Friday, May 13, 2011

Conference Asks: What Should the Future of Food Look Like?

Cross-posted from

All photos courtesy of

By Mara Schechter

“What has brought us here today is the belief that our current food system is broken… and we believe this system must be changed,” said Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation” and co-producer of “Food, Inc,” at the Future of Food Conference last Wednesday at Georgetown University. Organized by Washington Post Live, this conference brought together policymakers, scientific experts, advocates and food company leaders to think about how to fix the food system.

While not everyone agreed on the best way to go about changes—for example, Susan Crockett, a head of General Mills, had different prescriptions than did Marion Nestle, an advocate for unprocessed foods—all of the conference participants agreed that the conversation was critical and timely.

Author and educator Wendell Berry blamed industrialization for a host of ills, including climate change, hunger, and poverty. “We have no time to spare,” said Gary Hirshberg, President and CEO of Stonyfield Farm. Patrick Holden, Director of the Sustainable Food Trust, urged, “Not only is the current model…unsustainable, but it needs a radical transformation.”

 Even U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (pictured at left), who was criticized by some audience members and speakers for failing to regulate genetically modified food and overuse of antibiotics in meat production, said of healthcare costs associated with unhealthy food, “There’s no more time to lose here.”

Many speakers focused on the importance of soil health and a holistic approach to agriculture. “Genuinely sustainable farming maintains the resilience of the entire ecosystem,” said Prince Charles (pictured below). Fred Kirschenmann, a farmer and President of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, suggested learning from natural systems to build a sustainable food system.

“We need to look at nature as the model for how we produce our food,” said Kirschenmann, including increasing crop diversity because “nature doesn’t do… monocultures.” Wes Jackson, President of The Land Institute, said, “If we’re to save ourselves, we’ve got to…bring those processes of the wild to the farm.” They envisioned a future that combined new technology with ideas taken from the natural world, and where people use agriculture as a way to reconnect with nature.

One major theme of the conference involved supporting small farmers and farmworkers, especially in the face of a food system increasingly dominated by large agribusinesses. Greg Asbed translated for Lucas Benitez, both co-founders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers: “If we want to have sustainable food that respects the environment and the rights of animals, we also have to hold up human rights for workers and for small farmers. And this I think we can do by addressing the consolidation of power in the market by the biggest buyers of food.”

Many speakers talked about a new focus on health as a necessary component of an improved system, which incorporates food justice. For example, ten to twenty thousand farmworkers in the United States alone “suffer acute pesticide poisoning on the job,”said Eric Schlosser. “For them, the need for organics isn’t an academic issue and it has nothing to do with the latest trends. It is literally a matter of life and death.”

Speakers also discussed nutrition, often in the United States context, wherein health issues like obesity and diabetes particularly affect poor people. Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, focused on low-income African American communities with “very little access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”

She explained that only 8 percent of African Americans live in areas “that have a supermarket… 23 million Americans do not live within a mile of a grocery store.” But she has seen innovations that helped improve food access, employment, and community. She cited an incentive plan in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that encouraged farmers markets and fresh fruits and vegetables in stores.

Of course, these issues do not exist only within the United States. The last panel focused on the international food system. Dr. Vandana Shiva, Director of Navdanya, talked about her experience in India and how she saw that monopolies on agricultural inputs hurt small farmers. She responded to Secretary Vilsack’s conception of the benefits of agricultural subsidies, arguing that current subsidies create an unequal playing field and hold afloat an unsustainable system.

“We’ve got to reclaim food as nourishment,” not as a commodity, Shiva said. Nourishing people, she said, echoing other speakers at the event, involves thinking about ecology and health. Hans Herren, President and CEO of the Millennium Institute, explained that an improved food system requires locally adapted, diverse food production for local consumers.

Many conference participants felt that the food movement is growing. Said Marion Nestle, “It feels like an avalanche.” Some argued that the movement must grow stronger to succeed. Robert Ross, President of California Endowment, which is helping to improve access to healthy food, argued that, to change the food system, people must “craft a movement that wields power” and “bring as much rigor to the fight as we have to the science.”
And all of the conference participants agreed on the importance of figuring out the best ways to improve the food system. As Senator Jon Tester (pictured at left), who is also a farmer, remarked, “The thing about food policy is, if you eat, you’re affected by it.”

Please let us know: what do you think the future of food should look like, and how should we get there?

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