AgArts and the Future of Sustainability

by ~

What do we really mean when we label our habits, consumption, and industries as “sustainable?” Generally, we think of the trend towards sustainability as both individuals and businesses taking steps to make less of an impact on our environment, while encouraging an economic system that benefits everyone along the supply chain. When making an effort to lead a more future-friendly lifestyle, our first step may be to ponder how we can make our current economic and environmental systems a little less unsustainable.

And this is a great first step in the process towards making a positive impact on the planet – one that everyone should take the time to seriously reflect upon – but, how can we alter our patterns of behavior to create large-scale, long-term change How can we foster a system where success is measured by the health of our planet and our people, rather than our profit margins? And what does art have to do with it?

These are some of the topics that former TEDxManhattan speaker Fred Kirschenmann covered at his recent appearance at NYU’s Department of English. Hosted by the student group From Farm to Text and AgArts, Kirschenmann spoke about the future of sustainability and how the arts will play a role in shifting attitudes surrounding our role in climate change.

Fred Kirschenmann speaks at TEDxManhattan 2015.

Fred Kirschenmann speaks at TEDxManhattan 2015.

Currently, we are living in the least energy-effective agricultural system in human history – it now takes about ten kilocalories of energy to produce one kilocalorie of food. Comparatively, as hunter-gatherers and at the start of the Neolithic Era, these numbers were reversed. Human desire to dominate and manipulate nature will present too many challenges, even for the next several generations, to continue like this. What needs to happen, says Kirschenmann, is a social revolution driven by a true desire to reconnect with our nature. And it’s coming soon: Resilience Alliance hypothesizes that the world works in adaptive cycles – innovation, conservation, release, and reorganization. The “conservation” phase looks a lot like our current economic and environmental systems, where as a whole, society works to preserve or expand the status quo, but RA argues we are about to enter the “release” phase – or the cultural tipping point- where we will eventually “reorganize” to correct the errors of our past ways.

What is needed is regenerative production system based on these relationships – a system that restores what we use on its own, increase biodiversity, eliminate monoculture crop type agriculture (large farms only growing one type of plant – in the US this is typically soybeans or corn), and restore the health of our soils. Kirschenmann argues that the future global economic system will be broken down into more diverse, self-sustaining bioregions. And this is already happening in some ways – right now, about 40% of all food eaten is produced by farmers working on five or less acres of land. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization named 2015 the “International Year of Soils,” and 2016 as the “International Year of Pulses,” meaning that even the largest political organizations are focusing on crop and soil health as a priority.

Photo by Francesco Tonelli

Photo by Francesco Tonelli

Here, the arts intersect with science and politics in a very significant way. The purchases we make, the politicians we vote for, and even our most seemingly minute behaviors – are driven by our emotions. The arts will play a critical role in the future of our planet because they help motivate the moral, philosophical, and emotional evolutions inside of us that translate to tangible, real world actions. This Spring, as the snow melts and we are reminded of the beauty of our plants, consider looking for some inspiration from some of Fred Kirschenmann’s recommendations, mentioned during his discussion at NYU:


Fred Kirschenmann is the President of the Stone Barns Center For Food and Agriculture in Pontanico Hills, New York. He is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center and a professor in the Iowa State University Department of Religion and and Philosophy. Previously, he has belonged to the USDA’s National Organics Standards Board and the National Commision on Industrial Farm Animal Production at Johns Hopkins University. He is a recipient of the One World Award for Lifetime Achievement, the James F. Beard Foundation Leadership Awards, and Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award. In addition, he is the author of Cultivating an Ecological Conscience the manager of his family’s 1,800 acre farm in North Dakota.
Kelly Mertz is the Program Assistant at Change Food. She earned her undergraduate degree in International Studies and French Language from American University, where she focused on International Development in Latin America and the Caribbean. She is fascinated by public nutritional health campaigns and the politics of food aid.

Change Food® works toward a healthier food system for people, animals & the planet.  Learn more about Plant Eat Share – planting food in public spaces. For free.