Dead ends on the road to sustainability

May 15, 2018 by Lawrence Woodward

What is sustainability? It’s a question many of us grapple with every day and faced with its increasing complexity we often end up grabbing the first convenient solution that presents itself – especially if it promises that we don’t have to change our lives or our thinking or our habits too much.

There’s a danger in this, because in grasping the easy (and often false) solutions we run the risk of making things worse.

It is certainly true that we need radical and truly sustainable policies to deal with the massive and urgent problem of climate destruction (a much more accurate term for what we are facing than “climate change”).

But currently the issue of climate destruction is discussed in terms of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation; whist sustainability is generally seen as matter of energy, recycling, pollution, a sketchy notion of resource use and a vague view of biodiversity.

This kind of compartmentalising – in day-to-day politics, discourse, business decisions and individual actions – is understandable. But most intelligent, engaged people have some sense that the issues are deeper and more connected than that, and that we all have to connect the dots better if we are to turn things around.

This is especially true of would-be leaders in key areas of human activity and not least those in food production and provision – which stands at the nexus of so much of our lives, wellbeing and culture.

Embracing complexity

The most profound thing for us to grasp is that sustainability is complex, rather than complicated. It is made of diverse parts which may have specialised roles, but are interdependent, interact and rely on each other for collective purpose. To use the description of holism – “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.

Sustainability is not just about carbon, energy, resources and pollution and the time honoured but narrow definition of meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

It is also about health, wellbeing, tradition and culture; its functioning encompasses technology, logistics and social and political cohesion. It requires boundaries and restraint and therefore, trade-offs within those boundaries.

Sustainable policies to end and mitigate climate destruction will have those characteristics; which is why ‘one trick pony’ approaches are inadequate and can be misleading.

Let’s consider a few other current fashions and accepted wisdom in sustainable food and farming:

The carbon cul-de-sac

Of all the sustainability issues, our single-minded focus on carbon is one of the most misguided.

Whether we are talking about emission reduction or sequestration – our current approach is bound to lead to misplaced policies and into an unsustainable, frustrating cul-de-sac if we don’t raise our game.

Even the language we use is dangerous. I’m talking here about the simplified use of the word ‘carbon’ as a short-hand for all greenhouse gases.

Because each greenhouse gas (GHG) has a different global warming potential, GHGs are expressed as CO2equivalent or CO2E. Under this system, CO2 is the universal benchmark measurement for the global warming potential of all climate-changing gases.

Figures quoted in the media for the climate changing potential of activities like farming and food production should be expressed in CO2E – though they rarely are – and differentiate between carbon and those gases which are much more damaging. This laziness contributes to what, in many circumstances, can be an unhelpful conflation of climate change issues and sustainability. What is more, measuring the impact of something using a simplistic ‘carbon’ yardstick is bound to lead to poor choices.

Meat the truth

No-one would argue against the need to move to a more plant-based diet, but the vilification of meat – based largely on a consideration of energy use and CO2 emissions (calculated per kilo of meat or litre of milk etc) – and which ultimately promotes intensive and industrialised systems as a solution – ignores several important sustainability dimensions.

It dismisses the extraordinarily varied types of livestock systems and the value they have to landscape management, biodiversity, regional employment and culture. It pays little attention to the role of livestock in fertility building and maintenance in ecologically sound production systems. It, likewise, sidelines the fact that meat is nutritionally dense and, in its natural state, as much of a ‘whole food’ as any plant food.

Take all of these considerations together, alongside those of carbon sequestration and storage, and a somewhat different and more nuanced picture emerges. Not one which negates the move to a more plant-based diet, but one which recognises a legitimate role for some types of livestock systems and the meat from them.

Not-so-sustainable veggies

We don’t like to talk about it, but plant production – grains, fruit and vegetables, oils – includes some of the most intensive use of land.

Often it requires highly specialised cropping which borders on monoculture; clearing of forests with associated greenhouse gas emissions and disruption of communities. It also involves the use of large amounts of agri-chemicals with adverse health impacts on farm workers, rural communities and consumers; massive use of irrigation and over use of water in some parts of the world; risks to soil; reduced (in some places virtually non- existent) biodiversity, corporate control and low wages.

In addition, because they spoil more easily, fruits and vegetables, alongside roots and tubers have the highest wastage rates (40-50%) of any food.

Currently much attention is given to “meat alternatives” but often the crops these are made from – soya and oil seeds – are amongst the most intensively produced with a huge reliance on a genetic engineering technology. Their production encourages biodiversity damaging monocultures and massive use of pesticides.

A number of the headline grabbing products such as the Impossible Burger use genetically engineered material in their processing – none of which has been subjected to adequate health assessments. In what way is this sustainable?

Soil salvation

Then there is hydroponics. This soil-less method of growing food, now dressed up as vertical farming, has been given a slick PR makeover because it can be based in urban settings like trendy underground tunnels or old warehouses, which resonate with lifestyle magazines.

We are told that chefs love the leaves that come from these places because they are ‘sustainable’ inasmuch as they can control the water flow and the chemical input into the plant and because many facilities use ‘green energy’ for their lighting. Here is the epitome of the one trick pony.

I haven’t seen much meaningful analysis of the stuff that comes out of these places – leaves mainly – but what exists suggests that the nutritional quality of hydroponically grown foods can vary enormously depending on the crop.

There is also plenty of research evidence to show that young green shoots and plants grown under certain types of artificial lights and out of season tend to have far higher nitrate levels than the same plants grown seasonally in the open.

Nitrates occur naturally in vegetables, with leafy vegetables having higher concentrations. Up to a point the natural nitrates in our food are healthy, but excess levels are problematic.

Focus on the main event, not the side shows

Hydroponics will never fully replace soil-grown crops; the number and type of plants that are suitable for this type of cultivation is limited and there is a curious circular logic about ‘green’ ventures that use solar energy which is converted into electricity to run the indoor lighting that helps the plants convert light into energy – which is what they would be doing anyway if they were growing naturally in the sunlight.

But my main objection is based on my view of health – a holistic one, going right back to the beginnings of the science of human nutrition, which observed that the diets of the healthiest peoples were based on food that was fresh, whole and grown in healthy soil or fresh from the sea.

From that comes the idea that “the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible”.

When considering sustainability that is probably the best place for anyone producing, processing, cooking or distributing food to begin – and it is among the issues we hope to touch on at the Sustainability Roundtable at H&C EXPO, July 17-18 at the Celtic Manor. Please join us.