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.