BAG’s 2019 Apprentices, Kate Morse and Sam Balka, have spent the season learning as much as they can about gleaning, agriculture, and sustainable food systems. Each week they explore a topic through readings, videos, podcasts, and other media. In this piece, Sam reflects on different visions of what sustainable food systems should be, what the challenges are, and how we should get there.
This week we were learning all about sustainable food systems, and unpacked the buzzwords a bit to explore the nuance. First, we watched a presentation on the EAT Lancet project, a multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural effort to identify a healthy diet that would simultaneously be sustainable for the environment. The report concludes that if people worldwide adopted the healthy diet that they came up with—which cuts down meat and dairy consumption—then the world would remain within a healthy boundary of climate change patterns. If we also eliminate food waste by half and reform food production, these three changes could fix all of the environmental concerns associated with food waste and animal agriculture. This study is exciting and shows just how influential our global food systems are, but it also puts an extremely difficult feat to the forefront. What does it mean to get the whole world to adopt this diet? Is it truly everyone? Or something more like three-quarters or even a half? Realistically speaking, encouraging all cultures around the world to adjust their cooking (and eating!) to this diet might be more difficult than working at the level of bigger corporations.
Another topic of discussion this week was the production and exportation of food systems. These processes are also an important part of sustainable eating, rather than just individual dietary habits. The importance of local food systems isn’t always due to the food traveling shorter distances to arrive at its consumer. The reason is often related more to smaller farms adopting more sustainable methods of agriculture, as well as eliminating the middlemen in the food distribution process, as farms package, store, and sell their own products, producing fewer GHG emissions in the process. In fact, local food systems are not a more sustainable way to produce food if the crops grown are not suited for the environment (for example, if they have excessive water requirements), or if they are grown in heated greenhouses throughout the winter. At that point the process is probably less energy efficient than importing the product from elsewhere.
On the other hand, groups like the Nature Conservancy are advocating for creating long-term impact through increased engagement with the agribusinesses that dominate our food systems. I find this to be an interesting and unique perspective because of its assertion that these big corporations are going to play an equal role in the food systems in the end as they do now. From what I’ve read elsewhere, I got a feeling that a large part of working and focusing on smallholder farmers is to increase their power to completely change and rewire the food system to focus more on small-scale production, not simply changing the growing practices within the food system.
In thinking about sustainable food systems, I’ve also been reflecting on gleaning. It seems to me that smaller farms are the ones already doing well in terms of sustainable practices. The food waste produced on bigger farms could be of greater concern because their practices may be more inherently harmful. Should the future of gleaning be targeting these bigger farms? Groups like Boston Area Gleaners already work with food waste on smaller farms, but is that where the most impact can be made? I have a feeling that these questions will become a point of disagreement, contention, and possibly growth within the world of sustainable agriculture—if they haven’t already.
By Sam Balka