Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thoughts on a sustainable food future - Part I

The path towards creating a sustainable food system is not simply about influencing a class of conscious consumers, but lies in transforming those consumers into producers. The path will require a reconnection with place to include the land and people of particular location - that include the limits imposed by the natural rhythm of place.
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In recent years there has been increased concern over the safety and sustainability of our food and farming systems. People are becoming worried about the environmental impacts of how food is grown, where food is grown, how farm labor is treated, and whether the foods we purchase are safe for our families. These sentiments have been reflected throughout the media, through surveys, and in scholarly research. With these concerns, the market for sustainably produced foods has increased dramatically.  More and more, people are looking for alternatives, such as local organic foods that are not a part of the mainstream food system.

Consumers are venturing to farmer's markets, purchasing more produce and preserved foods directly from farmers via roadside stands, community supported agriculture (CSAs), and u-pick farms. According to the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service, there has been a boom in the growth of Farmer's Markets across the country. In fact, according to the Farmer's Market Directory Listing, we have seen an exponential increase in the number of markets over the past 18 years.

Along side these trends, there is also a movement among urban residents to grow more of their own food through backyard and community gardens. In addition to cultivating fresh fruits and vegetables, urban residents are also beginning to raise animals in their backyards for eggs and dairy. This is an interesting trend, indicating that citizens are increasingly moving beyond being consumers to become producers.

According to Bill Mollison, a co-originator or the permaculture movement,
"...the greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter." 
Indeed, a true revolution towards a sustainable society is one where people are producers, not simply consuming to satisfy every conceivable need. Together, these efforts are creating new opportunities and alternative forms of relating within communities of place. In essence, small-scale agriculture and home-scale urban farming go against the grain, by asking people to participate more directly in the fulfillment of their living needs. And although not explicit, these new forms of consumption challenge people to think more deeply about the amount of things they consume, as well as the quality.

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Yet, mainstream thinking contends that consumers simply need to make more informed purchasing decisions, and producers will naturally adopt more sustainable production practices. (See - World Economic Forum report "More with less"). This assumes we can modernize by increasing efficiencies, and consume our way to a new and more sustainable society. In this way, a more sustainable agriculture is one that is characterized by precision irrigation, GPS guided farm equipment, and GMOs to reduce the needs for fertilizer and pesticide inputs.This technological intensification is believed to help minimize the resource demands of growing populations, and spreading affluence.

However, studies suggest that increasing rates of consumption tend to offset any gains made through the adoption of more efficient forms of production. Foster, Clark and York (2010), note that such patterns are common - referring to the Jevon's Paradox, named after the economist, William Stanely Jevons (The Coal Question, 1906). The Jevon's Paradox suggests (in the case of coal) for every unit increase in the efficient use of coal, there is a corresponding increase in the consumption of that energy resource. This increase results from the reduced cost of using that resource and the economic expansion that occurs as a consequence. The problem is that aggregate use increases. As in the case of efficiency gains in the U.S. automobile industry. With greater fuel economies for vehicles, it becomes cheaper for consumers to purchase a car or truck. However, with increased purchases, there are greater numbers of vehicles on the road, leading to increased use of petroleum, and CO2 emissions, offsetting efficiency gains.

This phenomena contradicts efforts to promote sustainability, because the system of production and exchange are still bound to the organizing force of capital accumulation. And with each increase of efficiency in a particular technology, we often find greater complexity in the design, manufacture and distribution of that technology. Increasing complexity also appears to require more sources for the material inputs needed in the process of production. The resulting expansion of the economic system is detrimental in a world where definite limits exists.

These patterns suggest that technological advancement does not necessarily lead to more sustainable use of resources; and that economic growth enabled by increasing technological efficiencies creates a sort of Faustian bargain. This occurs in the transition towards more efficient tools, as much as through the expansion of production to meet a newly created need. More resources are required to bootstrap onto existing systems to make them more efficient, or scrap those tools entirely in order to create new ones. Further the emphasis on individual consumption reveal different realities when looking at aggregate consumption.

In the context of recent food trends, and in particular, the "grow-your-own" movement, there is an emphasis on low-tech solutions, that implies a contraction of the social relations required to produce the foods required for one's household. That doesn't necessarily mean that social interaction is lessened, in fact they might be deepened and intensified. However, sustainability through backyard and community gardening represents a conscious reduction of one's dependence upon the larger system of social production that modern consumers rely on to fulfill their needs.

The shift from consumers to producers opens up opportunities for more direct social relations where gardeners exchange knowledge, resources and the fruits of their labor. This is in contrast to the distancing of relations that currently exist within our food system. Today, conventional agri-food systems are characterized by a massive infrastructure of cultivation, processing, storage and distribution. This includes support industries from chemical companies, manufacturing of farm equipment, to agricultural marketing organizations.

In a truly localized agri-food system there would ideally be a mix of full-time and part-time farmers who fulfill the food needs of the community. The members of the community come to fulfill the roles of the larger social system of productions, but on a much smaller scale. This could also include exchanges between different regions as a means to minimize food insecurity and support dietary diversity resulting from differing ecosystem characteristics. However, this doesn't assume that people will be able to live high-consumption lifestyles. Rather, this approach imposes natural limits on the "rate," and "what" of consumption, re-linking food to the people and place of cultivation, and the variance of landscapes.

Overall, an ecologically coherent human society will be one in which each person is reconnected to the landscape of place, bound in part to the limits of place - this not only requires a more conscious form of consumer, but a form of citizenship that recognizes when one's cup is already full. And from time to time, choosing to fill it on one's own.

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