefore meal plan to accommodate those ingredients.

So what’s stopping us?

Locations. Some work better in some communities versus others.

Seasons. Not all of these methods can provide food at all times of the year everywhere, (except for the hydroponic ones.)

Culture/Value systems. People are going to have to shift how they think about and value their food, each other, and future generations. These types of methods require more time, patience, research, and money than traditional ways of getting food–going to a restaurant or the grocery store. Which means people are going to have to change the way they think about food. People might have to forfeit some of the time they spend watching television in the evenings in order to tend to their gardens or make time to cook meals from scratch in their homes. They are going to have to learn to appreciate eating with the seasons, and in fact, eating generally less, in quantity.

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Communicating benefits to consumers

While all of these methods of urban gardening and having a local, low carbon-footprint certainly interest some of us, and they are something we would be willing to use, they aren’t all 100 percent practical. Would these methods be used in conjunction with traditional food shopping? Would they slowly replace traditional methods? Or would they just be something some people adopted while others did not?

It’s hard to really know the answer. What I foresee is something quite similar to how companies like, say, Apple, market their products to consumers: first, the innovators get on board. Eve Bratman, my professor with the compost bin and on-the-boat garden, is one such innovator in the field of urban agriculture. Next, there are the early adopters, then the early majority (also called the “pragmatists”),  then the late majority (“the conservatives”), and lastly the laggards. How you move along more quickly is by conveying the importance–the “gotta-have-it” factor–of the technologies.

This reality and challenge is something that excites me, as a student and soon-to-be graduate in the field of communications. I feel like a lot of what is missing in the environmental movement is strategic communication about how and why people should change their behaviors. I think there is a place for communicators to get that message out to the public and I see that as being a huge catalyst for change in the future of the “sustainable movement”.

The way I imagine these sorts of methods becoming more widely accepted is through slow implementation motivated by strategic communication, just like all new technology works. Pilot programs embraced and tested out by the innovators and early adopters will not only provide evidence for the feasibility of certain tactics, but will allow for what doesn’t work to shine through and motivate alterations that can be modeled after later on. This will also allow programs to evolve at a pace that doesn’t freak out the “treehugger-phobics” as I like to call them (the kind of people who, when you “threaten to take away their right to buy bottled water” get all bent out of shape and start spouting off allegations of “fascism”)!

It’s important to communicate knowing that there are going to be those opposing voices when it comes to getting people to change their lifestyles. Which is why I feel when it comes to revolutionizing our food system, especially with tactics that require people to change on a personal level, you have to prove to consumers the benefits, and that change doesn’t have to be just easy, it’s rewarding.

Thank Earth for the beautiful weather this weekend.

This weekend was fun. Friday night I went out with friends and celebrated my birthday. Got to see people who I haven’t been able to see all semester due to jam-packed schedules. It was a good time.

Then Sunday, quite the contrary to the forecasted weather, the sun came out! In fact, it never even drizzled until about 10pm when I was finally arriving home at the end of the night. Which was awesome. So the plans for Sunday went off without a hitch and I was able to make it to the Climate Rally on the mall, hosted by Earth Day Network, and the BBQ my professor threw at Gangplank Marina in southwest D.C.

I had one major complaint about the rally, other than the fact that they didn’t follow their schedule remotely. Which was that they had basically no vegetarian options at the event. Not that I planned to get food there, but it still irritated me. I tweeted about this, and had a lot of people agreeing it was pretty ridiculous. Be the change you want to see in the world, people. It was great to see bands like Passion Pit though. And Jimmy Cliff. Didn’t stay for The Roots but I bet they were great too.

Afterward, we went to the marina for the BBQ. It was really funny and indicative of the “type” of people in my class, but I would say more than half of us were vegetarians. There were plenty of veggie burgers and smart dogs to go around =)  Not to mention all the other delicious goodies that I didn’t really photograph because I’m still getting used to being  “that girl” that takes pictures of all the food (don’t mind doing this in front of friends and family but since I didn’t really know everyone that well…) I think Brad was particularly shocked by the vegetarianism because in Australia, “vego’s” aren’t nearly as common as they are here. They aren’t unheard of, but it’s still seen as a bit weird if you don’t eat meat. But BBQ’s, now those are as Aussie as it gets. So Brad manned the grill much of the time.

I also met Sarah, sister-in-law of Katie from Health for the Whole Self! I love the small world we live in.

The following pictures show the houseboat Eve lives on (the BBQ was on the marina’s “party boat”). She was recently interviewed by Politico about her “green lifestyle.” She’s kind of a big deal. But in all seriousness, she openly confesses that she does all of this stuff not just because she’s is an environmental goddess, as the article paints her as, but because they allow her to live frugally (houseboats are less expensive to live on than a waterfront house on land) and live “lazily” (why would she want to continuously have to refill the boat’s water tank when she could just take shorter showers?)

Worm composting! Yeah, we’re a bunch of eco-dorks. Whatevs.

Look how puffy/tired my eyes look. Totally exhausted from the eco-weekend. Oh also, Brad leaves to explore his next adventure in America/Canada tomorrow. Everyone wish him luck on his journey! I’m jealous. I want to travel…

Before I head off to work on my 8-pg paper on non-violence that I have yet to begin…I wanted to say something.

I guess the one thing that gets on my nerves slightly about Earth Day is the general rhetoric surrounding it. It’s not really about saving the Earth. The Earth isn’t going anywhere. However, certain species are dying and are being threatened, including the human species. The environmental movement should be encompass all people and be about changing our behaviors so that we pollute less, emit less CO2 and contribute less to global warming, sustain our soil nutrition, water, and bio-diversity, and all of the things that contribute to our survival, as humans. In a sense, it’s not really about saving the Earth, it’s about saving ourselves. Or rather, it’s about saving our children and grandchildren. I don’t know if that message would hit home harder for people or not though. And when it comes down it, maybe it’s just an argument over semantics. But I figured I would make that point here and now.

When it comes down to it, in my opinion (there are others who disagree), “saving the planet” is primarily a selfish endeavor. And isn’t that what nature is largely about after all? Survival of the fittest? What do you think? I’m not saying it’s bad to think of it in this sense, I am just saying it could maybe help us to frame the movement in a new way.

I have a few more entries coming up before the end of the semester, one of which is about the importance of our individual responsibilities/possibilities as a species evolving to live in a world where technology exists in harmony with nature, instead of pitted against it. I have written it already for another class, but it’s a bit long so I am going to parse it down so my message isn’t lost.

And, I’m off! Good luck with finals to those who are students and have a great week to everyone else, catch you on the flip side.

Where have all the farmers gone?

Or, I suppose the better question is, if someone does a study that shows the economic benefits of growing more diverse fruits and vegetables for more local consumers on smaller farms, will enough people attempt to test the theory out?

Job creation

Let’s first take a look at exactly what this study (“Selected  Measures of the Economic Values  of Increased Fruit and Vegetable Production and Consumption in the Upper Midwest”) found. First, more fruit and vegetable production in the six Midwestern states looked at could, theoretically, equal $882 million in sales at the farm level, with more than 9,300 jobs. Corn and soybean production on that same amount of land would support only 2,578 jobs. If half of the increased production was sold in farmer-owned stores, it would require 1,405 such stores staffed by 9,652 people. Only 270,025 acres—roughly equivalent to the average cropland in one of Iowa’s counties—would be needed to grow enough fruits and vegetables for the six-state region.

It’s first important to note that I realize this data was collected based on research in the Midwest, and the same numbers would not apply throughout the United States. However, if pursued even just in the Midwest, this sort of movement could drastically change the way agriculture is looked at in this country. This study shows that there is the potential to grow 28 different kinds of fruits and vegetables there that people in the region are currently getting from far distances, possibly even outside the Untied States. This is one thing that really irritates me, personally, with regard to buying locally: the idea that food items are being trucked or flown in from far away when they actually are being grown just miles away.

Creating desire by easing the process

But here is the one looming issue: Are there really enough people out there that want to be farmers? Can we really get 9,300 determined-to-be-farmer folks? It’s hard to say, because I don’t think there are enough people out there that know they can be farmers. There are plenty of college recruiters visiting high schools and talking to students about spending thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars, on their education. How many of them are talking about studying agriculture? I don’t even remember thinking about the idea of agriculture until well into college. And further, how many of those colleges actually offer degrees in agriculture? And how well do these degree programs actually train people to own and manage a farm in a practical sense but one that uses progressive, organic methods? This Web site indicates that there are at least twelve schools that offer this degree in the U.S.—compared to the oh, say, hundreds, perhaps thousands that offer finance or business degrees. But then what happens after?

This got me thinking about creating an agency that would facilitate efforts to create more small farms (say, 100 acres or less) that did not rely on government subsidies for commodity crops. I am familiar with the NFFC (National Family Farm Coalition), but I feel they are still very small and focus primarily on helping existing farmers instead of making communities more able to produce their own food by motivating more people to take interest and become educated on how to.

What would an agency focused on making farmers succeed do?

  • put interested individuals in touch with schools/universities that offer degrees in agriculture
  • put students and potential students in touch with scholarship programs specifically designed for agriculture students
  • help to find land to farm or existing corn/tobacco/soybean/cotton farms that can be transformed and diversified
  • teach them how to correctly negotiate the purchase of this land
  • offer classes/put in touch with education on proper farming techniques that would minimize or eliminate pesticide use, not rely on GMO’s and keep land fertile (crop rotation, etc.)
  • train on proper budgeting and financial training, how to take out loans properly and how to pay them back
  • helping to create a business plan

All of this would have to come for free or for a very low cost in order to encourage more farmer training. And these are just some of the ideas that first come to mind. There are likely other innovative and less expensive ways to go about encouraging more small farmers to go into business (programs at the universities that partner up business students/MBA’s with those that specialize in agriculture/biology who might want to start a farming business together).

Farmers as entrepreneurs

Because the truth is that farming is NOT easy, which is why it has been industrialized over the past 100 years. It requires both farming know-how, technological savvy, science and biology training/college education in agriculture, business planning, and huge start-up costs (though you can get a loan, much like any businessman or entrepreneur knows). Further, farming carries with it huge risks related to crop failures, inability to sell enough goods, weather-related issues, and other problems. This is why it is so tempting for farmers to grow commodity crops, in order to get by on subsidies from the government, (which also gets into why the government needs to diversify its subsidy program in order to encourage more biodiversity.)

Interestingly, I think the idea of making more people embrace the farming life as a legitimate job, in fact a business well-worth pursuing, comes down to a bit more education, that is, PR type messaging to the country as a whole, which could lead to cultural shifts. As Giovanni Federico asserts in Feeding the World, 75 percent of the population must take up the helm of farming if we expect to keep people fed but do so with more traditional farming methods (I don’t think the real figure would be quite this high, because I think traditional farming methods have been improved on many existing smaller farms, while still keeping them sustainable.)

But the reality that more people would need to farm (and more people will need to garden/find ways to produce their own food) in order to eliminate industrial farming is quite undeniable.

Next up, I plan to outline some of the innovative ways urban gardening and small farm operations are improving.

Bill McDonough’s “Cradle to Cradle” redesigns how we think about sustainability

Rewriting our design assignment

“And to use something as elegant as a tree?
Imagine this design assignment:
Design something that
makes oxygen,
sequesters carbon,
fixes nitrogen,
distills water,
makes complex sugars and foods,
changes colors with the seasons,
and self-replicates.
…and then why don’t we knock that down
and write on it?”
~ William McDonough

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Here is what Bill McDonough proposes is our ultimate design assignment.

Circles & triangles

Last night was a bit of a “full circle moment” for me, not only as a student learning about environmental issues and sustainability, but as a citizen of the world. I got to meet a hugely influential person in my life, Bill McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle (co-authored by Michael Braungart). I first read this book when I was 19 years old and staying on Nantucket with a family I nannied for. I went in a bookstore in town with the kids and they were giving away copies of it for free.

Hm. I thought. Well, that’s interesting. And I’m not one to turn down anything that is free. This book was also so smooth, pretty, different from other books (it’s made of polypropylene paper, is 100% recyclable, is more durable, has pages that don’t wrinkle/tear, and iswater-proof). I read it in three trips to the beach and ever since then, I’ve been interested in sustainability. I had never read anything like it before. It taught me the backstory of why we are where we are today (a rudimentary concept—the industrial revolution brought us here—but at the time, I knew next to nothing about this.) But it also made me think. It made me look around and see the way we do things and ask myself, “But wait, why don’t we do it this way, and then we don’t have to this problem or that problem AND we get this benefit and that benefit.”

Basic case in point: You can carry your groceries home in reusable bags, because they reduce unnecessary waste and buildup of plastic in our landfills and ecosystems. But you can also carry your groceries home in reusable bags, because carrying heavy objects over your shoulders makes your life easier and prevents loaded plastic bags from cutting off the circulation in your fingers as you carry them.

Just that story of how I came upon this book sort of mirrors exactly what Bill is all about: for me, a free book changed my life. Cradle-to-cradle design isn’t about making things more expensive or more difficult or less fun or less aesthetically pleasing or less loving. It’s not even about creating equitable and ecologically friendly ways of doing things in ways that fail to promote economic growth. He believes in the importance and power of the economy, equity, ecology as they can co-exist and work together. This is a relatively well-known concept in the field of development and the first thing we talked about in my Environment & Development class this year, but it’s not a balance often achieved in design.

Benefits of a cradle-to-cradle approach within food systems

ECONOMY

  • More local agricultural jobs, less power concentration in hands of CEO’s/more in hands of people => more jobs, more money in the hands of people
  • More vibrant local economies => less hunger, less sickness, less violence
  • More vibrant local economies => more vibrant cultural activity => thriving people

ECOLOGY

  • Less soil nutrient depletion and erosion
  • More places for species to live and thrive, instead of less
  • Less waste, less use of packaging, less transportation/fuel needed, less carbon dioxide emitted => more up-cycling => best use of natural resources => healtheir ecosystems => survival of all species

EQUITY

  • Better food security and food access due to independence from industrial food systems elsewhere & less disparity between the have’s of fresh, local food and the have-not’s with processed, unhealthy foods
  • Better tasting, healthier, less processed, more nutrient rich, less pesticide/harsh chemical-laden food
  • Healthier people => happier people


Drawbacks to a cradle-to-cradle approach within food systems

Yeah. Cost-benefit analyze that one. Which is sort of the whole idea. If there is a drawback, it’s not really cradle-to-cradle design.

“The God is in the details”

The really fabulous thing for me and other American University students, is that Bill is the architect that designed our new School of International Service building. And he did so in a way that combined these three benefits, saying that, “the God is in the details.” Meaning that all of the parts that make up the whole of this transparent, innovative, progressive building, “where people can dream,” are working together in their own way, in a good way, to make things “more good,” instead of “less bad”. From the 100% recyclable carpeting and other building materials to the waste management system, from the rain collectors and solar panels on the roof to the underground parking garage that gives priority parking first to cyclists (and has shower rooms available for them), then motorcyclists, then hybrid vehicles, and last, other vehicles.

I had a few questions I would have loved to ask Bill, but I chose something specific, “Are there any plans in place to evolve other buildings on campus?” The short answer from the dean was basically, “There sure will be. We need funding first.” Which gets back to that triangle corner of economy. If it’s not economically viable, it doesn’t fit the cradle-to-cradle design question:

But the economic viability aspect is also a huge asset to cradle-t0-cradle design, and to agribusiness in general, simply because this is what businesses and corporations are solely interested in. So in order to convince them, all the “cradle-to-cradle minded” designer needs to do is convince them that they will save money, or that they will be able to make more money, and then they are basically obligated to embrace it. It would go against the basic law of capitalism not to.

Cradle-to-cradle is the sort of design model that we need to use for our food production AND our food waste upcycling in our cities, because one cannot exist in a well-designed system without the other. Local food production via green roofs, composting in homes and buildings, using that compost on the green roofs of the homes and buildings–this isn’t rocket science, it’s just, as Bill would say, interesting.

In one of my next entries I will go over some of these “details” in more detail, and talk about how they can work together to encompass sustainably designed and developed food systems within cities and habitats for humans and all other life.

Evolving design

The most important thing to remember is that that doesn’t mean cradle-to-cradle design is ever perfect. In fact, McDonough recognizes it is not ever perfect. Really, design must be constantly evolving as different methods and technologies become more economically viable and approaches are made more equitable while still remaining ecologically beneficial. What works now will have to work better in the future.

Just like all organisms must evolve to survive, so must humans, and so must the systems that we create and rely on.

After all…

“Sustainability takes forever. And that’s the point.” – William McDonough

Food Access Solutions: Urban Ag, Local Food, Community Development

Sometimes it’s hard to know if you are seeing something that is actually happening. Sometimes it’s hard to know if our own interests, backgrounds, experiences and lessons are shaping what is going on around us to the point where we are, in a sense, creating our own reality—or if our reality is largely the same as what is actually taking place—that is, if our reality is the same as other people’s realities.

I will eventually make more clear what I mean by this. I hope.

Panel Event: Food Access Solutions

On Friday, I spent a good part of my day at a panel-focused event titled, “Food Access Solutions: Urban Agriculture, Local Food & Community Development.” It was held in a large auditorium in a great new building in Southeast D.C., and there were about fifty of us there to see and hear experts in the field shed some light on the issue of healthy food access and sustainable community development.

Throughout the past eight months or so, I have been surrounded by this food debate. Meanwhile, the food debate has been raging, unbeknownst to me, for decades. Though I feel like this year it has hit critical mass. Meanwhile, it has taken me all this time to put the pieces together and realize that everything that’s going on isn’t really about food. The food issue is merely a symptom of a wider issue of a shift in our cultural values. Namely, that people are craving human connection, are dying for a sense of community, whether or not they realize it. Not to be dramatic, but regardless of where we live or what social class we belong to, we have become slaves (the concept of “food freedom” was discussed at length) to a commercialized, industrialized, profit-driven society that doesn’t cultivate mutual respect or promote equity, and ultimately devalues the natural resources we depend on. Consumerism has replaced consumer-power, as Robert Egger said during the panel. This causes us to devalue our neighbors, friends and family, who depend on those resources along with us. And what the current food revolution is about is fixing this broken value system, through tactics that help to chip away at the symptoms of it, with the hope that eventually the problem itself will begin to reverse.

FYI, here is who was there:

There is a lot worth mentioning and talking about from the panel, but in the interest of keeping this somewhat brief, here are just a few questions that I think elicited the most interesting responses, along with my commentary.

Who do you think is missing from this conversation and this panel today?

Ahh. I appreciated this opening question. Some answers included: city planners, very young people (kindergartners, elementary and middle school students), grocery stores/retailers. I also think that we need government officials (from FDA, USDA) included in the debate, as well as politicians, as these are the people that are helping to shape the policy which determines how our food system functions.

What are some possible solutions?

I was really surprised to find that the majority of the discussion focused on local community efforts that can be made, rather than wide-scale policy changing. I think the general feeling was that a bottom-up approach, rather than a trickle-down approach, may be what we need to rely on, at least to start, in order to motivate changes. In a way, this makes some sense, because if you can mobilize people in pockets all around the country, or world, you can really have an impact–but if you spend your money and efforts targeting a government who ultimately is only serving its financial interests and the interests of the people, nothing can change. You have to change the interests of the people first, and then, if there is a legitimate government, it should follow suit and work to align with those interests. Some ideas that the panelists included:

  • Using music, games, activities at farmers markets to draw more people to them, as well as offering the markets more often and at different times.
  • Urban agriculture methods. So think city/community gardens. AU has one, window farming, roof farming, hydroponics, etc. (I have a o going up soon about these methods in more details, so stay tuned.)
  • Food producers need to reach out more to the existing small corner markets and stores and get their fresh produce there.
  • Making more farmers markets available to under-served communities.
  • Programs like Farm to School, which involve more people, young people especially, in the act of growing their own food from an early age, so they appreciate it more.
  • Making food a more inherent part of our culture, something that we pride ourself on, enjoy the taste of, and would rather spend time with than other consumer endeavors.
  • Shifting the power from large corporations back into the communities, because if you bring a local food economy somewhere, you will build up their economy in general, produce more jobs, and make the community better able to weather the storm when crises occur.

Open Q&A

During the question and answer session, many stood to offer their accolades to the speakers. One young woman, around my age, who works at the Earth Day Network, stood to ask how she, as a middle-class white girl with a passion for the causes of community development and fighting hunger and providing healthy food to those in need—can do without just playing that role of the rich, white girl swooping in to “save” the struggling black community. Malik talked about how we need to stop looking at the issue as one where we are “saving” people, but instead, empowering them. He also said that there are countless nonprofit organizations that start up and go into these communities to help them, but instead of then employing the actual citizens of these communities, the organization leaders hire their other white friends. If we expect to empower people, we must include them in the processes that seek to empower, instead of keeping them on the outside, working minimum wage jobs. But he also mentioned that members of the black community have to “step up,” as he put it, and become active in that sort of work in order to allow themselves to be empowered.

I asked a pretty specific question. I wanted to hear more about how to incorporate the large family farm operations in this discussion, and what role those large commodity crop growers could play toward making healthier food more accessible while reducing the impact that their food has on the world from a greenhouse gas perspective (industrial livestock raising, nutrient soil depletion from not rotating crops, the fuel used to create fertilizers, the fuel used to transport food). I hate to say I didn’t really get an answer to that question–so then I asked how Michael, the farmer on the panel, managed to transform the corn/tobacco operation that once existed into his livestock/vegetable farm which exists today. His answer was, “very slowly.” He also said he relied on a lot of community support for it to happen. I’m not sure if that meant financial support or just support of them buying his food. It wasn’t really enough of an answer for me. So we chatted for a bit after and I got his contact information.

After, I was talking with a girl there who had interned at National Family Farm Coalition. I told her how I was interested in learning more about how to find that balance between being able to grow more fruits and vegetables in places where nature allows them to grow, without pitting large farmers against small farmers. In a sense, how to take away the whole “if you can afford small farm food, that’s great–but if you can’t, there’s factory farming which can provide you cheaper, less nutritious food.” I wanted to know what he had done, in order to use his as a case study for other projects. But his situation was not entirely the same as many large-scale farms across the country. Anyhow, the girl, who was about my age, said something worth noting, which amounted to basically, “If everyone always waited around for someone else to provide a model for how to do something, nothing would ever get done.”

Our Collective Reality

Here is where I am coming from in this discussion. I am a privileged, white girl from a middle-class family who has received an amazing education from a private institution; who has never been forced to miss a meal in her life; who never had to stow away food handed out in elementary or middle school during state-wide exam days or after school activities so I could bring it home to feed my family for dinner; who knows what self-induced starvation feels like, but has never once opened the refrigerator or the pantry only to find that there is not one thing to eat; who knows what healthy food is and what it isn’t and never once has had a problem getting somewhere that offers that food and being able to afford it.

I walked away from this panel finally feeling justified in my thinking of this whole movement as a big deal. It’s not a trend; it will go down in history books. We have to all do what we can to make sure that this is a turning point for the better instead of the worse.

I also walked away from this panel and counted the number of people who would be considered obese as I walked toward the metro station. I sat down on a seat on the train facing one such person, a young black mother and her, I assume, toddler son. He was adorable in his vintage-looking Mickey Mouse t-shirt and Nike sneakers. She was feeding him snacks from a couple plastic baggies, one of which appeared to be filled with sugar cookies and the other with Fruit Loops cereal. And after watching them for a few minutes, watching him eating and giggling and playing, completely ordinary interactions—I felt completely overwhelmed with the strangest combination of despair and hope.

I live a completely different life than the people who are being affected most negatively by our food system. I’m sure I live a completely different life than the mother and her son on the metro, and though our immediate, personal realities are quite different, when it comes down to it, we face the same threats, and our collective reality, as humans, remains the same. This should be what unites us in the struggle.

Tambra Stevenson, a panelist from the DC Food Justice Coalition, reminded us of Harriet Tubman’s famous quote, which I feels ties this entry up nicely: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”