Tom Tomich says global sustainability starts with food

Tomich, who’s an agricultural economist, approaches sustainability by looking at how food is produced – he calls agriculture a “tangible lens” for sustainability issues, because we all eat food.

Tom Tomich is director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at the University of California – Davis. At a fall 2009 meeting of agricultural experts at Columbia University, he talked to EarthSky about how he believes global sustainability begins with food.

Sustainability is about how we’re going to provide basic needs for healthy living for billions of people on the planet now – and then continue doing this into the future for our growing population. Tomich, who’s an agricultural economist, approaches sustainability by looking at how food is produced – he calls agriculture a “tangible lens” for sustainability issues, because we all eat food.

Tomich talked about what it takes to make a slice of the bread you find in the store. It involves fertilizers to grow wheat, cultivating the fields, transporting the wheat, processing it into flour, and distributing it to stores. He said each step takes a lot of energy, or fossil fuels, which drive climate change. That’s a big concern in agriculture today, he said. He also said that agriculture is responsible for 1/3 of the world’s greenhouse gases.

Tomich said our food sustainability challenges are not just environmental, but economic. He added that in terms of percentage of income, Americans spend less on food than anyone on the planet, ever – only 10 dollars out of every 100 dollars earned. But he said even in America, some people don’t have the means to eat well.

Tom Tomich: We still have large numbers of families, large numbers of children who don’t have access to enough healthy food. That’s partly because of poverty, and partly because of the relationship between poverty and communities. For example, whether they have grocery stores in their neighborhoods, whether those grocery stores stock healthy food on their shelves, whether there’s public transportation to get to those grocery stores.

He said hunger is deeply rooted to these social sustainability problems.

Tom Tomich: Here’s a global example – the billion or so people who are not getting enough to eat. They don’t have enough income, or they’re producing enough food to have minimum threshold of a healthy life. For me, it’s clear that is a sustainability challenge as well. In other words, meeting the food needs of our whole planet. It’s not just economics, or the environmental impacts, although those are important – but it’s also about the distribution of food.

Tomich also expressed concern about the amount of food – and consequently, energy – wasted by wasting food.

Tom Tomich: The amazing thing is because we waste so much food we are in essence throwing out that energy and with all of what it means in terms of fossil fuel dependence and greenhouse gas emissions. There are many pieces, and you have to break them down through the whole cycle.

He added that some estimates indicate up to 1/3 of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the food system, including agricultural production and related deforestation.

Lindsay Patterson