Urban and Rural: Eating between the lines

The urban-rural divide is a hot topic these days. We mostly hear about it in the context of politics, but it’s a phenomenon that impacts all of us and is of critical importance for any discussion of sustainable food and agriculture. As someone who lived the first half of my life in a commuter town in New Jersey and the most recent half of my life in suburban Atlanta, I have limited perspective on both urban and rural life. I’m the product of suburbia, that pleasant but bland swath of space that’s neither urban nor rural, where SUVs and minivans move kids from one location to another and strip malls act as the town-center. In considering my next career move and what part of the country I’ll live in, I’m not a huge fan of suburbia; both the urban and the rural life appeals to me much more. But perhaps my suburban background gives me a good perspective of the urban-rural divide and what that means for leading a sustainable life in general.

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Besides creating a lifestyle hooked on the automobile, what I think suburbia lacks for me is a connection to place. In the rural United States, there is a strong connection to the land, whether it’s to cornfields, mountain ranges, apple orchards, or sweeping plains. Perhaps that sounds overly pastoral but compared to suburban existence, it’s certainly true. The landscape is defined by its people and the people are in turn defined by their landscape. In the cities, there is a similar connection to place. Every graffitied wall seems to have meaning to someone, every street corner to someone else. The neighborhoods have individual identities while the skyscrapers unify them under a symbolic cityscape. Both urban and rural people have the chance to feel a “sense of place”. However different their backgrounds and lifestyles maybe, however opposing their values and politics, urban and rural people seem to share a strong understanding of their surrounding environment.

So, where does food fit into all of this? Having a sense of place and an understanding of environment is critical to valuing sustainable food. Food is a product of environment. We need to see that a bag of potato chips doesn’t just come magically from the shelf at Walmart, we need to know that a McDonalds hamburger patty actually comes from cattle, we need to learn that while our city might not be in a drought, the regions that produce our almond milk might be having a water crisis. One would expect that rural residents might see, feel, and understand these connections quite easily. But I think urban residents as well have the potential to extend their sense of place to where their food comes from. I recently came across a thought-provoking TED Talk by Denver architect and urban planner Brad Buchanan. Check it out:

Brad exudes a passion for having a “sense of place”, both as a proud urban Denverite and as a cattle rancher in rural Colorado. While most of Brad’s presentation isn’t about sustainable food, I think he sheds light on the necessity of bridging the gap between urban and rural places. Suburbia is an attempt to bridge that gap, by creating safe, quiet communities for people to raise their children “closer to nature” (i.e. lawns, gardens, and trees) while maintaining the convenience of a nearby urban area. Personally, I think the suburbia model is failing, both culturally and environmentally. I believe that to advance food sustainability for an increasingly-urban population, we need to focus on improving our urban spaces rather than on expanding them outwards. We should instill a ” sense of place” in the future generation by advocating for mixed-use development, giving cities a connection to their surrounding rural regions, and emphasizing the importance of the environment in food production.

Obviously suburbia won’t go away and it’s a stretch to imagine an urban existence that is truly connected to the environment. But I think more and more we’re seeing people in cities seeking that connection; there’s the “locavore” movement, the push for urban greenspace, urban community gardens and farms, etc. These aren’t the only answers to feeding cities sustainably, and cities will continue to rely heavily on the rural environment as the true backbone of our food system. This is why I believe that sustainable food is the perfect point at which to bridge the widening urban-rural divide. As a country, we can’t lose sight of our surrounding environment. Realizing that the food we eat is a product of our environment, no matter how rural or urban our own existence, might just bring us one step closer to a sustainable food future.

Bacon is Complicated

Last night I watched Bong Joon-Ho’s recently-released Netflix film Okja. An extremely complex movie, Okja is thought-provoking, weird, disturbing, and delightful. This moving story of the connection between a girl from rural Korea and her “super pig” companion, Okja, throws the issues of the environment, animal welfare, urban-rural divide, and powerful technology under the mainstream spotlight. What I most enjoyed about the movie is that it does not present a single answer to these questions. Instead, it leaves room for discussion and prompts careful consideration of our current food system.

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There are three main players in this film: the Natural (Mija and her pig Okja bonding in Korean wilderness), the Technological (the well-intentioned but destructive Mirando Corporation), and the Activist (the Animal Liberation Front, the wrong answer to the right question). Apart from Mija and Okja, no character is completely good or bad; most seem like satirical goofballs, if not antagonists. The Mirando Corporation CEO wants to feed the world more sustainably but lies about the super pig’s genetic origins and covers up the swine farm conditions. The Animal Liberation Front activists want to save Okja and the other super pigs but are themselves idiotic, self-righteous, and abusive. In the end, “the natural” survives but so too do the Technological and the Activist forces. With no true winner of the struggle, “Okja” is perhaps a perfect reflection of the obstacles we face in agriculture, sustainability, and technology today.

Besides the obvious questions of environmental and animal ethics, Okja reminded me of something I’d learned about during my time at veterinary school: Enviropig. A genetically-engineered line of pigs created by the University of Guelph, the Enviropig was developed to excrete less phosphorous in its waste, and therefore produce pork more efficiently and sustainably (see diagram below credited to http://www.uoguelph.ca/enviropig/images/Envirogpig-Model.jpg). The Enviropig project lost funding in 2012 and the story seems to end there, but its production raised important questions about genetic modification in animals as one solution to sustainable meat production.

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It’s difficult to wrap our minds around all of these questions and issues. Bacon is complicated. However, going forward, I think films like “Okja” and projects like Enviropig will be beneficial in their own unique ways. One thing I hope to see more of is a distinction between environmental and animal ethics in the realm of agricultural and food sustainability. Often these two issues are muddled and misidentified. Both important issues, they should be considered separately before bringing them together. A GMO pig might be more eco-friendly but ethically-questionable. An organic, “free-range” pig might be more humane but have a higher environmental footprint. Here, the natural and the technological, the animal and the human, the corporate and the activist all come together. It’s at this junction where we’ll find the best answers to a sustainable food future.

Planning for the Future, Learning from the Past

I’ve just returned home after a lot of traveling around the country. I had the chance to spend a week hiking in the three gorgeous national parks of Washington, and I also got to check out Seattle and Portland while I was out there in the Pacific Northwest. After an additional week of family time in the Adirondacks of Upstate New York, I’d say right now my commitment to the planet is replenished and possibly overflowing with a love for wilderness, wildness, and all things “nature”.

Here’s a moment I captured at sunset on the Olympic coast of Washington:

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While on the road (not staring at spectacular sunsets) I was able to dive into a really intriguing book titled 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann. I love learning about the pre-Columbian history of the Americas, so this book was the perfect eye-opener for me to many of the advanced societies that flourished here prior to European colonization. One topic this book really got me thinking about is the history of food and agriculture in the Americas.

The history of human societies, cities, and civilizations inevitably circles around the invention of agriculture. Without agriculture, we would be living as hunter-gatherers, and there would likely be no cities, complex governments, or advanced technologies. (Note: There are of course several groups of people who successfully maintain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle despite their neighbors’ ever-expanding and sometimes destructive modern world. Without agriculture human existence is certainly not “less than”). Agriculture has allowed people to stay in one place and to fulfill different roles in society, but it has also taken a toll on the surrounding environment, on wildlife, on “wilderness”.

The title of this blog is 12,000 Years Young for a reason: in order to restructure agriculture and food consumption so that they are more sustainable and better for human well-being, animal welfare, and environmental health, we must plan for the future by learning from the past. What can the several independent “inventions” of agriculture circa 12,000 years ago teach modern farmers, scientists, politicians, business leaders, and everyday consumers about how to grow and eat food more sustainably?

In 1491, Charles Mann outlines the major agricultural developments that allowed multiple civilizations to flourish in the “New World”. Mesoamerican societies such as the Mayas and the later Aztecs thrived off of maize, beans, and squash; early Peruvian societies such as the Norte Chico developed a complex economy based around cotton production, trading textiles from the inland for seafood from the coast; the subsequent Incas rapidly expanded and colonized the Andean region off of a surplus of potatoes, quinoa, and llama meat. One quickly gets a sense of how much of our modern existence is built off of these developments. Mann mentions in his book that about three-fifths of modern-day crops originated in the Americas: corn, beans, squash, potatoes, quinoa, tomatoes, chilis–all delicious foods we take for granted today.

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But beyond these specific staple crops, agriculture has advanced incredibly due to many of the techniques used by pre-Columbian societies. The most well-known example is the Three Sisters method of growing corn, beans, and squash together, replenishing the soil through legume cultivation. (Note: The story of the Plymouth Pilgrims learning to plant fish-heads around corn is possibly something Tisquantum–“Squanto”–actually learned during his time in Europe, but another interesting agricultural technique nonetheless).

I’m personally excited to learn more about the agricultural methods that allowed human existence to change so drastically beginning 12,000 years ago. I hope that in developing sustainable technologies and innovative solutions for modern-day agriculture, we can learn from those who came before us. This doesn’t mean we should regress to a local, minimalist approach to farming, which though an important movement is not sustainable or scaleable to feed our future world. We should instead learn from the economically and technologically complex food systems of the past to inform our own advancements. It’s difficult and perhaps impossible to preserve the wildness and wilderness that I’ve recently visited without planning for a better future, and I believe that future began 12,000 years ago.

Beef and Beans

A recent article published in Anthropocene, an excellent sustainability-focused magazine, addresses the environmental benefits of replacing beef with beans. The article discusses a study which conducted a life cycle assessment (LCA) on both beef and beans, revealing that if the entire U.S. population consumed beans instead of beef over the next few years, we’d already have reached up to 75% of the emissions-reduction targets for 2020. That’s crazy!

I’m all for eating beans, and they happen to be one of my favorite foods: pintos, black beans, garbanzos, you name it. But I’m not sure all of America loves beans enough to commit to that kind of sustainability goal. The beef burger is, after all, the definition of fine American cuisine. Perhaps another solution lies in the increasingly popular Impossible Burger, a plant-based burger that quite possibly tastes, looks, and sizzles just like beef.

Now that we have a great-tasting burger alternative, why not everyone just hop on the vegetarian bandwagon and help save the planet? Sure, that’d be great! I hope to see high-quality meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger continue to pop up in restaurants and stores around the country, and I’m excited to learn about the innovation that gives rise to such products.

But for those of us who aren’t replacing beef with beans or other more sizzling alternatives, there’s companies like BovControl to help push sustainable food production forward. BovControl is a Brazilian startup in the business of Ag Tech, using data and technology to increase the efficiency of beef production. Their mission? To empower farmers and decrease world hunger. While their mission is not sustainability-specific, BovControl allows beef production to expand while making use of resources more efficiently and generating fewer emissions, which when scaled up could have a huge impact on climate change.holstein-cattle-2318436_1920

Climate change is a huge, multi-faceted issue, and animal agriculture is equally as complex. While it’s easy to think about the choice between beef burgers and bean tacos when deciding what to eat for dinner, it takes a lot more thought to consider all of the environmental, social, and economic factors at play. Here, I’ve tried to highlight three different approaches to reducing the environmental impact of beef consumption: advocating reduced beef intake, innovating plant-based meat alternatives, and driving more efficient beef production. Each of these approaches is completely valid, which demonstrates that a variety of innovative, sustainable solutions together will help us achieve food sustainability and security in the future.