DOUGLAS GAYETON’S WORK focuses on inspiring people whose practices offer us a different way to look at food, agriculture and water. Their first-person accounts blend instructive observations with philosophical insights that explain how we can create a more regenerative, just, and nourishing food system. If you’d like to commission work by The Lexicon, go here.
ONE OF THE GREATEST CHALLENGES we face in creating a more regenerative, equitable food system is that most people don’t understand the most basic terms and principles that define the conversation.
Our theory of change starts with words. We explain a subject in its simplest terms, using words as building blocks to start a conversation. With words you can share ideas to go deeper and gain greater familiarity with a subject. You can give shape and substance to values, find points of commonality, build consensus, and finally shift perceptions to create behavior change.
Our process begins by identifying agents of change, then capturing their practices and principles with information artworks that use their own words to show who and what change looks like.
Our travels have taken us to urban gardens nestled between buildings in Queens, NY to look at urban farming, and aboard fishing trawlers in the Pacific to capture stories that explain how traceability can create greater transparency with our ocean fisheries. In Georgia we’ve learned how to make fast food more slow, and in Alabama we’ve seen that sometimes it only takes a slice of pie to create community. These dispatches capture a rapidly changing good food movement filled with inspiring people and aspirational stories. The change is happening everywhere and it’s happening now.
Illuminating the meaning behind these powerful ideas helps people pay closer attention to how they eat, what they buy and where their responsibility begins for creating a healthier, safer food system.
WE ONCE ASKED A SITH GENERATION FARMER to explain her definition of sustainability. Her answer was a single word: survivability. Whatever practices she adopted on her farm had to make economic sense for both her and her family.
The challenge we face in re-imagining our food system begins by taking into account that farms not only feed us, but they provide livelihoods, sometimes for entire communities. Can we develop new principles and practices that are good for farmers, for consumers and also good for the environment?
We’ve spent time with Colorado farmers operating farmstands supported by their neighbors, with taro growers in Hawaii and harvesters in Kansas wheatfields, at dairies in Vermont and poultry operations in New Hampshire. We’ve worked with farmers market operators in New Orleans and food hub coordinators in Virginia. The change these people see always follows the same formula: they envision a more just, regenerative world, set that as their north star, then start moving. While they all take different paths, the end point remains the same.
These journeys to forge a new food system come with a cost. It doesn’t matter how right an idea might seem, if it doesn’t make economic sense, it will wither and die.
A cattle rancher in San Juan Bautista, California explains that over the past 30 years the costs of doing business have kept going up while the revenue from managing his livestock have relatively flatlined, making it nearly impossible to raise pastured animals at a profit. The measurement he uses to explain his predicament? The Cow to Pickup Truck Index. The only hope for this rancher and others in his region is language. If consumers learn a few words, then connect them to key principles that distinguish one practice from another—pastured beef‑versus commodity cattle raised in CAFOs—then consumers are better able to support his more enlightened farming practices. That’s what change looks like. It’s slow and it happens one purchase and one consumer at a time.
In Iowa and Nebraska, farmers are learning that building healthier soil makes good economic sense. They’re adopting new practices, using cover crops and rotating what they grow. These approaches also allow them to use less water and reduce their need for fertilizers.
WHEN PEOPLE TALK ABOUT WATER, they often site a popular statistic: nearly 80% of the world’s freshwater use is devoted to agriculture. For farmers, this makes water stewardship critically important. As for the rest of us, most people couldn’t even name their local watershed. Water, like sewage treatment and electricity, has become mostly invisible. We don’t know much about our water, and that’s a problem, because while we don’t know where our water comes from, we’ll certainly miss it when it’s gone.
It takes water to grow our food, to grow the cotton used to make the clothes we wear, and in some cases to grow the corn that becomes the fuel that powers our cars. There’s a term for water that leaves the ground and the products it ends up in: virtual water. Simply put—there’s water embedded in everything around us.
Our work begins with hundreds of interviews with leading authorities in water use, including environmentalists, entrepreneurs, industry leaders, conservationists, water activists, and executives at public utilities. They help us establish an authoritative collection of the terms people use most when they talk about sustainable water use.
From this initial research, we’ve created a series of information-rich photographic collages that provide a graphical taxonomy of key water terms and principle. These artworks examine water use in the home and in the field, in industry and the environment. We help explain concepts like water footprints (a metric that calculates our total consumption of virtual water), show how much water it takes to grow an almond, describe how scientists measure point source pollution that runs off Iowa cornfields, dumping phosphorus and nitrogen into waterways (which eventually ends up in drinking water), and how adaptive agricultural practices can build healthy soils that retain more water for when its needed most.
We even depict innovate approaches like behavioral water efficiency that help consumers use less water, and in some cases show cautionary tales like that in the California town of East Porterville, which literally ran out of water, to remind us how we should all take greater care of this precious resource.
OUR ENERGY WORK BEGAN BY CHANCE. We were documenting amaranth producers in Oaxaca when we learned about a recent decision by the Mexican government to no longer build power lines connecting villages under a certain size (less than a hundred residents) to the country’s power grid. People in remote areas were suddenly faced with two options: either move or live without electricity. But some entrepreneurs recognized an opportunity. They developed small, economical solar panels perfectly suited for village use, so we traveled with them to a series of remote hillside villages six hours north of Oaxaca to see what happens when electricity is brought to a village for the first time.
Since then our energy work has taken us across the globe. In Sicily, we’ve documented what’s happened as rising fuel costs have led a rush to build alternate power sources on this Italian island. They’re finally reaching grid parity for the first time, with wind power now equalling and at times even surpassing the energy supply from fuel-burning conventional powerplants.
Hawaii faces challenges similar to those in Sicily. Islands must import the goods and services they can’t produce for themselves, which makes energy a costly resource. What Hawaii has is lots of rainfall, so examples of hydro-power projects abound across the islands, as well as initiatives to grow energy feedstocks with crops like jatropha and to even turn cooking grease into a renewable energy source.
In Israel and the Middle East we’ve documented a number of alternate energy sources, from generating jet fuel from castor beans and algae, to building solar panels directly into office windows that transform buildings into solar arrrays. We’ve also captured some of the largest solar power sites in the world, at Brightsource in the Negev desert, while in the US Pacific Northwest we’ve looked at how forests can be thinned and their biomass burned in combined heat and power plants to generate energy while producing biochar, a valuable soil amendment.
Still, we see our energy work as just beginning, and look forward to take a deeper look at how renewable principles can change the way we look at our energy use.
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