Friday, April 24, 2009

Systemic Change and True Organic

I recently read an article on Systemic change. The article was specifically about Education, but could easily apply to changes in our food system as well. It essentially argues that systemic change requires extensive planning, and understanding of the different stages of change. When you know which stage you’re in and which stages lie ahead, it becomes much easier to focus and eventually reach the end goal. The Stages of Systemic Change, by Beverly Anderson is a helpful resource in this process, however the food system is unique and special consideration must be taken at certain stages. These special considerations are articulated by Michael Pollan in the Omnivores dilemma.

1. The first step that is often taken is “maintenance of the Old System.” The food industry has made some initial attempts to make food production more sustainable by using organic fertilizers and pesticides, and creating an organic label to distinguish this food from others which are conventionally grown. When this system was developed people did not understand the complexity of the problem. This is common at this stage. After visiting a large-scale organic operation, Michael Pollan explains the ways that efforts industries made to go organic ended up being worse for the environment:

"This approach, which I discovered is typical of large-scale organic operations, represents a compromise at best. The heavy tillage—heavier than in a conventional field—destroys the tilth of the soil and reduces its biological activity as surely as chemicals would; frequent tilling also releases so much nitrogen into the air that these weed-free organic fields require a lot more nitrogen fertilizer than they otherwise might." Omnivores Dilemma, page 160

2/ While Pollan’s visit to the organic, industrial farm was not as pleasant as one might anticipate, it did inspire him to write and educate others. In fact, many journalists have written about our food as a system that needs to be changed. The number of books and articles and even movies around the topic has skyrocketed in last decade. This has educated the public, but has also been brought to the attention of stakeholders. Although this work is not done, this level of awareness fulfills the 2nd step.

3. Pollans visit also inspire him and others explore possible alternatives. Exploration is the 3rd step in the process of systemic change. This step is when people identify the best practices and the worst practices and really lay out what works and what doesn’t. Pollan for instance, found Joe Salatin, a very innovative ‘grass farmer’ in Virginia that was able to get substantial yields without making any environmental compromises.

4 + 5. The fourth step is to start making the transition from what doesn’t work to what does and the final step is when what works becomes predominant and causes an emergence of new infrastructure. While some small scale changes have been made, there is still some hashing out to do before we upscale and make the same mistakes we did with the industrial sized organic farm.

To make progress from here we need to either redefine organic, or utilize a new such as biodynamic or agroecological, making specifications that cannot be exploited. We also need explore more ways in which a model farms or food distribution systems can be replicated. We are far along in our attempts to change the food system, but these next steps will not happen by themselves. In fact they will potentially require more involvement than any of the other steps.

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