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.

Is Walmart’s version of sustainable agriculture really sustainable?

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In case you missed it, the Walmart Corporation announced last week that they intend to make a major investment in sustainable agriculture.  Most of the blogs, Facebook posts and Tweets seem to be pretty excited!  Please forgive me if I reserve judgment and explore this news a bit before I celebrate.

Perhaps its fortuitous that I’ve finished a 7-part series on sustainable food and farming here on World.edu, just in time to use these ideas to help us explore the question “is Walmart’s version of sustainable agriculture really sustainable?”

One of my earlier posts presented the generally well-accepted idea that sustainable agriculture needs to consider at least three perspectives or goals:

  1. economic vitality
  2. social equity or justice
  3. environmental integrity

At first glance the Walmart announcement seems to address these three perspectives.  In fact their own three-part sustainability goal statement is pretty similar to the version above.

  • To address economic vitality, the Walmart plan calls for increasing the income of small and medium farmers by 10 to 15 percent.
  • To address the need for social equity, Walmart will double its sales of locally purchased food products and also insure that half of the farmers trained worldwide will be women.
  • To address environmental integrity Walmart will train 1 million farmers and farm workers in “sustainable farming practices.”

This all sounds great!  But lets dig a little deeper.  When I introduced the 3-part goal, I suggested the way in which the goals are presented in relationship to each other matters.

The traditional venn diagram on the left presents the 3 goals as competing. While they may overlap in the middle, each goal is “pulling in its own direction.”  It is a safe bet that Walmart will only invest in social equity and environmental integrity when it also serves the economic bottom line.  While there is nothing wrong with making money, a truly sustainable agriculture needs to do better than “serving environmental and social interests only when it makes a profit.”  A corporation must place profit above other interests, but the rest of us have a responsibility to think more inclusively.

For example, the investment in local food may save the corporation money currently used to pay for  transportation, and thus allow lower prices for the consumer.  This is what Walmart does best – keep retail prices low.  As the price of oil increases over time (which it surely must), locally grown food will provide an even greater advantage.  Again, not a bad thing.  But dealing with small and mid-sized farms will give the corporation tremendous leverage in setting wholesale prices.   Currently, small and mid-sized farmers realize a greater return than some wholesale shippers  either because they are growing specialty products or because they can sell directly to customers.  Both of these advantages will be lost once they start selling to the corporation.  First, any additional profit realized by reducing transportation costs will likely accrue to Walmart rather than the farmer.  Second, specialty items which formerly returned a high price will become “commodified” by the corporation, thus driving down profits.  The consumer will benefit from cheaper food, but the producer will lose over time.  This is how the commodity system always works!

Further, according to Executive Vice President Leslie Dach, the plan to train farmers in sustainable practices will specifically help them “with the optimum amounts of water, pesticides and fertilizers, and to grow the crops the market will buy.” This sounds like the sort of contractual relationship that the Monsanto Corporation requires of anyone using their seed.  If you want to farm for Walmart, you may need to do it their way.  What will this do to the entrepreneurial approach farmers who “think sustainably” have brought to their work?  To me, this sounds like a recipe for standardized farming practices which will reduce the ability of small and mid-sized farm managers to experiment with practices that show a return on investment to good management.

The standardization of farming practices and products by the corporation will most likely reduce creativity – a necessary ingredient in the quest for agricultural sustainability.

Maybe I’m just too cynical?  Perhaps Walmart will be different than other major corporations and truly demonstrate a long-term commitment to social change and environmental quality?  We can hope!

Lets now look at a more holistic relationship among the 3 sustainability goals.  In the model on the left, the goals are presented as a nested hierarchy in which a healthy economy is totally dependent upon a healthy society, which itself is dependent on a healthy environment.  In this living systems model, we look to the outer system (environment) for purpose and the inner system (economy) for function.

The reason we care about economic vitality is to insure that social equity and environmental integrity are served.

This model is based on an ecological design, rather than a corporate worldview.  While it might be a bit much to ask Walmart to consider this perspective, this is the perspective I suggest we use to evaluate success in sustainable food and farming systems!

This holistic perspective makes the economy a servant of society, not the other way around.  If we apply this perspective to the Walmart announcement, we might begin to wonder if its truly as good as it sounds.  For example, a truly sustainable agriculture would do all it can to keep money circulating in local communities.  The purpose of the corporation however is to make money for shareholders, thus “exporting profits” from the farming community.  This is the industrial agriculture system, and I’m not sure the corporation can do anything other than support this system.  For example, here is how they buy and sell lettuce….

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Perhaps we should ask for more than locally grown and inexpensive food.  Perhaps we should be working for a greater vision of food sovereignty.  The vision statement for the National Family Farm Coalition for example states, “we envision empowered communities everywhere working together democratically to advance a food system that ensures health, justice and dignity for all.  Farmers, farm workers, ranchers, and fishers will have control over their lands, water, seeds and livelihoods and all people will have access to healthy, local, and delicious food.” That seems to me to be a vision worth working toward!

Lets look more closely at an ecological framework for sustainable agriculture.  Another post states that sustainable farming systems need to play by “Mother Nature’s rules” which are:

  1. Use current solar income
  2. Cycle everything possible (waste=food)
  3. Enhance biological diversity

To give Walmart credit, several components of their plan focus specifically on aspects of the first two rules.  For example there is a significant effort to reduce waste in the food chain, surely a good thing.  It would be better still if efforts were made to return food waste to the soil through a composting system (waste = food).

Further, the overarching sustainability guidelines for the corporation claim an intent to move to 100% renewable energy over time.  There is nothing obvious in the sustainable agriculture plans however to address this goal.  But maybe that will come later.

Finally, I wonder about the corporation’s commitment to biological diversity.  The need to standardize practices and products will not likely leave much room for mixed cropping, integrated plant and animal systems, or polyculture and permaculture systems based on ecological principles.

Of course I may be wrong.  Walmart’s announcement claims their commitment to sustainable agriculture will “help small and medium sized farmers expand their businesses, get more income for their products, and reduce the environmental impact of farming, while strengthening local economies and providing customers around the world with long-term access to affordable, high-quality, fresh food.” Perhaps……

What do you think?  Is this good news?

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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.

Sustainable food and farming part VII: Why do I care?

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A few weeks ago, I began to blog on Sustainable Food and Farming.  In my first post I asked if “sustainable agriculture was sustainable” and suggested that only an ecological approach (rather than a mechanistic approach) to farming would likely be sustainable.  The next  few posts explored the “rules” of ecology: 1) use current solar income; 2) cycle everything;  3) enhance biological diversity, and how these rules apply to both farming and life in general.

Now, we are trying to put it all together as part of a framework which will help us not only to understand how farms might be managed in a more sustainable manner, but also how we might find meaning and purpose in our lives.  In this post, I explore the question “why do I care about this work?”   A tall order, indeed!

In my last post, I asked if there was a way of looking at the world that was non-mechanistic and that helped make sense out of our lives.  This next video clip presents a systems view of life using the same characters as those who presented the mechanistic “clockwork universe” from my previous blog post.

I wrote in an earlier post, “there is nothing more practical than a good theory.”  I believe this to be true.  The “lens” through which we view the world colors our perspective.  The dominant mechanistic lens provides an incomplete view of the world.  The systems view that Sonya describes helps me to understand sustainability, the web of life, and even my own relationship to my family, community, the earth and beyond.  Lets explore this more deeply.

A few weeks ago, I shared the idea that living systems existed as subsystems within larger systems.  That is, the individual is a subsystem within a population of individuals, which itself is a subsystem within a community, and then of an ecosystem, which is a subsystem of the biosphere etc.  If we continue to work with this model of a natural hierarchy (as opposed to a human constructed hierarchy, like the military, the corporation, the church, and the university), I believe we can begin to understand our place on the planet.

Lets first look “inward” a bit and imagine our own bodies as subsystems within systems.  In this “body system”, there are subsystems such as the heart, liver, circulatory system etc.   Within the “heart system” there is a valve, and other parts that are subsystems within the organ that is the heart.  In this model, we might imagine that the less complex subsystems provide “function” to the more complex subsystems.  Further we might imagine that the more complex subsystems “provide” purpose to the less complex. Lets examine this idea.


The human heart in the picture above is a subsystem which contains smaller and less complex (but totally necessary) subsystems within, such as the valves, atrium, ventricles, aorta, etc..  But the heart itself is also a subsystem that exists within a large system, we’ll call the human body.


The body is also a system and the relationship of the heart to the body follows the relationship of all components within living systems.  That is, the heart “looks to the body for purpose” and the body “looks to the heart for function.”   That is, the more complex subsystem provides purpose in this relationship and the less complex subsystem offers function.  This is one of the great truths that emerges from the study of living systems.  Cool, huh?


If we continue the story, the body (the individual self) looks to the family or larger community for purpose.  The larger community looks to individuals for function.  That is, all community work is done by people.  And further…..


A community of people look to the larger ecosystem for purpose.  That is, those of us who have a strong sense of place, find our purpose in sustaining and caring for that place – including the other people in that place.  Herein lies our human purpose (at least for me).


This set of relationships helps me to answer the question “why do I care about sustainable food and farming” by exploring  the bigger and more interesting question, “why am I here?

For me, the study and practice of sustainable food and farming is a way in which I can serve a power greater than myself.  That power (or system) may be at any level of complexity (family system, community system, earth system etc.).  In this context, I know who I am and why I am here.  I am here in this lifetime to serve  power greater than myself. *

When I embed this understanding within the living systems natural hierarchy, I can see “myself” as an individual “body self” residing within a family self, within a community self, within an eco-self, within a universal self, and perhaps even within a divine self.  At each level of “self”, we can look up for purpose and down for function.

So, why do I care about sustainable food and farming – because it serves my own self-interest at multiple levels of self.   That’s why I care about sustainable food and farming.  How about you?

  • Why do you study or practice sustainable food and farming?

  • What is your purpose in this life?

Please comment below.  I am really interested in your own thoughts…..

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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 the rest of this series of posts.

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* While I believe that “service” is my primary motivation today, this was not always the case.  Earlier in my life I was driven my baser motives of prestige, perceived power and money, mixed with a fair bit of scientific curiosity.  While I”m sure those baser motivations still reside within me, they are no longer dominant.  Fortunately, the curiosity remains.

Sustainable food and farming part VI: Ecological “rule” number three – enhance biological diversity

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We are finally at Ecological Rule Number Three: Enhance Biological Diversity. In my previous two posts, I explored:

1. Ecological “Rule” Number One – Use Current Solar Income

and….

2. Ecological “Rule” Number Two – Waste Equals Food

For an ecological system to optimize its use of solar power and cycle nutrients and energy (rules one and two), there needs to be many different sorts of plants and animals in the system (biodiversity).  We might extend this rule in a social system to value social diversity as well.  Here I am presenting this rule to my Sustainable Living class at the University of Massachusetts. Lets watch….

The three ecological design principles as expressed by William McDonough that I have been sharing are:

  1. Use current solar income
  2. Cycle everything (waste = food)
  3. Enhance biological diversity (and since people are a part of ecosystems this means social diversity as well)

While some production systems (such as Permaculture) apply ecological principles to a set of practices, it seems to me that we need to understand the underlying principles upon which ecological systems are built, so that we can “re-invent” agriculture using these principles.  The first step in re-inventing a new ecological system, might be to understand and hopefully become free from the current mechanistic world view that so dominates our thinking.

In this next video clip, I introduce students to my garden and then listen in on a  conversation while a disenchanted physicist (from the movie Minkwalk) explains the dominant mechanistic worldview…… this is fun – check it out!

If you are still with me, you might be asking “what is this new way of looking at life we are talking about?” What might a “non-mechanistic” worldview look like, and how might it make a difference in how we think and act?

In my next post, I’ll explore more deeply the ecological worldview and how it applies to farming and to living.

For now, have you seen examples of this mechanistic way of thinking in your own life?  Please share your thoughts in the comments box below.

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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 the rest of this series of posts.

Sustainable food and farming part V: Ecological “rule” number two – waste equals food

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In my last post I examined Mother Earth’s Rule Number One: Use Current Solar Income.  Now lets look at Rule Number Two: Waste Equals Food.  Okay, so if you are not familiar with the concept of ecological rules (or perhaps more properly “design principles based on natural systems“), or if you are just not a person who responds well to rules (like many of us with “authority problems”), you might wonder what all this “rule stuff” is all about.

Good question…….  lets start with another question.  How are we (humans) doing as a species?  Well, quantitatively quite well.  There are A LOT OF US roaming around the planet.  But how about qualitatively?  Lets think about our quality of life and ask again “how are we doing?”

I know lots of people who will hesitate to answer that question with a roaring “GREAT!” There seems to be a low level of discontent among many people I know.  Some of the symptoms of discontent may be seen in overuse and abuse of alcohol, pharmaceuticals, shopping, recreational sex, video games….. you know “distractions.”

Leslie Howard explained this to Betty Davis in the classic 1936 film, Petrified Forest. Here is a one minute clip from the film:

So the cause of “world chaos” is nature fighting back, huh?  Fighting back against human pursuit of “distractions” perhaps?  But what are we being distracted from?

Well, lets turn that question around and ask “what is our/my purpose in life?”  Do I have one?  Can I clearly state a reason for getting out of the bed in the morning?  If not, well then “distractions” sort of make sense.

Well, for me “ecological rules” are derived from my understanding of where I fit in the world.  My own sense of purpose comes from a worldview that places me (an individual) as an integral component of a hierarchical system of increasing complexity from cells, to organs and organisms (the individual), through the family, community, ecosystem, earth, universe, and divine.  In this complex living system – I belong.

I’ll explore this idea more in a future blog, but for now lets just say that I’m an ecological being……  and therefore, I ought to pay attention to ecological rules.  The rules, borrowed from architect William McDonough, suggested in an earlier blog were:

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

In this post, we are looking at Rule Number Two!

Here I am again in my Sustainable Living class at the University of Massachusetts talking about “waste equals food”:

So, waste equals food….. at least in my household.  But how does this apply to farming.  Well lets think of a farm as an agricultural ecosystem.   We might depict it like this:

So, an agroecosystem is a geographically bounded place on earth (a field, farm or watershed for example) that has been designed and managed by humans for a specific purpose such as growing food.  It exists in relationship with an external environment.  On most farms, inputs like sunshine, perhaps fertilizer, water and seed flow in.  Food and other “stuff” flow out.

When that other stuff is clean, no problem.  But when soil, nutrients, or pesticides flow out….. big problem!  Agroecosystems that are “leaky” are not designed well.  This situation is typical of many industrial farms that are really good at growing food, but not so good at preventing harmful waste products from flowing downstream and required lots of inputs.  By optimizing the system for continuously using and reusing energy and nutrients within the system the system becomes more efficient.

In this model, the system produces food, but minimizes waste and requires fewer inputs because energy and nutrients are recycled within the system (waste equals food).

But, can this really happen on the farm?  Sure, but it takes farm managers willing to pay attention to detail.  Here is a clip from a workshop at Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts (with an apology for the sound quality – it was a windy day).

That’s right….. waste equals food at Simple Gifts Farm.

Can you think of other ways of cycling nutrients and energy on a farm?  How about in your own life?

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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 the rest of this series of posts.

Sustainable food and farming: Part IV – Ecological “rule” number one – use current solar income

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In my last Sustainable Food and Farming post, I concluded with the statement that Mother Nature “runs” by  three ecological principles (its her “rulebook”).  They are:

  1. Use current solar income.
  2. Recycle everything (waste = food).
  3. Encourage biological diversity.

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In this post I’ll explore not only ways in which sustainable farms use current solar income, but how I try to apply this ecological “rule” in my own life.

Lets begin with a 6 minute video from a lesson I presented to my University of Massachusetts class, Sustainable Living, on the “rules of ecology”.

In this video, I offered a few examples of  how I try to employ the ecological principle “use current solar income.”  Of course I also use lots of archaic solar income too (fossil fuels), but my family is moving in a direction that recognizes the fact that humans use in one year the amount of oil, coal and natural gas that it took Mother Nature roughly a million years to create….. and that’s not sustainable.  Yikes!

But how do we apply this principle to farms?  Well, the obvious answer is that crops are solar powered.  True, but the industrial production system employed throughout much of the world is a huge “oil hog.”  We can do better!

The scientific literature and popular press abounds with stories of how energy inefficient our current food production system really is.  Traditional, pre-industrial societies lived on an energy ratio (energy out/energy in) of near 100/1, that is the energy produced by capturing sunlight in crops was 100 times greater than the energy used in growing the crops.  Today, that’s entirely reversed as we have created a food system that uses more energy than it generates.

This incredibly wasteful system evolved during a time of cheap fossil fuels.  The fact that it takes 97 times more energy to grow and airfreight asparagus from Chile to your plate in the wintertime misses the point.  We don’t eat asparagus for the caloric (energy) value, so it seems just fine to use energy to produce the food we truly want…. right?  Well lets look at the big picture.

A recent U.S.D.A. publication reported that between 1997 and 2002, over 80 percent of the increase in annual U.S. energy consumption was food related.  And over half of this was due to an increase in energy intensive technologies that contribute primarily to convenience.

According to this report “…the egg industry illustrates the long-term trend of substituting energy-intensive technology for labor. High-technology, energy-intensive hen houses, and more use of liquid, frozen, and dried egg products (instead of whole eggs) increased energy use per egg by 40 percent in 1997-2002.” Agriculture is a mechanized, energy-intensive industry.


But before we go “industry-bashing”, the report also found that “Consumers are relying on blenders and food processors instead of knives and chopping blocks, and self-cleaning ovens have replaced elbow grease.  The U.S.D.A Economic Research Service estimates that food-related home energy use increased by 3.9 % per meal between 1997 and 2002.”

That’s us!

So yes, agriculture needs to be more energy efficient…… but while we are supporting sustainable farms by buying local food, lets have a closer look at how individual households can change our own energy consumption patterns.  We can make a difference!

Why don’t we:

  1. Grow our own food (as much as possible anyway)!
  2. Purchase Energy Star appliances whenever possible which use energy more efficiently.
  3. Take pleasure in the simple act of chopping vegetables rather than using electric appliances whenever possible.
  4. Avoid fast food….. which is not only wasteful of energy but generally unhealthy.
  5. Cut out consumption of meat products, especially beef, in favor of plant proteins and smaller servings.
  6. Yes, and of course…..  support local farms which reduce fossil-fuel dependent fertilizers, eliminate packaging and reduce transportation costs.
  7. What else?

How do you think we can better “use current solar income” in our food growing, buying and preparation practices?  Please post below….

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  • And, to see my Facebook group, Just Food Now, click here.

  • For my World.edu posts on Sustainable Food and Farming, click here.

Sustainable food and farming part III: Lets get practical!

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Praxis (noun) ; translating an idea into action; the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted or practiced, embodied and/or realized.

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A few weeks ago I asked my Sustainable Agriculture class to define the word praxis.  They struggled with this question, so this blog will give my class (and all of you readers) an example of praxis as applied to sustainable agriculture.

I began to explore the concept of sustainable agriculture in two previous blog posts, both a bit “heady.”   I’m encouraged however by American psychologist, Kurt Lewin’s most famous quote “there is nothing more practical than a good theory.”

In my first post, Sustainable Food and Farming Part I: Is sustainable agriculture sustainable?, I explored the difference between mechanistic and ecological approaches to farming and science. I wrote “I will address this topic using both theory and practice….”

In my second post, Sustainable Food and Farming Part II: symbols and perspectives matter! I compared various ways of looking at sustainability. I asked “….what if we tried to understand how natural ecosystems function, and then design managed ecosystems like farms using principles of ecology?”

In this post I will attempt to translate these ideas into practice – yup, that’s praxis.

So lets ask “are there any real world examples of farms that are managed using ecological principles?”  Certainly there is research exploring the relationship between farming and ecology, the most famous is probably Wes Jackson’s work at The Land Institute in Kansas.  Other examples can be found among the Permaculture Community, mostly on small plots.    But most of the agroecological research is being conducted by farmers themselves.  Farmers who associate with the sustainability movement conduct practical experiments each year trying to discover what works best in their specific ecosystem.  We might all learn from them….. for example;

…here is a video from a workshop called “Farming is Ecology.”

In this video we see examples of how thinking of a farm as an agroecosystem can help generate sustainable farming practices at the Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts.

In the video, we see examples of  three ecological principles (can you identify them?):

  1. Use current solar income whenever possible.
  2. Recycle everything (waste = food).
  3. Encourage biological diversity.

My next post will explore these ideas more fully, but for now I’ll ask you…..

1. Do you know of any farms that are managed using ecological principles?

and

2. Can you identify ways in which these ecological principles are working in your own life?

Please share your thoughts in the comments box below!

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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 the rest of this series of posts.

Sustainable food and farming part II: symbols and perspectives matter!

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In my first post of this series, I asked the question “is sustainable agriculture sustainable?” Of course the answer will depend largely on how we view sustainability.  In the standard (and for the most part universal) perspective, sustainability is viewed from three perspectives;

  1. Environmental Quality
  2. Social Equity
  3. Economic Viability

….. or variants of these.

If sustainable systems need to be supported by three legs of a milking stool (to put it in a farming context), it is clear that all three are important as a two-legged stool won’t stand.  While this is a simple, powerful image and perhaps useful as an introduction, it also comes with problems.

The three-legged-stool image is a variant of the commonly used Venn diagram which appears in many forms throughout the academic and farming  literature as well as  in marketing materials for various sustainable products.

It too is becoming widely used and recognized (at least among those of us who think about this stuff) and  looks like this:

Competitive Model

Of course, the idea is that we all want to work toward the region where the circles overlap!   My problem with this commonly used depiction of sustainability is that it puts equal importance on each circle (or leg) and creates a situation in which competition among the three perspectives is inevitable.  This is a problem!

If we approach sustainability from the perspective of three interlocking yet  still competing objectives, we will never change our personal lives or our social systems in ways that can be sustained.  If this diagram remains as our model of sustainability then I’ll answer the question in my previous post (is sustainable agriculture sustainable?) with a resounding NO!  While this commonly accepted model of sustainability is a useful way to talk to someone who is new to the conversation, it is not adequate.

From this viewpoint, economic concerns will always trump environmental quality and social equity.  In fact, it could be argued that most modern industrial systems (including agriculture) are designed to exploit both people and the environment in order to maximize economic return.  A more progressive approach might be to “optimize economic return with the least negative impact on people and the environment as possible.” Have you ever heard that one?  I have.  But it is still about trade-offs.   Can’t we do better?

How can we look at sustainability in a way that integrates economic viability, environmental stability and social equity?  Where do we look for an answer?  Well, to me….. we look to the earth as our teacher.

I will examine  this idea in my next post, but to give you a taste of where we are headed – lets think about living systems (like farms) as levels of complexity, each level embedded in the next more complex level.

If we begin to see living systems as subsystems embedded in larger subsystems from the atom and molecule through the living cell, organs, organisms and on “up” through levels of ecological complexity….. then maybe we can make some sense out of our sustainability diagram.

What if “Mother Nature” was our model for sustainability?  What if we tried to understand how natural ecosystems function, and then design managed ecosystems (like farms) using principles of ecology?

Well, maybe then we would turn our Venn diagram into a model that depicted the relationship among each perspective more like a living system – more like Mother Earth!

Living Systems Model

What if we saw that a healthy economy depended on a healthy social system?  And a healthy social system depended on a healthy environment?  Maybe then we would see that competition among these three “legs of the stool” will not get us where we want to go!

To me, the symbolic representation of the three perspectives is important.  The living systems model represents a richer understanding of the relationships among potentially competing objectives.  But I”m really curious about what you think, so lets ask some questions.

  1. How might this “living systems” model of sustainability change our thinking?

  2. How might it change our behavior?

  3. How might it change the way we grow food?

  4. What do you think?

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For ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.  And go here for the rest of this series of posts.

Sustainable food and farming part I: Is sustainable agriculture sustainable?

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“There is always a well-known solution to every human problem–neat, plausible, and wrong.” – H.L. Mencken

When I began my career as an agricultural scientist, the “well-known” solutions for farming problems were mostly about which fertilizer to apply or which pesticide to spray.  Fortunately, that rather simplistic approach lost favor as we became more aware of its unintended consequences.  Nitrates in our drinking water, herbicides in the surface water, and tons of soil running down stream were pretty clear indicators that something wasn’t working.

Of course is was yet another economic crisis in the mid-1980’s that drove farmers to join together to “invent” something they chose to call sustainable agriculture.   Agricultural scientists were slow to get the message, but eventually most came around to talk about sustainability in their own terms.  Today, sustainable agriculture is pretty mainstream.  But the terms that mainstream agricultural scientists choose to use (that of reductionist science)  is really not such a radical departure from the past.  Loosely described as “input substitution,” most agricultural scientists began trying to develop safer ways to apply pesticides and more organic means of applying nutrients.  With some exceptions, the scientific community struggled to think about farms as ecosystems, and most university trained scientists continued with a mechanistic approach to solving problems on the farm.

Many farmers on the other hand quite naturally saw farms as complex agricultural ecosystems, even when they didn’t have all of the tools or ability necessary to manage such complex systems.

This series of posts will explore what it means to be sustainable and compare the so-called mechanistic and ecological approaches to farming and science.  I will address this topic using both theory and practice, and while my exploration of sustainability will most likely apply to many aspects of life, I intend to focus principally on food and farming.  This is where my heart is and this is the area of study that I have a modicum of experience and some expertise.

Any linear mechanistic approach to solving problems in agriculture, a decidedly complex ecological system, is likely to fail in the long run.  As the quote from H.L. Mencken above suggests, even the most obvious solutions applied to complex systems are likely to be wrong when approached from the wrong frame of reference.  So perspective matters.  My next post will explore ways of looking at sustainability as I try to answer the question “is sustainable agriculture sustainable?”

If you are curious about the author of this blog, you are welcome to check out a bio statement on my web page, where you may find some background information as well as links to some of my writing and videos.

My hope is that this exploration elicits a passionate but thoughtful response from readers.  So let us begin this discussion with a question…..

…..is sustainable agriculture sustainable?

What do you think?