Sustainable solutions

“Nature provides a free lunch, but only if
we control our appetites.”
-William Ruckelshaus (first director of the
US EPA), Business Week, June 18, 1990

Williams College’s newly formed student gardeners association broke ground for the first time April 10, 2010. Under sunny skies, over 40 students overturned shovelfuls of soil and compost and constructed cedar frames. Their efforts should reap great reward. Williams Sustainable Growers hopes that the beautiful raised-bed organic garden, located near Parsons House, will not only produce vegetables such as lettuce, kale and beets throughout the growing season, but also create a starting point for a campuswide conversation about sustainability and agriculture.

One common definition of sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. That definition is imperfect, but should immediately make us question what we really need, whether needs here and elsewhere are being equitably met and whether we’re meeting them in a manner that doesn’t cause harm to generations to come.

The question of what we really need is fundamentally a cultural one. Williams consumes about 30,000 bottles of water in a year – in a town where the public water supply is perfectly safe to drink. The College has more building square feet per person than any of our peer schools. There was a point in Williams history when no buildings were air- conditioned, but our standards of comfort have changed along with our technical ability to control our indoor environments. With every increase in what we consider a need, it becomes more difficult to provide needs equitably for all people currently alive, let alone without doing significant damage to the environment and future generations.

Many “needs” can be debated, but one thing is biologically certain: We all need to eat. What we do eat, however, and how our food is grown and raised can have tremendous environmental and social impacts. Several reports estimate that food production contributes between 15 and 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. During conventional industrial farming, carbon is released from the soil when land is tilled and cultivated, and soil is left vulnerable to erosion. Greenhouse gases are further released during the production of fertilizers and pesticides, and the application of those chemicals has profound negative impacts on water quality, aquatic life and biodiversity. Farm machinery runs on fossil fuels, as do transport trucks, processing and packing plants and distribution warehouses. Large-scale industrial agriculture is also linked to high levels of air and water pollution.

In contrast, local, organic, sustainable farming can greatly reduce those environmental impacts. Trials by the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit that examines sustainable agriculture, demonstrate that organic farming practices can turn cropland into a net carbon sink – rather than a source of carbon emissions – by fixing atmospheric carbon dioxide at higher rates than it’s released. Organic practices also eliminate the negative impacts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Local production not only reduces the environmental consequences of transportation and processing, but also allows end consumers of food to have a connection to the land, animals and people that produced it.

The Williams Sustainable Growers organization strives to promote food sustainability at Williams in collaboration with the ongoing projects of the Zilkha Center’s sustainable food and agriculture program. The sustainable food program works with other groups at Williams to develop, implement and maintain an inspired sustainable food culture at the College and to increase the scope of activities on campus that relate to sustainable food and agriculture. The program aims to advance an understanding that individual and collective dietary choices are critical to combating a breadth of social, economic and environmental problems.

The on-campus garden presents a range of benefits beyond providing nutritious, delicious food. The garden offers broader collaborative opportunities with faculty, staff and the local community. The food grown will be distributed between a number of possible venues such as group meals, work-exchange shares, College dining halls and local food pantries. Through gardening, students become caretakers and have an opportunity to engage in agricultural practices on a small scale, learning about the responsibilities of land cultivation and natural resources stewardship. A campus garden is an educational platform that lends itself to a range of interdisciplinary inquiries around food while also grounding that education in an experiential, hands-on activity.

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