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


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


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.


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!

6 thoughts on “Social justice must remain one of the three pillars of a truly sustainable agriculture

  1. Frankly, I think food justice/sovereignty is almost completely separate from
    > sustainability. Sustainability simply asks whether you can keep doing what you are
    > doing indefinitely. In other words, are you using up some limited resource?

  2. I think you make a very sound argument, and I have to disagree with the previous comment. We learn in basic ecology that every aspect of the environment will have an effect on pretty much everything else (including humans, humans and nature go hand in hand, period). That, in fact, was one of the reasons I switched focus from wildlife biology/conservation to cultural anthropology and food studies. You cannot take people out of the equation! And if you go forward focusing only on one aspect of sustainable ag (as opposed to the three pillars proposed), more problems are inevitable.

  3. John, thanks for your thoughts on this. I totally agree that social equity is mostly non-existent in the more popular conversation on sustainability. Can you give some more specifics on what about Walmart's pledge doesn't address social equity, or puts it in jeopardy? Is it their own labor practices? Possible continued silence on farmworker treatment–even at organic farms? Privileging some small farms in some areas over others? Some people might counter your argument by saying that given Walmart's wide reach, and critiques of elitism in the sustainable food movement, that their model actually does incorporate social equity in terms of the customers they serve. I get that you're issuing a request that the third pillar not be chopped, not necessarily assuming that it will be, but I think we could enrich the discussion by getting even more specific on what social equity is in this context.

  4. Pingback: Do public land grant universities serve the public good? | John Gerber

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