These are dark days for the environmental movement. A year after being on the cusp of passing landmark legislation to cap greenhouse gases, greens are coming to accept the fact that the chance of national and international action on climate change has become more remote than ever. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is under attack by newly empowered Republicans in Congress who argue that the very idea of environmental protection is unaffordable for our debt-ridden country. Accustomed to remaining optimistic in the face of long odds, the environmental movement all at once faces a challenge just to stay relevant in a hostile political climate. In 2004, authors Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus faced a harsh backlash from the greens when they released a polemic essay called "The Death of Environmentalism," but now it appears they might have been ahead of their time.
Even as traditional environmentalism struggles, another movement is rising in its place, aligning consumers, producers, the media and even politicians. It's the food movement, and if it continues to grow it may be able to create just the sort of political and social transformation that environmentalists have failed to achieve in recent years. That would mean not only changing the way Americans eat and the way they farm away from industrialized, cheap calories and toward more organic, small-scale production, with plenty of fruits and vegetables but also altering the way we work and relate to one another. To its most ardent adherents, the food movement isn't just about reform it's about revolution.
What makes the food movement so unusual is that it's not a single national movement at all, it's a series of organized smaller mobilizations which is both an asset and a liability. A sustainable-food conference I attended in Manhattan over the weekend, put on under the TED imprimatur, shows the striking diversity of the movement(s). Laurie David, the Hollywood environmentalist and co-producer of the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, explained how regular family dinners improve not just eating habits but also classroom grades and good behavior. Cheryl Rogowski, an organic farmer in New York's Hudson Valley, talked about the challenges and rewards of producing for the local food market. Dr. Scott Kahan, an obesity expert at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, spoke about the role that mass advertising plays in promoting unhealthy foods for kids. Britta Riley, a New York Citybased artist, talked about window farming in the city and the growth of DIY urban agriculture. That's the food movement today: farming and eating and health and policy and business, all jostling for position and influence, but increasingly finding a common cause.
What's amazing is how quickly the food movement has become a measurable force in American society. Environmentalism can trace its origins to the Sierra Club founder John Muir pushing for the establishment of America's first national parks in 1899, but until recently, food wasn't really on the radar for progressives, beyond the mission of coping with world hunger. It wasn't until the food-safety scandals of the 1980s and '90s followed by the publication of exposés like Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and the growing threat of obesity that Americans really started paying attention to what they were eating. Some of them weren't very happy with it and they wanted a change.
They're making one. There are now thousands of community-supported agriculture programs around the country, up from just two in 1986. There are more than 6,000 farmers' markets, up 16% from just a year ago. Sales of organic food and beverages hit nearly $25 billion in 2009, up from $1 billion in 1990, and no less a corporate behemoth than Walmart has muscled into the organic industry, seeking out sustainable suppliers. Green chefs like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., have become national superstars, and local sourcing has become a must for hip restaurants in Brooklyn, Berkeley and in between. First Lady Michelle Obama she of the organic White House garden has decided to make childhood obesity her signature issue, and she's done so by pushing the food industry to provide healthier fruits and vegetables over cheap processed options. Even the Department of Agriculture usually a staunch ally of mainstream farming and the distributor each year of billions in often wasteful agricultural subsidies has gotten into the sustainability game with its "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program, which connects consumers with local producers.
Why has the food movement sprouted so rapidly, even as traditional environmentalism has stalled? Simple: it's about pleasure. Before the political games, before worries about dead zones and manure lagoons, before concerns about obesity and trans fat, the food movement arose around a simple principle: food should taste better. Like their environmental brethren, foodies could be accused of trying to force people to eat their vegetables but these vegetables are more than metaphorical: they are from a local organic farm and they're sautéed to perfection. The food movement has also directly jacked into that other great American obsession health in a way that distant concerns about climate change have largely failed to do. And there's the simple fact that food is present in our lives in a way that endangered species or deforestation or Arctic melting simply aren't. We buy food, we cook food (though less and less frequently) and three times a day, we eat food occasionally while watching cooking shows.
The challenge for the food movement will come as it matures and begins to take on established political interests. Even with all the growth and all the glossy magazine covers, sustainable food still makes up only a tiny portion of the overall American food system. Perhaps 1% of total U.S. cropland is farmed organically, and organic food and beverages still command less than 4% of the national market, even after years of growth. Slow Food USA one of the most dynamic of the new food-movement groups has perhaps 20,000 members nationwide, while the Sierra Club has more than 1.3 million. As foodies go from promoting the perfect heirloom tomato to tackling the country's entrenched agricultural practices, they'll need a new level of commitment, organization and energy. That challenge will only be tougher if the food movement is somehow seen as competing with environmentalism.
But here's the good news the two sides aren't really competing. As the food movement matures and grows, it could end up being the best vehicle available for achieving environmental goals. The industrialized way we farm today damages our land, our water and our climate. Reforming agriculture and promoting sustainability won't just help us get better and healthier food; it will also fight greenhouse-gas emissions and water pollution. The food movement has been criticized as elitist, but that reputation belies recent efforts to get low-cost fruits and vegetables to urban poor who suffer disproportionately from obesity and diabetes.
Environmentalists once thought that the only way to create lasting change in the U.S. and the rest of the world was by controlling our carbon emissions. Not quite. As Brian Halweil, a leading thinker on sustainable food, put it in Saturday's TED conference, "If the environmental movement is dead, then I say, 'Long live the food movement.'" Environmental and social changes are coming and they will be served up on our dinner plates.