In January, I spoke at the Sustainable Foods Summit in San Francisco. My challenge to the other attenders was to achieve a food system that combines the artisan quality and chemical/petroleum independence of pre-20th century food production with the massive volume and ability to feed hungry people of the 20th century Green Revolution, while achieving the distribution necessary to end hunger.
That sounds great, in theory. But how do we get there? And what trade-offs do we have to make along the way?
Some of the other speakers had their own ideas about the rocky road ahead, not just in food sustainability but a host of related issues. Among the many concerns they raised:
- Is it better to switch to no-till farming, which dramatically alleviates soil erosion but is very difficult to do without herbicides—or to build up soil quality naturally through organic or biodynamic methods, and hope that the soil doesn\’t blow away in the meantime?
- What is the real benefit of using biodegradable plastics (such as compostable cutlery or packaging) if the sources of corn or potatoes for these plastics are genetically modified plants? And when food is scarce in many parts of the world, do we really want to divert cropland from food to plastic (or energy) production?
- Which is more sustainable: a lightweight plastic bag made from virgin materials (i.e., petroleum), or a plastic clamshell using 40 times as much material, but made from recycled water bottles?
Is there a \”right answer\” to these kinds of questions? The answer is situational. For the wheat growers of Washington State where a foot of topsoil has disappeared in the last 40 years, the no-till method sounds pretty compelling. In a different landscape, ravaged by chemical pollution, the organic argument would probably win out.
When the Benefits Line Up
Of course, there are many situations where a clearer path exists. If all the stars align in a single direction, the choice is easy. For instance, the conference heard from dairy cooperative Organic Valley\’s Theresa Marquez about the benefits of their approach: Organic farming creates richer and darker soil that is far better able to hold water and nutrients…organic cows fed a diet high in flaxseed oil produce more of the essential nutrient Omega-3 while decreasing the output of methane (a greenhouse gas linked even more heavily to global warming than carbon dioxide)—and they typically live up to three times longer than conventional-agriculture cows, which allows farms to be economically sustainable as well.
Marquez also noted that many of her member farms are planting some acreage in oilseed crops such as sunflowers, which can power a farm\’s trucks and tractors, feed its livestock and generate revenues.
The Challenges We Already Meet
Other speakers provided hope for meeting those difficult challenges mentioned earlier, by showing how their organizations are already surmounting equally difficult challenges. For example, Maisie Greenawalt of Bon Appetit Management Company (a food service provider to college, corporate, and organization cafeterias) inspired attenders with stories of converting institutional food service from slop to gourmet treats with fresh ingredients, and being profitable even while allowing college students unlimited trips to the (expensive, locally sourced, naturally raised non-antibiotic-treated beef) burger bar.
Not all sustainable food initiatives are local, of course. Fair trade—which, by definition, means products are crossing international borders—was also a much-discussed. From its beginnings in coffee, fair trade has olive oil, herbs, tea, cocoa, sugar, bananas, and many others. Fair trade ensures that the farmer makes a decent livelihood and has good working conditions, and the fair trade movement is spreading into such areas as bridge loans for farmers who only get paid once a year.
And more and more companies are producing goods that are not only fairly traded but also organic, providing sustainability not only to the farmers but to consumers as well.
While once the province of tiny little artisan firms, these products and processes are breaking out of their niches. More and more of the major players in the food industry are making shelf space or production line space for organic, natural, and fairly traded goods, and many of the smaller companies have been bought up by industry giants. While this came up frequently at the conference, questions about the roles of multinationals versus tiny independents will have to wait for another time.
Shel Horowitz, shel at greenandprofitable.com, shows you how to “reach green, socially conscious consumers with marketing that has THEM calling YOU.” He writes the Green And Profitable/Green and Practical columns and is the primary author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green (John Wiley & Sons, 2010).