Joe Lamp’l is one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in gardening and sustainability. You may know him already as the current Executive Producer and Host of the award-winning PBS series, Growing a Greener World. Or, perhaps you know Joe as former host of Fresh from the Garden on DIY Network and GardenSMART. You may even have met Joe from his appearances on NBC’s TODAY SHOW, ABC’s Good Morning America, The Weather Channel or through his popular books, podcast series and nationally syndicated newspaper column.
These days, Growing a Greener World is Joe’s key project. The award-winning TV show, appearing on national Public Television, features organic gardening, green living and farm-to-table food. Each episode focuses on compelling and inspirational people making a positive impact on the planet. Currently the show is preparing for its seventh season, covering everything from edible gardening, urban homesteading and hobby farming to seasonal cooking, canning and preserving the harvest.
What are some changes you’ve seen in consciousness and awareness of sustainability over the last five to seven years?
I see a very slow, but positive increase in public awareness about issues surrounding food and sustainability. It seems more the norm, rather than the exception, to focus on these topics than it was seven years ago.
When I created Growing A Greener World, one main reason was to increase public awareness about the importance of sustainability. Now I see more widespread acceptance, especially among the younger generation, in making more conscious food decisions. They want to know more about their food. How was it grown and processed? What pesticides were used? How were the animals treated?
It is encouraging to see more attention on these topics. This collective effort is raising the demand on the quality of our food and helping us consider the environmental footprint of our food. Some of this “conscious environmentalism” is personal choice. Some is a sense of responsibility. And some is coming from businesses, trying to improve their own environmental footprint.
We’re finally starting to get the fact that if we don’t make significant changes to the way we live our lives, we will have some serious problems ahead of us. We’re getting closer to the tipping point. For example, I’d like to see more of us think about how our demand for meat is having an environmental impact on deforestation happening in other countries. It doesn’t make sense to mow down the rainforests to build pastures for livestock to graze and scientists say it is contributing to climate change in a significant way.
How would you define sustainability from a broad point of view?
Sustainability has lost its meaning, because it’s so watered-down; it’s so overused. Companies use the term often now, but there‘s not much meat behind it. The word is simply not as powerful as it once was.
Recently, I’ve seen a shift away from the use of “sustainability” and towards the term “regenerative.”
It makes sense. Sustainability traditionally means that we leave no impact behind. We don’t leave the environment worse off after our time there. But it’s also important to go further: We need to not just leave no trace, but to also make things better off afterwards. That’s the direction we must move towards. We need to find ways to make our environment more regenerative, so that it’s ripe for improvement.
What are key 2016 trends for food and sustainability?
Labeling and GMOs: Well, there’s a lot of talk around food labeling now and especially about labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Collectively our culture is demanding more information about their food. People don’t like the idea that the government is deciding how much information we are permitted to have.
So, the battle will continue. You’ll see people become more vocal, as they learn about the risks. They will keep working to make themselves heard via grassroots efforts, social media and advocacy work. This issue isn’t going away.
Edible Landscaping: The trend of growing your own food is hugely popular, but people want these edibles to look good, too. So, we’re seeing more edible plants worked into traditional landscapes. It’s an area of landscape design that is underserved, but becoming increasingly relevant. Edible landscaping meets that desire for growing foods at home. And people are discovering that it looks really cool and it’s quite trendy.
There’s so much under-utilized space. Even if you have a small garden, there’s still an opportunity to grow your own food. And if we all did a little more of that, it would make a huge difference in the quality of our lives and reduce the resources needed to transport that food elsewhere.
Pollinators and Beneficial Insects: People will continue to be concerned about the problems that we’ve had in recent years with honey bees and other pollinators, especially the use of pesticides and the effects they have on our native insect species.
A graphic example in the news lately is with monarch butterflies. Many think that industrial farming practices in the Midwest are contributing to wiping out food sources for monarchs, specifically milkweed through the widespread use of herbicides.
Fortunately, it’s not too late. We’re learning about the loss of these insects and the importance of rebuilding their habitats, thanks to authors like University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy, who wrote Bringing Nature Home, and national conservation organizations like Xerces Society.
We can’t undo the sins of our past, but at least a lot of us are looking for ways to be environmentally proactive. So the most important thing is to catch our mistakes and make changes before it is too late. I’m seeing more individuals, companies and organizations making changes to the way they’ve done things in the past. This makes me hopeful.
How do the people you interview for the show influence your own practices in your garden and kitchen?
I get to interview the people who I see as heroes and mentors. These are the people who I really admire. A lot of my questions for the show are things I want to know myself.
Maria Rodale has been a big inspiration to me, because of her platform of continuing to demand organic. We did our show with her in the first season, but I had been a Rodale fan long before we met. I continue to cling to her book – Organic Manifesto, which has been very important to me.
Don’t miss UC Food Observer’s interview with Maria Rodale!
I also greatly respect people like Joel Salatin and how he farms at Polyface Farm. He’s 100 percent organic and his animals are ethically raised from the day they are born until the day they are processed. Animal ethics has become an important platform for me, because of the people I’ve interviewed and the books I’ve read. My whole life has been transformed from the time we started this show. I feel better about the choices that I’m making and the food that I choose to eat (and not eat).
I’ve always been an environmentalist and conscious of my food choices, but writing, interviewing and producing this show has allowed me to go much deeper than I might have gone otherwise. It’s that extra layer of depth that has had a profound impact on the decisions I’ve made and the directions I’ve taken with my life.
What is your biggest worry about food and sustainability? What makes you feel most hopeful?
I think about this one a lot. Sadly, no matter how much we care and want to make the difference, it can be challenging. Too often it seems people with the most influence and money do not seem to be working for the common good. More often than not, they tend to get their way at the expense of our well being.
It’s discouraging to think that no matter what kind of laws we have in place, there are always going be people turning an eye away from enforcing them. I’m also disappointed in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rulings on glyphosate and GMO food choices. That’s despite the loud outcry from the public. It just doesn’t seem like the general public is represented or heard properly. It feels like the fox protecting the hen house.
I get a little more frustrated every day. But I also get more hopeful every day too. I’m an optimist and I want to inspire those in my influence to get educated and take action so they influence who they can. It all adds up. A journey of a thousand miles begins with that first step.
I’m encouraged by the organized grassroots efforts and by the people shopping their convictions with their wallets. We’re creating a force at the consumer level, at the cash register, that hopefully will speak loudly enough to elicit a customer response and change at the producer level. I see some of that happening already.
You’re always going to have people who don’t care about these issues, or aren’t thinking about them. But I think the collective efforts of other people and organizations – who are digging their heels in and aren’t acquiescing to the corporate momentum – are being heard at a local, grassroots level. And that’s where it starts.
What are the best ways to evoke positive change, Joe?
I always encourage people to lead by example. Whether you have a TV show or you’re an ordinary citizen, everyone is a neighbor, a friend and a family member. We all have a sphere of influence. 1+1 can equal 3.
Another thing is to know your convictions. But talk about them without being condescending or non-accepting of other views. If you lead by example, the last thing you want to do is make people feel defensive. It’s easy to make it seem like it’s “your way or the highway.” But that’s not how you have an open dialogue that evokes change.
Finally, try to present your case in a non-judgmental way. That’s why I focus on the educational side on Growing a Greener World – along with the “why” behind the action. It may be a slow way to evoke change, but it’s a lasting way. It’s also a more effective way to bring lasting change.
What lies ahead for the show in 2016?
When I created the title for Growing a Greener World, I was thinking about the agricultural and gardening side. But as the show evolved, people began to think of us more as a sustainability show. Our show’s evolution continues to move towards this direction in 2016.
Look for us to focus more on proactive environmentalism. For example, maybe a company didn’t have the best record in the past, but now they want to improve. They’re making significant efforts at every level of the supply change. As long as it’s not just a publicity stunt and the changes are real, I’m willing to consider that story.
We can’t change what has been done in the past. But the worst thing is for a company to continue down the same environmentally destructive path. Companies making real and positive changes are interesting to us. Those are the companies I want to spotlight. We want these stories to have a synergistic effect on their competitors and peers. We hope these stories help evoke change, because these corporate leaders speak the same language.
There is more than one way to skin a cat, and we want this approach to have a positive effect.
We’ve been a fan of this TV show since the early days. Our very own Rose Hayden-Smith was featured in 2009 on Growing a Greener World in an episode about wartime Victory Gardens.
Don’t Miss! Theresa Loe, co-executive producer and on-air canning/homesteading expert on the show, shares her thoughts on edible gardening trends with UC Food Observer.