Austin Sustainable Food System Series Part VI: Conclusions

The discussion on the Austin Sustainable Food System has taken us from field to market to fork to the compost bin. A food system is a complex web that involves many moving parts and feedback loops. It is not something that can be examined on a singular level as each component feeds into and is feed by the other pieces. The end result is greater than the sum of the parts. In addition to it being a massive economic powerhouse, food systems are the ultimate energy source that drives the movement of our civilization. We all have to eat to live, and there are many of us who live to eat. There are many reasons why moving to a more ‘Sustainable’ food system is not only beneficial but also absolutely necessary. The most salient of those reasons being resiliency.

Resilience is the key difference between a Sustainable Food System and our current Industrialized Food System. The industrialized food system sources from massive monocultures in California and the Mid-West. The food travels thousands of miles to arrive at only a handful of retail outlets. The food sold at these outlets is predetermined by the merchants and producers offering an illusion of choice and degradation of quality in exchange for affordability. This process leads to a mind-boggling amount of waste. Waste that drives a negative feedback loop of overproduction that creates more waste and so on and so on…

The Sustainable Food System sources locally, regionally, and from beyond. It does not depend on just a few suppliers. Food is grown and distributed locally. Big box grocery is still part of this, however, there is not a dependency on them. This localization offers new channels of retail. Ones that are more personal and closer to home and those offer choices that are driven by the communities and cultures they represent. Overall quality is improved drastically and excess production is more limited. What waste is created can be captured and redistributed or processed back into the soil it came from.

An easy analogy to compare these two versions of food systems is to think of the Industrialized as a tower and the Sustainable as a pyramid. When a force applies to them, the tower may be able to sway and bend a bit, but if the force is strong enough, the tower will topple. The pyramid, however, does not even budge. The pyramid may take longer to build but its stability is undeniable.

So where do we go from here?

We can begin by increasing local production. We need to grow more food locally. How do we do this? We start by preserving farmland and supporting younger generations to become farmers. We then need to expand and support the markets for these young farmers to sell their food. There is an incredible opportunity for expansion into lower-income communities. The demand exist, we just need to adequately supply in ways that are economically sustainable and socially and culturally appropriate. Simultaneous to this expansion of markets is assuring the purchasing power of individuals and families. The demand for fresh local produce means nothing when the capacity to purchase said produce is not within reach. The conundrum of lower quality with increased affordably is absurd and a mark of our inability to be a prosperous society. A step to overcoming this is the reduction of waste. If less is wasted, then the cost of production goes down, then prices go down, demand goes up, everybody wins.

Obviously, things are not so simple. This is all stated as if it were a step by step process, but the largest obstacle to a sustainable food system is that all the components must improve or change in tandem with the others. This is not a case of “if we have A, then we get B, and then C.” It is more like, “to get A we must have B, C, and D. But to get any of those we have to have the other three as well.”

A comprehensive strategic plan that includes each of these components; Growing, Selling, Eating, and Recovering Food must be developed before we can expect the system as a whole to shift in any kind of a stable way. Overwhelming? Yes. Impossible? No. We just need to make the decision to do it. And from what we see going on in the City of Austin right now, I think its clear that we’ve made the right choice. So Lettuce Eat Well and build our Sustainable Food System!

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