What the hell does “sustainable” even mean?

We need to define our buzzwords better, author Douglas Gayeton tells Salon

Topics: Sustainable, Food, Sustainable food, local food, Agriculture, organic farming, GMO, natural food, Climate Change,

What the hell does "sustainable" even mean?Earth (Credit: AP/NASA)

How many of these terms can you define?

Sustainable, organic, natural.

Food miles, carbon footprint, food desert, direct trade.

And not just define, but really define — explain not just what they mean, but how they’re implemented, and why they’re important to reforming our food system?

It’s harder than most people realize, says artist and author Douglas Gayeton. These buzzwords are the shorthand by which we talk about new, better ways to grow and eat food, but often they’re just that — buzzwords, lacking the context needed to be useful. And that’s before we get into things like “integrated pest management,” “riparian buffers,” “demeter certification,” “biodynamics” and “permaculture.”

The title of Gayeton’s new book, he admits, is a bit of a buzzword itself. “Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America“ uses photo collages, profiles of people at the forefront of the food movement, and lots and lots of definitions to begin to unpack these concepts. It’s borne from a larger online project he’s undertaken with his wife, Laura Howard, called the “Lexicon of Sustainability.”

Understanding exactly what it is we’re talking about, they argue, is integral to getting people to take an active role in what they buy and what they eat. And that, Gayeton told Salon, is the best way to bring about reform.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Just to get started, can you tell me a little bit about how the larger Lexicon of Sustainability project came about, and how it turned into this book?

I lived in Italy for a period of time, and when I was there I began documenting the slow food movement. That became a book I did called “Slow“ with Alice Waters and Carlo Petrini from Slow Food. It gave me a really interesting window into how a food movement works, what values and principles define it.

After that book I moved back to the United States, near Petaluma, California, where my wife started a goat milk ice cream company. That was an amazing experience too, because it really gave me an understanding of how hard it is to create a value-driven food product system, and also, how little people know about their food system. And so when I was looking for what I wanted to do next, after the “Slow” book, I was at a dinner party in a suburb of D.C.,  and there were a lot of food policy wonks there, and one was talking about how far he drove to get his food, and he called this “food miles.” I realized that if this guy didn’t know what food miles were, how many other terms were people getting wrong? Because the thing about it is, if you don’t know the most basic terms and principles, how can you even understand what people are talking about at the dinner table, or even have a conversation? I think the climate movement has had a tremendous difficulty in the past 10 years because most people — most general people — have term fatigue. They have climate fatigue because of terms like “carbon debt”: They didn’t really get it the first time, and they didn’t know what it meant the 20th time, so they just sort of tuned out.

And so I realized that if we could actually create a lexicon about sustainability, at least in terms of food farming, people will probably be much more willing to engage with the core principles that define it and probably live more sustainably.

When you’re searching to define these words, are you looking for precise, dictionary definitions, or is there something more nuanced that you’re going for?

Well, many of these terms are part of an evolving language. And so many of these are essentially part of a VHS vs. Datamax — you know, which format is going to win, which definition of these terms is going to win? We still don’t know the answer yet. So with that project, we never harbored the illusion that we’re trying to get the ultimate definition of something, because it’s often the case those definitions are based upon geography or context or even somebody’s social-economic level. So what we really try to do is find as many of these as we can and pocket them within a much larger conversation. So we always tell people we’re working with exactly that. I’m always really happy when somebody looks at an image of mine and gets really bent out of shape and says I have it all wrong, because then that means that I can ask them to explain to me how they would do it, and then we have one more definition.

Are there some specific words that tend to be more controversial among people when trying to define them?

Well, obviously, we can start with “GMO.” GMO is probably something that we’ll look back on in 20 years, when we look at time capsules of the evolution of this food movement in the United States, GMOs are really a galvanizing term, partially because they are so widely misunderstood by the general population. But I think that the emerging word that people are just only beginning to understand, when you look at, for example, fisheries, is the concept of traceability: the concept that for some fish that you eat either at a restaurant or that you buy from the fish market, that up to 70 percent are not what you think they are. When people begin to understand the term “traceability,” then they begin to question the fish they buy. When they question the fish they buy, they begin to ask those questions of the people they buy their fish from, and the more information we have the more immediate are the shifts in their buying patterns. When their buying patterns shift, fisheries are forced to change their practices, either by being more transparent, or by selling more sustainable varieties of fish.

So in many cases, as we’ve seen, consumers don’t wait for the FDA or the USDA to solve the problem for them. When they’re armed by terms and principles, they make their own decisions in the marketplace — in this case the fish market — and they actually can shift industries. And cynical people will say we’re just really talking about a couple of words, but you know, when people learned what the term “fishery” was, they actually shifted an entire industry. When people learned that there was something called rbST in their milk, they shifted their buying patterns, and shifted the work of an entire industry. And the USDA had nothing to do with that; the FDA had nothing to do with that. That shows the power of consumers learning what these terms mean, and what questions they should ask of their food system, and also what they should demand of their food system.

On the flip side of that, are there buzzwords you come across that turn out to be just buzzwords — that don’t really have a lot of meaning behind them?

There are two terms that come to mind that are not exactly accurate and not exactly useful: “food miles” and “food deserts.”

But as I explain in my book, that hardly means that they’re not important. I mean, they’re even more important given the fact of how woefully inaccurate they are. Why? Because, explaining the principle of “food miles” is an entryway into a much larger conversation. The reality is that “food miles” is this mechanism that helps you understand how far food traveled to reach you, with the idea being that everything must be local and that everything should have the least amount of food miles. I always use that example with people who don’t really know much about sustainability, so it’s great because it gets them to think about food in a different way. But at the same time, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense because you can’t get everything locally. You can’t get coffee or sugar or some types of fruit locally. So does that mean you can never drink a cup of coffee because you live in the state of New York?

And so what we argue in our book is that, in the case of food miles, you can’t use that argument for everything, but what you can use is this principle of the connected market, the idea being that you can’t get everything locally, and so for the things that you can’t get locally, the next thing you could do is actually understand the principles and the values of the way that product was grown. So for that you can use the same principles you apply to local foods to food that isn’t local. So that’s a really powerful piece.

The second one is food deserts. It’s a little bit misleading, this idea that people can’t walk or easily access healthy, wholesome food. There are food deserts in Iowa, there are food deserts in New Mexico. If anybody has driven across the United States by car, they understand there are food deserts everywhere. But the term, at first blush, is really important, because it makes people understand that not everybody has the same access to food that you do, and that that’s a problem. So I think that even in their lack of functionality, there are some terms that are really potent as well.

What about a term like “natural,” which doesn’t really have a set definition? Anyone can put it on a food label, and people obviously have a lot of different associations when they hear it. How do you deal with a concept like that?

Our project began with a much larger issue, which is that the term “sustainable” is utterly meaningless. It’s meaningless because corporate interests latched onto the word because they felt that it resonated with people, that it was connected to a value that people were viewing as important to them. And so, food companies, car companies, really any company –

Or Salon …

Well, you know, our organization was called the Lexicon of Sustainability. And the reason why we call it that was that I wasn’t quite ready to simply throw away that term and say that it’s been co-opted by corporate interests and that we had lost that one. I wasn’t really ready to give in on that. And so, one of the central tenets that drives what we do is saying, you know what, actually, I don’t really want Fortune 500 Company X to own the definition, in the public marketplace of ideas, of “sustainability.” That actually, we the people should still own that conversation. So we’re very much focused on resuscitating and reclaiming that idea. And I think that we see across the board, when we go to the supermarket, all kinds of stories and narratives being told on packages that people can get away with because the USDA and the FDA don’t really enforce any of these ideas. You mention “natural”; we can talk about all kinds of other ones too — just the word “healthy,” even using the word “local” is at times misleading.

I will say the one thing that emerged in the past five years is that people are now aware that they have to fix their food system, and they’re going to have to do it by themselves. And that’s going to take a lot of work. And the work that it’s going to take is something that is probably going to be a lifelong investment on their parts. And so that idea of fixing the food system means knowing what all the products are on the label; it means being fully aware of all of those things. People getting invested in their food system means actually being aware who is actually growing food where, and when; actually understanding what it means to eat in season; actually understanding what your role is in a food system.

I think most people don’t understand that after the Second World War, we invested in every aspect of our food system, and as a result we dismantled all forms of local production, and as a culture we’re poorer for it. And I think that in order to rebuild local food systems, it’s not just going to be somebody opening up a local bakery, it’s going to be people supporting that bakery, and supporting a dozen other businesses. It’s a very long-term, and often lifelong commitment that people are going to have to start making. People are already spending less and less time shopping and cooking, and so the idea that they’d have to spend more time on something when they feel like they don’t have an overabundance of time, is not an invitation that most people want to take on.

Is asking them to learn an entire book’s worth of concepts part of that?

A lot of people are probably not as willing to succumb to the fact that they will have to take a much more active role in what food they buy, and in understanding what is in the food that they’re eating. I think 10 years from now people will realize that it’s a sort of level of education that’s helpful, and it will become second nature. It also comes in, in a way, with transparency. I think our food system is going to become more and more transparent. I mean, the first thing I can tell you of that actually being the case is the fact that consumers are going to succeed — again, by no intervention from the USDA or the FDA — consumers will succeed in seeing GMO labeling on packages. It shows a) the power of consumers and b) that we are tending more towards transparency than at any time in the history of our food system, and that’s all from consumers demanding to know more, and knowing what questions to ask.

One of the problems raised with GMO labeling is that consumers know this is something they want to be demanding but as you said, they’re not really sure what GMOs are, they don’t know what it means. So is it enough to have that on the label? What else needs to be done for people to have true transparency, where they understand what they’re buying and what they’re demanding?

Well, you know, one of the problems with the internationalization of our food system is that large companies source their ingredients from all over the world. There is a large company that I was approached by who wanted to become involved with us, that we couldn’t be, because they had centralized the procurement of their ingredients for all of their product lines in one central facility. And so for their individual product lines they actually didn’t know where their ingredients came from, as amazing as that might sound. So while they were examining the package ingredients, it turned out that many of those ingredients weren’t what they thought they were, or didn’t come from where they thought they came from. Kashi, which is now owned by General Mills, is an example of that, where Kashi had all sorts of problems in understanding what was inside their own products.

Now if a product manager at a food company does not know what is inside their own products, what hope does the consumer have? And the consumer’s only weapon is to be informed and to vote when they go to the supermarket and make decisions to buy products that are more transparent over those that aren’t. And that’s what food companies are careful about when it comes to GMOs, because they fear, and rightfully so, that consumers might not support products that have GMOs inside them, for whatever reason consumers would choose not to support them. And I feel as an organization, I don’t need to get involved in whether GMOs are good or bad for you. Certainly our work explains all of those issues, but I think all I need to really talk about is that we should put all the information out there and then we should allow the consumers to make their own choices. And it’s very, very powerful when you see that succeed.

So as you mentioned before, in the book you kind of talk about climate change without talking about climate change — without using that word. Can you talk a little bit more about how that factors into the larger discussion: Is there a way that more people can start doing that, start talking about these issues in a way that resonates more?

The last page of our book explains that every single term is actually a term that explains climate change. My wife and I thought that the most useful thing that we could do for the climate conversation would be to identify all the key terms and principles in food farming, and then water, and then energy, and then gather them all together. And then in that way, we could actually present a series of very reasonable changes that people could make to live more sustainably. We just finished the food farming part, we’re now moving on to water and energy. But I think that climate change is too big of an idea to wrap our brains around. And a polar bear falling on an ice flow, while it’s a very poignant and powerful story, ironically it has absolutely zero resonance with people who don’t live on ice floes. You have to make all of these ideas relevant to people’s lives, and you have to break them down into little pieces that are actionable. And you have to create mechanisms that allow them to reward other people that are also following similar principles.

And so that comes with education. But it also comes with giving people a window into what the possible solutions are. So a big piece of what we do, first of all we only focus on solutions — our project never talks about problems. It’s almost too easy to talk about problems, and there are a lot of organizations that are like crisis cults, where they have an addiction to talking about how bad everything is. And I would much rather focus on how we’re going to draw down carbon in the atmosphere, and people that are successfully doing it. Because in every successful innovative idea that we explain, the problem is inherent in the solution. So if we just focus on solutions, people will see the problems that have inspired them. Also, it’s so much harder to talk about solutions, and so the process is a challenge: Who are those people, where are they, what are they doing, how do they figure things out, how can we share it with other people? That’s what motivates us.

Lindsay Abrams
Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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