J500 Media and the Environment

Revert to Basics by micolea

Everyday, just before the sun rises, my grandmother walks three miles from her home to the open-air food market in her province in Pampanga, Philippines. Once she reaches the market she is greeted warmly by the familiar faces of the farmers and vendors she purchases her food from each day. As she saunters through the market, the vibrant colors and delectable aromas of fresh papaya, guava, mango, avocado and eggplant delight her senses.

Picking and choosing assorted fruits, vegetables and fish has become a daily routine for my grandmother. After a quick conversation with one of the local vendors, she walks the three miles back to her home, with a bag of food in each hand. Once home, she starts cooking, or what she refers to as “nourishment for the soul.” 

My grandmother is ninety-six years old.

Photo by tmcpics/Courtesy Flickr

Living in an era where fast food is the norm, and eating out and take out are an integral part of our society’s culture, it seems awfully difficult to remember a simpler time. For my grandmother’s generation, it was standard for meals to be prepared at home. The moments spent chopping vegetables and simmering stew were savored. 

Surprisingly, or maybe I should say, impressively, my grandmother has never set foot in a Wal-Mart, Target or Kroger. Those stores resemble words of a foreign language to her because she had never heard of them. That, in itself is quite an extraordinary feat. 

Nowadays, food terminology can be like trying to solve the Pythagorean Theorem. Words like sustainable, organic and natural seem to all blend together. So why does it appear that it is about to become more complicated? As multiple cooks enter the kitchen, it is seemly becoming more problematic to agree on coherent definitions of sustainable agriculture.

The debacle about labeling food as “sustainable agriculture” is currently ongoing. While on the surface this looks like an encouraging way to entice food producers to stop using pesticides and genetically modified crops, it may actually do just the opposite. Some parties are advocating for this standard to encompass organic practices from farm to plate, while others want this to only affect one part of its operation and not have to adhere to all environmental regulations. I know exactly what my grandmother would say to all of this. She would declare  “there needs to be a return to nature. We need to feel a connection to food.” My grandmother cherishes her relationship with food and in return, she has been blessed with a life of longevity. 

 The outcome of these discussions is to decide on whether or not to implement a “National Sustainable Agriculture Standard.”  On either side of the issue are General Mills, American Farmland Trust, National Corn Growers Association and the National Resources Defense Council. The Leonardo Academy is mediating the conversation.

Why do I feel as if I am being deceived? Though I realize it is unrealistic to think that we can all buy our food from open air markets and have conversations about the origin of that food with the people who grew it, as a nation of consumers, we deserve to know where our food comes from and the techniques used to grow it. Hopefully, that will be a unifying point for the committee.

Micole Aronowitz


3 Comments so far
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So were you saying that General Mills, etc. are not wanting a National Sustainable Agriculture Standard? -Kristina B.

Comment by kristinabev


Companies like General Mills do want a National Sustainable Agriculture Standard, but they want a much broader definition/standard of sustainable. Groups like the American Farm Bureau, for instance, don’t want the standard to include organic agriculture, just sustainable agriculture.

Micole A.

Comment by micolea


Thank you for your write-up about the National Sustainable Agriculture Standard. As project manager and facilitator of this effort, I would like to take the opportunity to clarify a number of points that may help your readers better understand the intent of the standard and those involved.

First off, the ultimate goal of the National Sustainable Agriculture Standard is to strengthen ALL of American agriculture, with no bias toward a specific type of production system, size of operation or market. To meet this goal, the standard will establish a comprehensive, continual improvement framework (via a ‘tiered’ structure) and common set of metrics by which to determine whether an agricultural crop has been produced in a sustainable manner. Although the current scope of the standard focuses on crop production within the farm gate, it will expand into other types of production (such as dairy, livestock, and aquaculture), as well as to the rest of the supply chain (agricultural product processors, suppliers, distributors, retailers, consumers, etc.) in subsequent phases. At this point in the process, the goal is not to inform consumers about the origins or production methods of the foods they eat but rather to set up agricultural producers for success – across all components of sustainability – into the long-term. Without this platform, the food system is subject to serious constraints. Furthermore, I would argue that consumers today do have the resources in hand to identify where their food comes from; however, it is clear that not everyone is asking that question and some would frankly not care to know.

Second, your article seems to focus specifically on environmental sustainability by referencing reduced pesticide use, elimination of genetically modified inputs, and adoption of organic practices within this standard. While it is true that farmers are increasingly feeling the pressure to respond to environmental constraints, there are additional considerations to take into account, such as the economic viability of farmers as well as the social fabric of our rural agricultural communities. Producers of all types face inherent challenges – whether economic, environmental or social – that tend to be site- or region-specific; therefore the standard needs to be sufficiently flexible to take their unique growing environments and product markets into account. This may mean that some producers focus more heavily on the environmental component of their farming operations while others focus more heavily on economic stability through increased production efficiencies. Regardless, the objective of this standard is to encourage growers to consider each leg of sustainability to their unique ability, and our objective is to give them the appropriate tools to measure their progress along a sustainability spectrum.

To the point about you feeling deceived – the development of the National Sustainable Agriculture Standard is a completely open and transparent multi-stakeholder process. All of the work done to date by both the Standards Committee and the subcommittees is posted on Leonardo Academy’s website. New stakeholders – including consumers like yourself and your readers – are invited to get engaged in the process at any time. There are a number of ways to get involved: 1) Serve on a subcommittee, 2) Participate as an observer, 3) Participate in the public comment process when a draft standard is available for public review (sometime in 2011). For more information, please visit our website: http://www.leonardoacademy.org/programs/standards/agstandard/participate.html.

Lastly, while it is important to know where our food comes from and the techniques used to grow it, there is a far greater need to ensure that agricultural production going forward has the capacity to be truly sustainable. To have the Committee unify around that point alone is an accomplishment in itself.

You can learn more about the project by visiting: http://www.mygazines.com/issue/4881/13

Thanks again for your interest in this initiative.

Amanda Raster
Sustainability Standards Development
Leonardo Academy

Comment by Amanda

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