Sustainable Food Systems: Challenges of Social Justice and a Call to Sociologists

By Hinrichs, C Clare | Sociological Viewpoints, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Sustainable Food Systems: Challenges of Social Justice and a Call to Sociologists


Hinrichs, C Clare, Sociological Viewpoints


Introduction

We hear a lot these days about sustainability and food systems. But why should sociologists prick up their ears and pay attention? Today I will build the case that there are rich and rewarding possibilities for sociologists to contribute to understanding and advancing more sustainable food systems. But first I will present four quick sketches based on recent national and international news, as well as ongoing circumstances here in Pennsylvania, to illustrate that issues of agriculture and food are ubiquitous, urgent and deserving of our sociological attention.

Sketch #1 involves a situation close to home, perhaps experienced directly by some of you. First, imagine the pleasures of summer gardening, of visiting farmers' markets or belonging to one of the growing number of community supported agriculture (CSA) farms across our state. As a result of any of these experiences, you've eaten a meal featuring juicy, flavorful vine-ripened tomatoes. Such tomatoes epitomize fresh food, healthy vegetables, the pinnacle of summer. Your tomatoes may have had the added culinary cachet of being an heirloom variety or a regional specialty. Yet this past growing season (2009) in the Northeast, in fact, it didn't work out that way for very many tomato lovers. Instead, a sweeping tomato blight devastated the crops of commercial farmers, niche and specialty farmers, and home gardeners alike. The problem arose from a perfect storm of conditions, including an unusually cool, wet spring. But this blighting of tomatoes was not just a random fluke of weather. The blight came from somewhere. Indeed, it has been traced back to tomato starts from a small number of very large nurseries which now supply big box stores like Walmart, Lowe's, and the various supermarket chains, where many of us purchase our tomato plants, because it's convenient and affordable (Moskin 2009). Here's evidence that the most "local" of food, food growing in our backyards, may be connected in taken-for-granted and potentially harmful ways to large-scale, industrialized agriculture.

On the face of it, Sketch #2 is about Pennsylvania. Many of us have observed the growth in direct market outlets such as roadside farmstands, farmers' markets and CSA farms in Pennsylvania. Such markets suggest a small-scale, diversified and very colorful agriculture. But Pennsylvania is actually a significant state in terms of U.S. agricultural production statistics. We're the No. 1 mushroom producing state in the country. We're No. 3 nationally for egg production, and No. 5 for milk production. In apple production, we rank 4th, right after Washington, New York and Michigan.1

However, these patterns of productivity on Pennsylvania's rich farmland have a shadow side. While Pennsylvania agriculture is important for our state's economy, many conventional agricultural practices have environmental costs, locally and in the larger region. Indeed, agriculture is a major source of contamination and harm to the Chesapeake Bay, which is in continuing and serious ecological trouble (Chesapeake Bay Foundation 2008). Lancaster County may be particularly notorious, given the intensity of its agriculture, but that doesn't let other parts of the state "off the hook." Land uses, including farming, surrounding us here in Shippensburg (the site of the 2009 PSS meeting) also matter for the health of the Bay. Run-off from agricultural chemicals, fertilizers, land application of manures and "disturbed" soils course into the Susquehanna drainage and eventually make their way to the Chesapeake Bay, where they burden estuarine habitats and imperil the livelihoods of communities that depend on fishing, tourism and recreation. In this way, individual and collective decisions here in Cumberland County and Franklin County about the chemicals we put on our lawns, or the systems of agriculture we support do matter. The agricultural and food system here affects ecosystems that appear geographically distant, but are biologically and physically connected to our everyday decisions and practices many miles away. …

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