I try to write on here about the big issues and controversies, and after all that information, there is always the same question to ask: what can we do about it? So in this post I’ll give some of my ideas, which upon first look may seem a bit vague or open-ended but only because everyone must take these thoughts in their own personal directions. As I am constantly saying, there is no one easy answer to all the problems with our food system. So here are my thoughts on what we can do to reclaim this industry. It is after all our food system.
1. Choose a diet that reflects your personal beliefs about what defines sustainable agriculture. I won’t tell you to go vegan or to buy only grass-fed beef or to eat all the animal products you want. I won’t tell you to avoid GMOs or to support the technology. I will write about my own opinions but in the end, these are your beliefs and your choices. All I’m saying is that it’s important to apply your beliefs to your every-day life. Maybe you want to take a weekly trip to the farmers market or start a garden to grow your own food. Maybe you want to avoid factory-farmed animal products or anything with palm oil in it. But it is important to realize that our diet is defined by what we do eat and what we don’t eat.
We have to support the products and producers we trust and avoid the ones that we don’t. If we each start to eat based on what we know and believe, the food system will slowly start to change to reflect our choices. As big and powerful as they seem in comparison to us, these big food companies must adjust to what the consumers want. And it is easy to find real examples of this change. When Wal-Mart decided to source its milk entirely from cows not treated with bovine growth hormone, the decision was based on consumer demand. When organic farming grew from nothing to a 30 billion dollar industry, it was because of the individual choices of consumers. (See the figure below.) Clearly, we have real power in our hands.
Check out this video to hear what farmer Joel Salatin has to say about changing our food system for the better. Though Salatin speaks specifically about eating locally grown food, his message about active participation applies to any dietary or lifestyle choices. I agree with Salatin that in some ways the current problems with our food system are caused by a “crisis in participation.” But we are the participants and this is our crisis to fix.
2. Constantly share, learn, and listen to others’ perspectives. In looking for new thoughts and ideas on the big issues, we will find the information necessary to inform our actions and choices. When we start to think deeply about how our dietary choices affect the environment, we will then encounter new ideas and perspectives. It’s an awesome, self-reinforcing cycle.
Five years ago I didn’t understand why anyone would be vegetarian. I didn’t want to listen to the opinions of any vegan. After a gradual change in perspective, I now choose not to eat any factory-farmed animal products. I try to think of my current beliefs as only a step along a path. And I know that sounds cheesy but it’s one of my strongest beliefs. We can’t just say “Okay I learned that x is bad so I’m not going to eat x any more and that’s it. Now I’m done learning and have done all I can.” We are never done learning. We have to question everything until we understand it fully. It easy to look for a quick fix, but that may mean a simplification of the issues and a misunderstanding of the whole truth.
When we can sit down and have an honest discussion with others while both teaching and learning, we will all become better informed. We will become more aware, more educated, and in turn more motivated to enact change.
3. For some issues that may seem out of reach, contribute to organizations you believe in. As powerful as our every day choices are, they can’t cover everything. For whatever reason, it may be impossible to support a certain organization with our every-day purchases. I remember doing a research project to try to answer the question: how can US consumers support sustainable agriculture and land use in Indonesia? Indonesia is an incredibly biodiverse, fertile, and agriculturally important country: the US imports many of its crops (namely palm oil) that make their way into our food. Still, our consumer choices here can’t completely fix their food system. So how can we help? After doing some research, I discovered Seal Your Cup, a division of Rainforest Alliance which helps small farmers grow crops in a way that is more sustainable for the farmers and the land. You can also support the cause by buying coffee or chocolate labelled with the Rainforest Alliance seal (below). Of course donations still help if you can’t find those products at the store.
While reading about the potentially sustainable use of GMOs in developing countries, I learned about AGRA . This foundation that is financed by Bill Gates works to educate, connect, and provide materials (like high-yield seeds) to farmers in different African countries. Like Seal Your Cup, the NGO essentially brings power and leverage away from distributers to the farmers themselves. If you’re looking for an organization that’s closer to home, maybe you want to check out FarmAid. If you want to support the humane treatment of farm animals, you could give to an organization like Compassion Over Killing. Whatever the cause, someone out there is working hard to do the things we wish we could if we had the time and commitment. They definitely deserve our support and appreciate whatever we can give.
PS: I know that in this post I have provided very little detail as to the specific work of these organizations (and I should definitely do some more research myself). For that reason, I strongly encourage you to research tons of organizations more deeply before deciding who you want to support.