EM SC 470
Applied Sustainability in Contemporary Culture

More Sustainability Solutions and Concepts


Permaculture provides a practical framework for addressing food sustainability issues, but there are many other specific practices and concepts that can contribute solutions as well. See below for a description of a few of them. There are many more than this, but these are some that we may/will encounter when traveling.

Regenerative Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture is closely related to permaculture, but not all permaculture food production systems are regenerative. As you might guess, regenerative agriculture refers to food growing methods that improve the natural environment, i.e., they regenerate local ecosystems. Terra Genesis International provides a great synopsis of this concept. Note their use of the term ecosystem services. (If you are so inclined, they have more information on their site.):

Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. 

Regenerative Agriculture aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation. 

At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming and ranching communities. 

The system draws from decades of scientific and applied research by the global communities of organic farming, agroecology, Holistic Management, and agroforestry.

Common techniques include planting native crops that enhance biodiversity, using biochar to improve soil quality and sequester carbon, integrating animals and crops into a self-sufficient system, only using organic farming methods, and more. Like permaculture, regenerative agriculture recognizes that these systems will provide feedback and change over time and that farmers must be ready to adapt their systems as needed. 

Community Gardens

Community gardens are defined by the USDA as "plots of land, usually in urban areas, that are rented by individuals or groups for private gardens or are for the benefit of the people caring for the garden." Community gardens can take on many forms, but the most common one consists of any number of individual beds (from a few to a hundred or more) that are tended by individuals or groups. Most community gardens are structured such that each bed is "rented" out for a nominal annual fee, and the renter manages their bed. Community gardens typically supply water and soil, and sometimes resources such as seeds and labor assistance. They are usually overseen by a manager, but they often host group events and expect individual gardeners to help out with tasks that benefit the whole garden community. These are most common in urban areas where residents do not possess adequate space to grow their own food but can be found in many other areas. They can be found all over the world. Most gardens have a set of rules governing them, such as the types of plants they can grow and what they can use in their beds (e.g., by only using organic growing methods). 

Community gardens can also take the form of school gardens located on or near school property. They can be established in elementary, middle, high school, and college environments. The goals of school gardens usually include garden, food, and/or nutrition education, though many urban gardens provide this service as well. Therapy gardens are sometimes established so that they can be accessed by people with physical and/or mental issues, as gardening has therapeutic effects. Many gardens include initiatives to grow food to donate to local organizations such as food banks.

Research has shown that there are many benefits to community gardens, including but not limited to the following. (All links originally gathered from North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension:

  • Increased access to and intake of nutritional food. For example, this study in Denver, Colorado found that: "Community gardeners consumed fruits and vegetables 5.7 times per day, compared with home gardeners (4.6 times per day) and nongardeners (3.9 times per day). Moreover, 56% of community gardeners met national recommendations to consume fruits and vegetables at least 5 times per day, compared with 37% of home gardeners and 25% of nongardeners."
  • General social benefits. This study in Flint, Michigan found that: "Results suggest that the garden programs provided opportunities for constructive activities, contributions to the community, relationship and interpersonal skill development, informal social control, exploring cognitive and behavioral competence, and improved nutrition. Community gardens promoted developmental assets for involved youth while improving their access to and consumption of healthy foods."
  • Community development. A study in New York City found that "the opening of a community garden has a statistically significant positive impact on residential properties within 1000 feet of the garden, and that the impact increases over time. We find that gardens have the greatest impact in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Higher quality gardens have the greatest positive impact. Finally, we find that the opening of a garden is associated with other changes in the neighborhood, such as increasing rates of homeownership, and thus may be serving as catalysts for economic redevelopment of the community."
  • Particular benefits for low-income communities. Another New York study found that: "Gardens in low-income neighborhoods (46%) were four times as likely as non-low-income gardens to lead to other issues in the neighborhood being addressed; reportedly due to organizing facilitated through the community gardens." This is a very common finding of community garden research in low-income communities.
  • Stress relief. A 2010 study concluded that: "Gardening and reading each led to [reduction in stress signals], but decreases were significantly stronger in the gardening group. Positive mood was fully restored after gardening but further deteriorated during reading. These findings provide the first experimental evidence that gardening can promote relief from acute stress."

There are many more studies that demonstrate the benefits of community gardens. If you have ever participated in one, you would probably be able to list a few more! It is important to note that research shows that the benefits of community gardens are particularly pronounced in low-income areas, and thus are a recognized strategy to address equity and social justice (but also environment and economy!).

Community garden in Jacksonville, Florida.
Figure 9.1. Community garden in Jacksonville, Florida. Note the urban setting. It is unlikely that participants would otherwise have the ability to grow their own food on this scale.
Therapy garden in Rome, Italy.
Figure 9.2. Community garden in Rome, Italy. This is used for sustainable food production research and is also used as a therapy garden for a nearby mental institution. In addition, it is used to provide productive work for local individuals on the autism spectrum. This is known as social farming. 
Credit: D. Kasper

Fair Trade

You may have encountered Fair Trade goods such as coffee or chocolate when food shopping, or perhaps at a coffee shop. A fair trade good usually has a distinctive logo such as the one below. The purpose of fair trade certification is primarily to ensure that the workers throughout the supply chain were paid a fair wage. These certifications are affirmed by third-party certifiers that have no affiliation with the product at hand. They investigate the entire supply chain of the product and certify the product if it meets their standard. 

One of the most common certifiers is Fair Trade CertifiedTM (I cannot show their logo due to copyright.) They list the following four standards that must be met in order to obtain certification:

  1. Income sustainability: ...Our standards ensure producers, workers, farmers, and fishermen have the money needed to invest in their lives and their work.
  2. Empowerment: Fair Trade empowers people to make choices for the good of themselves and their community, regardless of gender, status, position in society, or position on the globe. Rigorous standards give farmers, workers, and fishermen a voice in the workplace and the community.
  3. Individual and community well-being: ...Our model is fueled by committees of farmers, workers, and fishermen who decide how to invest the Fair Trade Premium based on their community's greatest needs: often clean water, education, and healthcare.
  4. Environmental stewardship: ...Our standards work to keep the planet healthy for generations to come by prohibiting the most harmful chemicals and taking measures to protect natural resources.

As you can see, fair trade can address issues beyond providing living wages. Generally speaking, it is better to buy fair trade certified goods than non-certified goods, but it is best to investigate individual certifiers to ascertain how legitimate they are.

Fair trade logo
Figure 9.3 Fairtrade logo. There are a number of third-party certifiers, each with their own logo. It is best to investigate individual certifiers to assess their legitimacy. 

Appropriate Technology

Merriam-Webster provides a good definition of appropriate technology:

technology that is suitable to the social and economic conditions of the geographic area in which it is to be applied, is environmentally sound, and promotes self-sufficiency on the part of those using it.

The use of appropriate technology is a particularly important consideration when providing assistance to low income or otherwise marginalized communities. The idea behind appropriate technology is to make sure that any solutions proposed and/or aid provided is appropriate for the local conditions. These "conditions" can include local natural resources, but very often include local human capital, such as local knowledge, expertise, and physical capabilities. As indicated in the definition, it must promote self-sufficiency (which goes hand-in-hand with the first point).

For example, if a well-meaning organization travels to rural Mongolia or Peru to install a solar array and provide electricity, they must consider whether the locals that they are trying to help have the expertise to repair the system if it breaks down. Perhaps there is existing local expertise, or perhaps they need to be trained. Also, can they get replacement parts if they are needed? Are the solar arrays and components at risk for damage due to local wildlife or human populations? These are all questions that must be asked if self-sufficiency is to be addressed. One of the best ways to utilize appropriate technology is to work with the local populations to help them come up with solutions, instead of telling them what to do. Most likely they will have a wealth of knowledge to offer regarding the local conditions (they live there, after all!), but they likely also have experience trying to implement solutions. 

The National Center for Appropriate Technology in the U.S. provides a number of examples and explanations if you are so inclined. They work primarily with low-income populations in the U.S. to provide services such as energy assistance and sustainable, local food systems.