Gary Paul Nabhan was chosen as an Utne Reader visionary in 2011. Each year Utne Reader puts forward its selection of world visionaries—people who don’t just concoct great ideas but also act on them.
Local and sustainable are on the tips of many tongues as more and more people try to eat food that’s good for them and the planet. If you’re a part of this important conversation, you can thank Gary Paul Nabhan for helping to get it started.
A Lebanese American living in the Southwestern United States, Nabhan has for more than three decades been writing books, directing research projects, forming farming alliances, and speaking often and passionately about the importance of “place-based” foods. For his prescience and persistence in this realm, Mother Earth News has called Nabhan “the father of the local food movement.”
Nabhan first got interested in food topics when he went away to college and discovered that he sorely missed the fresh, delicious Lebanese foods his grandfather had served and to which he’d grown accustomed. Nabhan followed his passions to an agriculture degree, focusing on crop diversity and desert agriculture in the classroom while organizing community gardens outside it.
In 1982 Nabhan helped found the organization Native Seeds/SEARCH to prevent regionally adapted crop varieties from being lost to history. The same year, he organized the first national conference on community seed banks. In 1997 he was one of the first observers to call attention to the decline of bees and other pollinators by coauthoring the book Forgotten Pollinators. And in numerous other books, speeches, and projects, he has explored groundbreaking ideas about the links between genetics and nutrition, between peace and place, between the desert-dwelling cultures on opposite sides of the globe.
Nabhan’s latest pursuit is a position as the endowed chair of the University of Arizona’s Sustainable Food Systems Program in Southwest Borderlands Food and Water Security, where, he says, he’s “putting together the pieces . . . for a whole food system that’s healthy and just and equitable, and biologically as well as culturally diverse.”
Nabhan’s holistic outlook extends to his own life, in which daily work and daily spiritual practice provide balance.
“I decided that I couldn’t really write about food and farming anymore unless I practiced it on a daily and weekly level,” he says, so he lives on 6 acres that he’s developing as a permaculture orchard. He also partners with a rancher friend on another 10 acres nearby, “and my wife and I share the cooking of food. That’s what grounds me—those nonverbal experiences and daily activities where, frankly, the eggplant or the tepary bean or the soil microbe doesn’t care about my ideology.”
Nabhan is also an ecumenical Franciscan brother whose spirituality is a driving force. “I can’t imagine working toward sustainable agriculture,” he says, “unless I truly had faith that the earth is sacred and what we do with it matters.”
He’s gratified to see that what started as whispers in the kitchen corner now has the whole room talking. “We wanted the discussion of local and sustainable foods to go beyond the same choir, and it has now, and that creates complexities and opportunities,” he says.
We need to redesign our foodsheds “not as if everyone is going to become a farmer again,” he says, “but realizing that there are many niches that need to be taken care of. We need people to be chefs, farmers, market managers, community-supported agriculture interns, transportation route designers, sustainable vehicle designers. Everyone can have a role to play in this.”