Moving Green Forward: Six Recommendations for 2009

The green and sustainable movement has taken great strides in 2008. With the popularization of local food we have moved beyond the myopic view that organic is the only passageway to sustainability, the national visibility of the inaugural Slow Food Nation festival brought the idea of green eating to the masses, and in California voters took a small but important step towards humane foods with the passage of Prop 2.

On the other hand, the current economic downturn means that many small and sustainable producers are struggling – caught between higher ingredient costs and tumbling sales. I have spoken with a number of chefs from across the country that have all said the same thing: they are faced with the difficult decision to either raise prices or reduce quality, something no one wants to do.

And finally, the media is getting tired of the same recycled “eat local, eat organic” mantra that has been repeated ad infinitum over the past year. In response, there have been a number of Anti-Green manifestos circulating in the past few months.

Below is my list of goals for 2009. They are all open-ended, and I don’t think we’ll be able to “finish” them all next year. But for those who believe that a healthy planet will lead to healthy people, these are steps in the right direction.

1. Stay The Course. While the economy buckles we have to resist the temptation to return to a “Low Cost is King” food economy. As mentioned above, restaurants around the country are struggling to continue to offer quality, sustainable food. And as the money spent at restaurants declines, so increases the temptation to adopt cheaper food buying habits. This doesn’t apply only for restaurants. Ranchers and food producers are in the same boat. For example, it has been noted that egg quality across the nation is falling – that is, there are thinner shells and weaker yolks – as producers adjust the chicken feed to keep profits up.

This all comes at a time when there are more local and sustainable food business than ever. We need to keep supporting their efforts or risk going backward as a society if the labors of these green entrepreneurs fail.

2. Define Sustainability. It is truly regrettable that one of the most important words of our time is also one of the least understood (See this post for an example). “Sustainable” as a word is unregulated, and as such has become as meaningless as the word “natural” – the favorite buzzword of a few years ago. A typical definition includes something like the ability to “meet current needs without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet theirs.” Sounds fine – but this is difficult to put into practice. How does a chef ensure they don’t sacrifice the ability of future generations to meet their needs? How about a farmer? On a case-by-case basis, we can start to apply some guidelines – like let’s not deplete our groundwater reserves, or let’s not create more carbon emissions than we need to. But even these criteria can be subjective in the context of nature’s inherent fluctuations.

(For a related example of how definitions are needed, read these critiques of the Food Declaration.)

3. Focus on “off the farm” efforts. Without diluting the attention we pay to our local organic purchases, we need to expand our scope beyond the farm. We need to include a broader perspective when we think about food: How do we prepare it? Dispose of our waste? How is it packaged? Transported? These questions are on the fringes of the green food movement, and need to become centralized. To assess how green a restaurant is, for example, perhaps we need to be asking about their waste programs as intently as we inspect the menu for signs of organic and local purchases.

4. Shift the center. There is a tendency in social movements for the vocal fringe to speak with the loudest voice. In many cases this does a world of good, especially with young movements that need attention. As a movement matures, such as the growth in the past years in the green food arena, we need to shift the voice to the center to try to bring the conversation to the masses. The risk, if we don’t do this, is alienation.

Those of us that are part of this movement – perhaps most of you reading this blog – might forget that we are already part of something radical. My case in point: organic food sales, for all the press they have gotten, are still less than 5% of the total food bought in the US . Less than 5%. And while farmers’ market sales are increasing, they represent only 1% of the food purchased.

Without moving the overall food movement too much farther, we need to allow the bulk of society to catch up, so that together we can all take the next steps when the time is right. We need put our collective efforts toward supporting the rest of society in taking these first small steps.

In this context, we need to applaud the efforts of large companies such as Bon Appetit Management Company, serving thousands of sustainably sourced meals every day. And while companies like WalMart are certainly a mixed bag, at best, when it comes to green we need to continue to support their move toward organics and toward localized distribution. It is these large companies that will change the world, if by their size alone.

5. Continue to support local gardening / farming efforts. We need to keep our focus on urban gardening and small-scale farming. It has been said before, but the answers to our global food problems are not more genetic modification and massive globalization, but rather a return to small and simple. We need to bring more people into direct contact with food production, because with contact comes understanding.

6. Cement the relationship between Eco, Green and Healthy. It is undeniable that what is good for our personal health is good for the planet, and vice versa. With the dawn of the new year, we need to cement this relationship with both words and action. I believe that this is one of the ways that the sustainable food movement can reach a larger audience, and allow those participating on the fringes of the movement to go deeper into eco-eating through concerns about health. This is already one of the largest reasons people give when they choose to buy organic milk, for example, but it can be so much more than that. We need to expand the dialogue to include nutritionists, doctors, and other health practitioners as we move forward.