The truth about sustainability - it’s not meant to be easy

by Anne Widjaja

“Sustainability is like teenage sex, everyone says they’re doing it, but in reality, they’re not, and for those that are, they’re certainly not doing it right,” says Lawrence.

As part of the Chefs’ Manifesto Action Hub launch at Omved Gardens, Lawrence Woodward opens his talk about the “truth about sustainability” with a wry smile, somewhat hardened by his 42 years as a leader and adviser in organic farming, and as founder of anti GMO advocacy group Beyond GM

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Taking the first step towards exploring the “steep and thorny path to sustainability” in his talk, Lawrence poses a critical question - ‘it’s difficult not to agree to sustainability...but how many individuals actually understand this concept?” Speaking from his experience with the failed international organic food certification movement, Lawrence is wary of how a contested or misunderstood definition of sustainability could lead to little real action.

So what exactly does sustainability mean?

“Sustainability is not just about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the future. It is not just a political mantra or a marketing tool. It is difficult in practice, because it's not just about measuring carbon, energy use or pollution. It is about health, wellbeing, tradition and culture - its functioning encompasses technology, logistics and social and political cohesion”.

Lawrence applies this definition of sustainability to the concept of ‘quality food’, calling for a broader conception of quality as beyond what food looks or tastes like. Quality needs to be scored on a matrix of ethical, cultural and ecological impacts.

This seems impossible in big cities like London, where food is seen as another category of fast moving consumer goods.  Competition is fierce, margins are slim and unsustainable practices are hidden throughout the supply chain. Free range eggs seem more sustainable than caged eggs - but do we know if the hens are being fed with GMO soy feed sourced from deforested land in Brazil? Plant based diets are meant to reduce our carbon footprint but what if the vegetables we buy from supermarkets are grown out of season in carbon intensive systems - like local greenhouses?

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Interrogating the food supply chain can seem endless in a system where these practices have gone unchallenged for so long. Lawrence is frank in his disapproval of the chefs’ attempts to find quicker, rather than just quick, fixes to the challenges ahead. Instead, Lawrence advocates for a shift to more regional and local based food economies, where reciprocal trade-offs between clearly defined regions can be made to support small scale producers working in harmony with the environment and their communities.

Lawrence’s definition of sustainability has been informed by decades of research and whilst it may not seem practical, this knowledge encompasses a comprehensive view of sustainability. Our Frankenstein food system places productivity rather than sustainability at its core, and current shortcuts only undermine the true complexities that exist in the environments that we are sourcing from.

Sustainability is complex because sustaining the delicate balance of our natural world, and the people that rely on it, should be.