Saturday, February 16, 2008

"Strengthening the Roots" - Food, Justice, & Fair Trade - Day Two

I love waking up to a forty-food redwood tree four feet away. I now know what clean, crisp air smells and feels like.

I attended "Food Systems 101" for the first workshop session, where we explored the core tenants of a sustainable food system: social justice, economic viability, and environmental sustainability. It sought to explore the current food system and how colleges and universities fit into it.

A food system is the systematic process from the food source to the consumer. A sustainable food system requires ecologically-sound methods of production, which is why there are some organic farmers that aren't necessarily sustainable, depending on their operations. The difference between an industrial food system and a sustainable food system.

The industrial food system (otherwise known as corporate or conventional) includes various inputs between the producer and the consumer. As noted in an earlier post about industrial agriculture, the amount energy and commodities needed to produce a certain amount of food is growing at exponentially unsustainable rates. In a highly globalized market, profit-driven companies may take advantage of these inputs.

Then discussed in the workshop was a much more sustainable food system that can be seen in today's highly-networked world. This food system is also considered local or direct. There are much less inputs between the producer and the consumer, thereby lessening the need for unsustainable energy costs and exertions. One intriguing distinction that was made about the producers between the two systems was that in industrial agriculture, producers are a majority migrant workers, and in today's sustainable agricultural system, producers are more local and community-oriented. In addition, the producer in more sustainable food systems receives a much higher percentage for the dollar that a consumer spends. Economically-speaking, sustainability yields greater profits for those who actually produce the desired commodity. Whether it be farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture, or food cooperatives, humanity has found creative and innovative alternative food systems.

Even with this modern sustainable food system, I do find some faults. Whether it be your local organic food supermarket or a local farmer having to drive a diesel-engine truck to the farmers' market every weekend, there still lies a fundamental issue of true sustainability of and in itself. The unsustainable methods for producing these sustainable and organic commodities comes at a price. Are these foods truly sustainable if the methods used to get to your plate aren't? I argue not. In order to be truly ecologically-sound, the producer must be in direct contact with the consumer. I call this the "optimal sustainable food system". We have reached a day in age at which today's developed consumer has little, or any at all, contact with their producer.

One can argue that in order to be truly sustainable, the consumer should also be the producer. Are human beings willing to sacrifice their networked realities of work, school, and consumerist ideologies to be able to connect with their food once again?

With that question in mind, workshop participants were asked to name major issues facing today's world - health care, endangered species, air pollution, global poverty, education, etc. In all of these issues, the food system is somehow, but prodigiously, interconnected.

In the second workshop session, "Alternate Trade and Making the Movement Meaningful for Producers", Tim Galarneau of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, dialogue introduced the challenges to producers and consumers and the concept of a Food Services Working Group at an institution of higher education.

At UC Santa Cruz, Galarneau spoke of a 2002 vision to bring 100% local and organic food to the campus by student organizers. Initially scoffed at by administrators, the campus began making incremental goals each year due to increasing student demand. A working group soon started, with goals of bringing in direct, local, and organic food that is worker-supportive. The academic and activist communities soon merged, and today, UC Santa Cruz in-houses 27% of its food from local and organic sources. Serving 14,000 meals a day, UCSC alone has much food purchasing power. Garlarneau expressed the great need for student involvement in the momentum for demand. Their Food Services Working Group had the following model:

The Food Services Working Group (FSWG) consists of student leaders, local non-profit organizations, campus administration, campus dining, local farmers, and any food service stakeholders. The idea is to ameliorate relationships among the community around the concept of food sustainability for such a large institution like that of higher education. At UCSC, one for-profit distribution system called the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) supplies the college with one invoice among various local farmers and producers that provide fresh, organic, and sustainable agriculture.

Discussion soon shifted to challenges seen among food purchasing in campus dining, including unfamiliarity with seasonal foods, large quantities of food not necessarily feasible on small farms, chefs' amount of work, and campus policies. As a producer, there are difficulties with liability, support among infrastructural operations, and the scale at which college dining must provide for students. One solution offered as the power of institutional control by allowing universities the ability to purchase the "true costs" of food as opposed to various externalities inbetween producer and consumer.

The final workshop of the day offered a more theoretical and discussion-based participatory learning that I truly enjoyed being a part of. "Sustainability 201: Building Bridges and Strengthening Alliances", as led by Crystal Durham of the California Student Sustainability Coalition, and Todd McPherson of United Students for Fair Trade, sought to "foster dialogue that explores the interconnections and roots of many unsustainable practices that permeate our world".

I was introduced to "Have's" and "Have Not's" scale, a concept first presented by Nikki Henderson, a graduate student at UC Los Angeles, last October.

Among all the resources, land, and people available in the world, the global society has seen economic exploitation, whether it may be in the form of gaps between developed and developing nations, corporatization, slavery, sweatshop labor, or plantations. This exploitation has created the "Have's", including people who can afford to go to Whole Foods, drive Priuses, eat more expensive organic foods, and live in suburbia. It also creates the "Have Not's", or those who can live in more underdeveloped communities prevalent in war and violence and lacking in education and health care.

All workshop participants were put into groups of four to five, asked the following questions and proposed the following ideas:

What are the roots to this exploitation?
  • Greed: fear and insecurity, which leads to ownership
  • Ownership of resources
  • Taking advantage of basic rights to live (breathing, eating, drinking water)
  • Leaders with interior motives
  • Pursuit of resources: colonization/capitalism
  • The idea that more is better
  • Gaining dependence on others that otherwise should be independence
  • Consumerism defines individuality
  • Lack of transparency

How do we rebalance these resources?
  • Education to build local communities
  • Equitable distribution of markets (consumer knowledge, power choice, empowerment)
  • Break up corporate monopolies
  • Re-think coercion
  • Make media and corporations accountable for their changes
  • Understand resources that need to be rebalanced
  • Medium between responsible globalization and local communities
  • Change 1st world mindset of obsessive consumption

What ideas will we bring back to our local communities?
  • Education to rearrange priorities
  • Getting perspectives and resources from other people
  • Positive campaigns
  • Facilitate discussion among different groups that may not necessarily have been part of the dialogue
  • Target underrepresented groups
  • Provide economic solutions
  • Keep self-contemplative questions and discussions with others
  • Look at networks of power and how they can used for social equality
  • Re-examine budgets
  • Reserve the trend of consumption

There was a reoccurring common theme within this workshop about the next steps of sustainability that as the new generation of students grow older, the more it seems likely that we will look backwards into history for solutions to the future. As much as advancements seem appealing, individuals will need to begin rethinking the concept of "progression" as an integration of the past and reversal of various trends that have been detrimental to the environment.

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