Becoming more food literate means learning a new language. Douglas Gayeton, co-founder of the Lexicon of Sustainability, explains how words can catalyze a food revolution.
What is the Lexicon of Sustainability project?

Douglas Gayeton: You can’t expect consumers to change their buying habits at the grocery store, or for farmers to suddenly grow their crops in a more responsible manner, if they aren’t aware of the most basic sustainable principles. In most cases it isn’t that people “need” to be educated. It’s that they “want” to be educated. They’re aware that their food system has become centralized, industrialized, and bureaucratized, and that it’s time for them to fix the system themselves.

They’re looking for information. For inspiration. And for a community of like-minded thinkers. This is how revolutions happen … but first, you need the words.


Watch the short film “Local” from the Lexicon for Sustainability.

You’ve written that “words are the building blocks for new ideas.” Why is language so important in growing the food movement?

Douglas Gayeton: In communities across the country, people are now talking about rebuilding their local food systems. The tools required for the job include words, because any social movement must first educate and enlighten before catalyzing change. We need these words to educate not only consumers, but food producers, too. Responsibly grown food is vital for our security and for our quality of life.

“Sustainability” is a big word. How can we make it more accessible and meaningful?

Douglas Gayeton: As a term heard in everyday conversation, “sustainability” is overused and often meaningless. Like the word “green”, it’s been hijacked by corporate interests and turned into clever marketing jingles and ad campaigns. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take the meaning of this word back. The secret is to treat the word “sustainability” for what it is: an idealized world view that captures the spirit of being a responsible steward of one’s environment, of minimizing one’s impact on the land and leaving it unimpaired for generations to follow.

These seem like lofty, unachievable ideals, but we don’t have a choice. We can’t continue to strip the earth of its natural resources. They’re finite. We’re running out of them. The same goes for polluting our air or water. These are also finite. The results of our current behavior, as we see with climate change, are clear to all of us. We are changing the planet, and not for the better.

So, being attentive to language, to what words mean, and becoming sensitive to its misuse will provide the tools for a new form of activism, one centered on ideas and solutions that are ultimately society-changing. The thing about words is this: once they’re learned, it’s very hard to “unlearn” them. And that’s a powerful thing.

What are some of your favorite terms from the lexicon of food and farming? Why?

Douglas Gayeton: I like “YIMBY”, which stands for “Yes In My Backyard”. As far as food is concerned, consumers are now seeing the value of locally grown foods, even if it’s next door … or on your roof.

I like all the variants of CSA, which stands for “Community Supported Agriculture,” a practice that allows consumers to buy shares in a farm at the beginning of the season and in return receive a weekly box of whatever the farmer is growing. This movement has spawned CSFs (“Community Supported Fishery”), CSGs (“Community Supported Grains”), and many other artisan-direct food distribution schemes.

“Farm Fairies” is a great term for investors supporting young farmers as they buy their first farms.

And a perfect gateway term would be “Pasture Management”. On the surface it seems simple enough: managing one’s pasture in a responsible fashion. Yet it goes much deeper that that, and may possibly be the single most important term for transforming how we raise cattle in this country.

You’ve developed a unique photographic style you call “information art.” What inspired this style and how does it layer meaning?

Douglas Gayeton: I’ve been a filmmaker for nearly 30 years, but I only became interested in photography recently. My problem with photographs? They only capture a moment in time. They can’t really deliver the beginning, middle, and end of a story within the same image. So, as a storyteller, I’ve always found photography limiting. By developing photo collages I discovered that I could extend a moment and show the before, during and after of an event.

As for adding text, it just seemed natural to let people express their own ideas alongside, even within an image. I can’t say that this stylistic approach of marrying image with text had a conscious point of origin. It was just a distillation of so many ideas I’ve always toyed with about storytelling.

What does the food movement mean to you?

Douglas Gayeton: When I lived in Europe, I immediately noted that everyone around me had a clear understanding of the cultural importance of food. It didn’t matter who you spoke to. Your plumber, your doctor, your neighbor. They all defined the seasons though food, through what was available and of quality.

America is a country largely without these traditions. As a nation of immigrants, many of us lost that cultural connection to our homelands in coming here. The growing food movement in this country is attempting to define its own identity, to create its own cultural traditions. This is great, though I find the “foodie” aspect of this movement a little tedious. A little too precious.

This food movement will be a failure if we don’t define its social aspect and address its societal considerations. A food movement should be less about eating the perfect tomato and more about building local food systems and providing food security for all communities in this country.

About Douglas Gayeton

Douglas is a filmmaker, photographer and writer, and co-founder of The Lexicon of Sustainability. Since the early 90s he has created award-winning work at the boundaries of traditional and converging media. He is the author of “SLOW: Life in a Tuscan Town,” published by Welcome Books. The award-winning book features a preface by the founder of Slow Food, Carlo Petrini, and an introduction by Alice Waters.

Douglas lectures frequently on art, technology, and sustainability. His photographs have been printed in TIME and other magazines and are held in numerous museum and private collections around the world. He lives with Laura Howard-Gayeton on a farm near Petaluma, California.

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