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Sustainable Foods & Farms: Changing Minds As Well As Eating Habits

From: San Francisco Chronicle       
www.sfgate.com

Sustainable agriculture is more than organic methods
Deborah K. Rich, Special to The Chronicle
July 3, 2004

I don't want to call adherents of sustainable agriculture pushy. Zealous, maybe. Committed, certainly. A pain in the crookneck squash, occasionally.

Sustainable agriculture seeks to promote the health and welfare of the farmer, the farm community and the farm environment. Proponents argue that simply buying organic doesn't go far enough. They want us to buy fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses produced not only organically, but locally and in season as well: purchases that support jobs in our community, that maintain our rural base and that don't impose the costs of cross-country or
cross- border shipping on the environment.

Advocates of sustainable agriculture expect us to find out if farmers pay their workers enough so that the workers themselves can afford to buy organic lettuce and free-range chickens. They want us to ask our farmers to begin to develop self-sustaining systems -- to produce soil improvements, seed, even fuel and packaging materials on the farm or to obtain them locally -- and to question the impact of these systems on the environment. And better pour yourself a cup of coffee (shade-grown); coming soon to a ballot near you: genetically modified organisms.

I asked six individuals, all grounded in sustainable agriculture, all working to transform conventional agriculture and the social structures that support it why they are mixing agriculture with activism and why they insist upon bringing politics back to the dinner (and breakfast and lunch) table. Instead of six different answers, I received six takes on the same answer. Seems that these folks keep poking and prodding at us because they can't ignore the spiraling connections between the health of humankind and the health of the environment; between the health of the environment and how we farm; between how we farm and how we buy food; and between how we buy our food and our national agriculture policies.

"If you're really doing organic agriculture in the sense of being serious about ecologically based farm management, you have to look at the whole system, otherwise it doesn't work," says Fred Kirschenmann, executive director of the Leopold Center, a research and education center for sustainable agriculture in Ames, Iowa. "You can't do it by tinkering with the pieces. You have to rethink agriculture. It's a different way to farm and it forces you to work with, to cooperate with, nature. You become a much better student of nature, and that changes people. You begin to recognize that we really do become the water we drink, and the air we breathe, and the food we eat; that we're not separate from nature; that it's only a thin layer of skin that separates us from everything that we're involved in."

The belief that involvement with organic food production changes people underpins the Center for Ecoliteracy's commitment to funding school gardens and to revamping school lunch programs. The mission of the center is to encourage sustainable patterns of living by helping people to observe and understand how nature's successful ecosystems operate.

"It starts with the seed in the cup in kindergarten," says Janet Brown, program officer for food systems at the Center for Ecoliteracy. "It's our first system, our first cause and effect. In that act of planting a seed, so many questions arise: Why do you get a tomato when you plant tomato seed and not a pepper, how does the plant feed itself, why do roots go down and shoots go up; those are good questions. You start with seed, and you go on to address soil, sunlight, pollination, harvesting, selling, cooking, eating and food scraps."

As Brown suggests, what starts with seed and the farm ecosystem extends far afield. We can become very smart about cover crops, mixed-crop plantings and beneficial insects and fail to accomplish much unless society (that's us) provides food producers incentives to operate sustainably.

"There is something about sustainable farming that drags you into politics," says Dave Henson, executive director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. For example, farmers who set aside acres for wildlife habitat and who reduce pesticide use by using more hand labor are unlikely to be the lowest-cost producers, Henson explains. We need to seek out and pay for food produced with environmentally sound farming practices, and we need to pressure our politicians to level the market playing field.

"I'd like to see full-cost food pricing," says Henson. "I'd like us to legislate a pricing system that takes into account the cost to the environment incurred to produce, transport and package a tomato." In our global economy, advocating full-cost food pricing plunges the farmer into international trade policy.

Because farmers don't operate in a vacuum, political and social topics share the stage with composting and mushroom cultivation at the annual Bioneers conference. The conference promotes the dissemination of agricultural, manufacturing and construction technologies that emulate long-surviving natural systems, systems that operate without fossil fuels and without poisoning their surrounding ecosystem.

"Mounting numbers of human health problems are directly caused by or associated with environmental destruction, and agriculture is the single most destructive human activity against the environment in the world. Most of agriculture is done the way it is done because of government subsidies," says Bioneers founder and president Kenny Ausubel. "But what if we flipped the subsidies? What if we taxed chemical use along the lines of a tobacco and liquor 'sin tax,' and subsidized restorative and ecological farming? How much more quickly would sustainable farming progress then?"

Ausubel poses more than a rhetorical question. Europe offers examples of organic and sustainable agriculture becoming a matter of public policy. "In Austria, over 40 percent of their food production is organic and they are aiming for close to 100 percent," says Ausubel. "The Vienna Hospital Association now buys organic food from a green necklace of local farms. The city of Munich, Germany, now pays farmers in its watershed to grow organically because it doesn't want the water polluted, and Germany has announced a policy to 'de-industrialize' agriculture."

Vivien Hillgrove is the editor of the newly released "The Future of Food, " a documentary addressing the public and environmental health risks posed by genetically modified crops. Hillgrove disclaims the title of activist because she doesn't initiate film projects; instead, they find her because of her reputation. She is passionate, however, about the role each individual plays in shaping social systems and about the need for sharing information to ensure good decision-making. "I'm a die-hard American," says Hillgrove, "and it makes me mad that the average American doesn't have enough information available to them to act responsibly. And then we become fools. And then people hate us because we're just fools with a gun, or fools eating up the resources of the Earth."

Lest I am still inclined to rest upon my farmers' market laurels, I need only recall the comments of Wes Jackson. Since 1976, Jackson has led the efforts of the Land Institute in Salina, Kan., to develop mixed-species perennial grain crops to replace annual grains. His operating standard is the prairie ecosystem which maintains soil fertility, protects its topsoil and defends itself from insects and pathogens without mechanical cultivation or synthetic chemicals. Jackson believes that we must recognize that nearly all our agricultural technologies are inherently extractive in nature -- dependent upon fossil fuels and returning little or nothing to the ecosystems in which they operate -- and that we should not permit ourselves to be lulled into thinking that simply substituting organic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides for chemical ones is enough.

"We need to be very careful about the kind of precious chic sustainability efforts that then soften the potential to really make a difference," warns Jackson. (Driving to the farmers' market in an SUV doesn't constitute sustainable behavior.)

"We've got to get more politically active about our food systems. We've got to deal with our export policy, and we've got to start calling for a research agenda within the USDA and the land grant institutions that will build an agricultural system based upon the way nature's ecosystems have worked for millions of years. We mustn't focus on fine-tuning the system we've got; the system we have is inherently destructive." Connecting farm with school

-- The 15th annual Bioneers conference will take place Oct. 15-17 at the Marin Center in San Rafael. For more information, visit the Bioneers Web site at www.bioneers.org, or call (877)246-6337.

-- The Center for Ecoliteracy has developed a Web guide to help school districts adopt a food policy and develop "farm-to-school" lunch programs. The comprehensive guide includes advice for creating community consensus around a food policy, sample food policies, seasonal menus and a downloadable calculator to project the cost of such programs. Find the Web guide at www.ecoliteracy.org. Follow the link to Projects, then click on Rethinking School Lunch.

-- Order a copy of "The Future of Food" documentary at www.thefutureoffood.com. DVD or VHS costs $20 plus $5 shipping.

Deborah K. Rich is a Monterey writer and olive rancher. E-mail her at home@sfchronicle.com.

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