Saturday Series: An Interview with Sarah Alexander

By Olivia Arnow

Nourishing the Planet’s new Saturday Series, in which we interview inspiring people that our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone? E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Sarah Alexander and the Keystone Center work to facilitate problem-solving models in the areas of sustainability, agriculture, and environmental cleanup. (Photo credit: keystone.org)

Name: Sarah Alexander

Affiliation: The Keystone Center

Bio: Sarah serves as the Director of Environmental Practice for The Keystone Center. Her work with conflict resolution and consensus building on sustainability issues over the past 18 years has resulted in important agreements, innovations, and policy impacts for agriculture and land use.

How did you come to the Keystone Center? What sort of work you do?

After studying environmental studies in college, I had a particular interest in agriculture and food systems and knew I wanted to help find solutions to environmental issues. That’s what the Keystone Center does: they bring people together to fight problems collaboratively and proactively.

Keystone does a broad variety of work with health and energy and initially I worked with cold war infrastructure, finding ways to return federal facilities and military bases back to the community. It was through Keystone’s sustainability work that I got back into agriculture.

What sort of work have you done with Keystone’s agriculture initiatives?

I mostly work on Field to Market, the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, which focuses on building stakeholder consensus on how to measure and improve sustainability within the United States. The alliance of about 40 organizations includes farmer groups, conservation organizations, universities, food companies, and other participating members of the food chain. We work primarily to meet production needs as well as maintain and improve environmental health and social and economic wellbeing.

We started Field to Market in 2006 to focus on commodity agriculture, a topic that had only previously been discussed internationally. Rather than discuss whether GMO or organic food was going to feed the world, we started with more basic questions: What are our basic expectations for agriculture? How can we measure them? Can farmers meet these expectations going forward?

In 2009, we produced our first report, which looks at the ways in which mainstream producers are affecting resource distribution nationally. Since then, to make our efforts more applicable on the farm, we created our Field Print Calculator, an interactive web-based tool that helps growers assess corn, wheat, soybean, and cotton in terms of land use, soil conservation, soil carbon, water use, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions. Next month we’ll release an updated calculator, which will include rice and potatoes and provide additional information on national socioeconomic indicators.

What sort of international work have you been involved with?

Field to Market has focused on U.S. agriculture but is gaining interest from international audiences that are beginning to adopt and adapt their approaches and tools. At the moment we are consulting loosely with organizations trying to do similar efforts in Canada and Brazil.

Because Field to Market is a multi-stakeholder initiative, we are really facilitating an international discussion where individuals have been able to sit next to people they normally wouldn’t sit next to. We didn’t want to set a standard state of practices because we realize that what works in Iowa may not work in North Dakota, let alone West Africa. We strive to find some things that are universal, yet we acknowledge that others depend are dependent on geographic and social factors.

Separate from Field to Market, I’ve worked with The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) collaborating on their forestry efforts in Ghana. Keystone was brought in to work with IUCN and the Ghanaian government to negotiate agreements with the EU, allowing them to use their market presence to help Ghana set up legal timber harvesting. It was a novel effort to not take things at face value, but get structure set up locally so when decisions were made about the legality of timber harvesting the support would be within the community. We also worked with the Cameroon government to observe the later process after the decisions had been made.

What sort of work do you do with The Keystone Center in the Colorado area?

The Keystone Center works on a variety of projects within the Colorado area including strategic planning, working with local watershed initiatives, and addressing local policymakers. In addition, we have a 23-acre Science School where students learn about hands on outdoor science and develop skills that our participants work on, like critical thinking and separating individual biases. We also have a teacher-training program, where educators from all across the country come to learn about ways to improve science and outdoor education.

What are the challenges in pushing for an environmental agenda? In your 18 years at the Keystone Center have you noticed that the conversation has changed as sustainability and environmental issues have come to the forefront? 

I think the conversation has really changed for a couple of reasons. First, the environmental agenda is more organized at this point. There are more organizations doing work, particularly in the NGO network, so there is a larger constituency that is knowledgeable, informed, and bringing their own strategies and solutions. There’s also much more public awareness and activism that we didn’t see in the last decade. Second, relationships between privates sectors and NGOs have certainly aided environmental efforts. In the last ten years or so we’ve seen a shift from companies taking a more adversarial approach to wanting to be a part of the solution.

That being said, we still face some challenges, particularly from the government. There’s so much at stake but such little negotiation from Congress, so national change and policymaking continues to be a challenge. Also the environment is changing (or we’re more cognizant of it). Decisions we made a hundred years ago are now coming home to roost, so to speak, so the environmental community is focusing on how we can adapt and change to our changing environment.

We can’t just take national parks and say they are the way Teddy Roosevelt set them aside; we have to adapt in order to develop a healthy environment. This is where partnerships come in. There are many potential areas for collaboration.

Olivia Arnow is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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