Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What's your Calcutta?

Mother Teresa said, “Find your Calcutta.” Find the broken thing you want to fix, find the lost cause you want to redeem. What’s yours? What’s our purpose, our Calcutta, in Food, Think!?

I searched for it when I was a kid. I handled my zeal for "protecting nature"…

  • Poorly: I took the garden hose and soaked city workers who had been chopping tree roots while installing a sidewalk (whoever you are, I’m very sorry. It was a cold day). 
  • Passionately: I interposed a teary “Don’t shoot!” and foiled the execution of a rattlesnake. 
  • Sacrificially: I dumped my childhood allowance savings into an envelope and mailed it to a rainforest preservation fund.
  • …Better: I wrote out my concerns and tried to influence one who influenced many. My pastor read a handwritten letter from me, an 8-year old, and responded. He taught me the word stewardship. I also learned I needed to be a good listener and learner so my views could mature.    

Almost twenty years later, I still sadden at a scenery change of green to grey. My kids and grandkids would inherit whatever is left after “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” (Joni Mitchell). One day, they could travel for hours to leave the same city’s limits that sprawl over miles of rich soil (e.g., Houston Black Clay, ).

Calcutta, borough 1: Bad stewardship, where good things get overlooked or undervalued.

Hearing and learning are basic to mutual understanding, which is basic to Food, Think! Here’s a relevant example: if you, your parents, or your grandparents aren’t farmers or ranchers, you’re with 98% of all Americans. That means only 2% of people in this nation have first-hand knowledge of how agriculture works.

Calcutta, borough 2: 98% of Americans may not be making informed choices about products they buy and industries they support.

Calcutta, borough 3: The concerns of 2% of Americans go unheard.

By now, we know the forum, we know the terms, and we will (hopefully) know more about each other. We’ll be staged and ready to discuss the facts and topics in the next posts. My Calcutta has several boroughs: finding worth in the worthless, bringing knowledge to the uninformed, giving a voice to the voiceless…but they reside under one banner: healing relationships. Everyone has a Calcutta. Now, take your turn. What’s your story? What do you Think?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

(Re)Defining the terms

Here is the definition of sustainable agriculture, as defined by Congress in the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (FACTA): “the term sustainable agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:
  • ·         satisfy human food and fiber needs
  • ·         enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends
  • ·         make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
  • ·         sustain the economic viability of farm operations
  • ·         enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”
 (from Mary Gould, USDA 2009)

The meaning of "sustainable agriculture" has been somewhat hijacked. For the last few years, many of us link the concept of “sustainable agriculture” to Michael Pollan (and now Oprah, apparently), as if he spearheaded such a movement. He didn’t, but we can thank him for bringing it in vogue. I’ll speak for the beef industry here, which has worked to produce 13% more beef with 30% less land, 13% less cattle, 14% less water, 18% less carbon emissions, and 20% less feed, and 9% less fossil fuel energy…this is comparing 2010’s progress with 1977. If you don’t reference these publications by Dr. Jude Capper et al. (WSU) now, you will want to later, since we’ll be discussing their findings often: (Capper et al., 2009;WSU Food Myths Debunked 2010; Capper et al., 2010)
That kind of sustainable practice deserves applause. However, Michael Pollan doesn’t seem to think so, since while lecturing at Michigan State University in 2010, he answered a question (“Is it possible to feed the world on a grassfed, Salatin-style paradigm?...”) in this way: : “I don’t know if sustainable agriculture can feed the world, but I do know conventional agriculture hasn’t done it yet.” Confused? One, sustainable agriculture, as defined by U.S. Congress, implies the world is able to be fed. Two, conventional agriculture hasn’t done it yet? Michael, where have you been since 1977? Keep in mind that Pollan abides by his own definition of sustainable agriculture, which would explain his self-doubt: "Farmer-in-Chief" article, New York Times, 2008  .

Take a look at these two newspaper articles: "Sustainable Farming" New York Times, 2011; "Sustainable Farming" Dallas Morning News, 2011. To me, they are exactly the same. Different people, yes, but same words, same mantra, same mystery references to science. These people are trying to answer legitimate questions and address legitimate concerns, and I'm not saying they're wrong as much as I'm saying they're providing nebulous answers with nebulous support, and by the time you finish the article, you haven't gotten anywhere. I am thankful for freedom in the agricultural market that makes room for many different agricultural practices to respond to demand. I regret that consumer demand may be to some extent manipulated by demagoguery and guilt trips imposed by a few very vociferous parties. What do you Think?

Ground Rules

Food, Think! is not a message, it’s a microphone. This is a forum, not a blog, which means this will not stage my monologue but our dialogue. Therefore, the one and only agenda of this website is for the participation of many parties of many viewpoints to meet together on the level ground of scientifically ascertained reality. If you are interested in meeting the objective of providing food to sustain 6.8 billion (and growing) human lives while minimizing the harm to our natural environment and maximizing the physical health of individual people, please contribute to this discussion. Food, Think! promotes stewardship of mind, body, and environment. We will face the fact that every gain in this entropic world comes at a cost, and we define responsible management of those costs as stewardship. Life, liberty, property, comfort, opportunity…these are paid for in their own currencies, life exchanging for life, etcetera. Total sustainability of the human population and total sustainability of environmental resources are two mutually exclusive variables that cannot be simultaneously maximized. My worldview dictates that of all things originating on earth, human life is the most valuable, and sustainable in this dialogue will be defined as able to keep up or prolong the human population, indefinitely. Sustainability will be defined as the ability to keep up or prolong the human population, indefinitely. I make these definitions only to avoid semantic entanglements, not to force acceptance of my worldview. Before the posting begins, I will lay out three ground rules for us:
  1. Express objective truth at the expense of personal agenda. Acknowledge that your knowledge, experience, and agenda are finite.
  2. Cite every unoriginal reference and source (hyperlink and/or author, publication & date)
  3.   Use words stewardship, sustainability, and sustainable as previously defined, or state a redefinition of those words if an alternate meaning is applied.
Posts that do not adhere to these rules will be removed. I am excited to begin this conversation with everyone. Be patient with me, the first topic will appear in a few days!