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How Do You Define “Sustainable”?

“Defining sustainability is not the problem,” says farmer and Leopold Center fellow Fred Kirshenmann. “The debate is over how we do it. And we don’t have a lot of time left to figure out how to keep our food system going.”

Speaking to a conference at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars titled “Reviving the American Economy–One Heirloom Tomato at a Time,” Kirshenmann listed the reasons for some urgency around the issue of a reconfiguring how humans feed themselves.Does the future of farming look more like this?

The energy sources used to fuel current methods of agriculture–meaning fossil fuels–are running out. We are rapidly drawing down the world’s supplies of vital fertilizers such as rock phosphate and potassium. Water also will soon be in short supply in many places around the world: the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies much of this nation’s breadbasket, has been depleted by half just since 1960. And there is no new land on which to grow food.

“The frontier’s over,” said Kirschenmann. “There’s no new place to go.”

Against this bleak picture there is some good news. Kirschenmann sees a “new level of civic engagement around food,” as evidenced by the months and years Michael Pollans’ books remain on the best seller’s list. A new generation of young people are eager to work on farms. And we have at least one resource in unlimited supply: brainpower.

We just have to figure our how to create “a future that does not depend on cheap energy, uses only half as much water and adapts to a changing climate.”

And it may need to produce 75 percent more food to feed a world population of nine billion.

At this point, you may be wondering what the Slow Cook was doing at a conference mostly concerned with producing sustainable food. Well, sustainable food isn’t much good without sustainable eaters. I was invited to sit on one of the panels and give my slide show illustrating the many recent improvements in D.C. school food–and how kids still untrained in actually eating that “healthier” food throw much of it in the trash.

Part of building a sustainable food system–a system that lasts into the future–must include access for everyone to nourishing food that doesn’t leave them prone to a host of weight related illnesses. Despite many good things in Congress’ recent re-authorization of child nutrition legislation, and a pending update of school meal standards that would require more vegetables, more whole grains and less salt, it’s far too early for adults to pat themselves on the back.

From what I see in the cafeteria every day, there’s still lots of heavy lifting to do to change attitudes about the food we eat. Schools should be doing much more in the way of educating children about food, but the message needs to reach parents and the broader community as well.

Reversing the work that corporate food interests have been engaged in for more than a century–convincing us that cooking is drudgery, that food should be fast, easy and cheap–won’t be easy. It may take decades.

Let’s hope we have that much time.

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