Conversations on Agriculture and Food—an Interview with Expert in Residence Wood Turner

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By Sam Irvine (C21/PA6)

Published 4.29.15

wood-turner

Wood Turner

Wood Turner, BA, MA, is the outgoing Vice President of Sustainability Innovation at Stonyfield Farm, with a long career in both urban planning and applied sustainability. Previously, he was the Executive Director of Climate Counts, Senior Strategist at The Bellwether Group, Editorial Director at GoodThings.com, and a Senior Associate at Springwood Associates (an ecosystem services consulting company). Wood has a BA from Duke University and a Master of Urban Planning from the University of Washington.

Sam:

What started your sustainability career, and what are you doing now?

Wood:

Sustainability has been the focus of my work for over twenty years. I grew up in rural North Carolina and saw examples early in my life of changes in agriculture and changes to the environment as a result of agriculture. In college, I saw the impact of industrial hog farms and was discouraged by the impact those facilities have on estuaries I loved, rivers that I loved and the environment as a whole. So I wanted to get involved with solutions to those kinds of challenges.

I also became focused on the interaction between natural resources, the environment and human needs, and that’s been a focus of my career. I have a deep belief in engaging more consumers and citizens in real conversations about what it means to bring sustainability into life or to build culture around sustainability.

I grew up in a place where conversations about sustainability were not commonplace. I always ask myself: ‘Would I be able to talk about this project in a way that would excite and motivate the people I grew up with?’ If I can’t, I have to wipe the slate clean and try again.

Sam:

At Presidio, we talk about meeting people where they are. You use words like ‘consumer culture’, and having ‘real conversations.’ I know you have done a lot of work with food—does the whole nature of being with people around a dinner table and being around food serve as a starting point for conversations about sustainability?

Wood:

I think some of the best communicators in the world are people who know and love food. The people who run all the food companies I love, all the restaurants I love, and all the grocery stores and markets I love are all incredible communicators and storytellers. They all know how to pull people into conversations they may not have even known they wanted to have. I think there is something powerful about what you just said. I think that food in and of itself lends itself to great conversation.

The problem is we have created a food system over the last 60 years that is focused on being cheap. I would argue that price is more important and has more impact on how people think about food in general. It still shocks me to go into large well-known retailers and see that they are selling the cheapest food possible but also attracting consumers who are willing to spend real money on gadgets, TVs, and technology. So when I hear people say we should be “producing food that is cheap” I think that there is a lot more to it than that.

Farmers markets, dinner tables and markets are great places to have conversations but we need to be having more of them. We really need to focus on a more democratized version of that conversation. It has to be more than just at the cash register at Whole Foods.

I believe more people should have access to organic food, period. I don’t want there to be such an enormous economic barrier in the market place around food that’s healthy for people, and healthy for the environment.

I want more people to feel like it is within the realm of possibility for them to buy that kind of food. So I worry that part of the problem is that organic food has not been produced at a large enough scale to make room in the market for consumers of different economic means to access it. I love the fact that I am working on how to produce great, high quality, organic healthy food at a scale that can actually have some impact on the ability of all people to access it.

For me, having worked in sustainability for a long time, I would like to see more urgency about how we get access to capital to address big challenges. We have not had enough money and resources to put into breakthrough solutions that can actually both delight and engage consumers, solutions that can also add value to communities and reduce the impact on the environment.

Sam:

Do you have a vision for what it means for agriculture to be sustainable?

Wood:

First of all, food has to be safe, and it has to be incredibly high quality, of the highest quality. I want those words to be the things that consumers think about when they think about sustainability. If we are producing food that might otherwise be environmentally sustainable, but it also does not excite the consumer in a way that makes them feel like they are having the best food they can get their hands on, that’s a problem.

On the environmental side, farms have to be extremely focused on soil health. Soil is the foundation of great food, and as an extension of that water is the lifeblood of producing good food. So using water responsibly and building up soil organic matter and measuring those impacts is incredibly important. Using renewable energy on farms and thinking about greenhouse gas emissions on farm operations is also hugely important.

Sam:

As a consumer and student what kind of questions should we be asking when we go to the grocery store? Often with food there are so many different labels, there is “organic”, there is “fair trade” but what should an informed consumer know about if they are concerned about how their food is grown and made?

Wood:

I think it’s the full picture. You have to ask: What’s the mode of production? Was it produced organically? Was it made using water responsibly? Does the food contain genetically modified organisms? These are difficult questions to talk about in a grocery store where people are making decisions about their food quickly. But they are important questions.

I also think it’s really important to think about the role of agriculture in providing real community benefits. How is it contributing to better jobs in communities with agriculture? And what is the value in creating lasting permanent jobs in agriculture? I think these are the kind of issues and questions that people should ask to create radical transparency in agriculture.

Right now the only impediment that exists that is preventing companies from telling these stories is that consumers have not asked the questions enough. I hope that’s changing and I hope that it’s something that people care about. A big chunk of the budget people spend every month and every week goes to food. It’s almost like an investment strategy. Where does that money go? When you go the grocery store you are making an investment decision in the future through the kind of food you choose to eat.

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Sam Irvine (C21/PA6)

Sam Irvine MBA/MPA (C21, PA6) is the Presidio Graduate School Student Blogger. His other works and writings can be found on his blog covering policy, economics and culture at upstreamideas.org

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