Lexicon of Sustainability
Watchword: Unconventional Agriculture

Watchword: Unconventional Agriculture

To draw attention to the best and brightest ideas in sustainability, the Lexicon of Sustainability's Food List project defines the words that are integral to a healthy, transparent, and accountable food system. Each week, we explore a new word through artwork, films, recipes, and written works. See all Food List words here. 

Unconventional Agriculture: What will the farms of our future look like? In this week’s Watchword, we’re challenging today’s conventional methods of food production.

A common motif within unconventional agriculture is working with nature. It is beyond organic. Unconventional agriculture is a philosophy that addresses the complexities of sustainable farming and reflects on the local history and resources of the land. It benefits from innovative research, mathematics, and thinking in abundance.

This week, we witness a recurring undertone to all lessons learned by these pioneering farmers: nature has the answer to our problems. With patience and persistence, trial and error, we can build agriculture focused on good, healthy food. We encourage you to follow nature’s lead and think unconventionally.

Title: Beyond Organic
Location: Foxglove Farm, Salt Spring Island, BC
Featuring: Michael Ableman

There is a fundamental difference between the organic movement and the more recent organic industry. We need to dig deeper and look beyond narrow definitions to find a philosophy that truly addresses a complex, multidimensional system of agriculture.

“Certification and label systems are like locks on a door—they are there to remind us of our boundaries,” says Michael Ableman of Foxglove Farm in British Columbia. “The words we use define who we are. ‘Organic’ was the word some of us have been using for 30 to 40 years to identify a broad set of social, ecological, and spiritual principles about our farms and how we produced food for our communities. Now the USDA has given the word ‘organic’ a legal definition, in essence taking ownership of the word, and limiting the use to a narrow set of rules and regulations designed to support a distribution and marketing system. For some of us, the word no longer addresses the deeper issues that were at the heart of the origins of the movement. We’ve got to find new ways to talk about what we do—we may have to use different words.”

Michael Ableman believes that in the future, full-time farmers should no longer grow fruits and vegetables. Instead, this should be the responsibility of individuals and families to do for themselves in their front and backyards, on their balconies and rooftops, and in community garden plots. “There has been entirely too much energy and focus in the food movement on growing that which we can actually survive without. We can all live without another carrot or tomato, but we can’t live without protein sources, and given our resources, these will have to be plant-based.”

Short film: "Unconventional Agriculture"

Today, half the world’s food production—what we eat—depends on chemical fertilizers and herbicides. That is the foundation of conventional agriculture, but it pollutes our soils, drinking water, waterways, and oceans. Unconventional farmers like Steve Ela in Hotchkiss, Colorado focus on building soil fertility by working with nature, not against it.

Three things you can do

In the face of our contemporary challenges with food security and environmental protection, we have come to realize that conventional agricultural practices are methods ready to be retired. We have always had the available knowledge to create a resilient and sustainable food system, and now is the time to reflect on this knowledge and move forward. Immediate solutions, with long-lasting detrimental impacts, must become something of the past in order to protect our future.

We encourage you to dig deep into the roots of our agricultural heritage and remember to follow nature’s lead when it comes to producing in abundance while preserving our land.

  1. Establish a food forest in your town! Reference the Permaculture Institute’s demonstration garden to create your own food forest garden that mimics the architecture and beneficial relationships of a natural ecosystem.
  2. Support the unconventional! Sign up for an organic CSA, purchase biodynamic wine, and buy non-GMO seeds for your garden.
  3. Help debunk the myths about conventional agriculture! In under 7 minutes, Anna Lappe tackles the popular question, can sustainably grown food deliver the quantity and quality we need—today and in the future?

How do you try to support unconventional agriculture in your day-to-day life?



For the past three years, the Lexicon of Sustainability has sought out the foremost practitioners of sustainability in food and farming to gain their insights and experiences on this important subject. What began as a photography project to spread their knowledge has grown to include short films, study guides, traveling shows, a book, and a website where people can add their own terms to this ever-evolving lexicon. See more at www.lexiconofsustainability.com.

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