Wisdom on the Ground

John O'Sullivan

In 2008, a critical shift came to pass: For the first time in human history, most of the world’s population was living in urban settings. This city migration has placed profound stresses on the globe’s two essential components, its food systems and its access to clean, fresh water.

Climate volatility only intensifies a sense of crisis, heightening risks for food production, water delivery, and storage.

Habitually, the big-picture problem gets boiled down to increased production and corporate solutions: Who will feed the 10 billion? Yet the real problem today is not sufficient quantity of food.* The problem is access to – a fair distribution of – healthy food and water.

There’s a rush to give over our food choices to short-term corporate returns and long shelf life of processed foods. Discounted are people on the local scene who are engaged in food system decisions every day. There’s no long-term solution without them.

We could start a shouting match right now about the future – about greenhouse gases, weather extremes, glacial melt, GMOs, water insecurity. It’s a long list made worse by our hard partisan lines and sound-bite solutions.

Let’s start elsewhere: How will we feed ourselves, using the particular resource mixes – soil, labor, infrastructure, local traditions – where we live?

What I have learned after 30 years in agriculture is: Agricultural production is very much site-specific and heavily dependent on farmer decisions. In spite of the impression left by modern marketing, all food is produced somewhere local.

When I began in the North Carolina farm business in the 1980s, we faced much convulsive change. For starters, the tobacco support system was being eliminated. It had provided the economic base for almost 75 percent of our farms. In response, agriculture teaching faculties across the state partnered with officials to create the Center for Environmental Farming Systems in 1994. This 2,000-acre research facility aimed to enhance local agriculture by researching new production methods – soil systems, organics, alternative swine and beef production, grass-based dairy, alternative enterprises for small family farms. (See www.cefs.ncsu.edu.)

Our work forced us to confront hard realities. Local markets urgently needed investment. For decades, food distribution had gone mega-size and global. So we focused on rebuilding local-scale processing and distribution.

Sustainability thinking didn’t stop there. Health leaders were sounding new alarms about obesity and diabetes. Was the food that our system was producing actually good for us? What if we can feed everybody yet the ironic result is a health burden, not a dividend?

We faced other questions. What if we produced healthy food but only a few could afford it? What if community access to affordable good food was curtailed in some neighborhoods for reasons that can only be described as structural racism? Grocery store chains and others pull out of poor neighborhoods, leaving food deserts. Sustainable agriculture must include resistance to persistent racism that reinforces poverty. Sustainability without access makes a mockery of the values we’re defending.

There was a competing challenge. If food is too cheap, farmers cannot make a living. This question of a “value chain” – a fair return for all – extends to the farmworker who harvests the food and the restaurant worker who prepares it.

My adventures in sustainable farming led to many unanticipated, interlocking problems, grassroots solutions, and interdisciplinary partnerships. We’re learning from the experience of those displaced North Carolina farmers. They teach us to engage truly the whole person in the whole system.

Our cultural and commercial tendency is to look for the “right” answer, the “power” solution – but the big picture is always chaotic, incomplete. We are not going to find all the answers quickly.

We need instead a wisdom solution. Local people represent a thousand points of light in the global quest for food sustainability and justice.

So take a centering breath and discern your own ethical base. Even from its far edge, find an entry point into food systems – gardening, justice work, acquaintance with farmers at local markets. Learn. Share stories. Experience. Clarify your own vision of a meaningful life without recrimination. We all share in the remaking of food systems that make up this beautiful planet.

John O’Sullivan was a co-director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems from 2009-14. He recently retired after a long career in cooperative extension and as a university professor of sustainable agriculture and local food systems.

* See, for example, Eric Holt Gimenez, “We Already Grow Enough Food For 10 Billion People – and Still Can’t End Hunger,” Huffington Post, May 2, 2012. “Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity,” he writes. “In reality, the bulk of industrially produced grain crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the one billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people.”