The future of sustainable food and farming

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I got a call from the dean of my college recently.  He asked me to stop by and share a few thoughts on the future of sustainable agriculture in New England.  While sustainability has become “wicked cool” at the University of Massachusetts and our undergraduate major in Sustainable Food and Farming has grown rapidly, he wanted to know “so what’s next?”  Well, I babbled something or other – but here is what I wish I had said:

1.  First, a sustainable agriculture MUST address the multiple integrated objectives of economic vitality, environmental integrity, and social equity or justice.

This claim is understood by most governments, the United Nations, farm and advocacy groups, and universities.  Some corporations and agricultural commodity groups would like to present sustainable agriculture more narrowly (focused primarily on economic sustainability), but this self-serving position is in the minority today.  The sustainability movement grew out of the environmental movement of the 1970’s by adding social equity/justice to the conversation during the 1980’s – creating the so-called triple bottom line.

2. The long-term viability of large-scale, industrial agricultural systems is threatened by rising oil prices and global climate change.

Industrial food production and distribution systems are financially efficient in the short-term and have resulted in low food prices.  However this system is highly dependent on chemical and energy subsidies and is vulnerable to collapse or at least decay.  As energy costs go up and government begins to take climate change more seriously, global food prices will continue to rise and we will need to look at more energy-efficient alternatives.

3. Although theoretically it is possible to imagine a large-scale industrial agricultural system that is more sustainable, we do not have the political will to develop the necessary government regulations and tax incentives to move corporate farms and major food distributors in this direction.

It would be possible to create a global, corporation-dominated sustainable agricultural system with the appropriate government-imposed constraints and incentives if we had the political willWe don’t – at least not at present.  The structure and purpose of the corporation itself won’t permit even the most progressive and courageous corporate leaders (and there are some) to voluntarily sacrifice profit to become more environmentally responsible and committed to social justice for very long.

Large-scale, corporate sustainable farming such as that proposed by Walmart will continue to maximize profit at the expense of the other two sustainability objectives, regardless of what their advertising campaigns might say.  Current experiments in sustainability by a few food giants are likely to be short lived, as the structure of the global corporation is designed to make money at all (sometimes legal and sometimes not) cost.  We must look to more local alternatives if we want long term environmental protection, equitable access to food and land, and a fair distribution of wealth.

4. A food and farming system with a local focus, managed by families and local community groups rather than corporations, is more likely to address all three of the sustainability objectives.

Addressing environmental and social justice priorities will be more likely when producers and consumers know each other and are part of a shared community.  As long as the negative impacts of doing business impact people “far away”, most of us will overlook these impacts in exchange for maximizing financial return.  However when farmers, distributors and consumers engage within a community, they will be more likely to include environmental and social impact into their decision-making.

Even the “father” of capitalism, Adam Smith, understood the need for a fair distribution of wealth.  His concept that the “invisible hand” of the free market (guided by competition, self-interest, and supply and demand) would result in efficient and fair distribution of resources was in fact based on two assumptions that are no longer true.

the first assumption was ethical.  In the 18th century, there was a sense of “right and wrong” promulgated at least partially by the church.  Even when people and businesses cheated their customers, they were not proud of it (as it seems some CEO’s are today).  The second assumption that is no longer true is that most economic transactions took place between people who knew each other.   It was difficult to cheat a neighbor that you had to see every day.

The global marketplace has lost both a sense of “right and wrong” and any personal connection between producer and consumer.  Transactions are anonymous and the only “wrong” seems to be getting caught.  Under these conditions, the global market no longer generates a fair distribution of wealth.  We must relocalize the food system if we want it to be sustainable.

5. As energy prices continue to rise, local agriculture will become more economically competitive if and only if we develop integrated crop and livestock polyculture systems based on three ecological principles.

The principles are:

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

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

C. Ecological “Rule” Number Three – Enhance Diversity

If local farms are modeled after large industrial farms, they too will be negatively effected by increasing fossil fuel costs much like their larger cousins.  Unlike large monoculture farms however, small farms can be managed as ecological systems.  Progressive farmers are experimenting with new ways to integrate crops and livestock to use energy and nutrients more efficiently and agroecological research at the university must support this effort.

Although quite small, Edible forest gardens which mimic late-stage ecological succession, are perhaps the best example of a sustainable food production system.  But even simpler intercropping or polyculture systems are more energy and nutrient efficient than large monocultures.  It is imperative for small, local farms to continue to transition to ecologically managed systems if they are to be competitive and sustainable in the long run.  Consumers can participate in this transition, by supporting these farms and working to make local agriculture thrive in their own community.  

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The future of sustainable agriculture in New England is local

In the future we will see a further strengthening of local markets (especially into the inner city) and the development of new integrated crop an livestock farming systems.  While it will surely look different in other regions of the world, sustainable agriculture will be local in New England.  Some food items such as grain and dry beans, will be shipped by rail to feed livestock and people and hopefully will be sold through locally owned businesses.  But a recent analysis of local opportunities suggests that in New England, it is possible for us to produce most of our vegetables, half of our fruit, and also provide  for all of our dairy, beef, lamb and chicken needs for a population of about 15 million.  This could be done if we reduce our meat consumption, eat more more fruits and vegetables, and increase the amount of farmland in production by about three-fold (similar to what it was in 1945).

Finally, I wish I had told the dean that the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture should play a lead role in this relocalization move toward a more sustainable New England.  Our undergraduate teaching program is already moving rapidly in this direction.  But it will also require a greater investment in agroecological research and more effective outreach working in partnership with progressive family farmers and non-profit community groups to realize the dream.  In 25 years, I hope people will talk about the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture as a leader in the relocalization of food and farming systems in New England.

Finally, as the Stockbridge emblem reminds us, this work will require the full commitment of our “body, heart and soul.”   Personally, I pray that we are ready for the challenge!

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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.


53 comments

Michelle Jones #permalink

Hello John,

I thought to pose a question about the the future of a sustainable ag.

Is it possible on a small local scale for the economic part of this trinity to be almost non-existent?
What I am proposing is "Food is Free"
I am implying not only is it free on a moral level, but also on an monetary level as well.
If on some level this could happen, large industrial agricultural would not only be under cut but, almost removed from the situation.
I have been playing around with this idea all winter and spring. What ever is grown in my front yard is available to the neighborhood for no cost. Labor is distributed among those interested in learning and wanting to contribute.
For example, all the local children who were interested in being involved this summer showed up at my house when I was planting. I ended up only facilitating the process. Then because the community watched the children being involved adults began to inquire what I had growing. One couple showed interest in some specific herbs. I said they were welcome to take what they wanted. They in turn shared some of their flower seedlings. My IPM went up with the contribution. They suggested some herbs that were not in the mix and I offered them land space to grow it, they understanding what they grew was to be shared in the same manner. I can see how this can get unbalanced in a large scale situation. Yet, on a small scale, it is free from an economic exchange..
What are your thoughts?

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Brian Maynard #permalink

John,

Excellent. Sent it to my dean and dept chair. BTW, the links for Rules 1 and 2 don't work.

Cheers, Brian

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John M. Gerber #permalink

Thanks for picking this up Brian…. I fixed the links.

John

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Chris HOffman #permalink

John, not sure how you found me (I received an email about your blog), but I'm glad you did. I write a weekly column called Think Local for the Madison County Courier in Central New York, and often address the issues of sustainable ag, local farming, buy local, and anti-corporate issues in general. I liked your Future piece — and agree wholeheartedly. The entire system of food production and distribution is nonsustainable, and we must get back to local and possibly regional means of feeding ourselves. Education is key — people have to relearn how to live with the seasons within their own climates and ecosystems and eventually become comfortable again with the fact that you simply can't have tomatoes in Upstate NY in January! We have been indoctrinated since the end of WWII to believe that all convenience changes are for the better, and what we are coming to see now is the far side of that particular moon, and all of the destructive features of a system that had no boundaries. I'm honestly not sure whether I'll live to see this turnaround … but the reality is, we have no choice, because how we are feeding ourselves now will come to a screeching halt, and if we have not prepared in the interim, we'll all starve. It's a monumental task —

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Phil Wilson #permalink

Hi John,
It's so great to read your thoughts on this subject as our farm (Captain Pollard's Flintlock Farm in Still River, MA) is now rolling out our response to the "local small farm" imperative. In essence, we are attempting to recreate the Colonial New England plantation model on a small scale and merge this "lost arts business ecosystem" with what we consider to be the best intellectual property in holistic farm and ranch practices. We would love to be able to work with yourself, your interns and graduates as you have captured many our our ideals in your blog posting.

Best of luck and keep the blog coming our way!
Phil Wilson

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Kathy Ruhf #permalink

Hi John,
To deepen the dialogue you and your readers might want to read several related pieces (see links below). In some circles your "local" is more "regional." It will help the conversation to be clear about what we mean. Scale and geography are critical. We'd want to be able to embed the values you describe even when we don't know the face of each farmer.

Is Local Enough? Some arguments for Regional Food Systems http://www.choicesmagazine.org/magazine/article.p

A more detailed version of the above paper can be found at http://www.nefood.org under publications.

Avoiding the Local Trap: Scale and Food Systems in Planning Research http://jpe.sagepub.com/content/26/2/195.short

Kathy Ruhf
Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group

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Kathy Ruhf #permalink

Hi John,
To deepen the dialogue you and your readers might want to read several related pieces (see links below). In some circles your "local" is more "regional." It will help the conversation to be clear about what we mean. Scale and geography are critical. We'd want to be able to embed the values you describe even when we don't know the face of each farmer.

Is Local Enough? Some arguments for Regional Food Systems http://www.choicesmagazine.org/magazine/article.p

A more detailed version of the above paper can be found at http://www.nefood.org under publications.

Avoiding the Local Trap: Scale and Food Systems in Planning Research http://jpe.sagepub.com/content/26/2/195.short

Kathy Ruhf
Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group

Reply
Kathy Ruhf #permalink

Hi John,
To deepen the dialogue you and your readers might want to read several related pieces (see links below). In some circles your "local" is more "regional." It will help the conversation to be clear about what we mean. Scale and geography are critical. We'd want to be able to embed the values you describe even when we don't know the face of each farmer.

Is Local Enough? Some arguments for Regional Food Systems http://www.choicesmagazine.org/magazine/article.p

A more detailed version of the above paper can be found at http://www.nefood.org under publications.

Avoiding the Local Trap: Scale and Food Systems in Planning Research http://jpe.sagepub.com/content/26/2/195.short

Kathy Ruhf
Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group

Reply
Kathy Ruhf #permalink

Hi John,
To deepen the dialogue you and your readers might want to read several related pieces (see links below). In some circles your "local" is more "regional." It will help the conversation to be clear about what we mean. Scale and geography are critical. We'd want to be able to embed the values you describe even when we don't know the face of each farmer.

Is Local Enough? Some arguments for Regional Food Systems http://www.choicesmagazine.org/magazine/article.p

A more detailed version of the above paper can be found at http://www.nefood.org under publications.

Avoiding the Local Trap: Scale and Food Systems in Planning Research http://jpe.sagepub.com/content/26/2/195.short

Kathy Ruhf
Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group

Reply
Kathy Ruhf #permalink

Hi John,
To deepen the dialogue you and your readers might want to read several related pieces (see links below). In some circles your "local" is more "regional." It will help the conversation to be clear about what we mean. Scale and geography are critical. We'd want to be able to embed the values you describe even when we don't know the face of each farmer.

Is Local Enough? Some arguments for Regional Food Systems http://www.choicesmagazine.org/magazine/article.p

A more detailed version of the above paper can be found at http://www.nefood.org under publications.

Avoiding the Local Trap: Scale and Food Systems in Planning Research http://jpe.sagepub.com/content/26/2/195.short

Kathy Ruhf
Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group

Reply
Kathy Ruhf #permalink

Hi John,
To deepen the dialogue you and your readers might want to read several related pieces (see links below). In some circles your "local" is more "regional." It will help the conversation to be clear about what we mean. Scale and geography are critical. We'd want to be able to embed the values you describe even when we don't know the face of each farmer.

Is Local Enough? Some arguments for Regional Food Systems http://www.choicesmagazine.org/magazine/article.p

A more detailed version of the above paper can be found at http://www.nefood.org under publications.

Avoiding the Local Trap: Scale and Food Systems in Planning Research http://jpe.sagepub.com/content/26/2/195.short

Kathy Ruhf
Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group

Reply
Pat Stewart #permalink

I would invite everyone to look at the project we are undertaking in North Central MA. North Country Sustainability Center, Inc is a unique blend of agriculture, arts, and sustainable economic revival. You can find more about us at http://www.northcountrysustain.org. We just received our 501 c 3 status, and are trying to raise the money to purchase the foreclosed buildings and start providing classes, services and opportunities for our regional farmers, artists and businesses.

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Pat Stewart #permalink

I would invite everyone to look at the project we are undertaking in North Central MA. North Country Sustainability Center, Inc is a unique blend of agriculture, arts, and sustainable economic revival. You can find more about us at http://www.northcountrysustain.org. We just received our 501 c 3 status, and are trying to raise the money to purchase the foreclosed buildings and start providing classes, services and opportunities for our regional farmers, artists and businesses.

Reply
Pat Stewart #permalink

I would invite everyone to look at the project we are undertaking in North Central MA. North Country Sustainability Center, Inc is a unique blend of agriculture, arts, and sustainable economic revival. You can find more about us at http://www.northcountrysustain.org. We just received our 501 c 3 status, and are trying to raise the money to purchase the foreclosed buildings and start providing classes, services and opportunities for our regional farmers, artists and businesses.

Reply
Pat Stewart #permalink

I would invite everyone to look at the project we are undertaking in North Central MA. North Country Sustainability Center, Inc is a unique blend of agriculture, arts, and sustainable economic revival. You can find more about us at http://www.northcountrysustain.org. We just received our 501 c 3 status, and are trying to raise the money to purchase the foreclosed buildings and start providing classes, services and opportunities for our regional farmers, artists and businesses.

Reply
Pat Stewart #permalink

I would invite everyone to look at the project we are undertaking in North Central MA. North Country Sustainability Center, Inc is a unique blend of agriculture, arts, and sustainable economic revival. You can find more about us at http://www.northcountrysustain.org. We just received our 501 c 3 status, and are trying to raise the money to purchase the foreclosed buildings and start providing classes, services and opportunities for our regional farmers, artists and businesses.

Reply
Pat Stewart #permalink

I would invite everyone to look at the project we are undertaking in North Central MA. North Country Sustainability Center, Inc is a unique blend of agriculture, arts, and sustainable economic revival. You can find more about us at http://www.northcountrysustain.org. We just received our 501 c 3 status, and are trying to raise the money to purchase the foreclosed buildings and start providing classes, services and opportunities for our regional farmers, artists and businesses.

Reply
John M. Gerber #permalink

Thanks Kathy….. I love the article by you and Kate and hope everyone will read it. Regional is preferable to global, for sure. In fact, when I think local, I think New England. I don't expect to see "the end of globalism" but I do hope we can swing the pendulum back toward more local, including regional food systems.

For me one of the major points is from the Born and Purcell article where they write "It is the content of that agenda, not the scales themselves, that produces outcomes such as sustainability or justice." I totally agree. And my assumption that larger scale projects cannot and will not include a social justice content may in fact be wrong. In fact, I'd love to be proved wrong. But I don't see many examples of larger scale projects that have successfully included social justice in any meaningful way. So until proven wrong, I will step purposefully into what Born and Purcell cleverly call the "local trap." I tried to explain this in the paragraphs on the Wealth of Nations.

I think the "face of the farmer – or the shoemaker – is critical. But what about other folks? What do you think?

John

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Saera #permalink

Thank you John! As always, you inspire me and eloquently explain what is dear to my heart, even if I am in embryonic stages of expressing it. Sharing this on my blog! :)

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Megan O'Rourke #permalink

Hi,

Interesting article. I am a AAAS fellow working on climate change issues at USDA and have been involved in sustainable agriculture throughout my academic career. Couldn't help but notice the contradiction about moving towards local farming as a response to climate change whille proposing to triple the amount of farmland in New England. Deforestation caused by agricultural expansion is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate change. Clearly, there are negative consequences to local food production that many people may not be happy with. To move towards more sustainable agriculture, I think that we need to look even beyond local food production, to considering changing our diets and perhaps even the entire economy so that more people are involved in food production… How that might happen, I can't say… I work at USDA because the "economic vitality" pillar of starting a local farm just wasn't working for my family.

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John M. Gerber #permalink

Thanks Megan…. do you think with well managed pasture land we can sequester carbon in the soil? Most of the increase proposed in farm land in New England would be pasture. As I wrote, if we simply replicate large industrial farms on a small scale, local won't help. If we can create ecologically managed systems, like the ones I linked to in the article, I believe we can address climate change at the same time. Of course, I may be wrong.

What do others think?

John

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nika #permalink

Permaculture, horticulture and definitely NOT Big Ag chemical large scale grain agriculture.

This region has been cultivated by humans – as horticultural forest farming – for potentially millennia.

When the whites came, they pushed the local native tribes off of well established forest agriculture that was sustainable and perennial in many ways. We can chose to learn from that and what we know now through more modern science to build actually sustainable agriculture (the term "sustainable" is quite profoundly co-opted and deprecated now – I use the term in its real sense).

There is plenty of barely maintained pasture here in central MA – plenty of farmers have simply hayed their fields for decades to feed into hobby/pet horse keeping. What has been and is being lost are the buildings and legacy know-how for coping with New England weather tho that is less important every passing year as our climate brings us new challenges that require nimble minds versus established traditions.

A difficult part of this discussion is that – even in our country – we live in a state of over-shoot that is invisible as long as Big Ag chugs along. Once we begin to seriously power down and relocalize, it will become obvious that feeding our large urban centers – NYC, Boston, Worcester, Sturbridge – will be a feat of near-magic without intense nationwide dedication to relocalizing food.

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Leslie Cerier #permalink

What a great conversation! Thanks for inspiring it John. I heartily agree that eating local and with the seasons is the way to go. Grow as much food and as we can and being part of a sustainable food community is one of our best insurances for homeland security.

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Mark B. Lapping #permalink

John: Kathy Ruhf's perpsective reflects my concerns as well. Is not a potato grown in Greenland, New Hampshire, more local to me as a consumer in Portland than a spud from Aroostock County, though I am a Mainer?
Several years ago I had the opportunity to abridge and edit for publication Howard Russell's classic, "A Long, Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England." It is, I think, crucial that we reflect on just what New England farmers/fishers did in the past for the past can be the prelude to the future.
The upcoming issue of the Maine Policy Review, due out in days, is devoted to food and food issues. Several of my students joined me in assessing Maine's food system. It is a truly a sad situation to see how things have deteroirated in the processing sector as well as in other aspects of the state's food system. And this in a state where one-out-of-every-five children under 16 years of age lives in a food insecure home! The revival of a regional/local food system might well go a long way toward addressing as well as other problems. Good stuff all around! Mark

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Gidon Eshel #permalink

A very nice post!

The question of what constitutes sustainable agriculture, and what direction the ag systems of the US and regions therein should take is a multi dimensional one. That is, you may run into serious troubles if you base your final choice, or your line of reasoning, on one metric, say GHG emissions, at the exclusions of other important environmental performance metrics (e.g., water and land demands). While this is true for geophysical considerations like the examples I used above, it is all the more pertinent for the totality of societal good or ill for which ag can be the engine. Carefully taking note of several of those, in addition to environmental considerations, is this post's key value.

So what are the directions postmodern New England ag should take in my view?

Expansion of reforested land is probably not warranted. As a C sink, croplands or grazelands can rarely outperform young forests like those covering most of the northeast. Further, the timescales of land-atmosphere exchanges of the soil pool (the key mechanism in the functioning of crop and pasture C sink) are a few years, while the C sequestration of forest is far slower, thus putting the excess C away for longer, not unlike a DA seeking a stiff sentence.

The key attribute northeastern ag development should take is defined by the human diet is sustains. Feeding animals is mostly a waste of finite resources, and New England has no business, or capacity, to try to out-compete Iowa in corn production. Does that mean zero beef? No. A small number (take New England ag land, divide it by 6 acres, and you get, roughly, the sustainable, reproducible, number of cow-calf duos New England can sustain; it's a small number but definitely not zero). Why cattle (both beef and dairy) when they are so ostentatiously wasteful in terms of GHG emissions, reactive N discharge, water use, land demands, and on and on? The only really useful product of cattle is their manure. In terms of nutrient cycling, they are (almost) second to none. So we need them, but in VERY small numbers.

There is now doubt, as John eloquently puts it, that families and small communities are more desirable as a owners than ConAgra or ADM; what isn't?!

Can those basic outlines be harmoniously combined, and what would they yield if combined? A widely distributed network of privately owned, medium sized (dictated unequivocally by economic and geophysical efficiency) somewhat diverse farms basing their agroecological systems on (very few and small) cattle herds, with a minimum size dictated by the nutrient recycling needs of the for-human part of the operation (e.g., if it's veggies the farm specializes in, their N needs give you a good rough estimate of the number of cattle you will need).

Careful, vigilant eye must be kept on the geophysical performance metrics of this system (soil C buildup rate is a good uber metric) at all times, but such carefully monitored agroecological systems can outperform HANDILY Iowa in terms of for-human calories, and produce food whose quality is unparalleled anywhere in the current national system.

Can they survive economically? In a cap-and-trade world, very little doubt they can. In a $100/oil barrel world, long-term? Most likely. How about in an Obama world? No, they cannot. That is one of the tragedies of the Obama presidency thus far, and I have no idea what the future Obama presidency will look like.

The above is a blueprint that can be implemented locally, if "locally" is defined as, all the New England states, plus NJ, PA, NY and environs. That's a large enough food market, and a climatically diverse enough region, to pull off such a system,

Note that "local" is not, in and of itself, particularly virtuous; if all food were generated next door, feeding the nation would have required only about 10-15% less C. The real power of local is nutrient cycling, and in particular the local closure of near closure thereof, the centerpiece of the alternative system I outlined above.

It can be done, if the political will, as John so astutely singled out as a key ingredient for a viable alternative, is in place. If not in the country as a whole, can sanity at least prevail in the northeast?! You tell me!

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Taylor #permalink

There isn’t the political will to increase sustainability in large scale agriculture, but market mechanisms may be a different story. Do you think it’s possible that private standards could provide adequate incentive for “corporate dominated” agricultural systems to begin looking at sustainability initiatives that include all three principles?

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Rick Wels #permalink

Great topic and discussion!

It is still difficult to find truly sustainable foods. The combination of foods being organic, locally grown and traded fairly still appears to be too much to ask for! Often you can buy local foods which you have no idea how it was grown or you find organic stuff trucked and flown in from far away and then you still don't know about all the other social and environmental externalities its life cycle has produced. But the trend for sustainable food production is clear it's here to stay (Can someone just stop the Monsanto clan?!).

Cheers, Rick

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Helena #permalink

AGROECOLOGY RESEARCH AT THE UNIVERSITY!! Here I come, baby….

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Karl North #permalink

Long ago I rejected Triple Bottom Line and the equilateral triangle as a way to portray and explain the concept of sustainability, because the three elements are not equal as the triangle implies. Nature rules: compromise of ecological imperatives in the attempt to optimize social and economic concerns will eventual cause the latter to fail. The USDA, agribusiness and it academic backers have used triple bottom line as a Trojan horse to coopt the concept of sustainability and distort it to serve their inimical purposes. To properly illustrate sustainability and make clear that ecological health is the necessary basis of the health of society and economy, I use a pyramid diagram where ecological imperatives are the base, social imperatives are next above, and the political economy must conform to those imperatives.

Second, in your statement #2, industrial agriculture is not just threatened, but is gradually being killed, not just by rising energy prices, but by general depletion of most of the nonrenewable resources whose intensive use props up industrial agriculture (and most of industrial civilization). Statement #3 seems to contradict this view, saying that industrial agriculture could be made more sustainable if the political will were there. An example of depletion of a strategic agricultural input is phosphorus; because the planet is approaching peak phosphorus, its price as fertilizer has quadrupled in the last few years.

If industrial agriculture will indeed end with the end of the oil age, then the sorts of farming system that follow the laws and processes of natural ecosystems – animal integrated polycultures, etc. – will not need to become “competitive”, as you say in statement #5, for those ways of farming will be the only ones left in the post-petroleum age, if we still want to eat.

For a detailed vision of agriculture and food systems relocalized at a county level to survive the end of the oil era, see my six-part series, Visioning County Agriculture, under Core Papers at http://karlnorth.com/.

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Karl North #permalink

Hi John,

Long ago I rejected Triple Bottom Line and the equilateral triangle as a way to portray and explain the concept of sustainability, because the three elements are not equal as the triangle implies. Nature rules: compromise of ecological imperatives in the attempt to optimize social and economic concerns will eventual cause the latter to fail. The USDA, agribusiness and its academic backers have used triple bottom line as a Trojan horse to coopt the concept of sustainability and distort it to serve their inimical purposes. To properly illustrate sustainability and make clear that ecological health is the necessary basis of the health of society and economy, I use a pyramid diagram where ecological imperatives are the base, social imperatives are next above, and the political economy must conform to those imperatives.

Second, in your statement #2, industrial agriculture is not just threatened, but is gradually being killed, not just by rising energy prices, but by general depletion of most of the nonrenewable resources whose intensive use props up industrial agriculture (and most of industrial civilization). Statement #3 seems to contradict this view, saying that industrial agriculture could be made more sustainable if the political will were there. An example of depletion of a strategic agricultural input is phosphorus; because the planet is approaching peak phosphorus, its price as fertilizer has quadrupled in the last few years.

If industrial agriculture will indeed end with the end of the oil age, then the sorts of farming system that follow the laws and processes of natural ecosystems – animal integrated polycultures, etc. – will not need to become “competitive”, as you say in statement #5, for those ways of farming will be the only ones left in the post-petroleum age, if we still want to eat.

For a detailed vision of agriculture and food systems relocalized at a county level to survive the end of the oil era, see my six-part series, Visioning County Agriculture, under Core Papers at http://karlnorth.com/.

Reply
Karl North #permalink

Hi John,

Long ago I rejected Triple Bottom Line and the equilateral triangle as a way to portray and explain the concept of sustainability, because the three elements are not equal as the triangle implies. Nature rules: compromise of ecological imperatives in the attempt to optimize social and economic concerns will eventual cause the latter to fail. The USDA, agribusiness and its academic backers have used triple bottom line as a Trojan horse to coopt the concept of sustainability and distort it to serve their inimical purposes. To properly illustrate sustainability and make clear that ecological health is the necessary basis of the health of society and economy, I use a pyramid diagram where ecological imperatives are the base, social imperatives are next above, and the political economy must conform to those imperatives.

Second, in your statement #2, industrial agriculture is not just threatened, but is gradually being killed, not just by rising energy prices, but by general depletion of most of the nonrenewable resources whose intensive use props up industrial agriculture (and most of industrial civilization). Statement #3 seems to contradict this view, saying that industrial agriculture could be made more sustainable if the political will were there. An example of depletion of a strategic agricultural input is phosphorus; because the planet is approaching peak phosphorus, its price as fertilizer has quadrupled in the last few years.

If industrial agriculture will indeed end with the end of the oil age, then the sorts of farming system that follow the laws and processes of natural ecosystems – animal integrated polycultures, etc. – will not need to become “competitive”, as you say in statement #5, for those ways of farming will be the only ones left in the post-petroleum age, if we still want to eat.

For a detailed vision of agriculture and food systems relocalized at a county level to survive the end of the oil era, see my six-part series, Visioning County Agriculture, under Core Papers at http://karlnorth.com/.

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Karl North #permalink

Hi John,

Long ago I rejected Triple Bottom Line and the equilateral triangle as a way to portray and explain the concept of sustainability, because the three elements are not equal as the triangle implies. Nature rules: compromise of ecological imperatives in the attempt to optimize social and economic concerns will eventual cause the latter to fail. The USDA, agribusiness and its academic backers have used triple bottom line as a Trojan horse to coopt the concept of sustainability and distort it to serve their inimical purposes. To properly illustrate sustainability and make clear that ecological health is the necessary basis of the health of society and economy, I use a pyramid diagram where ecological imperatives are the base, social imperatives are next above, and the political economy must conform to those imperatives.

Second, in your statement #2, industrial agriculture is not just threatened, but is gradually being killed, not just by rising energy prices, but by general depletion of most of the nonrenewable resources whose intensive use props up industrial agriculture (and most of industrial civilization). Statement #3 seems to contradict this view, saying that industrial agriculture could be made more sustainable if the political will were there. An example of depletion of a strategic agricultural input is phosphorus; because the planet is approaching peak phosphorus, its price as fertilizer has quadrupled in the last few years.

If industrial agriculture will indeed end with the end of the oil age, then the sorts of farming system that follow the laws and processes of natural ecosystems – animal integrated polycultures, etc. – will not need to become “competitive”, as you say in statement #5, for those ways of farming will be the only ones left in the post-petroleum age, if we still want to eat.

For a detailed vision of agriculture and food systems relocalized at a county level to survive the end of the oil era, see my six-part series, Visioning County Agriculture, under Core Papers at http://karlnorth.com/.

Reply
Karl North #permalink

Hi John,

Long ago I rejected Triple Bottom Line and the equilateral triangle as a way to portray and explain the concept of sustainability, because the three elements are not equal as the triangle implies. Nature rules: compromise of ecological imperatives in the attempt to optimize social and economic concerns will eventual cause the latter to fail. The USDA, agribusiness and its academic backers have used triple bottom line as a Trojan horse to coopt the concept of sustainability and distort it to serve their inimical purposes. To properly illustrate sustainability and make clear that ecological health is the necessary basis of the health of society and economy, I use a pyramid diagram where ecological imperatives are the base, social imperatives are next above, and the political economy must conform to those imperatives.

Second, in your statement #2, industrial agriculture is not just threatened, but is gradually being killed, not just by rising energy prices, but by general depletion of most of the nonrenewable resources whose intensive use props up industrial agriculture (and most of industrial civilization). Statement #3 seems to contradict this view, saying that industrial agriculture could be made more sustainable if the political will were there. An example of depletion of a strategic agricultural input is phosphorus; because the planet is approaching peak phosphorus, its price as fertilizer has quadrupled in the last few years.

If industrial agriculture will indeed end with the end of the oil age, then the sorts of farming system that follow the laws and processes of natural ecosystems – animal integrated polycultures, etc. – will not need to become “competitive”, as you say in statement #5, for those ways of farming will be the only ones left in the post-petroleum age, if we still want to eat.

For a detailed vision of agriculture and food systems relocalized at a county level to survive the end of the oil era, see my six-part series, Visioning County Agriculture, under Core Papers at http://karlnorth.com/.

Reply
Karl North #permalink

Hi John,

Long ago I rejected Triple Bottom Line and the equilateral triangle as a way to portray and explain the concept of sustainability, because the three elements are not equal as the triangle implies. Nature rules: compromise of ecological imperatives in the attempt to optimize social and economic concerns will eventual cause the latter to fail. The USDA, agribusiness and its academic backers have used triple bottom line as a Trojan horse to coopt the concept of sustainability and distort it to serve their inimical purposes. To properly illustrate sustainability and make clear that ecological health is the necessary basis of the health of society and economy, I use a pyramid diagram where ecological imperatives are the base, social imperatives are next above, and the political economy must conform to those imperatives.

Second, in your statement #2, industrial agriculture is not just threatened, but is gradually being killed, not just by rising energy prices, but by general depletion of most of the nonrenewable resources whose intensive use props up industrial agriculture (and most of industrial civilization). Statement #3 seems to contradict this view, saying that industrial agriculture could be made more sustainable if the political will were there. An example of depletion of a strategic agricultural input is phosphorus; because the planet is approaching peak phosphorus, its price as fertilizer has quadrupled in the last few years.

If industrial agriculture will indeed end with the end of the oil age, then the sorts of farming system that follow the laws and processes of natural ecosystems – animal integrated polycultures, etc. – will not need to become “competitive”, as you say in statement #5, for those ways of farming will be the only ones left in the post-petroleum age, if we still want to eat.

For a detailed vision of agriculture and food systems relocalized at a county level to survive the end of the oil era, see my six-part series, Visioning County Agriculture, under Core Papers at http://karlnorth.com/.

Reply
Karl North #permalink

Hi John,

Long ago I rejected Triple Bottom Line and the equilateral triangle as a way to portray and explain the concept of sustainability, because the three elements are not equal as the triangle implies. Nature rules: compromise of ecological imperatives in the attempt to optimize social and economic concerns will eventual cause the latter to fail. The USDA, agribusiness and its academic backers have used triple bottom line as a Trojan horse to coopt the concept of sustainability and distort it to serve their inimical purposes. To properly illustrate sustainability and make clear that ecological health is the necessary basis of the health of society and economy, I use a pyramid diagram where ecological imperatives are the base, social imperatives are next above, and the political economy must conform to those imperatives.

Second, in your statement #2, industrial agriculture is not just threatened, but is gradually being killed, not just by rising energy prices, but by general depletion of most of the nonrenewable resources whose intensive use props up industrial agriculture (and most of industrial civilization). Statement #3 seems to contradict this view, saying that industrial agriculture could be made more sustainable if the political will were there. An example of depletion of a strategic agricultural input is phosphorus; because the planet is approaching peak phosphorus, its price as fertilizer has quadrupled in the last few years.

If industrial agriculture will indeed end with the end of the oil age, then the sorts of farming system that follow the laws and processes of natural ecosystems – animal integrated polycultures, etc. – will not need to become “competitive”, as you say in statement #5, for those ways of farming will be the only ones left in the post-petroleum age, if we still want to eat.

For a detailed vision of agriculture and food systems relocalized at a county level to survive the end of the oil era, see my six-part series, Visioning County Agriculture, under Core Papers at http://karlnorth.com/.

Reply
Jen Hartley #permalink

Gidon Eshel's comment made me think the following things:
Why the exclusive focus on cattle in terms of livestock production? How does the calculus change if the focus is on livestock such as sheep, goats, chickens, rabbits?
Also, why use the idea of $100/barrel oil, long-term, as a working assumption? There is evidence to suggest that we will only see increased volatility in the price of oil going forward, with the overall trend being much higher than $100/barrel. Do we want to plan ahead for something as important as food security assuming that oil will be affordable in the long term? What does ag production and distribution look like with oil at $200/barrel? $300/barrel? In an ever-worsening recession? Is it really prudent to assume that can't happen?

Reply
E_Bourgeois #permalink

Unfortunately I don't see much yet for sustainable farming practices in the happy valley. I see very poor selection and breeding programs of livestock. Soils that still lack enough life. Anyone playing with compost tea recipes? Too much exposed soils and deep traditional plowing. Inadequate and unsustainable organic matter approaches. Inadequate rotations. Why aren't farmers getting together to share knowledge and set up some trials. Why aren't more people attending BOPO meetings, sending letters to the Dean, Chancellor and President pushing OUR Land Grant. Why does the Dean not know more about the future of local farming? Who has a 4-H gardening club? Who is revitalizing our existing agricultural fairs to educate the public and bring back a way for farmers to get together to show their wares and share ideas. Why weren't there more folks at the Common Good Festival last Sunday?

Reply
E_Bourgeois #permalink

Unfortunately I don't see much yet for sustainable farming practices in the happy valley. I see very poor selection and breeding programs of livestock. Soils that still lack enough life. Anyone playing with compost tea recipes? Too much exposed soils and deep traditional plowing. Inadequate and unsustainable organic matter approaches. Inadequate rotations. Why aren't farmers getting together to share knowledge and set up some trials. Why aren't more people attending BOPO meetings, sending letters to the Dean, Chancellor and President pushing OUR Land Grant. Why does the Dean not know more about the future of local farming? Who has a 4-H gardening club? Who is revitalizing our existing agricultural fairs to educate the public and bring back a way for farmers to get together to show their wares and share ideas. Why weren't there more folks at the Common Good Festival last Sunday?
We must get serious our this will just be another short lived fad.

Reply
E_Bourgeois #permalink

Unfortunately I don't see much yet for sustainable farming practices in the happy valley. I see very poor selection and breeding programs of livestock. Soils that still lack enough life. Anyone playing with compost tea recipes? Too much exposed soils and deep traditional plowing. Inadequate and unsustainable organic matter approaches. Inadequate rotations. Why aren't farmers getting together to share knowledge and set up some trials. Why aren't more people attending BOPO meetings, sending letters to the Dean, Chancellor and President pushing OUR Land Grant. Why does the Dean not know more about the future of local farming? Who has a 4-H gardening club? Who is revitalizing our existing agricultural fairs to educate the public and bring back a way for farmers to get together to show their wares and share ideas. Why weren't there more folks at the Common Good Festival last Sunday?
We must get serious or this will just be another short lived fad.

Reply
E_Bourgeois #permalink

Unfortunately I don't see much yet for sustainable farming practices in the happy valley. I see very poor selection and breeding programs of livestock. Soils that still lack enough life. Anyone playing with compost tea recipes? Too much exposed soils and deep traditional plowing. Inadequate and unsustainable organic matter approaches. Inadequate rotations. Why aren't farmers getting together to share knowledge and set up some trials. Why aren't more people attending BOPO meetings, sending letters to the Dean, Chancellor and President pushing OUR Land Grant. Why does the Dean not know more about the future opportunities and needs for local farming? Who has a 4-H gardening club? Who is revitalizing our existing agricultural fairs to educate the public and bring back a way for farmers to get together to show their wares and share ideas. Why weren't there more folks at the Common Good Festival last Sunday?
We must get serious or this will just be another short lived fad.

Reply
E_Bourgeois #permalink

Unfortunately I don't see much yet for sustainable farming practices in the happy valley. I see very poor selection and breeding programs of livestock. Soils that still lack enough life. Anyone playing with compost tea recipes? Too much exposed soils and deep traditional plowing. Inadequate and unsustainable organic matter approaches. Inadequate rotations. Why aren't farmers getting together to share knowledge and set up some trials. Why aren't more people attending BOPO meetings, sending letters to the Dean, Chancellor and President pushing OUR Land Grant. Why does the Dean not know more about the future opportunities and needs for local farming? The likes of PepsiCo and ADM just established some of the best food science labs in the country in the new Natural Science building on campus. What about local food science research? Who has a 4-H gardening club? Who is revitalizing our existing agricultural fairs to educate the public and bring back a way for farmers to get together to show their wares and share ideas. Why weren't there more folks at the Common Good Festival last Sunday?
We must get serious or this will just be another short lived fad.

Reply
E_Bourgeois #permalink

Unfortunately I don't see much yet for sustainable farming practices in the happy valley. I see very poor selection and breeding programs of livestock. Soils that still lack enough life. Anyone playing with compost tea recipes? Too much exposed soils and deep traditional plowing. Inadequate and unsustainable organic matter approaches. Inadequate rotations. Why aren't farmers getting together to share knowledge and set up some trials. Why aren't more people attending BOPO meetings, sending letters to the Dean, Chancellor and President pushing OUR Land Grant. Why does the Dean not know more about the future opportunities and needs for local farming? The likes of PepsiCo and ADM just established some of the best food science labs in the country in the new Natural Science building on campus. What about local food science research? Who has a 4-H gardening club? Who is encouraging teachers to attend Ma. Agriculture in the Classroom workshops? Who is revitalizing our existing agricultural fairs to educate the public and bring back a way for farmers to get together to show their wares and share ideas. Why weren't there more folks at the Common Good Festival last Sunday?
We must get serious or this will just be another short lived fad.

Reply
E_Bourgeois #permalink

Unfortunately I don't see much yet for sustainable farming practices in the happy valley. I see very poor selection and breeding programs of livestock. Soils that still lack enough life. Anyone playing with compost tea recipes? Too much exposed soils and deep traditional plowing. Inadequate and unsustainable organic matter approaches. Inadequate rotations. Why aren't farmers getting together to share knowledge and set up some trials. Why aren't more people attending BOPO meetings, sending letters to the Dean, Chancellor and President pushing OUR Land Grant. Why does the Dean not know more about the future opportunities and needs for local farming? The likes of PepsiCo, Kraft and ConAgra just established some of the best food science labs in the country in the new UMass Natural Science building on campus. What about local food science research? Who has started a 4-H sustainable gardening/farming club? Who is encouraging teachers to attend Ma. Agriculture in the Classroom workshops? Who is revitalizing our existing agricultural fairs to educate the public and bring back a way for farmers to get together to show their wares and share ideas. In 1847 at a wrap-up meeting after the Tri County fair in Noho, there was the first discussion about the formation of a Agriculture College that became UMass. We need to think big too. We will need a much broader public buyin to build the rest of a needed infrastructure.for a fair and sustainable system.
Why weren't there more folks at the Common Good Festival last Sunday?
We must get serious or this will just live in a small niche market with minor impact.

Reply
E_Bourgeois #permalink

Unfortunately I don't see much yet for sustainable farming practices in the happy valley. I see very poor selection and breeding programs of livestock. Soils that still lack enough life. Anyone playing with compost tea recipes? Too much exposed soils and deep traditional plowing. Inadequate and unsustainable organic matter approaches. Inadequate rotations. Why aren't farmers getting together to share knowledge and set up some trials. Why aren't more people attending BOPO meetings, sending letters to the Dean, Chancellor and President pushing OUR Land Grant. Why does the Dean not know more about the future opportunities and needs for local farming? The likes of PepsiCo, Kraft and ConAgra just established some of the best food science labs in the country in the new UMass Natural Science building on campus. What about local food science research? Who has a 4-H gardening club? Who is encouraging teachers to attend Ma. Agriculture in the Classroom workshops? Who is revitalizing our existing agricultural fairs to educate the public and bring back a way for farmers to get together to show their wares and share ideas. Why weren't there more folks at the Common Good Festival last Sunday?
We must get serious or this will just be another short lived fad.

Reply
E_Bourgeois #permalink

Unfortunately I don't see much yet for sustainable farming practices in the happy valley. I see very poor selection and breeding programs of livestock. Soils that still lack enough life. Anyone playing with compost tea recipes? Too much exposed soils and deep traditional plowing. Inadequate and unsustainable organic matter approaches. Inadequate rotations. Why aren't farmers getting together to share knowledge and set up some trials. Why aren't more people attending BOPO meetings, sending letters to the Dean, Chancellor and President pushing OUR Land Grant. Why does the Dean not know more about the future opportunities and needs for local farming? The likes of PepsiCo, Kraft and ConAgra just established some of the best food science labs in the country in the new UMass Natural Science building on campus. What about local food science research? Who has started a 4-H sustainable gardening/farming club? Who is encouraging teachers to attend Ma. Agriculture in the Classroom workshops? Who is revitalizing our existing agricultural fairs to educate the public and bring back a way for farmers to get together to show their wares and share ideas. Why weren't there more folks at the Common Good Festival last Sunday?
We must get serious or this will just be another short lived fad.

Reply
E_Bourgeois #permalink

Unfortunately I don't see much yet for sustainable farming practices in the happy valley. I see very poor selection and breeding programs of livestock. Soils that still lack enough life. Anyone playing with compost tea recipes? Too much exposed soils and deep traditional plowing. Inadequate and unsustainable organic matter approaches. Inadequate rotations. Why aren't farmers getting together to share knowledge and set up some trials. Why aren't more people attending BOPO meetings, sending letters to the Dean, Chancellor and President pushing OUR Land Grant. Why does the Dean not know more about the future opportunities and needs for local farming? The likes of PepsiCo, Kraft and ConAgra just established some of the best food science labs in the country in the new UMass Natural Science building on campus. What about local food science research? Who has started a 4-H sustainable gardening/farming club? Who is encouraging teachers to attend Ma. Agriculture in the Classroom workshops? Who is revitalizing our existing agricultural fairs to educate the public and bring back a way for farmers to get together to show their wares and share ideas. We will need a much broader public buyin by the public to build the rest of a needed infrastructure.for a fair and sustainable system. byi Why weren't there more folks at the Common Good Festival last Sunday?
We must get serious or this will just be another short lived fad.

Reply
E_Bourgeois #permalink

Unfortunately I don't see much yet for sustainable farming practices in the happy valley. I see very poor selection and breeding programs of livestock. Soils that still lack enough life. Anyone playing with compost tea recipes? Too much exposed soils and deep traditional plowing. Inadequate and unsustainable organic matter approaches. Inadequate rotations. Why aren't farmers getting together to share knowledge and set up some trials. Why aren't more people attending BOPO meetings, sending letters to the Dean, Chancellor and President pushing OUR Land Grant. Why does the Dean not know more about the future opportunities and needs for local farming? The likes of PepsiCo, Kraft and ConAgra just established some of the best food science labs in the country in the new UMass Natural Science building on campus. What about local food science research? Who has started a 4-H sustainable gardening/farming club? Who is encouraging teachers to attend Ma. Agriculture in the Classroom workshops? Who is revitalizing our existing agricultural fairs to educate the public and bring back a way for farmers to get together to show their wares and share ideas. We will need a much broader public buyin by the public to build the rest of a needed infrastructure.for a fair and sustainable system.
Why weren't there more folks at the Common Good Festival last Sunday?
We must get serious or this will just be another short lived fad.

Reply
E_Bourgeois #permalink

Unfortunately I don't see much yet for sustainable farming practices in the happy valley. I see very poor selection and breeding programs of livestock. Soils that still lack enough life. Anyone playing with compost tea recipes? Too much exposed soils and deep traditional plowing. Inadequate and unsustainable organic matter approaches. Inadequate rotations. Why aren't farmers getting together to share knowledge and set up some trials. Why aren't more people attending BOPO meetings, sending letters to the Dean, Chancellor and President pushing OUR Land Grant. Why does the Dean not know more about the future opportunities and needs for local farming? The likes of PepsiCo, Kraft and ConAgra just established some of the best food science labs in the country in the new UMass Natural Science building on campus. What about local food science research? Who has started a 4-H sustainable gardening/farming club? Who is encouraging teachers to attend Ma. Agriculture in the Classroom workshops? Who is revitalizing our existing agricultural fairs to educate the public and bring back a way for farmers to get together to show their wares and share ideas. We will need a much broader public buyin to build the rest of a needed infrastructure.for a fair and sustainable system.
Why weren't there more folks at the Common Good Festival last Sunday?
We must get serious or this will just be another short lived fad.

Reply
E_Bourgeois #permalink

Unfortunately I don't see much yet for sustainable farming practices in the happy valley. I see very poor selection and breeding programs of livestock. Soils that still lack enough life. Anyone playing with compost tea recipes? Too much exposed soils and deep traditional plowing. Inadequate and unsustainable organic matter approaches. Inadequate rotations. Why aren't farmers getting together to share knowledge and set up some trials. Why aren't more people attending BOPO meetings, sending letters to the Dean, Chancellor and President pushing OUR Land Grant. Why does the Dean not know more about the future opportunities and needs for local farming? The likes of PepsiCo, Kraft and ConAgra just established some of the best food science labs in the country in the new UMass Natural Science building on campus. What about local food science research? Who has started a 4-H sustainable gardening/farming club? Who is encouraging teachers to attend Ma. Agriculture in the Classroom workshops? Who is revitalizing our existing agricultural fairs to educate the public and bring back a way for farmers to get together to show their wares and share ideas. We will need a much broader public buyin to build the rest of a needed infrastructure.for a fair and sustainable system.
Why weren't there more folks at the Common Good Festival last Sunday?
We must get serious or this will just live in a small niche market with minor impact.

Reply
Madeleine Charney #permalink

Greetings John,
Regarding the Stockbridge School at UMass, you wrote, "Our undergraduate teaching program is already moving rapidly in this direction. But it will also require a greater investment in agroecological research and more effective outreach working in partnership with progressive family farmers and non-profit community groups to realize the dream. In 25 years, I hope people will talk about the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture as a leader in the relocalization of food and farming systems in New England."

Keep your eyes open for an exciting event to take place this fall, hosted by Pioneer Valley Grows Higher Education Working Group. We are going to highlight what's happening on campuses across the region as related to teaching and learning about food systems. Part of our group's mission is to help cultivate such innovative partnerships!

Please let me know if you have any questions about this event of PVGrows in general.

–Madeleine Charney

Reply
John M. Gerber #permalink

I'd love to be there to represent our program Madeleine. Thanks for the heads up.

John

Reply
Larry Yee #permalink

It is past time to start the world anew. We must regain our democracy, reclaim community sovereignty and restore fundamental values we all hold dear – loving family, caring neighbors, trusted leaders, a good healthy meal from fresh food, and a safe clean natural world. Food is the best place to start. It is primordial.

Onward….

Reply
    patafione #permalink

    it's a common pastime just talking or writing about it

    Reply

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