Defining the vision for a sustainable food system. First of a three-part series.
By Allan Reetz
How might you define sustainable agricultural practices? Do you follow a practice of sustainable eating? Are there issues of food and sustainability that, at the local and global level, give you pause or confidence?
From my colleagues at the Hanover Co-op Food Stores, here are some of their definitions, standards, and visions for a sustainable food system:
- Increased transparency
- Fewer stops on the food train
- Diversified local farms
- Humane and ethical raising/treatment/processing of their animals
- Affordable for all consumers
- Sustainable fishing
- Builds soil structure
- Few chemicals
- Reduced packaging
- Least amount of negative impact on the community and environment
On the topic of incorporating sustainable food practices into one’s daily life, there is strong commitment on these practices:
- Dollars spent as close to the farm as possible
- Eating with the seasons
- Stocking up on local winter squashes; freezing local berries
- Making sure food waste doesn’t go into a landfill … instead, sending it to the compost pile, neighbor’s pigs and chickens, worm bin, etc.
- (And my favorite reply) I get my kids involved with planting, watering, and harvesting in our garden. I take those opportunities to discuss larger issues within the food system like hunger, waste, and obesity.
Amanda Charland, Director of Cooperative Engagement, summarized her view of sustainability and food/agriculture practices this way:
A climate-friendly approach to diet is still very complex. It should consider the entire life-cycle of food and all the opportunities that food has to generate emissions and impact the environment … from growing, to transportation, to retail storage, to preparation, and finally to disposal. Every point of this system is an opportunity to make a sustainable choice.
It’s one thing for a food business to tout their sustainable sourcing of food or boast about food waste reduction, but if they aren’t reducing leaks of refrigerants from their coolers, the ozone layer is getting whacked.—Amanda Charland
“Sustainable” and “local” are words that get tossed around a lot together as if they inherently mean the same thing. Quite often, they do. And fortunately, more consumers and businesses are taking steps that align with Amanda’s comments and the views of my co-workers.
In Ben Hewitt’s book, The Town That Food Saved (Rodale, 2009), the author provides an appropriate word of caution about relying on words or phrases to convey a complex story. Early in Hewitt’s book, he alerts the reader of the absence of the word “sustainable” in his book.
“Sustainable,” like “green” and “organic,” is an easily corruptible concept that, not surprisingly, has been willfully corrupted by people who would very much like to sell you a hybrid SUV. At its core, agriculture is a human manipulation of a natural process. Is there a version of agriculture that is truly sustainable and able to feed 7 billion people?”
Hewitt doubts it.
He goes on to add that he “is not suggesting we all become hunters and gathers or throw down our shovels and hoes in defeat. It behooves us to ensure the continued productivity of those practices of lower-impact, low–input food production and distribution.”
Chuck Wooster of Sunrise Farm in Hartford, Vermont, publishes articles and blog posts on a variety of farming matters. On his website, https://www.sunrisefarmvt.com/blog, Chuck shared this bit of reality about sustainable small-scale farming.
“We’re focusing on expanding the things that we’re doing well (vegetables, chickens), trying to improve the break-even enterprises (eggs, maple syrup), and scaling back the operations that we just can’t figure out how to make work (sheep.)
“This last one breaks my heart: we’ve had sheep for 18 years at Sunrise, and it’s an animal that I love having on the farm. But we’ve lost money on them every year. Our spreadsheet shows us needing to sell 200 lambs for $500 each to make it work. I just don’t think that market exists around here.”
Chuck continues …”What makes a farm sustainable? The finances need to work, of course, but so does the ecology, and this is why abandoning the sheep troubles me so much. New England farmers have been fertilizing vegetables with animal manure for four centuries; if you don’t have animals, you have to buy expensive, carbon-intensive fertilizer from somewhere else. So in a sense, we’re trading ecological sanity for fiscal stability. I hope we can revisit this someday in the future.
“Meantime, we’re hoping to make up for this fertilizer shortfall by taking your food waste and turning it into compost. If you want to help us crowd-fund this endeavor…hopefully [we can] have it matched 2-1 by a state grant.”
As Chuck pointed out, soil fertility is a never-ending goal and challenge. Farming has occurred for generations in ways that are in harmony with the environment.