Our Sustainable Table

I’m not really sure when I wrote this, probably in the early 1990s

“I begin with the proposition that eating is an agricultural act,” writes Wendell Berry in an article called “The Pleasures of Eating” from the book Our Sustainable Table, a collection of essays about our off-track relationship with food, the land, and the people who farm it. Berry, a Kentucky farmer and poet, has emerged as one of the most eloquent advocates of sustainable agriculture.

Berry’s proposition begins to explain his answer — Eat responsibly — to the question of what city folks can do to reverse to decline of the family farm in America. That the connection between responsible eating and small farms encompasses a range of social, ecological, and political issues changes the stakes. No longer the exclusive domain of dreamy-eyed, back-to-the-landers, sustainable agriculture is critical to the national security of rural and urban Americans alike.

So what is it? Webster’s defines sustainability as the the ability to “maintain; keep in existence; prolong.” Soil scientist Wes Jackson, whose 1978 article Toward a Sustainable Agriculture planted the expression firmly in the American lexicon, feels that it’s become a political phrase that defies a simple definition.

Nearly everyone agrees, though, on what sustainable agriculture is not. It isn’t American agri-business. It isn’t vast tracts of mono-cultured fields. It isn’t using petro-chemical fertilizers to boost yields and toxic pesticides to control weeds and insects. It isn’t eating plums from Chile or tomatoes from Mexico in December. It isn’t becoming so divorced from agriculture that we believe food comes “from the store.” It isn’t, in the words of Wendell Berry, subsisting on a diet of foods that have been “processed, dyed, breaded, sauced, gravied, ground, pulped, strained, blended, prettified, and sanitized beyond resemblance of any part of any creature that ever lived.”

Sustainable agriculture means farmers who live on the land they farm and understand the cyclical nature of agriculture. It means protecting the soil and water that make life possible. It means recycling nutrients through composting, cover crops, and plant rotations. It means growing things that are appropriate for the local climate and geography. It means recognizing that the processes found in nature are the best model and imitating them. It means relying less on synthesized chemical fertilizers and pesticides and moving toward an ecological approach to pest management.

The wider implications of sustainable agriculture touch today’s most critical issues. Abandoning extractive, industrial agriculture frees us from depending on imported energy, reduces the use of chemicals that poison our air, water, and soil, and provides increased opportunities for employment in depressed rural communities. Embracing the small farm ensures a safe, local supply of wholesome, fresh food free from the added costs of excessive transportation, processing, and packaging.

Sustainable agriculture, for we urbanites at least, comes back to Berry’s admonition to eat responsibly. Responsible eating, though, goes beyond the obvious, and avoiding highly processed foods and out-of-season imports only begins the process of reconnecting with the act of eating.

Berry’s essay includes some suggested next steps:

“Participate in food production to the extent you can.” This doesn’t mean plowing up the front lawn and planting cabbage. A small vegetable garden, a couple of tomato plants, even a pot of herbs can provide the sense of responsibility for your own food. Tending a garden also puts you into the natural cycle of growth and decay. Knowing the blend of sun, water, and effort that produced the tomato you’re eating makes you appreciate it even more.

“Prepare your own food.” The practical benefits of home cooking-cost and quality control-pale when compared to the real advantage: the food you prepare yourself can be better than anything you can buy in the market or restaurant.

“Whenever you can, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist.” Food produced locally is generally going to be safer, fresher, and cheaper than imported food. Dealing with the producer at a farmers market allows you to communicate your needs and become familiar with the seasonal fluctuations of local agriculture. It also eliminates the packers, shippers, advertisers and other “middlemen” who add cost to the food at the expense of both producer and consumer.

“Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can about the economy and technology of industrial food production.” Food costs are often determined as much by the “not food” components as anything else. Finding out what’s added to the food we eat, and how much it costs, can be a real eye-opener. It can also scare the hell out of you.

Mealtime does more than merely fuel our daily activities. It provides a social context, offering a shared experience with the people we care about most. And eating itself, the most primordial activity, puts us in touch with the world we live in and demonstrates our dependence on lives outside our own.

Our Sustainable Table, edited by Robert Clark for the Journal of Gastronomy (originally published as the Journal of Gastronomy, v. 5, no. 2, summer/autumn 1989); published by San Francisco’s North Point Press, 1990: ISBN 0865474443

Even thought it’s out of print, this book can often be found at used bookstores; you can also ask your local independent bookseller to track down a copy, or order it online from Powell’s or Amazon.