Perspectives on Sustainable Agriculture

by Noel Bielaczyc

On Tuesday, September 11, as part of the university’s ongoing efforts to promote sustainable practices and foster thoughtful dialogue, BU hosted a Sustainable Agriculture Panel at Sargent College. This was the first in a series of lectures & events this fall that highlight the interdisciplinary nature of Gastronomy. The specific aim of this symposium was to discuss the burgeoning topic of sustainable agriculture and to explore current news and future directions, from farmers markets to family meals.

Left to right: Stillman, Black, and LundgrenThe panel comprised a range of food experts: Rachel Black, BU Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Gastronomy, Kate Stillman, Farmer and Proprietor at Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm in Hardwick, MA and Britt Lundgren, Director of Organic and Sustainable Agriculture for Stonyfield Farms. Nathan Phillips, BU Associate Professor of Earth & Environment, provided moderation for the discussion and a viewpoint external to the food world. This variety of perspectives created an interesting dynamic and energetic discourse on what we eat and why.

Questions from the audience helped steer the conversation from the controversy of GMO’s to the US Farm Bill and the carbon footprint of eating local. The panel’s responses to these topics were generally balanced and constructive with each panelist giving a unique response. Lundgren’s comments on politics, policy and economics reflected her experience working within the “big organic” industry, while Stillman contributed a down-to-earth voice from the local food movement. Black represented an independent middle ground in the discussion, bringing up critical questions related to media, culture and concept of taste.

One interesting discussion revolved around a recent Stanford University study that questions the health benefits of eating organic foods compared to conventional foods. There was agreement amongst all panelists on various weaknesses in the research methods used, but Rachel Black made the important point that the study fails to account for both the health of agricultural workers and the environmental impact of commercial farming. While many individuals do eat organic foods purely for personal health reasons, the narrow scope of the Stanford study seems to ignore the broader importance of sustainable agriculture to issues of human rights and ecology.

Following this Kate Stillman presented a spirited argument that simple labeling systems do not necessarily guarantee quality or safety. Since organic fruits and vegetables can be imported from across the globe she believes eating locally grown food is always the freshest, healthiest and most responsible choice. Her first hand experiences as a farmer and market vendor in the Northeast added substance to this point and illustrated the challenge of overcoming consumer’s (sometimes misinformed) perceptions. The complexity of our food system, from issues of production to accessibility, requires critical thinking and flexibility not passivity on the part of eaters.

Overall, the event was excellent food for thought. Refreshments were also served: The organic Greek yogurt was courtesy of Stonyfield and the apples were definitely not from New Zealand. Special thanks to sustainability@BU!

Noel Bielaczyc is an illustrator, fishmonger and cook. It is his first year studying Gastronomy at BU

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