Challenging Our Food Ethic: From Isolation to Alliance

As one who studies the politics, ethics, technology, science, and history behind the vastly interdisciplinary field of environmentalism, I can tell you firsthand that we “tree-hugging hippies” are often seen as outsiders—or what Edward Said describes as “the Other.” While recent national polls show that nearly 60% of the American public believes that the environment should be among the country’s top priorities, it still seems safe to say that those actively working on addressing these concerns continue to be a minority. While some supporters see any environmental action as good action, many ethicists have raised concerns over certain practices and ideologies. These examinations are beneficial, as they continually hold environmentalists to higher standards, but in doing so, such concerns can also serve to further narrow and isolate the already small group.

 Aldo Leopold, American author, environmentalist, and forester, states in the famous chapter of his book A Sand County Almanac, “The Land Ethic,” that “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.” With this in mind, Leopold raises concerns about the economic motivation that compromises the integrity of much of the environmental movement. The example he gives is of farmers who are incentivized to adopt more sustainable practices—crop rotation, water conservation, natural fertilizers, non-genetically modified crops, or whatever it may be. In these cases, the extent of the farmers’ fabricated stewardship spans no further than the minimum amount of effort required to receive the promised incentives. Once the offer has expired or has lost its utility, the economically minded farmers return to their old ways. This tendency, argues Leopold, will not bring about the type of environmental reformation our society needs. It is not enough to simply wait for free market economics recognize and correct our mistakes. If this is how we react and respond to environmental issues, our efforts will fail. Instead, a societal shift toward a personal, emotional connection to our global ecosystem—an awareness of our role in the interconnected web of life and land—is necessary.

Because of this, the group of grassroots environmentalists who fit Leopold’s strict qualifications becomes labeled as even further radicalized, isolated, and deluded than the grander population of environmentalists, many of whom believe in the theory behind economic incentives. Grassroots environmentalism seeks change directly through that which is local: community, pride, cooperation, and emotional investment. In many ways, this can be seen as challenging capitalism, consumerism, and the general authority that the government assumes. The activists behind grassroots environmentalism, in their concerted optimism, unapologetically distinguish themselves from many of these socially ingrained tendencies and, in doing so, fight them. What these “hippies” and “Others” are doing is in itself is very bohemian. Certainly these people could have chosen a different paths. They could be making more money, inserting themselves more into society. The fact that they choose to distinguish themselves so clearly from the norm and in doing so, attempt to inspire social change, is a concept that is at the heart of all bohemian culture. In such a way, this tireless devotion to a cause that, by most standards, is not heavily valued by society, becomes a microcosm of the greater problem–if we cannot respect the efforts of our environmentalists, how can we begin to respect our environment?

A segment of these environmental activists work to address the agriculture and food industry. The localized tactics of grassroots eco-movements work particularly well in this sector, as many of the big problems stem from the very fact that the agriculture industry is so “dirty” because it isn’t localized anymore. Since agriculture’s “green revolution” in the mid 1900s, we have seen the industry develop higher yield crops, expansive irrigation systems, and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. New standards for food production have grown exponentially larger and with this change has come the introduction of foreign chemicals to our fields, soil and water contamination, fossil-fuel driven production and distribution techniques, soil depletion, monoculture practices, and unethical livestock treatment. Many believe that these issues can be addressed by advocating for a shift back to the small-scale practices of the past, where farmers were not compelled to extend their production capacity through these destructive means. When farmers produce to subsist or produce for only a small community, traditional techniques are again possible and allow organic and non-GMO foods to be more readily available. 

 Of course, this is idealistic. The reality is that for many people in many areas, the logistics of securing your own food year round would be immense and most likely require a semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer type lifestyle. People would have to leave behind cities and careers, family sizes would have to change, and intensive skillsets would be required. Despite the reality of a community’s situation, though, the end goal for these environmentalists is always to advocate a shift in our food ethic toward a more sustainable path. The integrity of such a pursuit is, as Leopold warned, always relevant, because meaningful change cannot be attained without proper motivation. Actions must account for the social and ethical implications which accompany them. Even without the drastic life-changes required of a complete societal reformation, these environmental bohemians find ways to challenge the norms by pursuing creative, alternative paths in search of a brighter future.  Of these more realistic options, one can be seen right here at Fordham University, located in the Bronx.

Tucked behind the parking garage and the dreaded Faculty Memorial Hall, a small urban farm exists quietly, unnoticed by much of the Fordham community. If a passerby were to peer inside its gates during the growing season, she would usually find a few students rustling around in the raised soil beds, harvesting or caring for a variety of organically grown vegetables, fruits and flowers. Consisting of and organized by a core group of student volunteers, this is St. Rose’s Garden. While the academic backgrounds of these volunteers may be diverse, the group is united by a common interest in localizing their food sources and learning sustainable gardening techniques in a very hands-on environment. Students participate in every stage of the growing and harvesting processes, take home produce to enjoy, and often extend their involvement to join the garden’s externally sourced CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)—which supplies them with even more in-season produce throughout the year from an organic farm a few hours outside the city.

I met up with JJ Monro, an Environmental Science, pre-health student and active leader at St. Rose’s, to discuss her connection and experience with the garden:

Emma: Why do you volunteer at St. Rose’s Garden? 

JJ: I originally started volunteering at St. Rose’s because a friend took me along to a meeting last spring. I have always been quite conflicted about the food industry. I really hate the mass production of meat and animal products. It is not that I have a problem with the consumption of animals, but I have a problem with their maltreatment, especially of chickens and cows in the dairy industry. I have the same feelings when it comes to farming—the mass production and everything that entails conflicts with many of my core values. By growing your own food and buying from local farmers you can trust, you are making sure you are eating the most nutrient dense foods possible, as well as supporting people who are trying to be ecologically conscious. Obviously to perfectly embody these practices is idealistic and it’s almost impossible to successfully avoid these foods, but by participating in St. Rose’s, I am taking advantage of an opportunity to produce at least a part of my diet.

E: Do you feel volunteering at the garden connects you more with your community or alienates you from it? How so?

J: Through the garden, I have met a lot of people who like to eat and enjoy food the same way as I do, and this helps because as someone who does make great efforts to eat sustainably, I do feel alienated at times in everyday life. Many times, I feel defeated by the food industry. It becomes quite frustrating when it seems like so many others just don’t get it and don’t see their impact on the environment or even, more simply, their food’s connection to it. Like when people throw a fit about dirt in their salad at the grocery story, you just want to shake them and say “That’s because lettuce grows in the ground!”

E: How do people (those who maybe haven’t heard of the garden and definitely haven’t visited or volunteered) react when they hear of our work and general mission?

J: Most say “We have a garden?!” A lot of people want to come, more say they want to come but are just trying to be nice, but others are actually interested, and at least come to one meeting.

E: In your opinion, in what ways are we alienated/detached from the “farm to table” life of the foods we consume? How does working at the garden challenge this detachment, which seems to have become the norm for most people?

J: I think fast-food chains and grocery stores have really affected the way we view food. How is it that all year round the same foods are available all the time? Obviously the weather is changing, the growing season is changing—but people don’t question the fact that this seemingly has no effect on the shelves of their favorite grocery store. The sense of being in tune with the seasons, actually eating foods that are in-season, is almost always lost. It’s as if we have an internal clock and we know we should be programed to sleep at some times and be awake at others but our clock is all out of sync and we sleep during the day, are awake at night, and we go along with our business as if nothing is out of the ordinary.

E: As a leader at St. Rose’s Garden, how have you seen volunteers change after really becoming involved with the urban agriculture process?

J: It’s pretty cool. Our core group keeps getting bigger because we have people going home—taking a bag full of carrots, radishes, and kale with them—sharing their harvest with friends and getting more and more people excited about the prospect of producing your own food. These people are choosing to challenge the food systems they’ve usually been stuck with their entire lives and aren’t just adjusting their lifestyles but are actively rallying others to do the same. We may be detaching and alienating ourselves from the normal, consumer driven marketplace but in doing so, it seems we are collectively finding and creating something even more valuable to anchor ourselves to.

In a word, the gardeners at St. Rose’s are seeking a greater sense of authenticity in what they do. The impersonal and destructive food industry is but a small fraction of the larger environmental crisis we are currently in. However, the genuine pragmatism of these grassroots efforts—such as involvement in a community garden like St. Rose’s—can set the examples that will in turn set the stage for bold changes yet to come.

Sources:

  •   Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac And Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford UP, 1949. Print.
  •   Bowness, Evan. “Food systems in transition: from globalized industrial agriculture to localized urban permaculture.” Canadian Dimension Jan.-Feb. 2014: 34+. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.
  •   Connelly, Marjorie. “Global Warming Concerns Grow.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 Sept. 2014. Web. 02 Oct. 2014.
  •   Photos courtesy of St. Rose’s Garden Facebook page


 

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