The Food Literacy Project will be featuring reflections, photographs, projects, and papers that Harvard students have completed, related to the theme of food. Please get in contact if you’ve completed a food-related project; we’d love to feature your work.
Our first reflection is by Hannah Borowsky, ’15.
This last semester, Professor Sheila Jasanoff gave students in her Environmental Politics Class (ESPP 78) the opportunity to pursue a project in an area of interest, using the themes of the class to conduct original research. A foodie till the end, I jumped at the chance to complete a project related to the food system. My partner and I got excited about the idea of designing our project around Harvard’s food supply chain. We wanted to incorporate student dining hall goers, HUDS administrators, and farmers who supply HUDS into our project.
The topic of our research came to us when we remembered a recent study out of Stanford that has shaken up the food world a bit this fall. The study failed to find evidence that organic food products are more nutritious than their conventionally produced counterparts (although it did find that organics contained significantly less pesticide residues). The study has been touted by organic nay-sayers as proof that the organic label is a scam. In light of uncertainty in the scientific world as to the benefits of organic, we wanted to see what the key players along Harvard’s food supply chain thought and how their perceptions and demand for organics aligned.
Our research involved conducting semi-structured interviews with students, HUDS administrators, and farmers. Ultimately, we titled our project “Food [Un]Inc.orporated” to reflect the diverse array of ideas we heard in interviews about the organic label and the misalignment in interests and views between players.
I learned a great deal in conducting this project related to the themes of the course. However, beyond that, the project was impactful to me as someone who hopes to make meaningful contributions to the food movement. Especially interesting for me, was talking to Jim Ward of Ward’s Berry Farm. Located less than 30 miles from Harvard Yard, Ward is in large part responsible for the plentiful array of different squashes served in the dining halls. The farm is run by the Ward brothers Jim and Bob, who started planting blueberries years ago with their father on some land he bought before passing away. The Wards sell all of their produce locally with a stated market philosophy of “keep the chain of distribution short and fast.”
Jim Ward was happy to talk with me about organic food production, and he reflected positively on organic as a “general philosophy that resounds with being able to keep your soil healthy.” However, it was clear that the Wards did not need the organic label to be stewards of the land. The great majority of their fields are not organically certified, but rather are grown using Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which Ward explained as a commitment to gathering data about pests and choosing methods of control that are least environmentally damaging. Further, Ward noted how over the past years they have begun incorporating organic methods to improve soil health into their IPM fields. A committed steward of the land, Ward has no desire to expand his organic fields, responding to a question about what he thinks consumers value in the organic label by saying, “I don’t know. I’m confused a little… I wonder. I really don’t know.”
As I reflected on the interview, I could not help but question the organic ideology I had come to possess ever since I jumped onto the food movement bandwagon. With Ward’s Berry Farm, I had before me a good example of how using indicators to set norms necessarily includes some knowledge while excluding other knowledge. In this case, the organic label as an indicator for sustainability was ignoring the knowledge of a small farmer who had developed methods outside of the organic certification, which were arguably no less sustainable.
I knew as I hung up the phone with Jim Ward that Ward’s Berry Farm represented a central piece of the type of food system I wanted to help build. Further, we had heard overwhelming excitement about local foods in the dining halls from students in interviews, as well as seen numerous signs in the dining halls advertising HUDS’ commitment to supporting local Massachusetts farms. Jim Ward was something students and dining services wanted. He was not “big food,” but he wasn’t organic either.
It was then that I realized the failure of the organic label to challenge underlying assumptions about how we produce and consume food. The organic label is a technical solution to a much bigger problem about who controls the food system, a critique Shellenberger and Nordhaus have levied against the environmental movement’s approach to solving all environmental problems. In the case of organic, instead of asking why do we let a very small handful of gigantic companies produce all of our food without being held accountable for the way they effect our health, our communities, and our planet, we turn to a certification that permits one chemical (naturally derived) over another. I am not saying that I don’t prefer organic food products, but by clinging to organic as an ideology, we might miss opportunities to support small farmers like Ward who are equally committed to sustainability and who we need in our coalition if we are ever to achieve the fundamental change our food system desperately needs.