Luminaries at this year’s Sustainable Foods Institute had a clear message: Take the conversation bigger. Now. Shopping differently isn't enough, challenged Anna Lappe in her opening address. We need to stop arguing on talking points manufactured by conventional food industry and start talking about change on sound scientific, socio-economic, and agro-ecological terms. Here’s how.
After the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking For Solutions Sustainable Foods Institute in 2008, I left convinced that trading down the food chain (salmon for sardines), shunning meat, and favoring seasonal organic produce could alleviate ongoing damage to our fisheries, as well as to soil, water, air, and climate. By implementing smarter practices in fishing, farming, production, and transport, businesses could continue to provide excellent foods at less cost to the environment.
That may all still be (somewhat) true, but the luminaries at this year’s institute had a clear message: Take the conversation bigger. Now. “We’re not going to shift the system just by shopping differently,” challenged Anna Lappe in her opening address. “We need to engage in city politics, the  Farm Bill, the national Slow Food movement, school lunch issues, and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, discussing policy.”
For starters, Lappe suggests, we need to stop arguing on talking points manufactured by conventional food industry and start talking about change on sound scientific, socio-economic, and agro-ecological terms. Here’s how.
1. Bust open the myths about organic.
For example, said Lappe, the chairman of Nestle has remarked that organic is a “land-gobbling luxury,” while Syngenta execs claim we cannot feed the world with organic food. (See farmer-journalist Tom Philpott’s refutation of this ridiculous claim.) While they’ve got us arguing these points and further seeding consumer doubt (the most powerful weapon, she says), industry groups such as the Alliance to Feed the Future are busy creating $100 million campaigns to enhance public trust in chemical-intensive agriculture.
But the science is clear: chemical-intensive ag destroys soil fertility, promotes erosion, increases superweeds that require even stronger pesticides, contributes to ocean dead zones, and makes us sick. (Latest example: Several studies show significant IQ deficits in children exposed to pesticides in utero and throughout childhood. Pesticides are also linked to ADHD, autism, Parkinson’s, and cancer.)
2. Get social justice issues on the public’s radar.
Sustainability doesn’t just include reducing pesticides for the end-user (or eater), say Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland, and academic/activist Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing. “Sustainability needs to include people—the people who grow and pick our foods, who can’t afford to feed their families,” said Estabrook. “Women tomato workers [in the U.S.] of childbearing age are exposed constantly to pesticides. They have no protection,” he said. “There have been some horrific cases of birth defects.” (For more on this, read the above mentioned books and follow Patel and Estabrook on Twitter.)
3. Clean up eco-labels.
Address greenwashing and clean up packaging claims so that credible labels can have real meaning, says Urvashi Rangan, Director of Technical Policy for Consumers Union. For example, “natural,” “hypo-allergenic,” and “fragrance free” are largely meaningless and “muddy real labels.” Although Consumers Union has brought these issues to the FTC, they are “turning a blind eye to the problems going on.” Consumers and advocacy groups should step up efforts to hold the government accountable, says Rangan. Labels to trust? Organic, Certified Humane, and Fair Trade, says Rangan. Also, Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) for seafood, suggests Jon Johnson, professor of sustainability at the University of Arkansas.
4. See the limitations of labels.
Eco-labels such as Fair Trade, USDA certified organic, or Marine Stewardship Council certainly help consumers make smarter choices, but they can also limit our thinking about the issues we were trying to solve in the first place, says Patel. “The problem is we’re creating a niche where outside the domain is intolerable. Everything should be fair trade. We shouldn’t be letting pesticide companies run rampant. Supporting rights is something labels can never do.” Solution? Be active in local/state/federal government, push for land reform, and support and participate in movements such as Slow Food, Food First, or La Via Campesina.
5. Take a stand against budget cuts to important ag programs.
Motivate for upcoming farm bill debates. Question subsidies. “What do we want to incentivize? Corn? Less than two percent of corn goes to human consumption,” said Rebecca Spector, the West Coast Director for the Center for Food Safety. Meanwhile we have an obesity epidemic and a budget crisis, says Thomas Dobbs professor emeritus in economics at South Dakota University, who says now is the time to “attack the subsidy program.”
“There is a narrow set of crop subsidies: soy, corn, rice, etc. which were put in place to help farmers with the problems they faced—the dust bowl, the depression, or food-pricing problems.” Subsidies do not address the problems farmers or consumers face today. “Incentives could address reducing inputs of energy, water; reducing pollution of water, air, and soil; and providing people with healthy foods the USDA tells them to eat … but we are not incentivizing them in our current system.” said Susan Prohlman, Executive Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
These challenges aside, I’m deeply impressed with the traction the sustainable food movement has gained in the last few years. “Fifty percent of the public is aware of sustainable seafood now—not so five years ago,” said Julie Packard, Executive Director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “It’s not just about consumers; the big gains recently have been in business commitments. Whole Foods Market has committed to eliminate all red-list fish [least sustainable and safe as deemed by the Seafood Watch program] by 2012.”
According to the Organic Trade Association, 48 percent of consumers bought as much or more organic food in 2010 than they did previously. Added to the surge of interest in farmer’s markets and CSAs, this suggests that sustainable food isn’t just a “elitist” preoccupation. It’s growing, and now is the time to further engage.