For Joshua Viertel, sustainable farming does not only mean picking fruits from orchards and buying them from farmers’ markets.

Viertel — the co-founder and former co-director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project and now the president of Slow Food USA, a movement that seeks to encourage Americans to buy local and eat organic — argued on Thursday that sustainable farming should be seen holistically, taking into account its political and environmental implications. In front of an audience of more than 30 at a Jonathan Edwards College master’s tea, Viertel encouraged students to take responsibility for pushing the sustainable farming agenda.

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“Every citizen has a responsibility to help leaders to make good decisions,” Viertel said. “Pleasure and responsibilities are the flip sides of the same coin.”

Viertel said he became interested in sustainability as a sophomore at Harvard University majoring in philosophy and literature. Viertel said that in the midst of writing a complex paper dealing with French philosopher Voltaire, he realized he had lost touch with the physical world.

Viertel said he then decided — against the wishes of his academic adviser — to travel to a farm in Italy to explore whether he liked working with his hands.

At one point during Viertel’s stay, a local farmer in Sicily suggested that Viertel take what he had learned about the sense of touch and go “touch the world.”

“I looked at his much-ridged hand, and it was a powerful moment,” Viertel recounted. “I decided to touch the earth as much as I could, and that’s how I found Slow Food.”

Slow Food USA intends to focus the message of the larger sustainability movement, Viertel said, in order to draw in a wider audience, including American policymakers. Viertel expressed optimism that the Obama administration will respond positively to the sustainable farming movement. Still, he said, supporters of the movement need to make their presence known.

By supporting such changes as bringing healthy food to schools, Viertel said, he hopes to make the objectives of the sustainable farming movement more concrete.

“We don’t want our kids to grow up with chronic diseases,” he said. “It is a strategic move to tie into all the issues.”

Viertel praised President Levin for supporting the ambitious sustainable food project at Yale, calling it an “amazing achievement.”

Justine Kolata ’12 said she appreciated Yale’s willingness to bring the sustainable food movement to dining halls.

“I am interested in seeing the progress of this movement,” Kolata said, “especially in how it will progress in the current economy.”

Brendan Schlagel ’11, a Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership coordinator, said he identified with the focus Viertel placed on working with one’s hands and interacting with the world, rather than merely seeing the world.

Viertel advised all Yalies interested in sustainable farming to get involved with the YSFP by either volunteering with the farm — just across from 340 Edward St. — or applying for a summer internship.

Slow Food USA is now represented in more than 200 local chapters in every state except North and South Dakota. Founded less than 10 years ago in Italy as a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s, it now includes 83,000 members with chapters in more than 122 countries.