J500 Media and the Environment

Sustain a Change by Kelly

When I consider organics and the development of a sustainable food system, my opinions are always rooted in the same priority: people.

flickr.com, by Masahiro Ihara

With more than 300 million people in the United States alone, farmers are responsible for feeding an ever-increasing population.

Many believe that meeting the market demand of so many people requires large scale farming operations. However,  while the system we have now provides for us today, it is jeopardizing our security for the future.

Immediately overhauling our current agricultural system is impractical. However, starting the gradual process toward sustainable agriculture is not.

It is easy to dismiss those who encourage us to eat local and buy organic as people disillusioned by a yearning for the pastoral life of yesteryear, but that is a simplistic response to a demand for sustainable agriculture. There are positive environmental, economical, and political implications behind the demand for a sustainable food system.

A common complaint about organic food is that it is too expensive. This is understandable considering organic food can cost anywhere from 20% to 100% more than its non-organic equivalent.  However, as noted in a recent Washington Post article, the organic food industry is growing and, with that growth, the food prices are coming down.  Additionally, organic food can be found at traditional supermarkets such as WalMart, which has specifically stated its intent to make organic food affordable.

Another common question surrounding the sustainable food movement is whether a sustainable food system can feed a rapidly expanding world population. A study comparing conventional and organic crop production concluded that organic farming can match the industrial yield of conventional practices. Another study from the University of Michigan concluded that, not only can sustainable agriculture provide enough food, but it may even result in an increased yield.

In addition, it is important to note that a reversion to sustainable farming doesn’t disregard or ignore the agricultural progress we have made. It supplements it. We have made invaluable technological progress over the past century and we know more about our environment and about ourselves than ever before. With all of the information and experience we have, we are in a dynamic position to change our food system for the better.

We don’t all need to be farmers or gardeners to appreciate and respect the importance of agriculture. I wouldn’t be able to focus so intently on food policy if the quality of our food didn’t effect us as individuals, as families, and as communities.  People have a profound connection to food, which is why we have a right to question our food sources and demand that they be stable enough to provide for us in the future.

K. Cochran

Warm feelings for an icy chest by jmuselmann

Once upon a time last week, I decided to start making a change. I guess it was what is languidly referred to by communications and philosophy people as “cognitive dissonance” that finally caught up with me. I started staring at all those paper latte cups I had with me every day and thought, god, this is ridiculous. The sheer amount of cups and lids I use was not only a green atrocity, but also shed light on how much of a caffeine goon I am. So I finally drug my thermos and my computer around for a day to try on my sustainability hat.

All went well—I saved the lives of at least two cups, only to be used by the people in line behind me, and spared a few spiraled pages for another day. But guess what? That evening I found my computer charger—among other things—dowsed in my spoiled latte swill from eight hours ago. And I suddenly remembered why I had previously stopped lugging the adult sippy cups. Charger defunct. Spirits again tarnished.

Every time I attempt things like this, they end in folly, I often think. Then I look in my fridge and wonder how I was surprised. It is a sick sight: food wrappers I somehow couldn’t take out of the fridge; half a can of soup saved in vain; condiments that have been rifled through with messy hands halfway through a meal (likely the Ramen “needed something”); my prized thick, pulpy orange juice; yogurt, for those creamy personal moments I need after a long day; and most recently, evidence of my new-found appreciation for Kraft Singles, as articulated by an old friend. And in the thick of a terrible winter, my new way of storing groceries (wherein refrigerated items are extracted while the rest is left in bags on the floor until time of use) points to the subtle, horrifying laziness I am capable of. How is it again that I can stab at sustainability when my own lifestyle is so… dilapidated? Can a messy person make the world cleaner?

Indeed, to present oneself as sustainable suggests a certain degree of organization, say not virtue for those that can seem to pull it off—and that’s why it  makes everyone feel terrible; it’s like self-righteous in-laws (by Mother Nature) with a political fervor to fuss until everyone feels bad, even for trying. But sustainability is also an idea—and a motivation—that emerges in odd, unexpected new shapes every day, and we should be open to them. Though we continue to discover dazzling complexities of nature each day, models to help the planet don’t have to be. Nor does someone  have to trod weightless on the planet to recognize how ornate and delicate it is. And I thought lugging the thermos was too tedious.

Somehow, something wells up in me—call it guilt, call it sporadic moral compunction, call it optimism—to try new ways to render myself less abrasive for the environment, and, when they end in disaster, to try another way.

—Jacob Muselmann

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

Looking Into Chipotle by bendcohen

What happens when a company makes a concerted effort to lead the charge in going green AND encouraging local agribusiness?  Sounds great, but probably on a small scale, and this is how I imagine it usually is.  But what if a national company is the one in question?  Chipotle, the fast-food chain that is responsible for preventing starvation amongst most American college students, has proudly advertised their ties to small farms and food producers for years.  If you get a drink at one of their locations, the cup will have a story printed on it about one of their favorite affiliates.  You could hear about cattle farmers who don’t use antibiotics, or the sustainable practices of Tobasco, the giant that supplies them with hot sauce.

I hate for my food to be lazy and dishonest, so this is a relief.

How does this work?  I was curious how a major fast-food chain, even one as beloved as Chipotle, could make good on their claims to support local businesses throughout the country, and was pleasantly surprised at what I found.  The thing that struck me first was that half of the links on the chain’s main page are for things like the benefits of cycling,  information about the movie “Food, Inc.”, and how some of their new locations are being LEED certified.   This was nice to see, but I remained skeptical until locating the “Food” tab, and discovered guides to where they ship all of the foods at their restaurants from, and on the section about meats, a legend indicating how much of their pork, beef, and chicken is naturally raised (tying back to those proud cups mentioned earlier).

Assuming the contents of Chipotle’s website are honest (and I found nothing saying otherwise), they do seem to make a concerted effort at supporting small farms and businesses, and to spread green awareness.  This doesn’t make the burrito mavens perfect, of course.  The site Chipotlefan.com offers a calculator to give you the nutritional information of any combination of ingredients at the restaurant, and I was only mildly shocked to learn that my favorite item, the barbacoa burrito with black beans, served up 890 calories, including 90% of a daily amount of sodium.

So, the lesson learned is a simple one.  The fast-food burrito masters are apparently trying to make good on their claims of sustainability.  Sadly, making them a staple of one’s diet, as I and many of my friends have flirted with at some point or another, would probably not  be good for you.

~Ben C.

Words Matter by bpirotte

Green. Healthy. Organic. Biophilia. Sustainable. “Global warming” or “climate change?” It all seems so overwhelming!

Word choice is important to help understanding of debated issues. http://phsgirard.org/images/calvin-on-scientific-law__word_choice_1_.gif

With the recent trend of the “green movement” and the idea of wanting to have a positive impact on our environment come a lot of words. And they can often be really confusing.

So, how do we begin to define words like these? How do we know these definitions can be trusted? The truth is, one definition almost never suffices, and making sure you’re educated and well-rounded in the sources you use can help.

For example, this week in my Media and the Environment course at the University of Kansas, our class had a guest lecturer from Kansas State University named Ben Champion who heads a sustainability group at the university. We looked past our school’s sports rivalries and had an informative discussion about the definition specifically of sustainability. We wondered if sustainability is even truly definable? However, we came up with a few definitions.

Ben Champion used his own definition: “[a] healthy system composed of relationships that do not damage the integrity of those economic social and environmental relationships.”

Ok, so we are kind of starting to get an understanding of what sustainability means. What about words like “organic?”  Dictionary.com has multiple definitions for organic. But here’s two I picked that seemed to pertain to what is talked about in regard to environmental issues (especially involving food). 1.”pertaining to, involving, or grown with fertilizers or pesticides of animal or vegetable origin, as distinguished from manufactured chemicals: organic farming; organic fruits.” and 2. “developing in a manner analogous to the natural growth and evolution characteristic of living organisms; arising as a natural out growth.” See? Now you know at some basic level what that label on your milk is boasting. Whether or not the company is truly upholding its values is another story. But if you understand the basics, you might be able to do some of your own research to come to your own conclusions on the reliability of companies.

It’s hard when we have so much to already worry about to try and wrap our minds around issues like these. So, it’s important for not only journalists, but people in all fields to use their words wisely. If you’re trying to talk to someone about the problems we face as a planet with the change in the Earth’s overall temperature, do you use “global warming” or “climate change?” What if it’s the coldest winter you ever remember. Would global warming really have an impact then?

With such heated topics as climate change or the green movement, it’s important to choose your words wisely. You never know the impact it can have on someone.

Love your Mother Earth by Kelly

In grade school we sang a song called, “Love Your Mother Earth.”  In my mind, I was singing about an ethereal woman who soared through the skies on the wings of eagles.  She spoke the language of the ocean and her hair was made of ferns.

Mother Earth photo: flickr.com

We also sang about Santa Claus and the Headless Horseman.*

Over time these childhood characters fade away, only resurfacing as nostalgia or a great Halloween costume.  Such was the fate of Mother Earth.  Sure she is one of my favorite childhood memories, but Mother Earth, like the Headless Horseman, is kind of a weirdo.  I mean come on, she’s made of plants.

It really is too bad because these images can make people see environmentalism as strange and inhuman.  People generally aren’t comfortable with a woman who has the whole world in her womb and they are afraid that environmentalism will force them to honor an ideal akin to this weird plant lady.

I am here to clear the air.** I want to assure you that taking care of the earth does not turn you into one of “those people” who look, and smell, like compost.  You will still be allowed to bathe, and you don’t have to weave your own clothes out of last night’s leftovers.  It’s going to be okay.  In fact, it’s going to be better.

Environmentalism speaks directly to what we need as people.  It gives us healthy food, clean water, and breathable air.  Adopting an environmentally friendly lifestyle won’t ruin our lives. It will make our lives better. It can strengthen our communities, power our homes, and restore balance to our backyards.

Environmentalism is all about quality of life and reconnecting to what really sustains us.  It starts with acknowledging the intrinsic connection between us and the earth.  I realize that sounds dramatic, but it’s just true. Everything we need to survive is provided by the earth. We grow our food in it, we drink its water, and we build our homes on it from materials that come out of it.

Being an environmentalist means you acknowledge this connection between us and the earth, and you’re willing to respect it.  It means you are committed to improving our quality of life. You want healthier food, clearer air, and cleaner water. You understand that your actions today can ensure that the earth will be able to provide for us tomorrow.

And there is nothing weird and inhuman about that.


*In retrospect, I realize it’s odd that we sang about the Headless Horseman.

**environmental pun intended.

My Night as a Zambian by KaylaReg
February 12, 2010, 6:39 pm
Filed under: J500 Week 4 | Tags: , , , ,

As part of an eighth grade class field trip, I spent a night at the Heifer Project International (HPI) Global Village in Arkansas. HPI works to teach people sustainable farming practices and management of natural resources in more than 55 countries around the world, including the U.S. This, in effect, gives them the power to actually be self-sufficient.

The global village staff divided us by lottery into groups representing a particular country or socioeconomic status HPI serves to help. Each group was given (or not given) a certain amount of resources reflecting what a typical person from that country or population has in real life. There were enough resources to feed everyone collectively, but no group was given enough to make it through the night on its own.

I’m reluctant to say my HPI experience is a perfect reflection of the real world market, but I can see some connection. The global economy commands the lowest price for the highest yield, and a country’s resources are only as good as its free market price. Without any organization or formal leadership, members from Zambia (the group I was in), Appalachia and Thailand, (I’ll call it ZAT) traded one item for another, jumping on whatever seemed like a good deal.

Taken from the USDA's Global Food Security Report. LAC= Latin America and Caribbean, CIS = Commonwealth of Independent States, SSA = Sub-Saharan Africa

Students from the Urban Ghetto and Refugee camp (lets call them both UR), the two groups without any resources, begged to start a fire or do dishes in exchange for anything to eat.  We traded all of our extra rice for oil and we needed matches and water to even consider labor costs.Then there was Guatemala, the only group with clean water rights and least willing to negotiate.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Security Assessment, between 2007 and 2009, food insecurity (consuming less than 2,100 calories per day per person) in developing countries increased by nearly 2 percent, reaching an estimated 833 million people. Food insecure countries, particularly those in Sub Sahara Africa and Asia, have been hardest hit by the global economic crisis as they’ve become more dependent on food-imports and foreign investment.

Eventually, everyone from ZAT and UR was too hungry to continue trying to dominating the global village market. We talked about what we had and what we needed and traded accordingly. Because we cooperated instead of competed, Guatemala couldn’t demand a ridiculous amount of labor or resources for half a cup of water and everyone, regardless of global village status, got a good meal.

Agriculture giant Monsanto claims what the struggling African farmers really need is its patented drought resistant seed, offered liberty free. It’s “sustainable agriculture,” its website states, “and that’s what Monsanto seeds are all about.”

Really? I thought Monsanto seeds were about profit.

I don’t want to end on a cheesy note, but just like in the global village, no country can get by completely on its own. Collectively though, there’s certainly enough for everyone.  To me, finding that balance is really what sustainability is all about.

-Kayla Regan

Defining Sustainability by jackiemcc

When I think about sustainability, I think of ways to protect the environment. I think of recycling, reducing pollution, and composting piles in the backyard, like we had when I was a kid.

Sustainability is often hard to define; there many definitions to go around. When sustainability is defined as the balance between people, planet and profits, it shortens the full meaning of the word. I do not think this definition is sufficient.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) includes many key words in their description of sustainability, for me to piece together a sufficient definition. They define sustainability as “polices and strategies that meet society’s present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (http://www.epa.gov/Sustainability/basicinfo.htm#sustainability)

The first definition of the balance between people, planet and profits is not sufficient, because it does not encompass the key words of sustainability—‘needs’ and ‘future’. The EPA’s definition does address the needs of the people, which is important because that is what sustainability revolves around. The policies and strategies are created so that society’s needs are satisfied. The importance of the future should be noted as well, because our sustainable actions now will benefit those in the future. We do not want to deplete the resources available for them.

Later in their definition, the EPA discusses the differences between the public and private sectors’ perspectives of sustainability. I think it is important to point out a part of the public policy’s perspective on this issue. In their definition, they include the protection of the “natural resource base and environmental quality of which life depends.” I think this is a significant piece to include in the definition of sustainability. I say this because to protect resources for future generations, we need to preserve the earth’s natural resources, and its environmental quality.

From all of this, I have pieced together a sufficient definition of sustainability for me. Sustainability is meeting society’s needs, now and in the future, through our actions, while protecting the earth’s resources and environmental quality.

Just as I was ending this post, I found a video that discusses what it means to be sustainable, and how a company was able to be sustainable and affordable in constructing their new office building. I know it’s not directly related to food, but I think the concepts they discuss can also be applied to food companies as well.

-Jackie McClellan

Translating definitions by Lauren Cunningham

Recently while eating at Angler’s in Lawrence, I saw something on the menu I hadn’t noticed before. 

On the back side of the menu, it was noted at the bottom that the restaurant was a sustainable seafood restaurant. I pointed it out to my boyfriend, feeling better about our decision to eat there, but I also wanted to know more about exactly what that meant. Below the headline, there was some information that kind of explained what the term “sustainable seafood” meant, but the two short paragraphs on the menu didn’t really inform me completely.

 Since then, I’ve checked out their Web site to see exactly what the restaurant meant by their sustainable seafood statement. They give some good explanations as to what they mean by sustainable seafood, but I wonder how the term translates to other restaurants and to those restaurants’ consumers.

The term “sustainability” has been thrown into a lot of media coverage about environmental or political issues. Often the word is defined as a balance between people, planet and profit. But I think it’s interesting that the word at one point didn’t include anything about the environment. 

I looked up “sustainablility” in the Oxford English Dictionary  through the KU Libraries Web site and found that up until December 2001, no definitions included anything about the environment. The definitions before 2001 did include descriptions of maintenance and the ability to be upheld or stand alone, which I am realizing is essential for others to understand in order to apply it to the environment.

I agree that it’s important to include the planet in the discussion when people take on sustainable projects or talk about making things more sustainable, but I’m not so sure that sustainability — the word itself — fully encompasses the aspect of the environment within its definition. It is nice to have a go-to word that can be used when discussing green or environmental issues, but I don’t think a single word cannot possibly sum up the planet, profit or people.

Instead of just labeling some project or item as “sustainable,” I believe meaningful discussions and definite definitions should be given to the public. Honestly, I don’t have a great answer as to who should give that definition, but I see more news outlets and blogs who are trying to offer some guidance. But of course, there’s always the question of who, if anyone, will actually take the time to educate themselves? My hope is that the term won’t try to define or take on too many aspects, and I hope more people begin to understand that research should be done in order to truly have a meaningful discussion about the environment and the food we get from it.

— Lauren Cunningham

Sustainability but ‘Shh, tame the ability’ by jmuselmann
February 12, 2010, 4:40 pm
Filed under: J500 Week 4, Society + Media | Tags: , , , , , ,

For a long time I thought I had been talking about sustainability, but it was really just me becoming glassy-eyed and warm as I imagined tiny, delicate green plants emerging through the smoggy, wicked epicenter up to Mother Nature’s sky, where we all belong, with the sun, and…

Sustainability is like a mystic yin-yang. Does that help?

It was usually downhill from there. What were people even talking about? I didn’t know, but I thought it was noble, and, you know, wanted it to happen. But what though? Thankfully, my emotionally delusional days are over, and I’ve sobered up enough to  want to know what sustainability actually is, minus the imagery. I wanted something objective and  concrete. Now that, I quickly realized, was delusional: I found out about as many definitions of sustainability as there are ways to do it. Often, it is defined as the balance of people, planets and profits. But there’s something missing in this equation, something intrinsically bound up in the root of the word, sustain: time. Balancing people, the planet and profits becomes skewed when we do no think about the long-term. As someone probably told them, Monsanto, like almost every business involved in the business of food, needed to acknowledge sustainability. And let’s just say its approach sounded, well, familiar.

Theirs is a three-pronged message. The first two focus on increasing populations equaling increased food production (help us, Monsanto!), and the last one pledges, over the next 10 years, to help all “their” farmers, plus an extra five million people/contestants! It is among the many stabs at sustainability that makes one feel good without knowing why, and that should raise red flags.

So should the USDA definition, which fixates on efficiency and “enhancing.” Efficiency is code for corner-cutting and rationalization. And to enhance the environment? Hang on, doesn’t something have to be good and well before it can be enhanced? Be wary of vague interpretations of sustainability that prey on your lack of understanding.

I’m glad the DCFPC, a council that creates and promotes healthful and environmentally conscious food initiatives for Douglas County, has adopted a definition focused on the future, on maintaining and enduring. Because without a vision for tomorrow, a falling elephant is flying right up until it hits the ground, and we’ll start conserving when we need to—but not yet.

—Jacob Muselmann