Questioning Sustainable Eating

I mean that title in the positive sense of critique, like Kantian critique, intended to question so as to make better. I made note last month of a project some students here were doing, called "Is It Possible to Eat Sustainably at the University of Virginia?" This was the prompt:

Four Students set out to determine if it is possible to eat sustainably at UVA. Elizabeth will cover going vegetarian, Michael will cover going organic, Will will cover "The Six Dollar Limit", and Avik will cover going local. The conclusions of all four of us will help determine if eating sustainably is a viable option here at the University of Virginia.

Today, The Atlantic Monthly's Food Channel has written an article about their experiment: "Good Food: Who Can Afford It?"


Rather than assume a static definition of "sustainable" eating, or assume that the definition is obvious and uncontested, Avik, Elizabeth, Michael, and Will carved out four variations of what a sustainable eating pattern could be. Then they went out to find out how it could work. Their purpose was to identify if and where it is possible to eat sustainably at UVA under their particular variation of the term. As an experiment, they hoped to identify opportunities to promote more sustainable eating options and speak to the difficulties one encounters in doing so.

It was recon. They questioned sustainable eating in a college town. When last I posted, they had just started. A month on, they've written quite a lot.

As author James McWilliams interprets it in The Atlantic piece, which itself is about questioning what we're in for when we pursue sustainable eating, "The outcomes, captured over the course of a week in intelligently turned blogs kept by [the] students, reveal both the promises and perils of eating an environmentally sound diet in a progressive college town. By extension, they offer telling insights into the future of an idea--sustainable eating--that promises to be one of this century's most relevant."

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McWilliams read the blog entries and identified cost as a consistent. That doesn't surprise me. As I noted to him, it's a fair observation. What I liked about the experiment, though, was that it indeed helped identify opportunities for fostering more sustainable eating on and near campus, in a way that could help reduce costs by reconfiguring prices structures based on local economies. For example, the "availability" versus "proximity" chart above shows the two lines crossing at "The Corner," which is just off campus. The Corner is an area with shops and restaurants, with bars and bookstores, beside the med school, across the way from Jefferson's famous Rotunda.

One conclusion from their experiment, then, was to note that The Corner offers the most likely chance for achieving that balance of availability and proximity for college students (in this case it was the "organic" version of sustainable). If the town council, state agencies, the USDA, the Virginia Dept. of Ag, or non-profit local food groups wanted to help shape new policies to make sustainable eating in college more plausible (more affordable) then that might be a good place to do it. Tax incentives for businesses, subsidies, small business support structures, more avenues to connect local producers to restaurants and stores, farmer's markets and co-ops. In fact, several ventures in Charlottesville are already doing this, including new dining service efforts toward sustainable dining, a new cafe on grounds that "includes items prepared largely from local, organic ingredients," a Local Food Hub, the Jefferson Area Board for Aging (JABA), and a virtual marketplace, Virginia's Bounty, that delivers local food to drop-off spots near campus.

The conclusion, then, was not that since a particular version of "sustainable" (local, organic, under $6, vegetarian) is expensive we shouldn't work for it. The conclusion was that if its expensive, then that's the problem we need to address.

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Yes...the problem is ironic because the cost of locally grown food SHOULD be less than food shipped 2000 miles, right? But it isn't because of subsidies by the government as well as the perception that this is 'new' or a specialty. We've gone so far away from natural, seasonal living for convenience, but we've suffered in health and happiness.

Thank their intelligence the students are going about it this way... not presuming any particular method is the "right" one, actually testing.

"Sustainable" is a very important word, here. If the goal of sustainable eating is to have a minimal impact on the rest of the earth and to develop ideas for how to show others that they too can eat exactly as much as necessary to live healthy without wasting resources, including money, then the "sustainability" part needs to be tracked all the way to the beginning.

For example, our author suggests tax incentives and other government interventions to create a local economic environment amenable to sustainable eating. The problem is that any business that relies on governmental adjustments to be able to stay in business is precisely unsustainable.

All that's going on in such an instance is that the costs of providing the "sustainable" eating model are being taken out of the actual food production and delivery system and shifted to some other part of the market. For example, if organic farms in VA can only survive by subsidies based on taxes on their neighboring tobacco farmers - how can that legitimately be called "sustainable"? (Yes, I know that the tobacco indusry is one of the top receivers of subsidies, but you get my drift, I hope.)

By billygroat (not verified) on 12 Dec 2009 #permalink

The problem is that any business that relies on governmental adjustments to be able to stay in business is precisely unsustainable.

Your definition of "sustainable" is actually a definition of "can produce a profit of X within government and economic milieu Y."

That has nothing to do with "sustainability" if one accepts Aldo Leopold's as a starting point:

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

This is terribly one-track, and misses *precisely* the sort of flexibility and awareness of alternate constraints billygroat introduced, and which the students worked with at a micro level by examining the prices of different options.

We want our agriculture to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity. We also want to keep costs affordable, preparation times manageable for someone working ten hours a day, storage/shelf lives high, total production large enough to track global populations, and availability of non-local or non-seasonal foods at least moderate.

If you're unable to accept that any of those goals can ever justify imposing a cost on the environment, if biodiversity is the only variable in your utility function, as it is in this one from Aldo Leopold, then what you're "sustaining" could well be fanatic indifference to people, or a food ethic only the rich can afford. The students are exactly right to eschew such horrible regions of policy space.


Continue with the rest of what I wrote.

Where is the government getting the money it's using to subsidize the "sustainable" food production method? If it is coming from other businesses who can only make a profit to be taxed by running in a way that is ecologically unsustainable, then the inputs to the "sustainable" food production method are not sustainable.

Any system can appear sustainable if you look at only a limited section of it.

This is not meant to dissuade anyone in any way from developing sustainable food production streams or economic models. The beginning of such development will have to be defining "sutainable" objectively.

By billygroats (not verified) on 13 Dec 2009 #permalink

Wait, what? You subsidise tobacco farmers? Does President healthcare know about this?

Where is the government getting the money it's using to subsidize the "sustainable" food production method?

Governments have all used different tax rates to promote certain things, and dissuade others. Tax-exemptions on donations to non-profit charities, for one, or tax exemptions for keeping quality farmland (a finite commodity) from being turned into house lots. These policies work, so I'm unclear on what you are really questioning, except to set up some type of Zeno's paradox.

Billy, I'd suggest that that we have to approach this symmetrically. Food and farms have been subject to government intervention (as almost all sectors of the economy have been in some way, such as the differential tax rates D.W. refers to) at least since the New Deal, when the first "farm bill" was put in place. Since then, the great majority of intervention has gone to help large growers and corporate entities, not organic or small farmers. So the argument is not whether or not to use policy tools to encourage certain outcomes over others, but which policy tools we should use. We already give billions to what's derisively called "Big Ag." Ben