AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Why (Sustainable) Food Matters


Copyright 2002 AXIS Performance Advisors.

Celebrate Sustainably: Why Food Matters

By Marsha Willard

Courtesy kibsri,

Courtesy kibsri,

If your holidays are anything like mine, they are a lot about food. Ido lots of cooking and baking. . . and, oh yes, eating. There is nothing so festive or socially intimate as sharing a hot meal on a cold winter’s night. This year, though, I’m looking at my party habits a little differently. After several exposures to people dedicated to sustainable agriculture, I find I’m giving more consideration to where my food comes from, what’s in it and who’s handled or prepared it.

Like many, I’ve grown up an insulated urban dweller. In my experience food is something that’s sanitized, shrink-wrapped and attractively colored. Milk comes in jugs like soda and cereal comes in boxes with free CD’s inside. I was used to buying food the same way I buy clothing or electronics-by appearance and brand name. Attending the Sustainability Now workshop series and Oregon Natural Step breakfast meetings earlier this year provided me a peek into what happens to my food before I show up at the grocery store. And much of what I learned was pretty disturbing. In my attempt to create a memorable holiday season for friends and family, I was unwittingly contributing to species annihilation, habitat destruction and global warming. Ho ho ho.

The good news is there is a growing natural food industry that makes sustainably grown and processed food available at increasingly affordable prices. I have learned, for example, about Community Supported Agriculture programs that link small local farmers directly with consumers. You contract with a farm to have fresh, organic seasonal produce delivered to your door each month providing you with quality food and farmers with a reliable cash flow. I have learned that wild salmon not only tastes better, but is environmentally superior to farmed fish because the fish farming industry contributes watershed pollution, fish disease and degradation of the species. Oregon Country Beef (now Country Natural Beef), a cooperative of Oregon cattle ranchers, sells antibiotic-, hormone- and steroid-free beef raised on sustainably managed rangeland. And here in Portland organic apple growers and local markets are teaming up to support schools through the distribution of locally grown fruit. (Look for the little school bus sticker on the produce you buy.) Truly there is a lot going on.

But why should you care? More to the point, why should you be willing to pay the premium that “natural” food still costs. Well, there are a few reasons. Many of the promoters of organic or natural food will tell you that it tastes better. Locally grown produce is fresher; natural processed food has fewer artificial additives. Natural food lovers will also tell you that it’s better for your health. I’m not in a position to either dispute or validate these claims but, honestly speaking, neither of them was ever a compelling enough reason to get me to change my shopping habits. But the information I picked up earlier this year did catch my attention. As a business consultant (and resident of this planet), I am becoming keenly aware of how our practices of production and consumption are leading us down a dead-end path. And the food industry is no exception. So for me, buying sustainable food just makes good business sense. Consider these business reasons for shifting to sustainable food products.

Preserve resources

Unsustainable framing practices have contributed to the loss of over 30% of our topsoil in the last 50 years. It’s estimated that 70% of the world’s fish stocks are being fished into extinction. Our traditional approaches to feeding the world initially netted higher production, but it’s clear that their continuation is just getting us to zero faster. The trend is especially untenable in the face of viable alternatives. Janine Benyus,author of Biomimicry, documents experiments in the Midwest with natural grains. They find that by nurturing the natural mix of indigenous grains they get bigger harvests, greater protection from insect destruction and less tending or fertilizing. These practices also restore nutrients and vital living organisms to the soil. And this is but one example of a sustainable approach to growing food.

Protect habitat

There’s a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico that fans out for hundreds of miles from the mouth of the Mississippi. This is the result of the accumulation of chemical run-off (fertilizer and pesticides), much of it from Midwest farms. Forget for a moment about what pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers might do to us if they are still on our food when we eat it; think about where they go when they get washed off the farms.Remember, there is no “away.” Eventually it all shows up somewhere in someone’s dinner. And even well-managed farms displace natural ecosystems.Consider that it takes 16 pounds of grain to create a pound of beef (hay not included). We could feed more people with less land if we fed the grain directly to humans. Similarly, it takes 4 pounds of sardines to create 1 pound of farm-raised salmon. Eating lower on the food chain preserves our precious natural resources.

Maintain biodiversity

In our attempts to get ever-greater crop yields, we have moved closer and closer to monocultures and single variety crops. Large seed companies like Monsanto push their highly engineered strains of corn and rice in parts of the world that have long traditions of regional strains and varieties.Already many of these ancient varieties have been lost. What happens when the world is only growing one kind of corn and it suddenly becomes susceptible to disease or insect devastation? And what about consumer choice and the wonderful selection of things like potatoes and apples we enjoy? Where’s the future in this monotony?

Enable natural reinvestment

For millennia growers have enabled the continuation of their farms by saving seed from one year’s crop to create the next. Few businesses have the advantage of creating the raw materials for one production run from the remnants of the last. The current trend, however, is away from this sustainable cycle and toward dependence on manufactured seed. Many of the seeds that Monsanto produces (and patents) are sterile; that is they yield plants that produce no seeds. This forces farmers to buy seed each year instead of using those provided by the crop itself. Clever strategy on Monsanto’s part; foolhardy business practice for farmers from where I sit. Where’s the sustainability of that business practice?

Preserve the effectiveness of our antibiotics

Three-quarters of our antibiotics are given to livestock, to counteract unnatural diets and inhumane crowding. This is breeding increasingly resistant microorganisms such as strains of e-coli. According to Eric Schlosser ,author of Fast Food Nation, “Anyone who brings raw ground beef into his or her kitchen today must regard it as a potential biohazard, one that may carry an extremely dangerous microbe, infectious at an extremely low dose.” Food, of course contaminates the surrounding surfaces so that”You’d be better off eating a carrot stick that fell in your toilet than one that fell in your sink.”

Promote small business

There’s a trend in agriculture (like in many other industries) toward fewer and fewer businesses owning larger and larger segments of the market.Today approximately 80% of our food supply is controlled by fewer than a half dozen companies. Check out the labels. Even though foods go by many different brand names, you can trace their lineage back to a few big players.Balance Bars, Quaker Oats, Best Foods and dozens of other familiar brands are all owned by Kraft. And guess who’s married to Kraft? Phillip Morris.The trend is dangerous because of the loss of control over food production and the demise of small family farms. The average age of the Oregon farmer is over 50. Doesn’t bode well for our future local economy.

Minimize movement and waste

Did you know that the average American meal travels over 1300 miles before it gets to our tables? Over a year, that’s equivalent to sending a truck filled with food to moon and back 10 times for each person. Every quarter-pounder of hamburger has the following production costs: 100 gallons water, 1.2lbs of grain, one cup of gasoline, greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to a six mile drive in the average car, loss of 1.25 pounds of topsoil (every inch of which took 500 years to build). Author and biologist, Barbara Kingsolverasks, “How can all this cost less than a dollar, and who is supposed to pay for the rest of it?” Oregon contains the most fertile orchard and vineyard regions of the world, yet local markets sell apples from New Zealand and grapes from South America. The impact on fuel consumption and global warming is not insignificant. How can it be more profitable to ship Washington apples to a central distribution warehouse in the Midwest before sending them out to a Seattle Safeway. Is there not a huge potential savings in increasing the link between growers/producers and their local markets?

I had a personal epiphany about packaging one day. My shopping day and recycling day happened to coincide a few months ago. I found myself carrying bags of groceries into my house and immediately turning around and carrying out the recycling bags. The timing was ironic because it enabled me to notice that same things were in both bags. It made me realize that I was caught in the practice of “renting” things like cereal boxes. When I compared the price of boxed cereal with comparable bulk cereals, I found that I paid about a dollar/week to “rent” the container that held my breakfast food. In my household that represents at least $100 a year. That’s a lot for a cardboard box. Surely this represents but the tip of the iceberg of misspent dollars.

Even if you’re not yet ready to make the commitment to “go organic,” perhaps you’ll look at the food you do buy differently. Dramatic actions aside (are any of you old enough to remember the grape boycott of the early 70’s?), you make no small impact on the industry every time you ask your grocer where the produce they carry comes from or your waiter whether the fish he is serving is wild or farmed. Read the labels of what you buy. Who makes it, what do they put in it, where does it come from? How much unnecessary packaging do you have to dig through and then dispose of? And do it not just because it might be good for you. Do it because unsustainable business practices hurt us all in the end. Your habits have impact beyond your own waistline and purse. Perverting only slightly that old saying from the 60’s-WE ALL are what you eat.

Enjoy the holidays. Eat well and be merry.

If you want to learn more, may we suggest some books for your Christmas list…

Lappé, Frances Moore and Anna (2002). Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet. NY: Jeremy P Tarcher/Putnam.

Schlosser, Eric (2001). Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Ehrlich, Anne and Gretchen Daily (1995). The Stork and the Plow: An Equity Answer to the Human Dilemma. NY: Putnam.

Kingsolver, Barbara (2002). Small Wonder. NY: HarperCollins.

Shuman, Michael H (1998). Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age. NY: The Free Press.


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