Jonathan J. Halperin
Jonathan J. Halperin
Designing Research, Communications
and Strategies for Sustainability

Language and Sustainability for the 21st Century Food System

The words we use reflect the extent to which our thinking is clear or muddled. Speaker after speaker at The New York Times conference at Stone Barns on Food for Tomorrow spoke to the issue of words and meaning. Molly Jahn linked technology to its broader linguistic roots in technique and also observed that smart and wise are often not the same. She also urged us to understand that we lack the language we need to delve deeply into critical questions around farm systems, catastrophic risk, and the importance of shared knowledge to monitor global agricultural ecosystems.

Mark Bittman and Michel Pollan both noted the hubris embedded in the commonly posed question, “How do we feed the world?” Pollan wryly reframed this within the context of the uber-American radio show in which the Lone Ranger is surrounded by Comanche, Cherokee and Apache Indians and says that “we are in a heap of trouble.” And Tonto, the trusted sidekick, responds eloquently: “Uhh…What do you mean, 'We,' Kemo Sabe?”

The current enthusiasm around “farm to table” innovations sparked Tom Colicchio to draw everyone’s attention to the “to” as he noted that everything begins on the farm and ends on the table. The real challenge and opportunity is in what happens to food between farm and table.

Similarly, Ricardo Salvador asked us to think carefully about what we really mean by farming, especially when we fall into the habit of using the same word to describe the urban farming of a singular patio tomato plant and industrial agriculture as practiced on hundred-thousand acre farms across the Midwest.

And “industrial ag” or “big ag” are also linguistic phrases that we need to unpack and understand to more accurately describe the components of the food system. What we cannot describe, we are unlikely to be able to fix.

Between Farm and Table
Mario Batali (l), Andrea Reusing (r), and moderator Sam Sifton engage with Tom Colicchio as he dissects
"farm to table," observing that the "to" is critical - what happens to food between farm and table.


When I began to unhook from SustainAbility in 2008, after 20+ years, to co-found Volans, Jonathan was working with the US end of SustainAbility — and sent the London end of the Volans team a large cardboard box of multi-colored felt rocks, which initially I couldn't make head nor tail of. I thought he was mad, or overly American.

But I have to say that, over time, those felt rocks have become a central feature of the Volans culture, thrown by team members at other team members (or guests) on the slightest provocation. That aside, he's a consummate professional, creative collaborator, skilled communicator, and keen intellect—and I am delighted both to have had Jonathan as a colleague and to now count him as a friend.

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