Sustain Everyone

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Empowering Youth to Grow Food: Teens for Food Justice — April 15, 2018

Empowering Youth to Grow Food: Teens for Food Justice

I’m humbled to be volunteering as a mentor to teens at Clinton DeWitt High School in the Bronx with a non-profit organization called Teens for Food Justice (TFFJ). The mission of TFFJ is to create a realistic solution to food insecurity, or lack of access to healthy and nutritious food, by empowering youth to build and maintain sustainable food systems in their community.

IMG_0680 Lettuce growing at Dewitt Clinton High School in Bronx, NYC. @matt_horgan

TFFJ leads a team to train students in Title I schools in the unique craft of urban farming through the “building and maintaining of indoor farms that yield more than 22, 000 lbs. of fresh produce annually at each location” in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx (http://www.teensforfoodjustice.org/).

IMG_0681 Cucumbers and a variety of leafy greens and herbs growing hydroponically by students at Dewitt Clinton High School in Bronx, NYC. @matt_horgan

Additionally, these youth-run urban farms are feeding students nutritious and fresh meals in their cafeteria, as well as increasing the food security of the area by distributing fresh produce people in the surrounding local community. There is also a focus on teaching students about advocating for policy on the local, state, and federal levels of government to ensure that funding and other resources are given to increase people’s access to healthy food options.

IMG_0685 @matt_horgan

Moreover, the mentorship program I am participating in has been really rewarding. I help facilitate a wide range of activities aimed at teaching the students about creating and sustaining hydroponic systems, advocating for food justice in the policy setting, cooking healthy and nutritious meals.

IMG_0683 Students participate in a cooking challenge to create a veggie burger, chocolate avocado pudding, and pasta salad. (Secret ingredient: parsley grown in the schools hydroponic farm) @matt_horgan

Finally, the students put on a Leadership Conference at Agritecture Consulting where students presented data they collected from surveys they designed and conducted in the community around their school to see what fresh, healthy food was available to stores and restaurants.

See more about becoming a mentor here: http://www.teensforfoodjustice.org/be-a-mentor-2/

If you would like to support Teens for Food Justice, see the links below!

http://www.teensforfoodjustice.org/donate

Instagram: @TeensforFoodJustice

Written by:

Matthew Horgan
MHorgan279@gmail.com
@matt_horgan @sustaineveryone
@hydroponics_nyc
SustainEveryone.com

A Shirf Towards Ecological Agriculture — February 20, 2018

A Shirf Towards Ecological Agriculture

The way we view the world is often a reflection of the paradigm of the day, that is the deepest set of beliefs and assumptions a culture has about any given topic at any moment in time. Needless to say, paradigms do shift over time to create the unique circumstance we see on a daily basis, and sometimes this happens rather quickly.

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The new shift in thinking seems to be towards sustainable urban food production. Photo taken at AgTechX @matt_horgan

Paradigm shifts: Thinking in cycles not lines

One paradigm of today seems to be the perception of our lives as a series of linear processes. We seem to idolize cause and effect relationships whenever possible in daily life and tend to view most of our experiences through this narrow lens without analyzing the entire picture.

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However, thinking of systems in terms of lines tends to be characteristically more predictable and simpler, while systems as cycles are naturally more complex.

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Nature’s Cycle by Virginia Lee 2001  

Shift towards interconnectedness

A personal shift in assumptions I experienced was while I was taking an ecological agriculture class during my time at SUNY Binghamton. My perception of self shifted from the individual, separate self to a more interconnected sense of identity.

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Ecological Agriculture: Nature as model

Ecological agriculture is a term used to describe a type of farming that raised food without any chemical or synthetic fertilizers, to create an agricultural system that mimicked ecological systems that sustain in nature.

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By: permacultureprinciples.com

The general trend in agriculture since 1950 has been towards large-scale industrial farms that use synthetic fertilizers and chemical fertilizers, but a recent surge in interest in local, organic produce by consumers is causing a paradigm shift in the way we consume and produce food.

Ecological agriculture can be seen in the increased interest in urban farming in recent years. By incorporating sustainable food systems into the built environment, we can improve food security in urban environments.

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Sky Vegetables February 2018 By @matt_horgan

We can also use underutilized spaces, like basements, to produce food on land to support the health and to educate our local communities
An example of a hydroponic food system, and what my neighbor calls a “permaponic system”, is seen below (Top: after 6 weeks/Bottom: the before picture).

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By @matt_horgan

The potential for ecological agriculture to foster a more harmonious coexistence between human beings and the earth, as well as the practical implications for food security and positive impact on local economies leads me to think that this will become ever more present in our city in the near future.

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By @matt_horgan While walking to class at CUNY Brooklyn College, I saw this incredible urban food garden someone created on their front lawn 🙂

I look forward exploring ecological agriculture more on this blog in the future 🙂

Relaunch: New Blog Name @SustainEveryone — February 1, 2018

Relaunch: New Blog Name @SustainEveryone

Hello there! I’m an aspiring environmental writer, who was born and raised in Rockaway Beach, NYC and I’m passionate about finding a healthy way to live sustainably within the natural world. My studies in the environmental field brought me to Upstate New York, Texas, France, Vermont, and Costa Rica. During this time, I grew to see the potential for urban farms to increase people’s access to healthy and nutritious food within cities. More recently, I became fascinated by hydroponic systems and their ability to produce food quickly using no soil, little water, and marginal nutrient inputs. Urban agriculture is an ideal solution for the issue of food security in cities, which is why I see it as more crucial today.

Finally, I recently decided to change the name of my former blog (Sustainable Future through Food) to @SustainEveryone with the intention to explore existing urban farming throughout NYC and to inspire people to become actively engaged in organic urban food production. I hope you will follow along with me on my journey as I discover the beauty of small-scale organic urban farming in New York City.

Follow me on Instagram 🙂 @SustainEveryone @Hydroponics_NYC @matt_horgan

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): Should we be concerned? — August 19, 2015

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): Should we be concerned?

The simplest answer to this question, for me, is a clear and unequivocal yes (This is also my second post about GMOs, so I clearly believe we should be, at the very least, aware of the issues surrounding the topic). Recent reports from news media have questioned whether or not food products containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms) should be labeled as such, so that consumers can choose if they will, or will not, buy the product. This has sparked a serious debate concerning the safety GMOs in our food system. Although some people argue against the labeling of GMOs for causing unnecessary fear surrounding the safety of these products, there is legitimate reason to approach GMO products with caution for political, social, and environmental reasons.

The most important reason to oppose the use of GMO crops is the environmental consequences from the form of agriculture that is necessary to grow these crops: monoculture systems. In short, monoculture farmers plant only one crop in a given area to maximize the yield of this crop. When a farmer choses (or is economically forced) to grow GMO crops (like corn, cotton, or soy), they adopt a monoculture style of growth to maximize the yield of the crop. One reason for planting all of the same variety of plant in the same area is that it makes it easier for the farmer to spray pesticides without killing the other crops (Since most GMO crops are designed to withstand the poisonous nature of pesticides, they will not perish in the presence of excessive pesticide use). Moreover, planting monocultures makes your farm less resilient because if the crop fails, there is no other crop variety to fall back on for food. If farmers cannot produce and sell enough of their one crop, then they cannot feed themselves. Still, it is more efficient to grow GMO crops in monocultures under the current economic system. Large seed companies are then able to sell farmers seeds and pesticides, often with the promise of increased yields.

The argument of increased crop yield is used all the time in favor of the use of GMOs, but it is simply not true that GMOs yield more food. For example, in India, GMO cotton was sold to small farmers with the promise that their yields would be higher than organic, traditional farming methods (Small farmers account for about 80 percent of food production in India). Today, about 95 percent of the cotton grown in India is a Monsanto GMO product.  It is true that cotton yields increased with the introduction of GMO crops in India because people started to just grow cotton instead of maintaining their traditional polyculture system of planting cotton alongside other nutritious food crops. Overall food output has not increased because of the monoculture systems implemented by GMO cotton crops in India. The result was an influx in cotton production and a decrease in the production of nutritious crops that feed people. Now, this would be a good thing if farmers were selling their cotton and receiving enough money to purchase what they need to eat, but this is not the case. Agriculture output decreased and yield of the specific cotton crop increased. People do not eat cotton and increased supply means a decrease in the price of cotton. This caused enormous economic pressure on India’s small farmers because they were now indebted to buying seed and pesticides from these companies, like Monsanto.

One crucial social aspect of this issue to understand is that farmers in the past had no need to buy seed from anyone. Nature provided seed to the farmers (specifically women in India assumed the role of traditional seed saving techniques). Seeds are the source of life, but large companies have now patented life and made it illegal for farmers to save their seeds for the next growing season. This created a cycle of planting and buying expensive GMO seeds for many small farmers in India. When their crops did not produce enough to sustain the farmers, there was a stark increase in suicides among farmers in India since 1997 and 1998. Granted, there were suicides among farmers before this date (as there are unfortunately in every society), but there was a clear increase in the number of suicides among farmers when this economic pressure of debt became greater with the use of GMOs and the accompanying pesticides. (Vandana Shiva is an inspirational advocate against the use of GMOs, specifically in India but also around the world, and she writes/speaks extensively on the topic). Putting all your eggs in one basket is never a good idea, especially when you are an economically vulnerable small farmer.

Similarly, in the United States, farmers receive subsidies from the government to grow corn (which is dominantly GMO corn), and most of this crop is turned into ethanol for fuel. Less food is being produced on these large monoculture farms because food is now a commodity to be sold efficiently in the global market. If the government is going to pay you to grow fuel instead of food, you will grow GMO corn for fuel because of the economic gain. There is still a huge social and environmental cost. As Vandana Shiva (environmental activist and physicist) puts it, if we were growing food for nourishment, then we would maximize nutrition by planting biodiverse polyculture agricultural systems. Instead, we are growing food to maximize profits, which supports a monoculture model of agricultural production.

Furthermore, there are political and legal consequences to the debate around GMO use in agriculture. As I mentioned earlier, the contracts small farmers enter into with large seed companies, like Monsanto, legally restrict farmers from saving their seeds. They are forbidden from planting these seeds again, and they cannot share seeds with anyone. In the United States, there are many cases of farmers who were sued by Monsanto for illegally growing their patented seeds, and often these farmers do not even know that they are growing GMO crops because of the nature of pollination. If your neighbor decides to grow GMO corn, your crop of organic corn is at risk of being contaminated by patented GMO pollen from the neighboring crop because corn is pollinated by the wind. You then are vulnerable to being sued by Monsanto for stealing their patented seed. The concept of having ownership over life is a new one, and it has allowed Monsanto, and other companies, to put small, organic farmers out of business. Once the small, organic farmer can no longer afford their land after litigation, the neighboring GMO farm is eager and ready to take over the farmland to plant more GMO crops.

Moreover, the enormous backlash against labeling GMO products in the United States is serious political problem. With the upcoming presidential reelection campaigns in full swing in the United States, we can see the corrupting influence money has on the political process. (Recent polls have Donald Trump leading the race for the Republican nomination, even after his racist and insensitive comments about Mexicans. Do I need to explain the power of money in politics any further?)  If we allow seed production and dispersal to be controlled by large corporations, politicians will undoubtedly be influenced by these companies when implementing food policy. There is no way your average citizen in the United States can compete with Monsanto lobbyists. The result is that these companies will have the access to politicians that they need to create the laws necessary to perpetuate the cycle of control over seed dispersal and secrecy surrounding products that contain GMOs. Currently, citizens of the United States do not even have the right to know if they are consuming GMO products because GMOs are not labeled on packaging. There is even a push by some politicians to make it illegal to label GMO products for what they are: GMOs. If there is nothing wrong with GMOs, why not label them?

Although many people believe the future of GMOs provides us with great hope for innovation and higher efficiency in food production, we must consider the environmental, social, and political implications of GMOs. The high cost of non-renewable seeds for small farmers, the increased pesticide use on GMO crops, and the huge political influence companies have on politics are a few great reasons to be concerned about the production and consumption of GMOs. Moreover, traditional selective breeding methods can be extremely effective at adapting a certain plant species to a specific region, and this has tremendous potential for helping farmers deal with the changing climate. Small farmers still feed most of the world. Rather than looking to large corporations to solve the problem of food insecurity, we should place higher value on the traditional knowledge of ecological-minded small farmers around the world.

To see Vandana Shiva answer some hard questions surrounding GMOs in a BBC interview watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbIQF72IDuw

An International Food Perspective — August 12, 2015

An International Food Perspective

Landing in Paris one week ago was a little overwhelming to say the least. I was extremely lucky to be traveling with Tessa Rager, a great friend and classmate. She and I know very minimal French, so awkward miscommunication was becoming part of our daily experience. More so than anything else, I experienced an overwhelming feeling that I had made the right decision. As we moved further and further away from the airport in Paris on the train ride to Angers, this feeling got much stronger. I stared out the window observing all that I could about my new environment.

One aspect of my new environment that I noticed right away was how many farms were outside the city of Paris. It was significant in my mind because this was a sign that food is grown locally here. The French stereotype that they care for their food was soon obvious to me after a few meals. The ingredients are certainly fresh and delicious. After settling into Angers, Tessa and I decided to make some loose plans to travel to Belgium and the Netherlands before classes start here. What we discovered was unexpected, eye-opening, and thought-provoking.

I normally do not like to generalize about any one group of people, or assume any stereotypes because I do not think they are fair. I personally do not fit into many stereotypes, and nature is full of anomalies. This makes me hate generalizing even more because it does not tell the whole story of an individual or community.

While at a lounge/bar in Amsterdam, Tessa and I were enjoying ourselves over a drink after a long few days of travel. We could not help but overhear the conversation happening at the next table between a British woman, an Australian woman, and man (possibly from the Netherlands), all of whom were about my age. The topic: Americans. Naturally, Tessa and I were interested in hearing what they had to say about us. At first, they seemed to be kind of ignorant as to what they were saying, making comments like “Americans are disgusting,” without making any real arguments to back this up (looking back, I wonder if they were intentionally trying to provoke us). The conversation soon switched to the topic of food in the United States, specifically factory farming animals for meat production. This peaked our interest since both Tessa and I are studying food systems in the United States and elsewhere.

The women and man started by talking about the harsh conditions our animals endure before we eat them. The British woman exclaimed “If they (Americans) are going to kill the animal for food, why do they have to torture the animal beforehand?” I couldn’t help but agree with her in my head. The Australian woman then referred to legislation in the United stated that makes it illegal for people to expose the terrible treatment of the animals in factory farms. The first of these “Ag Gag” laws were passed in Utah and Iowa in 2012, making it nearly impossible for whistleblowing to occur on farms. This is extremely significant because many of us do not know about the truly awful conditions the cows, chickens, and pigs endure before they are killed for consumption. I understand the issue that the Australian woman was trying to articulate. With laws like these on the books, large agricultural businesses have essentially silenced farmers in an attempt to keep the masses ignorant to this moral issue. Right after this comment, the Australian girl continued with her rant. She said that “American’s don’t deserve the meat we eat,” and that “we don’t need it.” Granted veganism and vegetarianism are perfectly plausible options for the human diet, but to say that Americans do not deserve to eat meat is implying a sense of disrespect and hatred of Americans or the American lifestyle. This part of the conversation made me very uncomfortable and I am still not totally sure why I felt this way. It is possible I was analyzing the situation a little too much, but maybe she was trying to say that we could easily eat less meat, which is an idea I do agree with because we do not need as much animal protein as we think we do in the United States.

Now, to be completely honest, the people at the table next to Tessa and I did not seem to fully understand the issues they were discussing amongst themselves. This was fascinating and frustrating at the same time because Tessa really wanted to start a conversation about sustainable agriculture and the local food movement in parts of the United States to give them a better image of America. I was animate about not wanting to bother with them and convinced Tessa that it would not be worth the energy (we were exhausted from so much travel and I felt that it would only lead to a conflict). They also said some very offensive and provocative comments throughout their conversation, which gave me the impression that they were living in their own bubble, observing and traveling the world without researching any facts to back up their ideas. I felt my energy would be better put to work on a blog post about the issue, in hopes that my ideas will resonate further than their misguided opinions of all Americans. The Australian woman and the man also said that they buy organic, and the British woman said she was a vegetation, so they seemed pretty pleased with their life choices and had no problem looking down on the American population. The main problem I have with this train of thought is that it does not account for the price difference between non-organic food and organic food in the United States. If you are an average American, you shop at the grocery store when you are not working. The cheaper options are almost always worse for your health and almost certainly non-organic. This might not seem like a big deal at first, but it is a social justice issue because people with money can afford to be healthier than those without enough money for organic food in the United States. I do not think that the people talking next to us were aware of this issue.

To make such a sweeping generalization about an enormous country is irresponsible. The United States is full of people who do care about where their food comes from, how it is treated, and so on. At the same time, there are many of us who do not care. I truly do not think the people sitting next to us in that lounge were aware of the diversity of people in the United States. There is huge variation in opinions of people from state to state, even city to city when it comes to food. The sweeping generalization made by them was at best faulty logic. They did touch on some really critical issues of our time, but they certainly did not have the full picture to make such claims.

At the end of the day, I was very happy to be able to have the experience to hear what a group of people from other countries think of our food system and of us more generally. They frustrated Tessa and me so much because we know way more people who actually do care about their food than people who do not in the United States. I recognize now that we are not the majority, and this was hard to accept. The trend the United States seems to be heading towards a more food conscience society, which gives me hope that current agricultural practices could change drastically in my lifetime.

The Value in One’s Sense of Place on Earth — July 5, 2015

The Value in One’s Sense of Place on Earth

More than ever before in my life, I see the tremendous value in having a sense of place or a connection to where I live my life. I view this feeling of community and interconnectedness as essential for a person’s wellbeing, yet it seems people today have given up on this idea to an extent. We travel to exotic places for vacations to escape the daily life we created for ourselves, move away for a school or job position, and dream of picking up everything and moving to a new location for any reason. Not everyone has lost their sense of place, but the majority of us now living in cities know very little about the places where they live and have very little attachment to their current places. This has detrimental consequences for the sustainability of any culture or community.

When I moved to Austin, Texas last August for graduate school, I barely gave it a second thought. I was able to move to a state far from home for my first year to study at St. Edward’s University and discover what I wanted from life. It was an obvious choice to go for me. After completing my first year, the program requires a semester abroad in Angers, France, so I will be moving to Angers at the end of the month. Before my studies began here in Austin, I was again away from where I grew up to earn my undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies in Binghamton, New York. Although it was only a three and a half hour drive from home, it was far enough to feel as though I was in a new place. I was truly in a new place. All of the moving around has taken its toll on me though. Don’t get me wrong, I have had some experiences that I would not trade for the world, and I do not regret my decisions. There is, however, something missing, and I believe it has to do with the sense of community (which starts with our connection to place).

Now, why is our sense of place and connection to the land so important? There are many environmental reasons to value the answers to this question, but I like to boil it down to one thing: sustainability. Not just the sustainability of the environment, but also of society as a whole. The natural environment is what we all depend upon on some level, but we also depend on our location to make sense of the social interactions we have among one another. More specifically, our knowledge of where we live, to a large extent, dictates how we think, act, and respond to life’s various and complex situations.

Since the majority of humans live in cities today, we have lost almost all connections to the natural environment. What we accept as “nature” in the city is disappointing and embarrassing. We value development over conservation. Essentially, we value more and not better (as Bill McKibben writes in Deep Economy). The natural world is in trouble, and very few of us are ready to accept that as fact. We eat foods that travel thousands of miles before it reaches our refrigerators and know nothing of the flora and fauna of the places we call home. We do not know how to grow our own food, nor do we know much about the food we buy from the supermarket. We have outsourced many of these things to a few specialists, and this will one day be a major problem. Change is the law of life. If we rely on others for something as basic as food (and water), then we are at the mercy of those in that position of power for our most basic human needs. Ignorance is not bliss.

Beyond the sustainability of the food system and the natural world, we are at risk of losing all connection to one another. The anonymity and individualism that is provided to us by cities can be beneficial in many ways, but taken to an extreme (as we have done today) we can easily destroy our sense of community. This may seem to some as not such a huge deal, but it is for stability of our communities. Humans need to feel like they belong, but we allow ourselves to become so disconnected from one another, as we connect to our WiFi. Technology has made it way easier to facilitate this shift. Many people today do not even know their neighbors and this disconnection from humanity causes unnecessary violent crimes to take place every day. To give you an idea of how big our social problems are, consider this statistic: one in five woman are victims of sexual assault on college campuses today. Violence is pervasive in our culture today; This is how we treat the members of our community. We stay out of other peoples’ business, and sometimes we even ignore the turmoil of those in our own family. This does not come as a shock to me because we live in a world where it is so easy to escape from the reality of our circumstances.

It is not just crime that rises when we lose our sense of community, but also our health more broadly. Obesity is at an all-time high in the United States because we have lost our connection to our place and time. This is a preventable disease of modern society, yet we continue to allow soda companies to fund our sporting activities. The advertising is all over the place for these products, and the main ingredient (sugar) is the leading cause for obesity. If we truly were committed to ending the obesity epidemic, we would rid our communities of these drinks and of the fast food establishments on every other street corner. Similarly, our “War on Drugs” has taken a huge toll on the mentally ill all around the world, which criminalizes and locks up those who would instead benefit greatly from medical treatment. Viewing things like obesity and addiction as personal choices or struggles is only half of the picture. What we choose to value and how we act towards these things defines who we are as a people. I for one do not want to be defined by absentee legislators who have the power to decide what is best for your community. Every place is different, and each place requires a unique stewardship that should be defined by local residents.

With all of this in mind, I am ready to move somewhere and stay there. After I finish Master’s degree in Environmental Management and Sustainability, I am committed to living in a place. I want to build a sense of community and be a steward of the land I live upon. I want to live in a place where I do not feel the need to run away on an expensive vacation to feel peace and serenity. I want to live in a community where we look after one another, as opposed to a place where neighbors compare themselves to one another and fight with each other. We could all afford to turn off our electronic devices and go out into the local community where we live to see what and who needs our help. Everyone has something unique to offer, but we have to find the courage to recognize and believe in our strengths to make a difference in this world.