Category Archives: Systems Thinking

Social justice must remain one of the three pillars of sustainable agriculture

walmart-sustainability

Last week I posted a blog exploring the recent announcement that the Walmart Corporation plans to sell over $1 billion of goods purchased from small and mid-sized farms.  Walmart also intends to train 1 million farmers in sustainable farming practices around the world.

I congratulated the corporation for their efforts to improve the economic status of small farmers and to enhance environmental quality by minimizing waste.  But I’m concerned that the significant economic power of the Walmart Corporation will cause a shift in emphasis of  sustainability programs to focus on only two of the three pillars of sustainable agriculture.

An earlier blog examined the three pillars of sustainability: 1) economic vitality, environmental quality, and 3) social equity/justice.

pillarsAs sustainability becomes increasingly recognized as a good business strategy, there may be a tendency to “sanitize” the concept by focusing more on environmental practices that are economically feasible and leave social equity out of the equation.  I believe it is vitally important to keep social equity as a central goal of sustainable food and farming systems.

I’ve been involved in sustainable agriculture research, teaching and policy debates for over 20 years.  In the early days, the dominant voice calling for a more sustainable agricultural system came from disenfranchised and struggling farmers working in community.  University scientists slowly joined the chorus and today, with the Walmart announcement, sustainable agriculture has entered the mainstream.

While its important to recognize the progress we’ve made over the past 20 years, I’m concerned that if we allow the power of corporate money to expunge social equity from the quest for sustainable food and farming systems, we will lose the soul of the movement.

The good news is that there remains a powerful voice calling for social equity in food and farming systems, not only professing a strong commitment to the ideal of food sovereignty, but also presenting practical steps toward that end.  And much like the early days of sustainable agriculture, the leadership in the quest for food sovereignty is coming from community groups including family farmers.

The concept of food sovereignty emerged from the struggle against oppression and was coined by the international peasant movement La Via Campesina. In the U.S., the National Family Farm Coalition recently joined with a host of hunger, poverty, environmental, and faith-based non-profits to give birth to U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance.  As we grow more sustainable farms, we need to stay true to the vision of the people who began the movement…. those farmers and others working in community to improve their lives.

As an example, my University of Massachusetts Sustainable Agriculture class visited the Seeds of Solidarity Farm and Education Center in Orange, MA and identified them as a terrific example of a sustainable food and farming organization based on all three pillars.

greenwashwalmart

As Walmart enters the sustainable agriculture arena, I hope we will hold true to the original vision and support those people and organizations that remain committed to all three pillars of sustainability.  I’ll conclude with the opening statement from a resolution created by the Food Sovereignty People’s Movement Assembly..

“…over a half-century ago, Mahatma Gandhi led a multitude of Indians to the sea to make salt—in defiance of the British Empire’s monopoly on this resource critical to people’s diet. The action catalyzed the fragmented movement for Indian independence and was the beginning of the end for Britain’s rule over India. The act of “making salt” has since been repeated many times in many forms by people’s movements seeking liberation, justice and sovereignty: Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, and the Zapatistas are just a few of the most prominent examples. Our food movement— one that spans the globe—seeks food sovereignty from the monopolies that dominate our food systems with the complicity of our governments. We are powerful, creative, committed and diverse.

It is our time to make salt.”*

I believe social justice requires us to consider the impact of our actions on others.  When “normal” behavior, such as buying cheap food at Walmart, results in the suffering of others, I need to stop and think about my behavior.  The only way for food prices to remain as low as they are at Walmart, is for the corporation to exploit workers and farmers.  This is not sustainable – nor just.  It is a choice.

* From: A resolution of the Food Sovereignty Alliance.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now, or check out my blog, Just Food Now, or my webpage, Just Food NowIn the face of hunger, poverty and social injustice – just grow food and grow food justly.

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Sustainable food and farming part VII: Why do I care?

A few weeks ago, I began to blog on Sustainable Food and Farming.  In my first post I asked if “sustainable agriculture was sustainable” and suggested that only an ecological approach (rather than a mechanistic approach) to farming would likely be sustainable.  The next  few posts explored the “rules” of ecology: 1) use current solar income; 2) cycle everything;  3) enhance biological diversity, and how these rules apply to both farming and life in general.

Now, we are trying to put it all together as part of a framework which will help us not only to understand how farms might be managed in a more sustainable manner, but also how we might find meaning and purpose in our lives.  In this post, I explore the question “why do I care about this work?”   A tall order, indeed!

In my last post, I asked if there was a way of looking at the world that was non-mechanistic and that helped make sense out of our lives.  This next video clip presents a systems view of life using the same characters as those who presented the mechanistic “clockwork universe” from my previous blog post.

I wrote in an earlier post, “there is nothing more practical than a good theory.”  I believe this to be true.  The “lens” through which we view the world colors our perspective.  The dominant mechanistic lens provides an incomplete view of the world.  The systems view that Sonya describes helps me to understand sustainability, the web of life, and even my own relationship to my family, community, the earth and beyond.  Lets explore this more deeply.

universeetcA few weeks ago, I shared the idea that living systems existed as subsystems within larger systems.  That is, the individual is a subsystem within a population of individuals, which itself is a subsystem within a community, and then of an ecosystem, which is a subsystem of the biosphere etc.  If we continue to work with this model of a natural hierarchy (as opposed to a human constructed hierarchy, like the military, the corporation, the church, and the university), I believe we can begin to understand our place on the planet.

Lets first look “inward” a bit and imagine our own bodies as subsystems within systems.  In this “body system”, there are subsystems such as the heart, liver, circulatory system etc.   Within the “heart system” there is a valve, and other parts that are subsystems within the organ that is the heart.  In this model, we might imagine that the less complex subsystems provide “function” to the more complex subsystems.  Further we might imagine that the more complex subsystems “provide” purpose to the less complex. Lets examine this idea.

The human heart in the picture above is a subsystem which contains smaller and less complex (but totally necessary) subsystems within, such as the valves, atrium, ventricles, aorta, etc..  But the heart itself is also a subsystem that exists within a large system, we’ll call the human body.

The body is also a system and the relationship of the heart to the body follows the relationship of all components within living systems.  That is, the heart “looks to the body for purpose” and the body “looks to the heart for function.”   That is, the more complex subsystem provides purpose in this relationship and the less complex subsystem offers function.  This is one of the great truths that emerges from the study of living systems.  Cool, huh?

If we continue the story, the body (the individual self) looks to the family or larger community for purpose.  The larger community looks to individuals for function.  That is, all community work is done by people.  And further…..

A community of people look to the larger ecosystem for purpose.  That is, those of us who have a strong sense of place, find our purpose in sustaining and caring for that place – including the other people in that place.  Herein lies our human purpose (at least for me).

This set of relationships helps me to answer the question “why do I care about sustainable food and farming” by exploring  the bigger and more interesting question, “why am I here?

For me, the study and practice of sustainable food and farming is a way in which I can serve a power greater than myself.  That power (or system) may be at any level of complexity (family system, community system, earth system etc.).  In this context, I know who I am and why I am here.  I am here in this lifetime to serve  power greater than myself. *

When I embed this understanding within the living systems natural hierarchy, I can see “myself” as an individual “body self” residing within a family self, within a community self, within an eco-self, within a universal self, and perhaps even within a divine self.  At each level of “self”, we can look up for purpose and down for function.divineself

So, why do I care about sustainable food and farming – because it serves my own self-interest at multiple levels of self.   That’s why I care about sustainable food and farming.  How about you?

  • Why do you study or practice sustainable food and farming?

  • What is your purpose in this life?

Please comment below.  I am really interested in your own thoughts…..

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

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* While I believe that “service” is my primary motivation today, this was not always the case.  Earlier in my life I was driven my baser motives of prestige, perceived power and money, mixed with a fair bit of scientific curiosity.  While I”m sure those baser motivations still reside within me, they are no longer dominant.  Fortunately, the curiosity remains.