The sustainable food buzz

It was supposed to be a small gathering—a few people interested in green business collecting after work to talk about how to grow enough safe food to feed everyone on the planet. But by the time the speaker stood up on Thursday evening, more than seventy-five people—from artists and writers to activists and thinkers and organic food producers—were stuffed into the room on the fourth floor of a downtown office building, and the decibel level was deafening.

Clearly, the topic of sustainable food is creating a buzz, at least here in Boulder, Colorado.

Just as clearly, it has to create a buzz, if we are going to begin to address the complex of issues that make up the global ecological crisis:

  • cut down (and end) fossil fuel use
  • restore the health of the soil, water, and air
  • grow enough food to feed the 6.9 billion and counting (click here to watch the U.S and world populations increase in real time)
  • empower local communities so they don’t have to rely on multinational corporations located in faraway places for their basic necessities

And it has to create a buzz because what we’re talking about is our food. Your food. Everybody’s food. The safety of the food we eat, as well as the safety of the planet, is at stake.

The speaker was Tom Harding, the founding president of the Organic Trade Association and a longtime pioneer in growing safe food. Here are just a few of his talking points:

The organic market is growing. The global trade in organics has shown solid growth over the past few years, even in a challenging economy. Worldwide, 35 million hectares of land have been converted to organic. Last year the US market for organics passed the European one: Americans are now the largest consumers of organic products.

Every time we lose a farmer, we lose a genius pool. When a farm is sold off, we lose all that knowledge—the specific, land-based knowledge of geoclimatic conditions on that farm. We need to rejuevenate young people to go back to farms by changing the way we price food and by helping every young person on a farm stay on that farm. And the fastest growing segment of farmers are women.

We need food prices that represent the real costs of growing food. This will mean revamping our subsidies programs so farmers don’t get paid for taking the ecologically wrong actions and do get paid the actual costs of their products. The only way to save family farms and give farmers livable wages is to pay the real costs of food.

Lack of fertile soils is largest problem now in agriculture. We need to protect integrated biodiversity on farms, with proper crop rotations, building soils so they have lasting fertility and putting into the Earth more than we’re taking out.

We MUST have a GMO labeling law. The biggest problem in the marketplace is that consumers don’t have a choice. We can’t vote against genetically modified foods because we’re not provided the information.

Be careful when talking about “beyond organics.” Right now the only regulatory law that covers a product from seed to shelf is the organic labeling law. Let’s work to protect and strengthen this one rather than add new labeling regulations to the food industry.


  • Start a garden in your backyard, even if only in large pots.
  • Save the seeds from your garden, and distribute them to your friends.
  • Vote with your food dollars! Buy organic, buy local.
  • Sign up for CSA (community-supported agriculture). For CSAs in the Boulder area, check here.
  • Follow breaking news in the science of organic farming from The Organic Center.
  • Make your voice heard on farm policy. It’s YOUR food that farmers are growing. A place to start is where they are currently running a Congressional letter-writing campaign on the Farm Bill.
  • Read up! Tom Harding recommends:
  1. A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, the forester who turned land policy in this country toward sustainability. His “land ethic” is still the simplest and most straightforward way to think about sustainability. “Pick up this book, and you won’t want to put it down,” said Harding. Or watch the movie Green Fire, coming soon from the Aldo Leopold Foundation.
  2. George Washington: Pioneer Farmer, by Alan and Donna Jean Fusonie. Every farmer should read about Washington’s land practices, which included seven-year crop rotations (not just three- or four-year, as are practiced now).
  3. World on the Edge, by the agricultural economist Lester Brown. Hot off the press, it addresses two urgent questions: “If we continue with business as usual, how much time do we have left before our global civilization unravels? And how do we save civilization?”
  4. The WorldWatch Institute’s report State of the World 2011: Innovations That Nourish the Planet.

4 Responses to The sustainable food buzz

  1. Kathy Kaiser says:January 31, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    Wonderful points. I agree that we need to pay the true cost of food. Right now, subsidies are skewing our agricultural focus.

  2. Gail Storey says:February 2, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Sustainable food is organically (!) connected to the health of the entire planet and its people. Thank you for elucidating the interwoven issues and your helpful suggestions for positive change.

  3. Melanie Mulhall says:February 8, 2011 at 4:11 pm


    Captivating post! Losing a farmer is losing a genius pool! Shocking. True. Heartbreaking. And how wonderful that women are the fastest growing segment of farmers.

    I was a very young woman when I read Sand County Almanac. Since then, we have seriously compromised Mother Earth. I’m uncomfortable with my own part in that (and I, like everyone else, have surely had a hand in it). I’m heartened that so many people came to the meeting.

    Melanie Mulhall