Sustainable Food's Biggest Problem: No Definition

Most people like "sustainability"—but few can agree on what it means. Four panelists from The Atlantic's Food Summit share their thoughts.

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Most people agree that "sustainability" is a good thing when it comes to food, but there's a big problem with the term: It's incredibly hard to define. "It is an umbrella term of umbrella terms right now," said Atlantic senior editor Corby Kummer during the first panel at this Tuesday's Food Summit. "There are so many visions of sustainability that you would think they couldn't live on the same stage, and yet we're going to try to have them on the same stage today."

Thus began a "crash course in sustainability," as Corby put it, featuring four panelists from the worlds of agricultural policy, the organic foods industry, and biotechnology:

While not every voice was represented—later in the day, some Summit participants pointed to the absence of panelists who were actually farmers or who came from the portion of the scientific community that is opposed to genetically modified foods—the definitions of "sustainability" were nuanced, varied, and sometimes fiercely contradictory, showing just how much of a challenge the food community faces when it comes to rallying behind the term to initiate real change. Here's what each person said.

Sarah Stokes Alexander. The Keystone Center, which Sarah Stokes Alexander directs, emphasizes the need to bring together food companies, farmers, and other players to develop meaningful food policy, and accordingly she suggested that sustainability has to do with compromise: "This is something that no one entity will be able to accomplish on their own." She went on to imply that sustainability is about balancing the food industry's desire for greater productivity with other environmental and human needs. It necessitates, she said, that we "increase productivity of food and other things that we rely on, that we decrease the environmental footprint of that productivity, that we improve human health, and that we improve the livelihood of farmers and the communities in which they live."

Gary Hirshberg. Hirshberg runs Stonyfield Farm, one of America's most successful organic food businesses (for more info, see this profile by the Life channel's Barry Estabrook). As Corby put it during the panel: "He has decided that big can be beautiful and that small doesn't have to be the only way for organic to grow." Hirshberg argued that sustainability has to do with recognizing and addressing the real costs of food production. "What organics is about, and what Stonyfield is about, is a notion of sustainability that I think we have to confront," he said. "In practice, what it really means is that we have to stop allowing ourselves this convenient exception, which is this notion of externalities." Hirshberg meant "externality" in the economic sense: industrial byproducts that aren't reflected in the price we pay for groceries, like pollution, topsoil erosion, and obesity. "You can't just solve one problem and create others down the road," he said.

Nina Fedoroff. In contrast to Hirshberg's pro-organics stance, Fedoroff, a longtime plant scientist, brought a pro-technology perspective to the panel. "Everything that Gary says is absolutely true," she said. "We have to do it better; we have to be more ecologically mindful. But there are many ways to do it." Offering an example, she pointed out that one of the biggest boosts to soil conservation has come from the development of herbicide-tolerant soybeans. Fedoroff noted that opposition to genetically modified crops on the basis of traditional values is "a tragedy" and "not scientifically defensible." "If we can't use modern science to increase productivity," she added, "I think we're not going to make it. And what we'll see is more environmental destruction, and not less." Sustainability, she noted, is about avoiding that.

Molly Jahn. Jahn, with a background in plant breeding and in government, emphasized a scientific and pragmatic way of thinking about sustainability. "Any discussion of sustainability requires us to do something we're not especially good at," she said, and that is to think about the future outcomes of present-day actions. "And any definition of sustainability typically requires some discussion of systems in balance." When it comes to food, she said, "We need to understand all the inputs and all the outputs—not only all the inputs we're used to looking at, such as food, but also carbon, water, air quality, and cultural and social implications." Jahn argued that at the end of the day, sustainability is about "planetary boundaries." What we need are data on carbon emissions, water use, and so on—"the targets we need to hit in order to stay within our planet's operating space." And, she concluded, "We've come to understand that real progress will require real changes where all parties are not necessarily all going to win at the same time or in exactly the same way."

Image: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

Presented by

Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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