A side order of sustainability?

After the launch of The Tomorrow Plan, we heard from the community that food needed to be included in the list of factors considered for how we measure sustainability across Central Iowa. Since Iowa is at the center of food production for the entire nation, it does seem appropriate that food be an important part of the sustainability discussion. At the same time, given the vast productivity of Iowa’s fertile soils, it would seem that food security and the availability of local foods should not be much of an issue…or is it?

Well, it doesn’t take much time on Google to discover some interesting statistics that may tell us otherwise. Iowa produces a fifth of all the corn grown in the US and a sixth of our soy. Nearly a third of all pigs raised in the US are on Iowa farms. Nonetheless, Iowa imports over 80% of its food, with most of it travelling 1,200 miles or more. How is this possible?

Before synthetic fertilizers became commonplace, mixed farming that balanced livestock (which produced fertilizer) with a variety of crops was the norm. Once this cycle was broken and cheap fertilizer became widely available after World War II, farms became more specialized and more efficient by focusing on single crops. Today, entire regions specialize in different types of crops, and the Midwest is a critical part of the nation’s grain and livestock production. As a result, Iowa has to import most of its fruits and vegetables from elsewhere in the US and abroad.

So, how can we increase the availability and diversity of local foods in the Central Iowa region? How far are we willing to go to make this a priority? A truly local diet requires that we eat more of what’s in season, and foregoing those tempting little clementines in the winter. Or is there a more balanced approach?

Here are a few resources that may help get you started in forming your own opinion on this issue:

James Miner is a planner with significant national experience in mixed-use real estate development, new communities, urban districts, and long-term strategic and physical planning for institutions and higher education campuses. He is currently the Director of Planning and Urban Design at Sasaki Associates and the Principal-in-Charge of The Tomorrow Plan.
This entry was posted in Exchange. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A side order of sustainability?

  1. Carolyn Uhlenhake Walker says:

    I agree that in today’s world of less fossil fuels we need to look at ways to grow our own foods locally. Urban farms are becoming more popular around the U.S. Community gardens need to increase and people should be encouraged to have garadens in both the front and backyards. With 4 of the main diseases(heart, cancer, diabetes, and obesity) caused by diet and lifestyle, it’s time we did look at this very seriously. A new look at zoning would help us to look at this problem realistically. I do hope you will consider “food” in The Tomorrow Plan. thank you, carolyn

  2. Linda Appelgate says:

    Yes, including local foods is a crucial part of this plan! This could include ways to increase the availability and consumption of fruits and vegetables in childrens’ and adults’ diets resulting in better health, programs to assure that greater Des Moines does not have “food deserts” where only convenience stores are within walking distance to purchase food, offering support for local farmers in near-urban areas, being careful about urban planning to include farmland protection, and actively supporting an already-excellent (but under-funded) Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign to support all these efforts. Thanks for the opportunity to comment!

  3. Adam Hammes says:

    Local food is a strong component of sustainability. Not getting rid of large-scale agriculture, but finding a balance between quantity and quality, between small-scale and large-scale, between family-owned and corporate-owned, between hunger and nutrition… If the city continues to grow without bounds, we continue to get more people and less farmland to feed those people. Protecting farmland near the city limits and increasing the amount of productive land in the city interior should be a priority for long-term sustainability (both economic and environmental).

  4. Sherrie Taha says:

    I’m glad to see local food sources get included in the mix and would love to see an urban growth boundary be included too. We need to have land and water use and preservation be a significant part of the picture.

  5. Athena Sutton says:

    I would like to add that ISU extension economist Dave Swenson has produced a good amount of work which underscores the magnitude of numerous benefits of supporting local food production in Iowa. His work shows local food production has one of the highest economic rates of return for any form of investment by the state, as well as the very real potential to create hundreds of jobs throughout Iowa.

    To add to his economics perspective, local food production is imperative for building food security and community resilience, and has the potential to slash vehicle miles travelled in order to fill a belly in the greater Des Moines area.

    (As something of an aside, the percentage of food imported by Iowa to feed its residents is higher at 90% according to his work, though perhaps the 80% figure used by The Tomorrow Plan is more recent. I would be curious to know where the difference is coming from and why it has dropped so quickly.)

    And lastly, just my two cents here, sourcing locally is more important to me than buying organic, fair trade, or any other label upgrade. So, I am very happy to see it is making consideration.

  6. Lynn Laws says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Adam! Let’s not wait until city dwellers are battling with developers for scraps of land for urban gardens. Instead, let’s create a comprehensive plan now that preserves land, within city boundaries, specifically for urban gardens and makes urban gardening in our region a model for other regions.

    Also, the current price of farmland may act as a buffer to protect it for awhile from urban sprawl. However, we all know how quickly that can change and the price of farmland plummet. NOW is the best time ever to put in place a regional farmland preservation plan!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *