Sustainable Food and Farming: Reflections

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Over the past few months, I have posted a series of reflections on sustainable food and farming here at World.edu.  This is my 12th post of the series and it seems like a good time to pause for a moment and have a look back.  If you find this summary useful, perhaps you would share it with your friends and colleagues.  I hope these blogs will find their way into classrooms as a way to start meaningful conversations about sustainable food and farming.  This can only happen with your help.

We began the series with an introduction to sustainable food and farming by asking “is sustainable agriculture sustainable?”   While there are many ways of thinking about sustainability, I suggest that only an agricultural system founded on ecological principles could possibly be sustainable.

My second post explored the relationship among the three generally accepted “pillars of sustainability”; environmental integrity, economic vitality,and social equity.  I presented symbolic representations and contrasted a competitive model (the venn diagram) with a living systems model (concentric circles).

Then we turned practical and had a look at some real-world examples of the principles we were exploring with “Sustainable Food and Farming part III: Lets get Practical.”

We then took a hard look at three ecological principles that contribute to a more sustainable agriculture:

  1. Use current solar income
  2. Everything cycles (waste equals food)
  3. Enhance biological diversity

Next, I introduced a way of thinking about our place in the larger world and asked “why should we care?”   In this post I presented a model of interconnectedness that claims the quest for a more sustainable agriculture may be motivated by self-interest, provided we accept an expanded and holistic understanding of “self.”

Just as I finished this last post, the Walmart Corporation announced they were making a major investment into local food systems.  Hmmmmmm….. this needed some exploration and I used the foundation created in the first seven blogs to examine the big news.

As I was wondering if Walmart was truly committed to the social equity “pillar” of sustainable agriculture, I was challenged by a faculty colleague who told me quite bluntly that social equity and justice has nothing to do with sustainability.   Another hmmmmmmmm….. so I shared my own thinking on sustainability and social justice.

One of my students got my attention with the bold statement that “we can’t expect human behavior to change until we change societal structures, like policies and regulations.” Hmmmmmmmm…..  lots of things to think about these days.  I don’t think that is quite true…… and I shared my thoughts about “which comes first” – policy change or personal change.

For me the answer is simple…. neither.  First we change our minds!  My next post suggested that we must learn to speak from the heart if we are to encourage people to think differently and maybe try to behave in a more sustainable manner.

But of course, not everyone wants to listen to our pleas to behave more sustainably.  My last post presented a way of  thinking about people who “just don’t want to think about all of this stuff.”

So here we are at the end of a series of  blog posts that present a framework for how I think about sustainable food and farming.  I’ve got lots of ideas of where to go next, but I’d love to hear from you.   What questions or thoughts do you have about this series of 12 blog posts?

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

What can you say to people who don’t want to talk about sustainability?

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Most of my blog posts on World.edu have focused on sustainable agriculture, but lately I’ve been thinking about the idea of sustainability in general.  Last week I wrote about how to talk about sustainability with friends and family.  I stated that it is difficult to convince someone who just isn’t interested in thinking about sustainability to change their behavior.

Personally this doesn’t bother me, as I find myself busy enough working with people who are ready to try to change their lives to be more sustainable.  I choose not to worry about people who “just don’t get it.” Nevertheless, some of my students continue to ask me…..

“…what can we do about them?

For an answer, I return to the iceberg model from an earlier post.  Remember, mental models influence social structures, and societal and personal behavior.


When we take the iceberg model and rearrange the components into a causal loop diagram, we can see why it is so difficult to change behavior. In this model, non-sustainable events, patterns, structures and mental models are all part of a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

When we look for the cause of the loop, it is like asking which comes first – the chicken or the egg.  None and all of the components in the loop are cause and effect. They cause each other.  This is how reinforcing feedback loops work – like an addiction.

When we realize that our behavior is not in our best interest  – and we still don’t change that behavior – we are caught in an addiction cycle. A systems thinker might describe it like this;

  • as non-sustainable actions increase, non-sustainable patterns increase, and….
  • as non-sustainable patterns increase, non-sustainable structures increase, and…
  • as non-sustainable structures increase, non-sustainable mental models increase, and…
  • as non-sustainable mental models increase…..
  • the cycle goes on and on……

An addiction cycle is difficult to stop….. but it can be turned around!

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Lets look at what happens in addiction cycles….

When a person or society is caught in an addiction cycle, something bad always happens.  We’ll call it “something to learn. For someone addicted to substances, something to learn is often a very painful physical and emotional “bottom.”  For someone with a spending habit, something to learn might be maxing out a credit card.  For a society that is living or spending beyond its capacity, something to learn might be a financial crisis (sound familiar?).

In any case, “something to learn” is usually painful and confusing.  The good news is that pain can be a catalyst for changing our mental models…. in fact, a new vision only begins to make sense when it becomes clear that the old way of thinking is no longer working.

For someone who “just doesn’t get it” the pain-induced new vision (mental model) can begin to turn things around!

A new way of thinking might result in a person (or a society) trying something different….. like more responsible or sustainable behaviors…… and then the reinforcing feedback loop can take over – and watch out! Things that seemed impossible before can change fast as sustainable actions result in sustainable patterns, and new systemic structures.

For those of us already awake to our non-sustainable situation, I believe we have a responsibility to take action NOW.  For those who are not yet ready, pain will eventually help them wake up.  But I can’t spend a lot of energy talking to people who are not yet ready to change…. I’ve got too much work to do.  I believe that we are already well into the Great Turning (that is the inevitable  transition from an industrial growth society to a life sustaining society) and this is really exciting work.

Lets see….

THE GREAT TURNING HAS ALREADY BEGUN!

You are invited to join the Great Turning. We can begin now…  or we can wait.  Either way, we are guaranteed that “something to learn” will eventually convince us all to think and act in a more sustainable manner.  The longer we wait – the more pain we will experience.

So “what can we do about them?” If we are talking with people in which we already have a trusting relationship, we can speak from the heart as I described in an earlier post.  For the others……  well, I’ve got too much work to do to worry about that….

What about you?  Do you want to join the Great Turning?

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

“Talking Sustainability” – to change how we think!

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Last week I posted a blog claiming that “mental models” (our worldview, the stories we tell about ourselves, and core values) must change before we are likely to see a significant shift towards more sustainable human behavior.  That is, before we are able to change social policies or large scale behavior…. we must change how we think!

Well, if that is true….. the next question might be….. “how do we change human minds?” I will use the same iceberg model to describe a process for creating a convincing argument for change.   Remember this?


If not, be sure to read my earlier blog to become familiar with the model.

One of the core competencies of a successful human in our world is the ability to create a convincing argument for your perspective.  Another critical competency is the ability to listen and learn from others.  To convince someone they should change their behavior to be more sustainable, the first necessary condition is trust (which is built by learning to listen respectfully).   Without trust….  don’t even bother to present your case!  This is where “cor ad cor loquitur” becomes really important.

Of course, it can be pretty frustrating having to listen to folks who are not interested in learning, growing or changing.  I will deal with how to think about people who are “just not interested” in a future blog.  For now, lets focus on how to talk with the many people who already know “something is wrong” but aren’t quite willing to change their behavior (yet).

Know any of these folks?

Maybe you are a student, headed home to visit Mom and Dad.  Or perhaps you are just hanging out with good friends.  In either case, here is how to go about presenting an argument which might convince people who already trust you to change their behavior.

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First, turn the iceberg model upside down!

We begin by talking about mental models.  If you share what you truly care about with someone you trust, you set the “frame” for the discussion.

But remember, honesty is really important.   This is not “spin.”  Speak from the heart…..

If I am trying to encourage a friend to consider a new and more sustainable behavior, I might begin by getting their attention with some facts that seem inconsistent with their own mental models.  Like this…

“Did you know that the Walmart Corporation is the largest grocery retailer in the U.S.?  Yup, they seem to be ready to take over the world!”

Walmart?   A grocery store?  Hmmmmmm…..  Now, most people are overwhelmed with information today and are no longer surprised (or even interested) in facts.  If we spend too much time talking about facts, our listener is likely to get bored.  So we change the subject quickly (now that we have their attention) to an expression of our core values.  We talk mental models and speak from the heart…..

“You know, as corporations get more and more powerful, I keep wondering about what happens to ‘the little guy.’  I mean, do individuals even have a chance today to create a good live without being owned by these corporations? “

At this point, we hope our listener is engaged.  If so, we continue…..

“I’ve been thinking about the things I really care about…. like people having enough food to eat.  I care about clean air, water and a living soil.  I care about children having chance for a decent life.  I care about Mother Nature.  I care about the place that I live, my family, and my work.  These are the things I hold most dear.  I don’t think the corporation cares about these things.

What do you care about most deeply?”

Getting someone to talk about their own deeply held values begins to set the frame for the rest of the conversation.   So far, we are talking at the level of mental models.  As we work down the “upside down” iceberg, the next stage is systemic structures.  These are;

  1. physical things,
  2. organizations,
  3. policies, and
  4. rituals.

Changing structures has the power to change behavior.  But I would try to avoid talking about structures in the abstract. Rather, lets share a story about a particular structure that is consistent with our professed core values.  For me, it might be the North Amherst Community Farm.  This is what I’d say….

“Did you know there is a group of crazy people in my neighborhood who got together and bought a farm?  Yup, it seems that about 30 acres right in the middle of my suburban neighborhood was about to be sold for housing development.  My neighbors got together and raised enough money with help from the state and town governments to save the farm.

“We’ve still got a mortgage of course.  But this little neighborhood group saved this land from development and it is now being farmed by two terrific families who live right there on the property.  They have a 300 member CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) the world’s best vegetables, grass-fed beef, sheep, pigs, and chickens.  It is very cool….. and it is right in my backyard!”

NACF represents a real life structure that is consistent with my core values.  It represents a “reasonable” change option (because it is true), even though none of us ever thought we’d “own a farm.”

Now that I have my listeners attention, I talk about a pattern of behavior that emerges out of the structure I’ve just described.  And once again, I do it by telling a story…..

“One of the biggest surprises that grew out of  saving this farm was all of the people in town who got interested in raising egg laying chickens in their backyard!   The farm has about 200 laying hens as part of the CSA.  Once folks were introduced to fresh eggs, it was difficult to go back to industrial eggs.  And several of them are now raising their own!

This “hopeful story” represents a pattern of behavior that grew out of the structure and mental models we’ve been talking about.  We continue….

“We organized this workshop around Mother’s Day last year, called ‘Homes for Hens’ and 50 people showed up.  Parents and grandparents and lots of kids came to learn how to have a few hens in their backyard.  We let them hold the hens and talked about how to take care of them.  It was really fun!  There were lots of good questions and stories being told by the teachers as well as the participants!”

“And now, we’ve got a half dozen or so families in the area raising hens and teaching others.  We are not changing the world of course, but it sure does show kids something valuable about where their food comes from!”

I’d keep the story short and let my listener ask questions.  At this point, we continue to move down the “upside down iceberg” and suggest an action, consistent with the pattern of behavior (raising chickens), the structure (the new farm), and the mental models we have been talking about.

The key to shifting mental models – is taking action. Unless we “make it real” – nothing changes.  So maybe  next I’d say…

“Hey, you want to run by the farm and help collect some eggs?  I’ll bet the farmers would appreciate some help, and maybe give you a few so you can try them out for breakfast tomorrow.  If you want a little exercise, we can pull some weeds while we are there too.  Anyway,  I’d like you to meet the farmers.  They are great folks!”

That’s it.  Simple but it can be effective.  To change how people think:

  1. we begin with an expression of common values (mental models),
  2. share a success story of a real life structural change,
  3. tell a story about how behavioral patterns have shifted, and
  4. conclude with a suggested action (consistent with those values).

Mental models don’t change when we tell someone they are doing something wrong.  Arguing with people who just don’t want to hear it will fail!

For example, we know that the world is full of cynicism, selfishness and irresponsible behavior.  Telling someone not to behave in this way will not result in systemic change.

When we see someone throwing a plastic water bottle in the trash for example, simply shouting “hey, don’t do that” will not shift mental models, but rather cause people to retrench and protect their own worldview.

To change an old mental model, it needs to be replaced with a new mental model that is more empowering.

“Out with the old and in with the new” is a tactic that can change mental models.  The new worldview must be compelling and honest.  It must be based in possibility and consistent with commonly held values.

This can work!

Or at least, it is worth a try.  Take the iceberg and “turn it upside down.”   To convince a friend or family member to shift toward more sustainable behaviors, why not try John Henry Newman’s motto:

“Cor ad Cor Loquitur”  – heart speaks to heart

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As an example, I’ll close with one of my favorite short videos.  Notice that Paul Hawken begins with an expression of values and a new compelling worldview (mental model) and then introduces thousands of structures (organizations) that are real (realistic).  He presents a pattern of behavior represented by these structures and closes by claiming that “human kind knows what to do.”  This is a clear call for action.   See if you are moved by the story……

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I believe the shift in mental models that Hawken is talking about is possible  – and in fact is happening now…….

Do you?

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Which comes first – sustainable policies or sustainable behavior? Neither – sustainable thinking must come first!

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Last week one of my Sustainable Agriculture students declared “you’ve got to change government policies before you can expect people to change their behavior.”  Of course we know that policies such as tax incentives and regulations are effective in influencing human behavior.  But changing policies (particularly in the current divisive political climate) is a daunting task.  This blog post presents a framework for thinking about social change.  We’ll begin with an iceberg!

The “iceberg” model is used by systems thinkers to understand the root cause of human behaviors.  In this model, an “event” such as stopping your car at a red light, is influenced by the “pattern of behavior” of everyone stopping at the red light, which is caused by “systemic structures” such as the traffic light and state and federal motor vehicle regulations.  But the root cause of the entire systems is the “mental model” or the thought that safety matters and society has a right to regulate individual behavior.  Get it?

Lets apply the iceberg model to try to understand why so many of us participate in non-sustainable behaviors.  Another example…  An event might be something like putting a dollar in a vending machine and purchasing a bottle of water.  This simple action is part of a larger pattern of behavior in the industrialized world we might think of as “convenient lifestyle.”  It is so common that most of us don’t even think about it.  When we are thirsty, it is “common sense” to buy water delivered in a plastic bottle – so we do.

Of course environmental activists shudder when they think about this everyday act.  We buy millions of plastic water bottles daily, drink the water (it takes just a few minutes) and then……. we throw the bottle “away” (most plastic water bottles are NOT recycled in the U.S.).  We know that a plastic water bottle will not decompose in a landfill.  So for a few minutes use…… we toss out a product that will last a thousand years!   Yikes, not very sustainable, huh?

How can this be?   Well, lets look around and notice the systemic structures we have created to support this behavior.  I don’t know about you, but when I look around, I see Dasani vending machines EVERYWHERE. We buy plastic water bottles because we have created structures to make this kind of behavior easy.

To change behavior, we MUST change systemic structures, such as:

  1. physical things – like vending machines, roads, traffic lights etc.
  2. organizations – like corporations, government, schools…
  3. policies – like laws, regulations, tax incentives….
  4. ritual – like habitual behaviors so ingrained, they are not conscious.

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The dominant structures in the industrial world encourage non-sustainable behavior. For example:

  • a national highway system that makes individual driving more convenient than mass transportation,
  • fast food restaurants on every corner,
  • subsidized fossil fuel,
  • tax incentives for factory farms,
  • weak regulations on off-shore drilling, and
  • plastic water bottle vending machines EVERYWHERE,

…..are all systemic structures that encourage non-sustainable behavior.  And why have we created physical things, and organizational and policy structures that support and encourage non-sustainable behavior?

Right – mental models!   Mental models support systemic structures that in turn influence social behavior (patterns) and individual behavior (events).

Mental models are powerful!

The iceberg helps us to understand why it is so difficult to change human behavior.  Unless we look well “below the waterline” of the iceberg, we will never understand the root cause of non-sustainable behaviors.

Non-sustainable actions and patterns dominate mainstream society.  We burn fossil fuels carelessly, we allow toxins to enter our air, water and bloodstream, we purchase products that are cheap (because someone in a developing country isn’t paid a living wage).  People frustrated by this behavior, try to change regulations (structures) and encourage more sustainable behaviors (patterns).  But change comes slowly  – primarily because of mental models.

As a faculty member at a major agricultural university in the late 1980’s, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to change patterns of behavior within the conventional farming community by flying around the U.S. giving speeches about sustainable agriculture.  As a university administrator, I spent much of the 1990’s trying to change the structure of university research and extension education programs to be supportive of a more sustainable agriculture.  Neither strategy proved effective, primarily because of rigid mental models.

Maybe we need to try another approach.  While activists are working to change policies and educators are trying to help change personal behavior, we also need to change the way we think.   Unless mental models (common sense) shifts, changes in behavior and patterns won’t last.

When mental models begin to shift, structures, patterns of behavior, and events will follow.

This is basic systems theory (which I will explore more in a future blog).  For now, lets just say this concept is represented by the reinforcing feedback loop pictured on the left.

Not convinced?   Lets look at how a powerful mental model prevents us from protecting human health.  Remember the salmonella outbreak and egg recall that struck the U.S. egg industry last summer?  The industrial system for producing eggs not only treats live hens as if they were part of a giant machine, but can’t adequately protect human health.  Of course, industrial egg production is part of a larger pattern of behavior many of us think of as factory farming.  These farms make sense in the context of the industrialized worldview that is our dominant mental model of agriculture today.  Many of us believe this must change.

However, as long as most humans continue to pursue busy, stressed and competitive lives focused money, power and prestige, we will not likely take the steps necessary to change the way we grow food.  The mental model of “industrialized living” not only results in human stress but also recalled eggs.   Lets have a look at an example….

Can you identify characteristics of the mental models that result in BOTH industrial eggs and industrial human lives?  What attributes drive both of these systems?  Well, perhaps……

  1. a desire to increase productivity (at all costs)
  2. systems which focus on efficiency (at all costs)
  3. the belief that success is defined by how much money you make
  4. the belief that humans are not subject to natures rules
  5. what else?
  6. please share your ideas in the comment box below.

Systems thinkers know that while mental models are difficult to change, this is where we will find the leverage needed to create a sustainable human society.

The next logical question ishow?

I will attempt to deal with this question in a future blog.

For now, please share your own thoughts in the comment box below.  Thank you…..

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Social justice must remain one of the three pillars of a truly sustainable agriculture

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May 31, 2014 – The following is a slightly modified version of an earlier post.

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As “sustainability” becomes accepted and even embraced by mainstream corporations and university programs, I worry that we not simply redefine sustainable as “environmentally sustainable.”  With increasing energy prices, it has become more profitable to conserve energy (which is good of course).  But lets not forget people! 

In agriculture and the food system, workers are routinely exploited in order to maximize profitability at all points along the food chain. Any “sustainable” program or product that fails to include its impact on people IS NOT SUSTAINABLE!

As an example, I posted a blog exploring the announcement that the Walmart Corporation plans to sell over $1 billion of goods purchased from small and mid-sized farms.  Walmart also intends to train 1 million farmers in sustainable farming practices around the world.

I congratulated the corporation (which is the largest grocery store in the world) for their efforts to improve the economic status of small farmers and to enhance environmental quality by conserving energy and minimizing waste.  But I contend that Walmart (and the big box stores) are part of the cause of poverty – not the solution to poverty.  

As someone who has struggled to bring the principle of sustainability to forefront in university sustainable food and farming programs, I’m particularly concerned that the significant economic power of the Walmart Corporation will cause a shift in emphasis of so-called “sustainability” programs to focus on only two of the three pillars of sustainability.  Lets examine this concern more closely…..

An earlier blog examined the three pillars of sustainability: 1) economic vitality, environmental quality, and 3) social equity/justice.

As sustainability becomes increasingly recognized as a good business strategy, there may be a tendency to “sanitize” the concept by focusing more on environmental practices that are economically feasible and leave social equity out of the equation.  I believe it is vitally important to keep social equity as a central goal of sustainable food and farming systems.

I’ve been involved in sustainable agriculture research, teaching and policy debates for over 25 years.  In the early days, the dominant voice calling for a more sustainable agricultural system came from disenfranchised and struggling farmers working in community.  University scientists slowly joined the chorus and today, with the Walmart announcement, sustainable agriculture has entered the mainstream.

While its important to recognize the progress we’ve made over the past 25 years, I’m concerned that if we allow the power of corporate money to expunge social justice/equity from the quest for sustainable food and farming systems, we will lose the soul of the movement.

The good news is that there remains a powerful voice calling for social equity in food and farming systems, not only professing a strong commitment to the ideal of food sovereignty, but also presenting practical steps toward that end.  And much like the early days of sustainable agriculture, the leadership in the quest for food sovereignty is coming from community groups including family farmers.

The concept of food sovereignty emerged from the struggle against oppression and was coined by the international peasant movement La Via Campesina. In the U.S., the National Family Farm Coalition recently joined with a host of hunger, poverty, environmental, and faith-based non-profits to give birth to U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance.  As we grow more sustainable farms, we need to stay true to the vision of the people who began the movement…. those farmers and others working in community to improve their lives.

As an example, my University of Massachusetts Sustainable Agriculture class visited the Seeds of Solidarity Farm and Education Center in Orange, MA and identified them as a terrific example of a sustainable food and farming organization based on all three pillars.  Further, unlike many so-called sustainable agriculture university programs, the University of Massachusetts Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences degree offers classes and internships focused on social justice.

As Walmart enters the sustainable agriculture arena, I hope we will hold true to the original vision and support those people and organizations that remain committed to all three pillars of sustainability.  I’ll conclude with the opening statement from a resolution created by the Food Sovereignty People’s Movement Assembly..

“…over a half-century ago, Mahatma Gandhi led a multitude of Indians to the sea to make salt—in defiance of the British Empire’s monopoly on this resource critical to people’s diet. The action catalyzed the fragmented movement for Indian independence and was the beginning of the end for Britain’s rule over India. The act of “making salt” has since been repeated many times in many forms by people’s movements seeking liberation, justice and sovereignty: Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, and the Zapatistas are just a few of the most prominent examples. Our food movement— one that spans the globe—seeks food sovereignty from the monopolies that dominate our food systems with the complicity of our governments. We are powerful, creative, committed and diverse.

It is our time to make salt.”*

I believe social justice requires us to consider the impact of our actions on others.  When “normal” behavior, such as buying cheap food at Walmart, results in the suffering of others, I need to stop and think about my behavior.  The only way for food prices to remain as low as they are at Walmart, is for the corporation to exploit workers and farmers.  This is not sustainable – nor just.  It is a choice.

* From: A resolution of the Food Sovereignty Alliance.

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For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now, or my blog, Just Food Now, or my webpage, Just Food NowIn the face of hunger, poverty and social injustice – just grow food and grow food justly.  And if you want to study Sustainable Food and Farming in college, check out our Bachelor of Sciences program at UMass!