Getting a handle on sustainability: It’s the ecosystem (stupid)

Caption: Monterey Bay Aquarium visitors watch a small bluefin tuna (center). If world overfishing of this top predator doesn’t slow soon, aquariums may be the only places to see one.

The word “sustainability” came up a lot at the Sustainable Food Institute portion of the Cooking for Solutions 2008 shindig held last week at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. And when I say a lot, I mean practically each minute. Every non-media person’s business card had the S-word printed on it. Its noun and adjectival forms were invoked so often that at one point I daydreamed about creating a drinking game around it. (“Drink yourself under the sustainable table!”) Eventually I simply ceased to hear it, like a beeping smoke alarm.

But thanks to six incredibly substantive panel discussions, several solo speakers, and all the informal conversations that occurred in front of the aquarium’s mesmerizing aquatic tanks, I have a new respect for — and new ways of thinking about — what might otherwise seem like a hollowed-out, meaningless abstraction.

Sustainability — we know it when we see it. Sorta.

At the initial reception Wednesday night for media and speakers, I was telling a couple of folks why I’d decided to come. “Well, I understand what ‘sustainable’ means when it comes to agriculture, but I need to learn more about the issues in seafood,” I said breezily, waving my second (or third) glass of Bonterra Cabernet as punctuation.

The gentleman standing across from me, with a neatly trimmed beard and a nametag reading Tom Tomich, raised an eyebrow. “Really, you do? So what does it mean for agriculture?”

I laughed. I was so busted, and everyone knew it. I stammered something about inputs and outputs being part of the same system, about agricultural practices that augment rather than deplete the land and community on which they depend. (There are a million definitions for sustainability out there, and most of them are equally lame.) Tomich, who turns out to be an agricultural economist and the director of UC Davis’s Agricultural Sustainability Institute, smiled politely.

And then Fred Kirschenmann walked by. (That’s him at right.) An organic farmer in Windsor, North Dakota and a Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, Kirschenmann is a giant in sustainable-ag circles. If anyone could define this nebulous term, which some thinkers have argued is in danger of being watered down to the point where it “will soon possess all the conceptual force of a word like ‘natural’ or ‘green’ or ‘nice,’” surely it was him.

He didn’t disappoint: “It’s the ability of an ecosystem to renew itself.”

Of course — it seems so simple, put that way. “But over what time frame?” I asked. “And how do we codify that?”

“Well, those are the big questions,” Kirschenmann said. “Not just what time frame, but whose? And maybe we need to think about sustainability as a value, not unlike ‘justice’ or ‘fairness,’ that we don’t constrain with a list of do’s and don’ts.”

Tomich excused himself (“Fred and I have this conversation almost daily”), while the others fled for more wine. Kirschenmann and I — OK, mostly him — talked about industrialization and the birth of consumerism, and how the latter had helped launch the most recent period of unsustainability in agriculture. I wondered aloud, cynically, whether if in fact sustainability was a moral value like justice, perhaps it was one that humans were genetically missing, given our parasitical history as a species. Was there any ecosystem we had left in better shape than we had found it?

All species can become parasites in isolation, Kirschenmann pointed out. In nature’s healthy ecosystems, there are checks and balances that keep any one species from wrecking it for the rest. Our job is to help restore that balance, to allow nature to correct itself.

Sustainable means more than using recycled paper for packaged crap

Sustainability, that mouthful of Latinate syllables, comes into better focus knowing how it germinated. The etymological root of “sustain,” to strengthen or support physically, is the Latin sustinere, “to hold up, support, endure.” (Incidentally, “sustenance,” which has been used to mean the “action of sustaining life by food” since the Middle Ages, shares the same root. Which means that the phrase “sustainable food” is technically redundant. But that’s a Bill Safire column, not an Ethicurean one.)

I kept thinking of Kirschenmann’s definition throughout Thursday’s sessions. They kicked off with the keynote “In Search of Sustainability,” by Gene Kahn, the general sustainability officer (see!) for General Mills, which bought his organic-food company Cascadian Farm in 2000. Kahn spent most of his talk on what General Mills is doing in the way of sustainability (opposing genetically modified beets, helping women farmers in Africa), which he believes is a moving target — that there is no such thing as “sustainable,” only “more” or “less” versions of it. While individual consumer actions are important, he argued, it is every bit as essential, if not more, to get the big multinational corporations on board the sustainability bandwagon. “A 1% change in Cargill changes the world,” he pointed out. “Niches are great, but we have to mainstream this. We don’t have enough time to do this through niches.”

Kahn acknowledged that Big Food companies like his and major retailers are more than happy to slap the movement’s buzzwords on their products without changing their business practices. He directed the audience to read “The Six Sins of Greenwashing,” a report by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing that examined the marketing claims of 1,000+ “green” products in big-box stores and distilled their meaninglessness into six pithy vices. Kahn also noted that the Federal Trade Commission is in the middle of updating its Green Guides to govern how new phrases such as “carbon neutral” can be used in product marketing.

“The best thing you can do is read and educate yourself to understand what sustainability means,” he concluded. (Good luck with that, I thought.)

Sustainability goes beyond strengthening individual links in the food chain

“Sustainability may not mean having your cake and eating it too. You may have to share it, and you may have to buy a different flavor,” said Corey Peet, an aquacultural research manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in a lively panel discussion about dealing with insatiable consumer demand for shrimp, salmon, and tuna.

Given the session’s declared topic, and its participants — in addition to Peet, they were Rick Moonen, chef of rm Seafood in las Vegas; Brad Ack, regional director of the Marine Stewardship Council; and Paul Johnson, owner of the Monterey Fish Market — it’s not surprising that the debate centered on specific species and the pros and cons of their wild harvesting or farmed production. Friend o’Ethicurean Sam Fromartz has a detailed summary of what they said about eating the “big three” fish on his blog, Chew Wise; additional information was included in Marc’s review here of “Bottomfeeder” a few weeks back, so no need to repeat it.

An audience member with a seafood-industry trade publication protested the “unrelentingly negative” picture of aquaculture painted by the panel. People are not going to stop eating shrimp and salmon, he said, and “if we’re going to talk about continuous improvement,” as Kahn had, that has to apply to the farmed seafood industry as well. Wal-Mart, for example, sells only shrimp that has been certified by the Global Aquaculture Alliance to be free of pesticides and antibiotics, he pointed out.

The heretofore affable Peet turned sharp. “I apologize if the tone is unrelentingly negative. But the situation is serious,” he said. The negative environmental impacts of farmed salmon and shrimp are real and documented by scientific literature, and “until they are adequately acknowledged by industry, we can’t talk about continuous improvement.” The Global Aquaculture Alliance, an industry self-certification program, “is not the equivalent to the Marine Stewardship Council. [GAA's] first goal is economic sustainability, not environmental,” he added.

Bob Scowcroft, the cofounder and director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, commented that discussion of both agriculture and aquaculture seems to stop at opposite sides of the waveline. How do we bring land-farmers together with ocean farmers and fishermen? he asked.

By acknowledging it absolutely doesn’t stop there, answered Paul Johnson. Land-based agricultural methods affect streams and rivers that flow into the oceans, as witnessed by the massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from nitrogen runoff carried down the Mississippi. We also need to understand that seafood farmed in the open ocean greatly affects wild fisheries — not only from a disease and pollution standpoint, but from a feed supply-demand imbalance. “We’re sacrificing the bottom of the food web to produce these carnivorous fish,” Johnson mourned. It takes 2 to 8 pounds of wild small fish to produce 1 pound of farmed salmon. For tuna, the ratio is 25:1.

Sustainability depends on massive, real measures to address climate change

Systems, not species — that’s what the scientists at the conference said when it was their turn. Following an extremely sobering keynote by Cornell plant ecologist David Wolfe on climate change and the implications for food systems and farming (which I hope to post on separately), three experts from academia, including Tomich, discussed the future of food in an ever-warming global environment. Bottom line: If we don’t manage to slow our carbon emissions globally, “sustainability” may become a goal like “world peace” — something we long for but toward which we can make only incremental steps.

Particularly when it comes to climate change and the oceans, the scientific community would like to move beyond the discussion of individual species and consider impacts at the ecosystem level, said David Conover, a professor of marine science at SUNY-Stony Brook. The 2003 work of the Pew Commission on oceans, he explained, had shown that trying to look at sustainability species by species, as if they existed independently, was fraught with failure.

“I hope in future years we’ll talk about whether a fish has been harvested from a sustainable ecosystem — that anything from the Gulf of Maine, say, could be considered OK,” Conover said.

“Climate change is a major constraint on our ability to produce a sustainable food system,” added Chris Field, director of the Carnegie Institution’s department of global ecology. “It’s a vise that’s squeezing down our options to create a sustainable food system, and most solutions are like sticking straws in that vise.”

For example, we know the deadly effects of acid rain on land-based fauna, but no one ever dreamed we would have to worry about acidification in oceans. Yet higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere result in higher CO2 levels in the water, too, which converts to carbonic acid, which makes for greater acidity, explained Conover. That acidity is deadly to shellfish and corals, which of course affects the species that depend on them as well.

Which does sort of make whether your tuna is yellowfin or line-caught seem a little less relevant.

Sustainability is about the process, not an end product

“It’s all about systems. You can’t get clean seafood out of a dirty ocean,” said Stephen Palumbi, who had the unenviable task of addressing a very fatigued audience for the closing session of a very long day.

A marine ecologist and the Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation at Stanford University, Palumbi was more than up to the challenge. He woke us all up by offering us a shining example of intentional systems renewal that we could see all around us outside the aquarium: Monterey Bay (below).

The story of this stretch of California coast is one of “serial depletion,” he reminded us, and today’s jewel of clean air and water was an industrial hellhole as recently as 50 years ago. In 1800, sea otter pelts were worth $30 in Canton, China, while a house in San Diego cost $90. As a result, humans stripped the sea otters from California coast, then the whales and the abalones. Meanwhile, the canneries — the aquarium is on Cannery Row — were spewing sludge nonstop into the water and stench into the air. When they collapsed, they left the Monterey economy in ruins and the coastline too, along with a lot of abandoned buildings.

In some of Monterey’s darkest hours, a few folks realized they had to move fast to protect systems from total collapse, said Palumbi. Among them was Julia Platt, a zoologist and outspoken civic activist who was elected mayor of nearby Pacific Grove in 1932 at the age of 74. Platt managed to get a marine reserve established right next to the biggest stretch of canneries on the West coast. And ecosystems slowly started to reform around these protected areas: kelp forests came back, as did sea otters.

Caption: The reserve right next to the aquarium, where you can watch sea lions, seals, and the occasional otter lounging on the sand.

Then around 25 years ago, Palumbi continued, “when the ecosystem was beginning to get big enough to eat it again, some thought maybe we shouldn’t eat it, but instead educate, entertain, and amaze people with it.” Thus was born the Monterey Bay Aquarium, famous for its extensive research, ocean conservation work, and public-education campaigns, on the site of an old sardine cannery.

Maybe humankind is not destined only to deplete and destroy, as I had despairingly complained to Kirschenmann in that first conversation. Maybe we can actually clean up after ourselves. It is a cheering thought.

Sustainability is all or nothing

The next morning we got to hear several more such heartening stories, at a breakfast session introduced by Kirschenmann. He started by invoking his own hero, the American ecologist and farmer Aldo Leopold, who said, “We are not the conquerors of the land community, we are simply plain members and citizens.” Efforts to define, confine, and standardize sustainability are really contrary to what sustainability is about, Kirschenmann argued. Instead we have to find our larger place within the land community, and the sea, in ways that enhance rather than deplete: “Either it’s all healthy, or none of it’s healthy.”

We can find our way to that larger place by developing what Kirschenmann called an ecological conscience, and by learning new stories — new ways that people are helping the ecosystem closest to them renew itself.

He then turned over the mic to Dan O’Brien, author of “Buffalo for the Broken Heart,” who raises buffalo on the Great Plains for his own Wild Idea Buffalo Company as well as in partnership with several Native American reservations. I hope to share O’Brien and his wife’s inspiring story, along with that of their fellow speakers Marcus Benedetti of Clover Stornetta Dairy and Michel Nischan, chef at Westchester’s Dressing Room (aka Paul Newman’s restaurant) and president of the Wholesome Wave Foundation, in a series of much shorter future posts.

Because — sadly for Web readers — it’s hard to be succinct about sustainability. Unless you’re Fred Kirschenmann.

8 Responsesto “Getting a handle on sustainability: It’s the ecosystem (stupid)”

  1. Ed Bruske says:

    Great post, Bonnie. I was invited to this conference and wasn’t able to go. Now I feel that I’ve been. “Sustainability” comes up a lot in gardening universe as well with equally fluid definitions and expecatations.

  2. Ian Lewis says:

    Nice post.

    But, I was really struck by one thing you said,

    <em>…given our parasitical history as a species. Was there any ecosystem we had left in better shape than we had found it?</em>

    I will answer that with these questions: What did Europe look like in 1100? What did it look like in 1800?

    Iceland? Japan?

    In other words, sometimes we use resources wisely, other times, not so much. The difference between the two is the more interesting question.

    I’m always horrified at how close to the brink seafood stocks can be pushed, and how much collateral damage can be done in catching food animals from the ocean, before people start thinking that maybe things have to change. I wonder if it’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing, because it seems like it never gets quite as bad with land animal farming.
    Which means that the phrase “sustainable food” is technically redundant.
    *flashes Grammar Police badge* Actually, it’s not redundant. Sustenance is something that sustains people. When you talk about sustainable food, you’re talking about food production that can go on for a long time without being too destructive or resource-intensive. The verb is not being applied to the same subject. ;)

  4. policyhog says:

    Kahn is right about “sustainability” being a quantitative variable (has a scaled range, from less to more) and not a qualitative one (is either on or off).  That’s why the drive to establish “certified sustainable” for marketing purposes is a pointless exercise.  We are a long long way from certainty about how to push things much into the “more sustainable” end of things.  The energy spent on  arguing about “sustainable” as a label should be put into working on how to do a planet’s worth more of it.

    Brilliant post Bonnie, was wishing I had been there too but got more clarity by your eyes and ears.  Thanks.

  5. Mark Powell says:

    What do you make of the exchange on unrelentingly negative views of aquaculture from the panel?  Are they being too harsh?  Is it soapbox shouting that won’t change anything when they say all farmed products are seriously bad and industry is in denial? 

  6. Bonnie P. says:

    @Mark: They didn’t say all farmed products were bad. Sam has more of the nuances in his post, but the panel did call out good examples of aquaculture: land-based ones that raise noncarnivorous, low-on-the-food-chain fish such as tilapia and catfish, and that use RAS (recirculating aquatic systems). They also spoke approvingly of shellfish farming and a company called Kona Kampachi that does open-ocean aquaculture. It was salmon and shrimp farming that came in for the most harshness for their environmental consequences, and their criticism doesn’t seem unjustified. They are the equivalent of beef and hog CAFOs on land, and I think it’s just as important that people learn that we need to avoid supporting such ventures, and seek out the more ethical alternatives that exist. In the case of salmon and shrimp, the panel recommended wild salmon of lesser-known varieties such as coho, sockeye, and chum; and buying U.S. shrimp (even though it costs twice as much), because while it still has its drawbacks, the industry is far more tightly regulated and less damaging than Asian operations that are destroying mangrove swamps and polluting fishing villages. As with beef and pork — we Americans need to eat less of the problematic stuff. We simply don’t need as much protein as we consume, Atkins be damned. 

    @Policyhog: A qualitative variable rather than a quantitative one is a great way of putting it. Thanks!

    @Indefatigable: You’re right. [Sheepish] 

    @Ian: Again, it depends on how you look at the time frame. Sure, we’ve cleaned up our act somewhat since the Middle Ages, but I would argue we did far much less damage back then — what’s a little sewage pollution compared with DDT — than we have since the dawn of the Industrial age.  

    @Ed: thanks — it was hard to write, and I know it’s too long, but I needed to do it for myself.

  7. peter j pahk says:

    you nailed all the large issues of “the best conference ” of its kind.. mainstreaming and greenwashing, weeds and water.. who would have thunk? i love the “let’s get together and look for solutions” philosophy of corey and the positive approach to sustainable aquaculture… great job bonnie! i wanna be an ethicurean!

  8. Thank you for writing this.  We’re going to post a link to it, in the hope that it will come before a few more eyes.