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Environmental program explores sustainable agriculture

Elon’s 11th Annual Fall Environmental Forum featured experts who study & promote safe and healthy local food production.

"It takes incredible intelligence to grow food. If you’re dumb, you starve," said Norman Wirzba of Duke University during the 11th Annual Elon University Fall Environmental Forum.


Sustainable agriculture took center stage Sept. 20-21 during the 11th annual Elon University Fall Environmental Forum presented by the Elon University Center for Environmental Studies.

Dozens of students, farmers, faculty and policy makers from around the region filled McKinnon Hall on Friday for remarks from leading scholars and activists on the importance of locally grown food and ongoing technological innovations that make a shift away from “industrial agriculture” a stronger proposition in the years ahead.

The conference addressed the expansion of the homegrown sustainable agriculture industry, opportunities for production and networking methods for making food accessible to consumers while economically successful for owners.

Norman Wirzba, a research professor of theology, ecology and rural life at Duke University opened the Friday component of the program, arguing that sustainable agriculture requires thought about soil conditions, animal use, chemical use, fossil fuels and the treatment of the men and women who toil in fields to keep prices as low as they are today.

“How many of you have spent the whole day in the sun picking strawberries? How many of you would do it for next to nothing?” Wirzba said. “So when you go into a grocery store and you see those really big strawberries, and they’re perfect, and they’re red and juicy and cheap? You know how you’re getting them? Somebody was paid next to nothing to pick them.

“We are the most food ignorant generation of people the world has ever known, living in a totally new situation where most of the world lives in big cities with no connection to agriculture.”

Kevin Bell, the GIS coordinator for Salt Lake City, spoke of efforts in his city to promote sustainable agriculture.

It takes lots of knowledge to grow your own food, Wirzba added. Dealing with soil conditions, drought, insects and animals in a safe, environmentally friendly manner is challenging.

“When you’re in a garden, you learn a lot about how ignorant you are, about how you’re in a world of incredible complexity. It takes incredible intelligence to grow food. If you’re dumb, you starve,” Wirzba said. “We don’t have the power to make things grow. To go into a garden means you do all the work you can, and whatever life, whatever fruit you have, that’s all the food you have.”

Wirzba was followed on Friday by Kevin Bell, the GIS coordinator for Salt Lake City. Bell leads a comprehensive approach to “making the city the most livable, sustainable community in the United States.” He demonstrated for forum participants web application tools either available or currently in production for estimating food production potential for their properties and the solar potential of every available surface in the city.

Bell made similar observations as Wirzba about the challenges of growing your own food. He and his wife have cultivated their property to produce ample food supplies throughout the year, though it’s not without physical exertion.

“We don’t need to get gym passes, we feel really good, and right now our evenings mean opening a bottle of wine, going to weed the garden and watching the sun go down,” he said as he described area residents who visit their home to learn about their garden efforts. “You can have a little 10-by-10-foot garden and have so much food come out of it that you don’t know what to do with it.”

The environmental forum was co-sponsored this year by the Center for Environmental Studies, the Piedmont Triad Regional Council, the Piedmont Conservation Council, the NC Cooperative Extension-Rockingham County, Healthy Alamance, LocallyGrownNews.com, Guilford County Soil and Water, Elon University Campus Kitchen and the Elon University Office of Sustainability.

Eric Townsend,
9/21/2012 4:01 PM