Can We Build a Sustainable Food Future?


Many years ago during a visit to the Norwegian Maritime Museum in Oslo, Norway, I came across a series of diagrams in the small boat hall: there were circles in a mandala-like form that visualized the cycles of the year, of the harvest on both land and at sea, of the work patterns of men and women, and of the inter-relationship of the generations - grandparents, parents, and children - to the sustainability of their remote oceanside communities.
These diagrams were an intellectual and emotional revelation, in that they provided me, very much a city boy from America's heartland, extraordinary insight into the patterns and practical collaborations among the inhabitants of coastal communities. For the first time, I appreciated the primarily social organization of such enterprise, the inherent wisdom of experience that determined that success in a challenging place that demanded the participation of every resident, old and young, in a series of inter-related activities that enabled a healthy, happy, and sustainable livelihood.

Much of this wisdom was based on the observations of the seasons, the changing of the light, temperature, and resultant practicality for growing things ashore. Each season provided its work list: tasks that were assigned to the most able and skilled to perform just those things. The men turned and tilled the land, the women planted, every one harvested, and the additional tasks that transformed this plenty into food to be eaten, stored, dried, processed, and saved as seed for the next season to begin again.

There was also a division of labor related to the sea - gear and boats to be prepared, fishing by crews of men and boys, and the transformation of that harvest into dried fish, export product for trade, and other needs for community life through use of 100 percent of the fish: needles, buttons, thread, health products, clothing and other uses.

There was also a further circle, that of the social and religious celebrations and events associated with each activity and each season. The sum of the circles was a telling portrait of how society can be organized around the plenty that nature so generously will provide for our well-being.

Last week, I received a press release announcing a new partnership of the National Family Farm Coalition and the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, wherein the synergy of activity, needs, and political interests between the two was recognized as common threats facing land-based and sea-based food. The partnership affirmed the similar challenges faced by many family farmers and fishers in recent decades: corporate consolidation of food systems at the expense of small- and mid-scale producers, the decline of rural communities, the reduction of food workers, the destruction of environment and ecosystems, the delimited access to real food, and collective health. "The expansion of a more sustainable food future is dependent on this declaration of interdependence and solidarity between us," the release declared, "a vision to unite family farmers, ranchers, and fishers in a collective effort for economic empowerment and food justice."

At issue here is the recurring impact of scale - the growth of food production from artisanal and local to industrial and global. That enormous growth has had astonishing impacts on national economies, building an international market for certain foods and grains at the expense of other production, of the land saturated with pesticide and nitrate-based fertilizer, of exhausted and poisoned earth blown and eroded away into our streams where it descends through watersheds to the sea where it subsumes oxygen and aquatic life turning large areas of coastal water into a place where no animal, no plant, no human can survive.

Perhaps such consequence has convinced us? Perhaps such destruction, now further aggravated by climate change and extreme weather, can be overcome by the diminution of scale, the return to the local, to cooperation among those who live by this small scale production, to the revitalization of land and community by return to sustainable values.

Where I live there is a strong revival of fishing and agriculture. Our fastest growing profession is organic farming, young people returned from the city, educated and prepared to pursue hard work as a reflection of quality of life, outdoor living not compromised by the demands of consumption, and fueled by the natural energy of earth and ocean. They are becoming much more politically involved, engaging in the determination of policy and direction, and joining together in value-added enterprise, fairs and farmers markets to which so many of us flock for good food, real value, and investment in the health of all aspects of our community.

Fishers and farmers, unite! Let those circles and cycles of health and vitality return, revitalized, from an exhibit on a museum wall to a regenerative way by we can live, successfully again, together today.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.