Farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry is known to many as the father of the sustainable food movement. He is an outspoken advocate for an agrarian revolution to end industrialized practices that he says are poisoning the land and destroying rural communities. In recent years Berry has promoted a 50-Year Farm Bill, which presents a long-term plan to reduce soil erosion and land pollution by replacing annual crops with perennials. His latest book, Distant Neighbors, chronicles his 40-year correspondence with poet Gary Snyder, and discusses everything from faith and family to the destruction of the environment. Berry stopped by KQED and I had a chance to speak with him about agricultural policy and current trends in the sustainable food movement.

The word “sustainability” has become very promiscuously used these days.

Yes, it’s useless.

Yeah. So I’m curious what you think of that word or how you define it.

Well, we’re stuck with the word “sustainability” because it’s clearly something we have to strive for. But we had better be a little humble about it, because we Americans have not sustained anything for very long. And the stuff that we have sustained, we haven’t done it deliberately until the last few years. So this issue of sustainability requires a lot of careful thought about ways of work and kinds of materials and it’s a conversation that we’ve just begun. The thing that we’re most needing to sustain is the health of the ecosphere, which is a big job. It then divides itself naturally into the need to sustain local ecosystems. The great fact of our time is that while our conversation about sustainability is trying to get started, we’re destroying the health of the local ecosystems.

Buying produce at farmers' markets helps support local economies and build community. (Craig Miller/KQED)
Buying produce at farmers’ markets helps support local economies and build community, according to Berry. (Craig Miller/KQED)

In the past you’ve advocated for a 50-Year Farm Bill to try to address some of these problems.

I’m glad you mentioned the 50-Year Farm Bill, because it makes sense. It is a brief document that has the great virtue of making sense about agriculture itself rather than about food stamps and those peripheral matters (not that I’m against food stamps). But the idea is to reverse the ratio between annual and perennial plants. We now have 20 percent perennial and 80 percent annual, and the proposal is in 50 years to reverse that to 80 percent perennial and 20 percent annual. This involves diminishing the amount of erosion, the toxicity of these fields, and the ongoing destruction of rural communities.

You’ve talked a lot about local economies and local communities. Our world has become so globalized, is it possible to have truly local economies anymore?

There’s some authentic hope in this effort to promote local food, which is succeeding. It’s based on an informed population of customers, it’s based on knowledgeable land use, and it is antithetical to globalization and the global economy.

There are a lot of big corporations now trying to jump onto the sustainable food movement. For example, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have new environmental goals for 2020. What do you make of that?

GMO labeling initiatives by state. States in green have passed GMO labeling laws. States in blue have introduced GMO labeling legislation in the form of bills, resolutions, or ballot measures. States in gray have yet to review GMO labeling. Visit Right to Know GMO for more information. (Liz Roth-Johnson/KQED)
GMO labeling initiatives by state. Blue states have introduced GMO labeling legislation in the form of bills, resolutions, or ballot measures. Gray states have yet to review GMO labeling. Green states have passed GMO labeling laws. Click to enlarge. Source: Right to Know GMO (Liz Roth-Johnson/KQED)

I was raised with a certain prejudice against corporations. And it has become less a prejudice than a case. Jefferson said we shouldn’t trust the government; I don’t think we should trust corporations. I don’t think the conservationists and environmentalists have anything to gain from getting into bed with the corporations. I think the corporations are doing that out of self-interest.

Do you think genetically modified foods should be labeled?

Oh, of course they should be labeled! Genetic modification is just the ultimate so far in the corporate effort to rule the food industry and the agricultural landscapes.

There are also researchers in universities trying to use genetic modification to, say, make crops that will help small farmers in Third World countries. Is there a way we could judiciously use genetic modification?

Photo by Guy Mendes
Photo by Guy Mendes

I would say view it with suspicion. These people [corporations] are not going to do anything, I think, to help small people succeed. They’re going to do it in their own interest. And people who are working in universities from altruistic motives can’t stop their work from being taken over and used and abused by the corporations. I take it all with a grain of salt … more than a grain of salt!

Through all of this, you seem to remain fairly optimistic that we can change the food system. Where does that optimism come from?

Now, I’m not optimistic. I’m hopeful, because I know there are better ways of treating the world. And I know that not just from theory, but from examples, from things I’ve seen, and from things I’ve learned from reading history. It is possible to do better. Some people are doing better now. And that’s not to be argued with.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


Liz Roth-Johnson

Liz Roth-Johnson received her B.A. degrees in Molecular & Cell Biology and Music from UC Berkeley and recently finished her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology at UCLA, where she studied early development in fruit flies. Outside of the lab, Liz co-founded the K-8 science and engineering outreach program BEAM at UCLA and has worked extensively with the public outreach program Science & Food. Liz is delighted to be joining KQED Science as a 2014 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor