Someone told me the other day that everything is getting better and better, worse and worse, faster and faster. There’s no such thing as “business as usual” anymore. Even the fast food companies are incorporating sustainability goals into their businesses. Local and organic are growing fast. Consumer research shows that concern about sustainable production of food influences shoppers more in Brazil and China than in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
Better food is available in the niches and in the mainstream, but soil and fertilizer is still killing off the marine life where rivers meet seas all around the world. Small farmers have to become much more productive or exit for the cities. Aquifers are disappearing under some of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world.
We do-gooders try and sort out the heroes and villains in this story, but the actors don’t divide out that way. On the small farm where I live, we cool vegetables with air conditioners stuck in the walls of wooden coolers in the barn. Even though horses till the fields, the carbon footprint of the vegetables is probably pretty high because of the air conditioners, and because customers drive cars to the farm on pick-up days.
I want grass-fed beef to be MUCH better for the world than feedlot beef, but the science is mixed up.
The Sustainable Food Lab network is full of people who are willing to ask hard questions and are unsatisfied until they come up with answers. Many are becoming system leaders, people who can respect and learn from one another across organizational and ideological boundaries.
We see three crucial thresholds for system leaders, technical, strategic and personal:
Technical, for example: What would actually solve water quality in river basins, make agriculture carbon net-positive, or ensure living incomes?
Strategic, for example: What mix of government and business incentives would motivate change on the ground, and how do we mobilize those incentives where they are needed most?
Personal, for example: How do we best grow the numbers and skills of people who can work within and across organizations and sectors to accomplish the technical and strategic shifts?
Fortunately, a culture of sustainability has become infectious around the world.
The technical, strategic and leadership thresholds beckon the brave among us to step into uncertainty. The challenges call upon our creativity and ambition as well as our humanity.
What is your comfort food?
We have a big garden and I lust for asparagus in May every year (before I get tired of eating it every night for 6 weeks!) I lust for strawberries (until my back gets sore from picking them). And so on. Life is bountiful.
Who should we be watching for inspiration, ideas, vision about the future of food?
Good farmers. Not too long ago I met Dave McEachren, a wonderfully innovative farmer in Glencoe, Ontario and Director of the Grain Farmers of Ontario. When Dave starts talking about cover crops and soil quality, his eyes light up and then the whole room lights up. There are thousands of infectiously inspiring farmers everywhere.
About the Author
Hal Hamilton founded and co-directs the Sustainable Food Lab. Hal helps lead projects on water and crop diversification, as well as occasional supplier summits and strategic planning initiatives. He is an adviser to organizations and coach to people whose jobs involve sustainability. He is also a co-founder and faculty of the Academy for Systemic Change.
This blog is part of the Future of Food series. We wanted to know: what will food in the future look like? Where are we going, where do we want to be going, and what can we do to change the course? Over the next six months, we are handing the microphone over to 12 leading food thinkers in Canada to help answer these important questions.
Click here to view other posts in the series.