- Lectures & Publications
Eat the Sky: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork
I would like to begin by sharing a story. I tease my mother, Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, by saying that I was probably stuffing envelopes for her nonprofit organization’s fundraising drives before I learned to walk. As an adult, my first professional experience with her was working on our book Hope’s Edge. We shared many miraculous moments as we traveled all over the world, searching for examples of movements that address the root causes of hunger and poverty.
For both of us, one of the most magical moments came as we were flying high above India on our way to New Delhi to meet with Vandana Shiva, renowned environmentalist and founder of the Navdanya farmers’ network. We had one of her many books on the plane with us, and I was desperately cramming at the last minute so that I could ask intelligent questions. The first chapter I randomly opened to began with a discussion of the ancient Sanskrit word for food. It’s “Anna”!
I nudged my mother, pointing to the passage. “Mom, why didn’t you ever tell me?” It turns out she had no idea what Anna meant when she named me just two years after writing Diet for a Small Planet and one year before writing Food First. Here we were now, 26 years later, writing the sequel to Diet and discovering together that my name means food. Maybe it just goes to show there were higher forces that made me so connected to my work. Regardless, it’s a great honor to be engaged with my mother in myth-busting about the roots of needless hunger and the real solutions to ending it that she has pursued over these many years.
Today I’d like to tell you about my new work on the food system and climate change. I’ll explore some of the messages we’re hearing in the media about food, sustainability, and global warming.
I’m thinking back a few weeks to my return from a research trip to meet with food and farm activists in South Korea who are fighting for sustainable food and farming. I arrived home feeling inspired by their vision. A few days later I happened to pick up the most recent issue of Fast Company magazine, with profiles of seven people involved in “making the food supply cleaner, greener, and healthier.” Curious to see who these people were, I opened to the picture of a man standing in a grove of bamboo trees. Behind him sunlight is bursting through the leaves, glinting off the Coca-Cola bottle he is guzzling from. This is Jeff Seabright, the vice-president of water and environment for Coca-Cola, and we are told he is one of the heroes of the planet. He was a stark contrast to the heroes I had just met: the small-scale farmers working tirelessly in the fields and fighting in their communities for truly “clean, green, and healthy.” That picture of Seabright epitomizes for me how the food industry is positioning itself as a critical part of the solution to the environmental crisis.
That image was a reminder to me that if we are interested in talking about food and climate change—both the impact of the food system on the climate and the potential of the food system to restore our climate’s balance—then we also have to talk about ideas and how our ideas are shaped.
Recently I heard a talk by Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an expert on race in America. She was discussing the challenge Barack Obama faces as an African-American running for President. She didn’t see the challenge as necessarily one of racism; her point was that you don’t have to be a racist to have a hard time mentally associating the word “president” with “African-American.” She was arguing that combining these two identities requires many of us to embrace a new “schema,” and that isn’t always easy.
To explore the difficulty of comprehending new schemas, I’m going to repeat a thought experiment Harris-Lacewell used to illustrate her point about Obama. I think it also illuminates the challenges we face in trying to accept any new idea. I’m going to say a word, and when I do, I want you to let an image of that word appear in your mind. The word is “apple.” By a show of hands, how many of you saw a green apple? And how many of you saw a red apple? I think we may have a tainted control group here, seeing that there were baskets of red apples in the other room! Now, how many of you saw an Apple computer? I see we have a few Mac users here.
Harris-Lacewell emphasized that of course 35 years ago not one of us would have conjured up a computer from the word “apple.” That schema simply did not yet exist. Our capacity to imagine new ideas is often limited by our minds’ schemas. Schemas can be useful; they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting vast information, but these mental frameworks can also cause us to exclude pertinent ideas and accept only the ideas that confirm our pre-existing beliefs.
Harris-Lacewell used this experiment to illustrate that one of Obama’s challenges in his run for President is to help the country associate the identities of President and African-American, whereas historically President has been associated only with white men. We can apply this insight to help us understand why, even though we have an evolving understanding of climate change, we are collectively still so far away from seeing the connections between food and climate change.
One step toward transforming schemas is to become exposed to new information, so let’s start with a refresher about climate change and the food system’s role in the crisis.
(I would have said we’ve gotten beyond denial of climate change, except for having a recent personal experience of an affront from climate-change skeptics. A couple of months ago I published an op-ed in The Seattle Post Intelligencer. Before the paper even reached the news stands, the online version was posted on the paper’s website. Within fifteen minutes there were more than a dozen posts, ranting about the idiocy of someone suggesting that climate change is human caused. One of the posts said: “Climate change has happened every few decades for six thousand years. Get real, people! Start worrying about something that has real consequences.” I thought that was odd. What could have more real consequences than climate change? So I’m going to ignore holdouts like this.)
What do we know about climate change? We know that the hottest years in the history of record keeping have been twelve of the past fifteen years. We know that ice caps are melting and sea levels are rising at rates faster than had been predicted.
I recently heard a talk by NASA’s Cynthia Rosensweig, an expert on the impact of climate change on agriculture. The audience was mainly farmers in upstate New York. You could hear them gasp when she said that if greenhouse-gas emissions continue at this rate, by 2080 farming in New York state will resemble farming in Georgia now.
Yes, we know all this. But when asked to identify the major sectors driving climate change, I think most of us still think of industrial smokestacks and oil-thirsty planes and cars. These are major contributors to the crisis, but the global industrial food system, from seed to plate to landfill, accounts for as much as one-third of the total global warming effect. The livestock sector alone—mainly the industries that are dependent on synthetic nitrogen-fertilized feed, that are pushing land-hungry rainforest destruction—is responsible for 18 percent of the world’s global warming effect, according to the United Nations. That’s more than from all transportation combined, including every plane, train, and steamer ship on the planet. And as much as 18.2 percent of the food sector’s emissions comes from “land-use changes,” primarily the destruction of rainforests and wetlands, those sacred places essential to climate stability and vital carbon sequestration.
I was recently in California working with people who are dealing specifically with one of the biggest current drivers behind deforestation, the palm-oil industry. When you go to the grocery store and see boxes of Oreos and Cheese-Its, you’re probably not thinking climate change, yet what is one of the key ingredients in processed foods? Palm oil. And the demand for palm oil, which is found not only in those Oreos and Cheese-Its but also in soap and cosmetics, has more than doubled in the past decade, in large part due to the increased demand for processed foods. In fact, palm oil is now the most widely traded vegetable oil in the world. Where is it coming from? Nearly all of the palm oil found in products in the United States comes from just two countries, Indonesia and Malaysia. Today, as a result of massive deforestation to make way for oil-palm plantations, Indonesia is among the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitters.
An additional 13.5 percent of food sector emissions comes from nitrous oxide emissions from soils; from methane (with some nitrous oxide) from livestock, including ruminant digestion and livestock waste; and to a much lesser extent from rice cultivation.
Methane is released in the natural process of ruminant animals (like cattle, sheep, goats, and camels), who have a distinctive digestive system. Ruminants semi-digest their food—raw plant material—then regurgitate it, and the cud, as it’s called, is chewed again to break the food down further. The climate-change downside to rumination is that this process produces methane, a greenhouse gas 296 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Ruminants must release this gas, which they do as they digest, by burping and to a lesser extent flatulence. While rumination allows cattle to digest fibrous grasses that we humans can’t convert into digestible form, it does add to the climate-change toll. Another major factor for methane production is that industrial livestock production breaks the cycling of manure through a natural system. Instead, manure becomes a waste product, one that emits methane and other greenhouse gases.
One of the reasons why livestock is such a prevalent factor in global warming is that the industrial style of livestock production we have championed here at home is spreading overseas. If you read the annual reports of the biggest meat producers—which I can say are not gripping reading but nevertheless interesting—you’ll see that every one of them describes overseas expansion plans. They are expanding into Romania, Poland, and other countries in Eastern Europe and beyond.
The production and distribution of fertilizer—especially nitrogen fertilizer, which requires enormous amounts of natural gas to produce and of fuel to ship—is another factor in the food sector’s emissions.
If you were counting, you would have noted that at least 31 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions can be attributed to the food system. But I didn’t even mention many of the other sectors that are food related. I didn’t mention transportation or waste or manufacturing, which include food-system-related emissions too. So the total percentage could be even greater.
Earlier I mentioned Professor Harris-Lacewell’s comments about the schemas we hold in our minds. She also talked about “cognitive dissonance,” which occurs when two competing ideas come together in our minds. For many of us, putting together “dinner” and “global warming” is cognitively dissonant. I want to explore for a moment why this may be.
First, there is a very simple reason: most of us simply do not know the facts. Even if we’ve been reading the newspapers and watching the global warming documentaries, we can be forgiven for having missed the food part of the picture. Did Al Gore’s 2006 award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” discuss the food system and climate change? No, it didn’t. And it’s not just “An Inconvenient Truth” that has made this omission.
A recent study from Johns Hopkins University looked at the 4,582 newspaper articles about climate change that have been published in the sixteen most commonly read newspapers in the United States, from just before “An Inconvenient Truth” until early 2008. Of the 4,582 articles only 2.4 percent mentioned food and agriculture at all. What’s even more important about this study is that the people conducting it read all these articles for the thoroughness with which the current food situation was being addressed, and they found that only half of 1 percent of the total number had what was coded as a substantial focus on the issue. Half of 1 percent. In other words, that 2.4 percent could include an article that said, “Food and agriculture are important too,” without expanding on it. Or any similar kind of passing reference. Maybe you are saying to yourself, “Why aren’t we hearing about this in the media?”
Let’s consider a second, deeper reason for this hole in the conversation. To date, there has been a certain degree of carbon bias regarding how we think about climate change. Because carbon dioxide is the most abundant greenhouse gas, we’ve tended to focus our hand-wringing and policy-making on reducing its emissions. But of the other main greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide, which have 296 and 23 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide respectively, are primarily from the food system. Our preoccupation with carbon dioxide has perhaps slowed our recognition of these other significant gases.
A third reason is that dinner doesn’t seem dirty. I was talking to Helene York, who works on climate change and food with the Bon Appetit Management Foundation, and she said, “You know, when you look at your steaming plate of macaroni and cheese, you don’t picture greenhouse gases emitting from it.”
An additional barrier may be the feeling that food is off limits. We all need to eat, so we can’t possibly talk about changing the way farming is conducted. It’s too essential. But isn’t it also essential for us to transport ourselves places, transport things places, fuel our homes and power our cities? There are lots of essentials that we are rethinking.
The final reason why I think the link between food and climate change has been missing from our collective consciousness might be because of the fundamental disconnect between food and the environment. I was thinking about this when I was speaking to an environmental studies class at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. I began by asking the students to think about their most recent environmental experience. It was a shy group, but I persisted, and one of the students raised her hand and said, “Well, I was running on the beach the other day.” A second student raised her hand, and she said, “I was hanging out in a hammock,” and then another student raised his hand and said, “I was kayaking recently in the bay.” I asked, “Any other environmental experiences?” Awkward silence. Then I asked, “How many of you have eaten today?” Of course, everybody’s hand went up.
Eating no longer feels like an environmental experience because for so many of us the food we eat seems far removed from nature, but I would claim that most food, even a Twinkie, at one point had a connection back to the environment, to nature. Shifting our consciousness to link the conversation about food with that about climate change alters the frame that has kept food and the environment separated in our mind.
My point is that it’s not only important for us to learn new facts, such as those I just shared with you about the connection between food and climate change; it’s also important to understand the frames we have in our mind about food and farming that might help us embrace a new paradigm or prevent us from seeing it. If you have read the work of cognitive scientists like George Lakoff, you know they emphasize that all of us are so programmed by the frames we have in our minds that, as Lakoff has written, “If the truth doesn’t fit the existing frame, the frame will stay in place and the truth will dissipate.”
I’ve been traveling over the past year to research links between food and climate and attend food industry conferences. Sensing that there is going to be a national awakening to this connection, the food industry is presenting its activities as part of the solution. Essentially, what I’ve been hearing is, “Don’t worry, folks, we’ve got these problems under control.”
I attended the first-ever environmental sustainability summit of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the trade association of Coke and Pepsi, Unilever and Kimberly Clark, and virtually every food and consumer products company you can name. Held at the Ritz Carlton in Washington, D.C., speakers at the day-and-a-half conference had a common message: the food industry is a leader in sustainability. We heard from John Brock of Coca-Cola, who said, “The whole concept of sustainability—that’s where we touch the world and the world touches us.” Kevin Hadlock from Unilever said, “Environmental stewardship is in our DNA.” (This seemed particularly ironic because Unilever is pushing nanotechnology, the superfine particles that are of concern to many public health advocates because of their potential effect on our genes.) The message these companies were sending was, “We are on the job, rolling up our sleeves and getting involved with this sustainability thing.” That’s the frame they were creating.
Many food company marketing teams have been working overtime to present themselves as our partners in environmentalism, but their message is often that environmental change will come from us as individuals taking action, not from what they will be doing to shift their business practices.
At another industry conference I heard a presentation by Mary Dillon, executive vice-president and chief marketing officer of McDonald’s. She was talking about how proud she was that their Happy Meals “deliver a positive message about the environment.” Recently, McDonald’s Europe developed an initiative called “My Pledge.” A worksheet comes with your meal so that you can become involved by creating your own individual eco-action. And last fall McDonald’s partnered with the Japanese government to give away a half-priced Big Mac to all those who downloaded a list of 39 ways to reduce their personal greenhouse-gas emissions. I imagine that not eating at McDonald’s was not on the list.
Now, consider that this is the same company that just a year and a half ago partnered with General Motors to give away 42 million Happy Meals with “fun-fueled miniature Hummers.” If you were lucky, you could get the metallic Hummer, a “free-wheeling vehicle with retractable winch,” or the laser-blue Hummer, which “offers a truly enlightening ride.” If you were a girl, you wouldn’t have to get the Hummer. You could choose from among eight different Polly Pocket dolls. The about-face on the part of this company that just a year ago was promoting fossil-fuel-guzzling Hummers seems to suggest that the company is more opportunist than truly green.
Another frame we’re encountering is that biotech/industrial agriculture will be our savior in the climate-change crisis and will help us feed more people on less land. Martin Taylor of Syngenta, one of the world’s largest agricultural-chemical biotech companies, said: “The world has to choose between technology or deforestation and hunger. I can’t see another way.” From Dow Agrosciences, “The world will have to accept biotech crops, especially if we all agree that we cannot keep cutting trees to increase farmland.” From the head of agriculture at Monsanto: If we were to move toward organic agriculture, “we would have to burn down the rainforest. We would have to eliminate all the wetlands and tax the environment in a way that would be totally unacceptable.” What’s the framing message? There’s a trade-off between farms and forests. Though this is a false trade-off, these are the new dominant frames, or let’s say the refurbished frames, that are being promoted by agricultural corporations and being carried in the mainstream press.
How do we spread more life-serving frames? In her lecture, Harris-Lacewell explained that cognitive scientists have discovered we are more likely to accept new frames, to get beyond our cognitive dissonance, when we are “motivated processors.” We are most able to square dissonant ideas and most able to accept a new frame when we are feeling hopeful. She suggested that Barack Obama’s hope message has been so effective for the very reason that his campaign created a nation of motivated processors. I would also say this is why talking about food and farming and climate change, questioning those dominant frames we’ve been hearing from Monsanto to McDonald’s, is so exciting.
Why does talking about food and climate change offer hope? First, because unlike many climate-change challenges we face, we already have solutions at hand for reducing emissions from the food sector. Second, the strategies for reducing emissions will create more resilient farms and crops that are going to be better able to withstand the weather extremes we know are coming. In wonky climate-change terms, mitigation is adaptation. What we are doing to reduce emissions is going to help us adapt to the erratic weather future as well. Third, this conversation is so hopeful because implementing climate-friendly solutions has enormous and positive ripple effects: preserving biodiversity, addressing hunger and poverty, and improving public health.
I said one cause for hope is the growing evidence that small-scale sustainable farms reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from the farm itself and minimize our reliance on fossil fuels in the food sector. As an example, I’ll take you to a farm I visited in western Wisconsin, a farm that looks unlike anything we might imagine as the typical American farm with its hundreds of acres of straight rows. This farm, an agroforestry operation created by Mark Shephard, has winding rows that follow the natural curves of the land. There are perennials as well as annuals, and there are clusters of trees and other beneficial plants throughout the farm.
Mark moved onto this land just thirteen years earlier, taking it over from a corn grower. As we were standing on a ridge from which the humming of life on his farm was actually audible, I could smell and touch the rich and healthy soil. I could see the neighboring farms with their rows of corn that are still being covered with herbicides and pesticides. Mark told me that in just thirteen years he’s been able to rehabilitate the soil. On his 106 acres he now grows thousands of pounds of food every year and not only food but fuel as well. The day I was there he had just finished digging a ditch for the wind turbine he would use to power his apple cider mill. Farmers like Mark are learning to reduce carbon dioxide emissions significantly, in part because they rely on natural pest controls and fertilizers rather than on chemicals and fossil fuels. Because they are creating rich soils, the land is helping to sequester, not release, carbon.
One of the leading organizations researching on-farm carbon sequestration is the Rodale Institute. In a multi-year study of organic farming Rodale found that soil carbon was increased by 15 to 28 percent in organic production systems. A comparative study of conventional systems did not show any increase in the amount of stored soil carbon or nitrogen. Mark told me proudly that when friends helped him dig the ditch to install the wind turbine, they were so amazed by the soil health that they called in local geologists because they couldn’t believe there was all that healthy soil so far down.
I mentioned adaptation as mitigation. When I arrived on Mark’s farm, it was only one week after the torrential flooding in the Midwest last summer. On my drive there, I saw farm after farm that looked like a lake, still covered with water. On the farms neighboring Mark’s you could see the erosion of the corn from the downpour whereas his healthy soil acted like a huge sponge that was able to soak up the water. He did lose a little bit of the crop he kept in annuals, but the rest of his farm was doing fine. His hazelnuts had never looked better, he said.
The third hopeful element of moving toward climate-friendly food systems is that we don’t actually have to face a trade-off. Monsanto’s message that sustainable practices and preservation of forests are incompatible is a fiction. Just look at Mark’s farm, where he had an abundance of food-producing trees that were sequestering carbon. There’s not necessarily a trade-off between farms and forests.
We’re also seeing that there’s no yield trade-off when we move in this more climate-friendly direction. One of the largest studies of sustainable farming looked at more than 200 projects in 57 countries, primarily in Africa, involving 12.6 million farmers. The study found that sustainable agriculture practices reduced pesticide use, increased carbon sequestration, used less water, and did not decrease yields—in some cases even increased them. Researchers found that moving toward sustainable organic production increased yields 79 percent, sometimes even 100 percent. So changing the frame—to recognize the connection between food and climate change, to recognize the role of the food system in the climate crisis—need not leave us feeling threatened, for we can see the solutions that are emerging. As we change the frame, as we become motivated processors, we see new opportunities we were blind to before. We all eat every day, and this one act enables us to align ourselves with a powerful climate-change solution.
What are we told that we can do as individuals to address climate change? Drive less, buy a hybrid car, buy energy-efficient appliances, change our light bulbs. I don’t know about you, but I live in a city, and I don’t want to buy a car. I’ve already changed all my light bulbs, and I don’t want any new appliances, so those messages have left me at a standstill in terms of my individual actions. Telling the food and climate-change story helps us to see our role in creating change. But more importantly, this reframing allows us to rethink where the policy solutions lie. All the steps that this community in the southern Berkshires is taking to create a local food system—supporting organic farmers, encouraging people to eat fewer processed foods, cutting out the Cheese-Its and the Oreos—are part of the climate-change solution.
A few months ago when Al Gore was speaking at a bloggers’ conference, someone asked him why he has not stressed the food-and-climate-change connection. The questioner was asking specifically about the connection between the climate crisis and factory-farmed meat. Gore’s answer? He said, “It’s true that it would be healthier for us if we consumed less meat.” When asked why meat hasn’t been more prominent in his pitches about solutions, he said: “I myself am a meat eater, and perhaps that has something to do with it. None of us is perfect.”
What’s surprising to me is that Gore’s answer implied that the only approach to the challenge is to change what we put on our plates, when Gore of all people must know that our individual choices are just a small part of the solution. He must know that a more powerful way to make a difference is to consider the mechanisms fueling the destructive industrial meat system and analyze the extent to which we are currently subsidizing that system. That provides a basis for transforming our agricultural polices and our trade polices.
What do we know about the subsidies for industrial meat? There are the direct payments to the livestock sector embedded in the Farm Bill, but the bill benefits livestock producers in indirect ways as well. Soybean producers received $2 billion in subsidies and corn producers another $17.6 billion between 2003 and 2005. With half of the corn and two-thirds of the soybeans grown in the United States going to feed animals, not people, these commodity subsidies should really be considered industrial livestock subsidies. In fact, factory farms received a total of $35 billion between 1997 and 2005.
This is just one example of how a change of frame enables us to see that we should be talking about the Farm Bill, not just as food policy but as climate-change policy. Imagine—and people are starting to work on this, so I hope the time will come when we don’t have to only imagine it—if we started subsidizing communities to introduce urban farms and called it part of our climate-change strategy. There has been a growing surge of interest in creating green-collar jobs. Now with this new frame, we can see that farming is the original green-collar job. If we truly embrace this frame, we can imagine a kind of new movement like Teach for America, which put teachers into schools across the country, only this would be Farm for America, where young people would work to create a sustainable food system that contributes to a climate-change solution.
In my attempt to make us all motivated processors I want to emphasize that the change of frame now evolving enables us to see small-scale sustainable farming as part of the climate-change solution. More than two billion people still live in rural communities, and many of them are farmers. By insisting that small-scale farming has a crucial role to play in the solution, we are valuing all those small-scale producers. There is now a world-wide movement of small-scale farmers called La Via Campesina that we can rally around. They are reframing as a way to support their movement.
I was just in South Korea, where I was visiting with some of the farmers who are part of La Via Campesina, which is made up of member organizations representing millions of small-scale farmers in 56 countries. Their slogan this year is “Small Farmers Can Feed the World and Cool the Planet.” The more we hear the deceptive messages coming at us from Monsanto and other corporations like it, the more able we are to take heart from La Via Campesina’s counter-message that small farmers can feed the world and cool the planet.
Excerpts from the Question & Answer Period
I think the term “climate chaos” is more appropriate than “global warming” or “climate change.”
I understand how useful it would be to revise the Farm Bill, coming at making change from a policy level, but I don’t see Monsanto, Unilever, or Dow walking away gently when attempts are made to push them out of the picture. Nor do I see students who go to gyms to use exercise machines wanting to go to a farm and pick potato bugs off of the potatoes.
There was an article by Michael Pollan in the Sunday New York Times magazine section’s food issue two weeks ago. What he said was very much in tune with what you said today. I’d also like to mention Added Value Farm as an example of local farming in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. Carbon sequestering is being done there in a big way. There are many community farms around New York City and elsewhere in the state of New York.
As someone who believes that George Lakoff’s work has been crucially important, I want to thank you for your emphasis on the power of frames. Incidentally, I think it was Amory Lovins who said that global weirding is a much more appropriate term than global warming.
I appreciate your talking about the food system. I think the majority of Americans aren’t even aware that we have a food system, much less how destructive it is. This is a hidden frame that isn’t on a conscious level in most of our national discussions. In your analysis there’s another element at play that I would call a kind of reverse logic or arguing from the conclusion. If the conclusion is unacceptable, then we will not accept the argument.
You mentioned the Rodale Institute study of carbon sequestration, which was a long-term scientific study. I’ve never seen it published or referred to in any major U.S. publication. I found out about it in an Australian journal. The study concluded that if the farmland in the United States were converted to using organic methods we would sequester more carbon than the amount produced by two-thirds of our vehicles. I believe that conclusion doomed the study from being published in this country. The average American editor who looked at the results would find them ridiculous and simply not publish a review of the study. It’s an example of the power of frames that prevent us from even considering certain facts because the conclusion is unacceptable. All Monsanto has to do is hint that “those liberals” are going to try to take away our meat and the argument is essentially over for a lot of people.
It seems to me that there are systemic issues that transcend the evils of Archer Daniels Midland or McDonald’s. I don’t mean to minimize the effect of corporate power at all, but the economic challenge of making the shift you talked about, and especially of scaling it up beyond both the highly committed and the relatively affluent groups, is enormous because even at $4 a gallon petroleum is relatively cheap and labor is relatively expensive in this country. This ratio holds true in much of the world. Where I live, and I think in many places, healthy organic food is expensive, and so I think we need to speak to the question of how to attack this problem on a massive political and economic scale and find ways to shift the cost imbalance between petroleum and labor. I wonder if you could expand a little on this subject.
I think messaging is critical. I’d like to tell you what I went through ten years ago when I was involved in putting together a national strategy on recycling for the U. S. government. I started out by selecting twenty of the smartest people I could find in a room full of people from academia and government. We worked on the messaging for a strategy and came up with ten frames. We took these frames to six focus groups we set up around the country, and every frame failed. With the smartest people I could find in the policy world, every frame we put together failed to resonate with the public. Now, people understood what we were talking about as long as it didn’t include sustainable development. They cared about their kids, they cared about the future, they cared about equity, they understood incredibly complex economic trade-offs, but the concept of sustainable development was foreign to them. I think that was a huge eye-opener for people who were doing the policy work. We think we’re smart, but how bad we are in connecting with the average person out there. Then too, there’s a huge disparity in funding because the big corporations can easily pay for the kind of research that actually drives the messaging.
My interest is local. I live in Westport, Connecticut, where we’re doing food-related things like CSA farming, and we’re starting an educational program to teach people how to have a garden in their backyard. We’re also thinking about boycotting a few things. My question is, where can we go for resources on a town-by-town level to improve the ways we deal with our food in line with your philosophy?
I work with a poor people’s rights group in Springfield, Massachusetts, called Arise for Social Justice as well as with Remineralize the Earth, and I wanted to mention the idea that sustainability is not always palatable or seems too nebulous to those who are living in very low-income populations. A lot of people are reaching the point of thinking in terms of survivability, and so we should somehow be addressing and supporting the rising grass-roots tide of people who are extremely frightened about their ability to survive. This has always been a global issue, but now it’s becoming more real to large numbers of people who weren’t having trouble surviving before. Going back to what was said about policy measures seeming irrelevant to the average American, I think it’s the grass-roots efforts that make our goals seem more attainable.
We consumers are being bombarded with advertising. Those companies you named know the stakes are rising, and I’m sure you’ve seen the ads telling us that high-fructose corn syrup is really good for us. My children are highly aware of the situation, so it’s a teachable moment, but we’re not doing enough about it.
I’m just a consumer and a parent who is trying to do the right thing. When I buy food, should I be more concerned about whether it’s local or it’s organic? Most of the organic produce I buy comes from far away. Please tell me what kind of apples I should be buying.
I’m interested in localizing food systems, but so much of small-scale farming globally that is sustainable is dependent upon markets in affluent countries. On the basis of your experience traveling and observing small-scale farming all around the world, what possibility do you see of re-envisioning the system when there is so much tension between the need for farming to provide livelihoods and affordability as opposed to the concern for larger environmental issues?
Right before lunch I was talking with a woman who has just started working at Hawthorne Valley Farm. She was talking about her work there, and she said what she’s doing seems so insignificant. In my talk I discussed the impact on the planet of food and agriculture and climate change. What could be bigger than the planet when you’re talking about an impact? But she wondered what difference her work could possibly make.
I could relate to her feeling that way in this era when we are confronted with such enormous forces arrayed against what I think we collectively see as our shared values of community and sustainability. (Or as someone commented today, maybe an alternative frame to sustainability is survivability.) So yes, anything any one of us does is by definition small because we are what we are, which is human beings who are alive for only a finite amount of time. Yet the arc of what we’re struggling for—and accomplishing—goes well beyond any one of our lifetimes.
When I have a sense of futility from feeling insignificant, a metaphor comes to mind that my mother and I talked about one night when we were trapped in a hotel room in Seattle with the rain pouring down. We sometimes feel as though we’re just a drop in the bucket, right? As we were talking about that sensation of futility, of feeling like a drop in the bucket, all of a sudden I said: “Wait a second. You know, here in Seattle if we were to put a bucket out right now, it would be filled probably within the hour.” And so I think it’s less that we feel like a drop in a bucket and more that we feel like a drop in the Sahara because the drop is dissipating before it even touches ground. If you conceptualize your individual action as a drop in a bucket, that means your drop is adding to all the others. You have no idea if yours is the first drop, the mid drop, or the last drop before the water will go over the edge.
So when I get into that mindset of “Oh, anything I do is so small, so futile,” I remind myself of the bucket. The farmers I’ve met around the world, the people from the central plains of Brazil to the villages in Bangladesh to the skyscrapers in Seoul, South Korea, are all contributing to filling a bucket that each one of our drops is adding to. I’ll end with reframing the metaphor of being a drop in the bucket so that it’s a good thing after all.