Where do my ideas about sustainable agriculture come from?

By Rina Tanaka

I once heard that most of the food we eat travel more than 1500 miles before making its way to our table. That uses a massive amount of energy. As one farmer pointed out to us, what we really need to do in order to fix many of the current agricultural issues (including delocalization and high energy use) is to change the whole system, or change people’s mindsets. People, myself included, might need to question the assumption that the entire globe is at our disposal when choosing what to eat – should we really be eating avocados grown miles away from home?

But how do we change people’s mind? How can we get people to care about sustainable agriculture enough to change their lifestyle choices?

As I pondered these questions, I eventually arrived at “why do I care about sustainable agriculture?” The rest of this blog will try to answer this question (which may only half succeed) by looking at where I’m coming from and end with some of my reflections.

Oddly enough, my unofficial encounter with the concept of “sustainability” happened when I was running in high school. I joined my school’s track team when I was a freshman. As a new member, I was desperate to catch up with all of the other teammates who were much faster than me. I suppose I also wanted to prove myself too. I wanted to be able to run faster, and I wanted to see the results quickly. So I embarked on a crazy training regimen the summer of my sophomore year.

Did I get faster? Yes, but long story short, by the end of that summer, I was ill. I had pushed myself too hard without acknowledging the complaints from my own body; my body was suffering from the lack of nutrition intake and rest.

Part of my path to restoring my health was running less and getting more rest (obviously) and eating more carefully (because our bodies are made of what we eat, right??), but it was also about reassessing the unsustainable mindset that I had had: seeking a drastic growth in a short amount of time and undermining health. I realized just how important it is to take care of my body – listening to its needs and remembering that it has limits.

Because of such experience, I think I was – in some sense – ready to resonate with the some of the ideas surrounding sustainable agriculture when I officially learned about it in college. Developing sustainability on farms seemed a lot like developing a healthy body to run sustainably. Just as a healthy soil could repel pests without huge help from pesticides, a strong body could minimize the risk of injuries. Making the land do what you want it to do by spoon-feeding tons of chemicals didn’t seem sustainable, just because such a short-sighted mindset didn’t work for me as a runner.

As you may have noticed, many of the ideas about what I think is sustainable in terms of agriculture come from my running experience. Indeed, so long as what I heard from farmers or read online about sustainable agriculture was compatible with my definition of sustainability (in terms of running), I didn’t question it. And already, I’m starting to see problems with this because my current ideas about what’s sustainable are not really backed up with any understanding of the economy or food insecurity. Perhaps I don’t need much else than my half-baked ideas about sustainability and fantasies about connecting with the land to convince myself that I need to support sustainable agriculture on a personal scale. However, to promote sustainable agriculture on a wider scale, I need much more.

Through the HoH program, I hope I can recognize my biases regarding sustainable agriculture and reconsider the question – what does sustainable agriculture look like? – with considerations about the economy and food access issues.

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