Sustainable for Whom?

The term “sustainable” gets a lot of buzz in food politics these days. The big complaint against, well, everything in how food is currently grown, transported, prepared and purchased is that whatever part of the food chain is currently under scrutiny fails because it “isn’t sustainable.” The population, the climate, the crop, the farming methodology, the harvesting, the transportation, the processing, the purchasing, the consumption – every point along the way is scorned as not sustainable and due (Soon!) for catastrophic collapse if We Don’t Change Now.

All of it presumes that we agree upon what sustainable means, and I don’t think it’s entirely clear that there is any agreement.

The meaning(s) that I read in the media is usually ecological, with strong minor currents of medical and economic concerns. The ecological focus comes up in discussions of the food chain as such and has many particular variations depending on what part of the chain is being examined. The major shouting points are farming methods that use non-organic fertilizers and/or pesticides, large scale farms, use of modified seeds/GMO, and (particularly as regards animals) farming ethics. Medical concerns tend to split into the presumed effects of things that are part of food production (non-organics, antibiotics, GMO, etc.) and the presumed effects of consuming current grocery offerings (“processed food,” HFCS, “toxic” ingredients, obesity, etc.). Economic concerns are a little more vague. On the one hand, there’s discussion of food deserts, almost exclusively defined as the absence of fresh produce in stores within a geographical location, and the cheapness of “bad” foods compared to “good” foods. Mostly, though, the debate is about the rapaciousness of “the food industry,” how it is deliberately poisoning consumers to make profits, and how “the family/local farmer” is getting squeezed out.

The solution to all of this is small farmers who produce food using only organic methods and who sell their wares locally (or directly to the consumer via a website), and then the buyers will prepare all food for themselves or for a local buying public (restaurants, bakeries, cheeses, cured meats, packaged foods, etc.). Allowances are made for agricultural producers to sell to local markets (grocery stores, butchers, dairies) for resale to the general public. Animal husbandry is no-cage, free-range, no antibiotics/hormones, no feed lots, no large slaughter houses. Food is not transported outside of a geographic region and eating is seasonal and local.

This is a very attractive picture of food production. There are elements in it (such as reducing or eliminating antibiotics and hormone supplements in animal husbandry) that I strongly support for medical and ethical reasons. I also strongly believe that variety within markets, ecosystems, scientific communities, and other environments where humans craft things and their world are not simply a good idea but necessary to human flourishing. Where monoculture exists, life is fragile.

But is this the only vision, perspective, approach, whatever terminology tickles your fancy, that makes sense for talking about what is or isn’t sustainable? What would count as sustainable, and for whom?

This is not a sustainable food production model for a growing global population. What do you do if crop yields go down because of your farming methods while populations increase? It isn’t sustainable for an increasingly urban and industrialized/mechanized population. Can local organic farms provide enough food to fill the markets of mega-cities like New York, Shanghai, Mexico City, Lagos, Mumbai? We’ve tried this model before, over most of the world and through most of human history, and it has been inadequate because it is fragile, a large collection of local restricted food cultures. If half a population of a given locality cannot afford to purchase food produced in this manner, is it sustainable for that population? What happens when the focus shifts away from impersonal arguments about environmental degradation and concentrates on very personal arguments about food affordability ?

This is not an argument against having this mode of food production as such; it is an argument questioning the claims that it is “sustainable” beyond an extremely narrow market niche, and interrogating the very concept of sustainable as regards food production and guaranteeing food security for any given population.

I’m going to toss out the claim that unless something is affordable to the bulk of a local population, it’s not in and of itself sustainable. To say otherwise is to have a silent claim about the deserving and the undeserving – that people who cannot, within the context of ordinary life, afford to live this lifestyle are not deserving of sustainable, secure food. Conversely, a romantic and restricted sub-culture of boutique food and ideological purity is only sustainable within a larger stable ecology of food security. Niche markets tend to fail when the larger supporting markets deteriorate. (I’m also amused at how the ostensible individualism and anti-industrial chic of the locovore/organics movement is completely a standard market segment than can be identified, cross-referenced and oh-so-effectively sold to by the same big corporate interests that it alleges to oppose, but I digress…)

Sustainable food production is also something that needs to be discussed in the extreme present – who needs to eat today and tomorrow? Eating is not optional if a person is to remain alive. That is the most fundamental form of sustainability; will this keep me alive? What will sustain me?

Until that can be answered in the concrete, not the abstract, not the ideological, for any individual, we’re not discussing sustainability.


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Posted in Culture, Economics, Food

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