Day 9: Food: sustainable agriculture (or can we live the Good Life?)
Where would we be without agriculture? We’d be very hungry for a start! Whilst food is the most obvious of benefits, agriculture provides fuels, raw materials and medicines that we simply couldn’t do without. In essence, agriculture is indispensable to our everyday lives in many more ways than simply satisfying our hunger pangs.
The past half century has seen agricultural yields increase on an exponential scale to keep pace with the burgeoning demands of an ever growing global population. However, this booming productivity has brought with it the use of fertilizers, pesticides, intensely irrigated crops and heavy machinery on a scale that is threatening to damage the environment and our communities irreparably.
Thankfully, public awareness of this issue has increased in scale also, translating into support and practice of sustainable agriculture. The discussions taking place at COP21 will look to establish a policy framework for sustainable agriculture which matches the great efforts being made on a localised level (efforts we all can make!).
What eco actions can we take?
So how can we all help to support sustainable agriculture where we live?
Citizens: individually, we can take many practical actions, from buying food that is both organic and seasonally produced by local growers, to (with a little perseverance and practice) growing your own! Also, do you really need to eat strawberries in winter, or asparagus flown in from Peru? Check the origin of your fruit and veg before you buy. Out-of-season, fresh, perishable produce is typically air freighted from far-flung parts of the globe –increasing the carbon footprint of the foodstuff enormously. Getting back in tune with our local seasons and what produce is grown naturally at different times of year is rewarding and makes you more adventurous with cooking as well.
Civil Society: working as a community is a sure fire way to being more agriculturally sustainable. Building relationships between producers and local consumers (and telling others about them) can get all involved in all aspects of sustainable agriculture, from field to plate, by-passing the need for large-scale industry
Corporates: the business world has the funds to direct towards sustainable agriculture, and benefit them as a result. Unfortunately, currently investment in community-based sustainable agriculture is difficult to come across. Businesses have the financial capital that projects, such as food co-operatives and community kitchens, need to get off the ground and make a difference. So, come on corporates put your money where you mouths are (eating!).
Blog post by Project Dirt:
Is the garden rosy for sustainable agriculture?
Most of us in the global north eat three hearty meals a day. We may snack between mealtimes too, but how often do we think about the system that sits behind what sits on our dinner plates? We’re so disconnected from our food that according to a recent study 9% of 16-24 year olds think potatoes grow on trees! If we don’t know WHERE our food comes from, we certainly won’t know HOW it gets to the table.
Sustainable agriculture is the act of producing foodstuffs and materials which don’t negatively impact on the environment, our health and our communities. It champions biodiversity, the use of plant friendly crop growing techniques, and prioritises the conservation of ecosystems over high yields. Food is produced without hazardous pesticides and fertilizers, and in a manner which – whilst remaining economically viable – doesn’t sacrifice local communities and livelihoods for big profits.
Much attention has been given recently to questioning whether modern methods of agriculture – revolving heavily around industrial farming techniques – can be sustainable for an ever-growing and globalised population. ‘Monoculture’, one of the most widely used of these methods, is reliant on machinery and chemical inputs to grow single crops intensively on a very large scale. The disintegration of rural communities, water scarcity, soil degradation, deforestation, air pollution and more broadly (but most crucially) climate change, are just some of the negative and lasting impacts that can be attributed to industrialised agriculture.
Reports indicate that climate change is already diminishing the global food supply, noticeably on integral cereals such as maize and wheat. These social and environmental ramifications leave little ambiguity that a move towards sustainable agriculture is essential.
So what efforts are being made to make this happen? Local and regional food networks, where all aspects of the agricultural process involve members of the community, are sprouting up (sorry!) across the globe. The way food is grown, harvested, processed and distributed is done so in a socially and environmentally responsible manner, with the full consent of local producers and consumers. For instance the FoodSmiles project of St Albans, which strives to make local food and food-growing more accessible, allows community members to utilise the 30 allotment plots and 4 poly-tunnels on their farm site for themselves and to contribute to a weekly veg box scheme.
Localised systems focus on growing both seasonal and organic food that minimizes the use of pesticides and fertilizers and in turn the damaging effects on floral and faunal health. Strong local food networks also increase both food security and communal comradery. Having a collective sense of responsibility to make local produce readily available to the local population ensures that people feel integrally involved in the system! A great example of this is The Edible Bus Stop, a London based landscape architecture and horticultural collective, that has helped create a guerrilla garden in Lambeth dedicated to local residents. The garden welcomes local people to get involved by growing an assortment of leafy greens and herbs to then take home to cook with and eat.
Perhaps as a reaction to an ever-faster, technology-hungry daily pace of life, we’re also seeing a simultaneous revival of a grow-your-own culture, with more and more people wanting to live The Good Life. Ditching supermarket shelves in favour of vegetable patches is not only building a sense of pride in returning to the fundamentals of feeding ourselves, but also provides a ready supply of fresh and delicious food, whilst cutting out the carbon emissions caused by transport and refrigerated storage. Even in urbanised areas where space is hard to come by, gardeners are finding ways to be sustainable. The Vertical Veg Street Project in Newcastle aims to help residents grow in small spaces at the front of their homes by (as the name suggests) growing upwards!
Furthermore, localised agriculture that efficiently and effectively brings produce to plate minimises the number of stages of the food supply chain, that each contribute to substantial food loss and food waste.
Whilst efforts at a grassroots community level are having an observable and noteworthy effect, sustainable agriculture still faces the challenge of being adopted at scale worldwide. Structural developments in international agricultural policy, which favours big industry over sustainable agriculture, are needed to make this a reality. Policy at the moment doesn’t evenly distribute agricultural budget between producers, as well as provide the necessary protection against market volatility. COP21 presents an opportunity for the powers that be to challenge the industrially dominated sector and to make these goals achievable. For agriculture to be sustainable it has to meet the requirements of the present without compromising future generations to meet their own. At the moment, industrial agriculture isn’t affording people of the mid to late 21st century and beyond the luxuries of today. Hopefully the groundswell of support for sustainable agriculture, from yourselves and the community food groups, plus evidence of its success and the looming threat of environmental and social damage, will lead to action.
Presented by eco action games and our partner for today’s theme, Project Dirt.