a couple years back, in a wheat field outside the town of Reardan, Washington, Fred Fleming spent an afternoon showing me just how hard it's gotten to save the world. After decades as an unrepentant industrial farmer, the tall 59-year-old realized that his standard practices were promoting erosion so severe that it was robbing him of several tons of soil per acre per year—his most important asset. So in 2000, he began to experiment with a gentler planting method known as no-till. While traditional farmers plow their fields after each harvest, exposing the soil for easy replanting, Fleming leaves his soil and crop residue intact and uses a special machine to poke the seeds through the residue and into the soil.
The results aren't pretty: In winter, when his neighbors' fields are neat brown squares, Fleming's looks like a bedraggled lawn. But by leaving the stalks and chaff on the field, Fleming has dramatically reduced erosion without hurting his wheat yields. He has, in other words, figured out how to cut one of the more egregious external costs of farming while maintaining the high output necessary to feed a growing world—thus providing a glimpse of what a new, more sustainable food system might look like.
But there's a catch. Because Fleming doesn't till his soil, his fields are gradually invaded by weeds, which he controls with "judicious" amounts of Roundup, the Monsanto herbicide that has become an icon of unsustainable agribusiness. Fleming defends his approach: Because his herbicide dosages are small, and because he controls erosion, the total volume of "farm chemistry," as he calls it, that leaches from his fields each year is far less than that from a conventional wheat operation. Nonetheless, even judicious chemical use means Fleming can't charge the organic price premium or appeal to many of the conscientious shoppers who are supposed to be leading the food revolution. At a recent conference on alternative farming, Fleming says, the organic farmers he met were "polite—but they definitely gave me the cold shoulder."
That a recovering industrial farmer can't get respect from the alternative food crowd may seem trivial, but Fleming's experience cuts to the very heart of the debate over how to fix our food system. Nearly everyone agrees that we need new methods that produce more higher-quality calories using fewer resources, such as water or energy, and accruing fewer "externals," such as pollution or unfair labor practices. Where the consensus fails is over what should replace the bad old industrial system. It's not that we lack enthusiasm—activist foodies represent one of the most potent market forces on the planet. Unfortunately, a lot of that conscientious buying power is directed toward conceptions of sustainable food that may be out of date.
Think about it. When most of us imagine what a sustainable food economy might look like, chances are we picture a variation on something that already exists—such as organic farming, or a network of local farms and farmers markets, or urban pea patches—only on a much larger scale. The future of food, in other words, will be built from ideas and models that are familiar, relatively simple, and easily distilled into a buying decision: Look for the right label, and you're done.
But that's not the reality. Many of the familiar models don't work well on the scale required to feed billions of people. Or they focus too narrowly on one issue (salad greens that are organic but picked by exploited workers). Or they work only in limited circumstances. (A $4 heirloom tomato is hardly going to save the world.)
Such problems aren't exactly news. Organizations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (which despite its namesake is a real leader in food reform) have long insisted that truly sustainable food must be not just ecologically benign, but also nutritious, produced without injustice, and affordable. And yet, because concepts like local or organic dominate the alternative food sector, there is little room left for alternative models, such as Fred Fleming's, that might begin to bridge the gap between where our food system is today and where it needs to be.
And how big is that gap? Using the definition of sustainability above, about 2 percent of the food purchased in the United States qualifies. Put another way, we're going to need not only new methods for producing food, but a whole new set of assumptions about what sustainability really means.
food is not simple. To make it, you have to balance myriad variables—soil, water, and nutrients, of course, but also various social, political, and economic realities. But because our consumer culture favors fixes that are fast and easy, our approaches toward food advocacy have been built around one or two dimensions of production, such as reducing energy use or eliminating pesticides, while overlooking factors that are harder to define (and ditto to market), such as worker safety.
Consider our love affair with food miles. In theory, locally grown foods have traveled shorter distances and thus represent less fuel use and lower carbon emissions—their resource footprint is smaller. And yet, for all the benefits of a local diet, eating locally doesn't always translate into more sustainability. Because the typical farmers market is supplied by dozens of different farms, each transporting its crops in a separate van or truck, a 20-pound shopping basket of locally grown produce might actually represent a larger carbon footprint than the same volume of produce purchased at a chain retailer, which gets its produce en masse, via large trucks.
And for all our focus on the cost of moving food, transportation accounts for barely one-tenth of a food product's greenhouse gas emissions. Far more significant is how the food was produced—its so-called resource intensity. Certain foods, like meat and cheese, suck up so many resources regardless of where they're produced (a pound of conventional grain-fed beef requires nearly a gallon of fuel and 5,169 gallons of water) that you can shrink your footprint far more by changing what you eat, rather than where the food came from. According to a 2008 report from Carnegie Mellon University, going meat- and dairyless one day a week is more environmentally beneficial than eating locally every single day.
Certainly, we can broaden concepts like food miles into more practical, ecologically honest terms. To that end, the British retail chain Tesco is testing a new labeling system that discloses a product's life-cycle carbon emissions in a per-serving figure. But even that focuses too much on a specific outcome, says Fred Kirschenmann, former director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Real sustainability, he argues, is defined not by a food system's capacity to ensure happy workers or organic lima beans, but by whether the food system can sustain itself—that is, keep going, indefinitely, in a world of finite resources. A truly sustainable food system is inherently resilient—more capable of self-correction and self-revitalization than its industrial rival. Unfortunately, in the real world of farming, ideas like "resilience" must compete with realities like "costs" and "profits," and producers and consumers alike gravitate toward simpler standards—even if those standards don't represent truly sustainable practices. Worries Kirschenmann, "We've come to see sustainability as some kind of fixed prescription—if you just do these 10 things, you will be sustainable, and you won't need to worry about it anymore."
This tendency to replace complexity with checklists is the hallmark of the alternative food sector. Today's federal requirements for organic food, for example, only hint at the richness of the original concept, which encouraged farmers to not only forgo chemical fertilizers but also replenish soils on-site, using livestock manure or crop rotations. The problem is that replenishing on-site is costly and time consuming. As demand for organic has grown and farmers have been pushed to gain the same überefficiencies as their industrial rivals, more of them (particularly those selling to chain groceries) simply import manure from feedlots, sometimes hundreds of miles away. Technically, these farms are still organic—they don't use chemical fertilizers. But is something really sustainable if the natural fertilizer must travel such distances or come from feedlots, the apotheosis of unsafe, unsustainable production? Forget about food miles. What about poop miles?