At environment forum, a call to action for farmers market lovers

by Andrew Travers, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

In recent years, farmers markets have sprouted up and grown in popularity across the U.S., in towns and cities like Aspen, as eating locally-grown fruits and vegetables has widely been deemed an environmentally-responsible way to eat healthful food and support local farmers.

That’s nice and all, agricultural ecologist Jerry Glover said Wednesday at the Aspen Environment Forum, but he urged the millions of farmers market enthusiasts and localvores to go beyond just feel-good food shopping measures.

While that movement has taken hold, he said, industrial farms in America have actually been getting bigger and are causing more harm than ever to the planet — and consumers should take note.

The rising popularity of farmers markets is an opportunity for conservationists to spread the word about global food issues, he argued. And the upper socio-economic standing of American farmers market shoppers can be used to create political will to make farming more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

“We could engage the politically powerful, local food-movement community on those bigger issues — that’s where I think we really need to get to,” Glover said at a morning panel on the Aspen Institute campus.

 Heather Rousseau/Aspen Daily News
National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson gives a photographic presentation from his latest story, “Heirlooms: Saving Mankind’s 10,000 Year Legacy of Food,” during the Aspen Environment Forum on Wednesday.

The farms across America’s croplands, he said, have grown in size and caused what he deemed “incredible rates of erosion” in recent years. He said the soil in the Midwest is in the worst shape it’s been in since the 1950s.

While he was complimentary of the renaissance of small-scale organic food production, and said he supports his hometown farmers market, Glover argued that farmers markets are not part of a meaningful movement toward sustainability in food choices, but more of a fashionable social trend.

“As a food movement, it’s very lifestyle directed,” he said. “We put on our sandals and walk down to the farmers market and say, ‘Hi!’ to our neighbors, so it’s very community based. It’s a great feeling.”

And that may have many social benefits, he argued, but its environmental impact is negligible.

Glover’s comments came during a panel discussion on small-scale farming and sustainability. He is based at the Land Institute in Kansas, and is currently working for the U.S. Agency for International Development on engineering perennial grain crops.

Panelist Andrew Gunther, who made a name for himself overseeing Whole Foods’ animal welfare department, countered that large-scale farms are necessary to meet global food needs. Shrinking our farms isn’t the answer, he argued, and a world of all small farms and neighborhood farmers markets simply couldn’t feed everyone.

“I am not convinced that small farming in the American model of 110 acres and sandals can feed the world,” he said.