Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What is sustainability?

It sounds so simple, and the good news is, it is. Like art, sustainability resists definition and yet, to the person who knows and cares about it, given an unobstructed view, it’s obvious what is, and what isn’t. In other words, “I don’t know sustainability, but I know it when I see it” may represent our best effort to define and control sustainability.

That’s not just me: that’s the experts. Frederick Kaufman, at a TEDx conference in Manhattan on food, is a consultant to those who would commodify sustainability, and he says that when industry tries to measure sustainability, all they’re really tracking are costs. Those sustainability measures on fish at Whole Foods Market, or on bottles of detergent, are a marketing tool. Like the “nutrition facts” label, “sustainability” labels are the facts that food industry have agreed to present on their labels.

Even our recent hypervigilance about common food allergens is brought to you by the same government that does not require disclosure of GMO products. The government is not looking out for you, or for starving people halfway around the world. At best, they’re trying to reduce health care costs. If we had single-payer health care, our government would finally be incentivized to fix the systems that feed most people in America.

A recent effect of the lobbying efforts of food manufacturers and retailers, is the promotion of some of the most odious chains as saviors in the food desert. It’s popular to all pile on to Walmart, which deserves every kick to the groin and kidneys it gets, but let’s not overlook the other chains the Obamas are praising. I don’t think there’s food for me in a Walmart, or a Walgreens, and they don’t think there’s food for me at the local, independent grocer. Walgreens is a pharmacy, not a grocery store, and Walmart is a discount department store. Their expansion into food does not in any way reflect connections to foodways that I value. Its “foodways” are traveled by 18-wheelers, and come from manufacturers, not farms.

The other industrial food megolith the mainstream health press wanted us all to cheer along with was McDonald’s, for it’s inclusion of apples in Happy Meals. To say I’m cynical about McDonald’s is putting things mildly. It’s becoming more well known that apples are one of the very highest sources of pesticide and other toxic substances in our conventionally grown fresh produce, so taking all things into consideration, the health claims of apple slices over French fries are slim. Obviously, McDonald’s has been working hard to reform its image, but its food remains industrial. The company has tremendous buying power, and can command any change in their chain they want. If it was a good business move for them, McDonald’s would start selling us grass-fed beef. But they don’t sell premium, and expectations have been set by the marketplace for conventionally raised, grain-fed beef. McDonald’s sells the minimum that people who eat drive-thru will accept.

I don’t agree that conventionally produced food is good enough for anyone to accept on a regular basis. Some foods have less poison in them than others, but it all grows from depleted soil. The USDA can tell you that all apples, or all potatoes, are essentially alike, but they don’t keep statistics on organically grown produce. Why not? Because then people would clamor for them? It suits large industry to keep people responding just as slowly as they do to new health concerns in society.

The small farms and stores that were driven out by big business, and which are not even marked on food maps because they are small, are flexible and highly responsive. I can walk into the stores (or up to the folding tables in the farmer’s market) where I regularly shop, and talk directly to someone who can make the changes I suggest, and answer my questions. Wouldn’t you rather have a relationship like that with the person who sells you your food, than to have no idea where it comes from and, when you have feedback, have to deal with someone with no power, working in the lowest rung of a corporate hierarchy? Walmarts in every town, and the destruction that has caused to small towns, is what America has bought for our narrow, short-term focus on “everyday low savings.” We didn't value the small business as much as saving a few dollars each week. Few tried to calculate the real cost of doing business that way.

Kaufman says that when industry measures sustainability, it is actually measuring inputs and outputs that can all be described by their costs in money. He says that whoever can answer the question of how to measure sustainability will be answering an important one. So this is how we fix the problem. You make all dollars sustainable dollars by making it so industry has to follow rules—laws that government makes to protect the environment and people—so that they are sustainable. So they don’t abuse workers or animals, or pollute. That’s how we do things in a democracy: you don’t leave it up to industry to decide to do the right thing, any more than you leave it to plantation owners to abandon the practice of slavery. If something is wrong, it’s wrong even before it becomes untenable. Haven’t you heard that corporations are sociopathic? Did you know that if you act like a corporation and aren’t already a sociopath, it’ll just make you unhappy?

If you believe in fundamental consumerism, everything is truly worth what it costs. Similar belief systems allow people to accept “nutritionism,” the belief that a multivitamin truly contains all they need to stay healthy, or that following government dietary guidelines will offer protection against disease.

Government agencies say that GMOs pose no danger. Experts say that we can’t prove a threat. Why is it so easy for me to identify the threats of GMOs, if there are none that are provable? Are they even studying the right things? The arguments of GMO apologists are that its a utopian fantasy that we can feed the growing world population without using genetically modified organisms. The so-called utopians want scalable solutions; the futurists see only top-down solutions. But top-down thinking is what allows us to clear cut forests, strip mine mountaintops, build nuclear power plants and fertilizer manufacturing facilities. The Dot Earth piece is saying that since big governments see no harm, there isn’t any, and anyone who says so is alarmist.

This is bullshit. First of all, the reason people starve has nothing to do with the fact that there’s no fancy, delicate GMO rice rich in beta carotene, with a “suicide gene” that prevents saving seeds to sow the next year.
"Unless I'm missing something," wrote Michael Pollan in The New York Times Magazine, "the aim of this audacious new advertising campaign is to impale people like me—well-off first-worlders dubious about genetically engineered food—on the horns of a moral dilemma... If we don't get over our queasiness about eating genetically modified food, kids in the third world will go blind. [Source: HuffPost]

If we’re actually concerned about human suffering, the answer is the same as it has always been: value feeding people over money. There's enough food now, and people go hungry because they can't buy food, not because it doesn't exist. The whole point of civilization is to work collectively to help the whole world, not to enrich a few people who manage to turn the workings of the world into a series of gambles. Monsanto has spent more money trying to convince us to let them go about their business, making money, than it has actually feeding anyone. The root cause of hunger and malnutrition, now and always, is greed.
Conventional farming is not sustainable. GMOs, which require their patent holders and technology to reproduce, are even less sustainable, and will contribute to hunger, not eradicate it. Anyone who cares about food, or people, or suffering, can see that. What do we want to sustain: business interests or the interests of people?