The future of food is now

A recurring theme of the challenging Future of Food conference sponsored by Washington Post Live at Georgetown University on May 4 was the notion that the time for day-long discussions is over. It is now time for action, noted numerous thinkers, including the keynote speaker, the Prince of Wales, who between various Socratic questions issued this warning:

“Essentially, we have to do more today to avert the catastrophes of tomorrow.”

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His Royal Highness Prince Charles delivers the keynote address at the Washington Post Live event, The Future of Food.

His Royal Highness Prince Charles delivers the keynote address at the Washington Post Live event, The Future of Food.

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Prince Charles wants business to account for the true costs of food production, factoring in not just federal subsidies but also the environmental costs of Big Ag’s unsustainable practices. But should that be the first action in a movement that’s calling for many?

If the Washington Post Live conference proved anything, it’s that many issues seem to cry out for immediate planning: Should activists and farmers and legislators tackle soil biodiversity before all else? Or maybe genetically engineered alfalfa? Organic rules? Sustainable food systems? Farm workers’ rights? The obesity epidemic? Factory farming? Sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics on farm animals? The to-do list grew larger with each subsequent panel.

So as the conference unfolded, I asked some of the participants, and a few of the more prominent attendees and moderators, what issue we need to confront during our lifetimes or face serious consequences. It was an appropriately alarming question, I thought, for an essentially one-sided conference that raised many alarms itself. It was the kind of question that might focus minds, generate fear, sell newspapers and maybe, just maybe, develop a short list of priorities for a movement in which everything seems to be a priority. (Note to self: Maybe everything is a priority.)

The answers I received were, not surprisingly, varied. But the top response was an issue that was barely addressed during the conference itself: global climate change.

“We’re going to have the luxury of some time to solve most of these problems, except for climate,” said Fred Kirschenmann, a professor, organic farmer, veteran leader in sustainable agriculture and board president of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. “That’s the big elephant in the room.”

“We have to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gases in the environment, and that’s the one thing that we don’t want to talk about, because it means we have to change the way we do business and the way we consume,” added Kirschenmann, who holds a doctorate in philosophy.

“The unfortunate thing is that we’ve convinced ourselves that materialism and the level of consumption . . . is what gives us a quality of life. But all of the data that comes from psychologists who have studied this are telling us exactly the opposite: that all of our quality of life indicators have actually gone down, especially since the 1970s. Rates of depression are higher. Rates of suicide higher, et cetera. This is why I think one of the things we need to do is to involve the arts more, because they can give us . . . the forms that we can understand and imagine a better future than the one that we have. If we can’t imagine that, it’s going to be difficult to get us the changes we need.”

Both Marion Nestle, the noted nutritionist and professor, and Laura Anderko, associate professor at the Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies, agreed that global climate change hangs over our heads like the blade of a guillotine.

“There are climate zones, and you can see the map moving northward, which means that the South will get hotter, the Midwest will get hotter. It will have an enormous effect,” said Nestle.

Noted Anderko: Climate change “affects growing seasons. It affects resiliency of land. It affects indigenous populations and us, meaning the U.S. and how we farm. It means [using] more water. It means more chemicals to keep insects at bay. Climate change means more insects.”

Reversing the effects of climate change might involve more than artists, says Anderko, who sees education and advocacy as keys. In other words, it’s time to stop playing Angry Birds and watching “Glee” and get involved in the process of producing change.

“This whole issue of time, and we’re busy taking our kids to soccer or basketball or ballet . . . there’s some truth to it, but it’s also an excuse. We have to make that time to become educated,” said Anderko. “As a society, we’re just not trained in the importance of advocacy and being informed in a way that drives change.”

Fedele Bauccio sees a need to address the many issues of factory farming first. “We need to change concentrated animal feeding [operations], the CAFO system,” said the co-founder and chief executive of Bon Appetit Management Co., which provides cafes and catering services at more than 400 locations in 29 states. “It impacts rural communities. It impacts the environment. It impacts animal welfare.”

“We need to learn how to eat seasonally, [with] a little bit less protein,” Bauccio continued. “We’ll all be healthier, and all the externalities — the costs of those CAFOs, which contribute to the issues of health, obesity, the environment — all of those costs would go away. And we would have much safer food and a better food supply and a healthier population.”

By contrast, Dan Barber wants to focus on flora instead of fauna. The James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef, who has worked to erase the line between dining and farming at his Blue Hill at Stone Barns, says we needed to focus our attention on wheat production.

“It’s really about concentrating on how to make wheat more nutritious,” Barber said. “If you look historically at diseases and cancer and heart disease, all the big ones, really the dramatic rise happened when we started to take wheat and make it bland. Highly processed, grown in mono­cultures, devoid of any kind of nutrition and flavor. My feeling is that we can get both great flavor out of these whole grains and ancient grains and improve the ecological conditions in which they’re grown in one swipe.”

“What you need to do, I think, is to concentrate more on these mid-sized farmers, farmers who are too small to be in the Walmartification of the grain trade and are too big to load up a pickup truck and drive it to the farmers markets,” Barber added by way of a solution. “These farmers represent a very big chunk. Some say 20, 30, 40 percent of the [grain] farmland is in mid-sized farms. . . . We can start to transition these farmers from white wheat, from conventional farming, into a more diversified grain agriculture that’s better for us.”

Like Barber, Tom Philpott, the Beard-nominated senior food and agriculture writer for Grist, a Web site devoted to environmental news and commentary, keeps his gaze low to the ground. He’d like to see American legislators and policy wonks maintain a similar focus. “The Midwest,” he said, “is one of the greatest stores of soil fertility in the world. It’s vast. I mean, millions of acres of prime soil. And since we broke ground there in the 19th century, we’ve burned through about half of it.”

“We mistreat that resource at the peril of feeding the world,” he added. “If the obsession is ‘How are we going to feed the world?’ that’s a resource that we want to protect, and right now, we’re not doing it. In fact, our policies are doing the opposite.”

Sam Kass, the assistant White House chef and senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives, says that if we concentrate on nutrition, with an emphasis on children, we could see many of the dominoes fall in other critical areas, including soil erosion. “If we focus on the most fundamental aspect of food, which is our nourishment, I think we can solve a lot of the problems and challenges that we face moving forward,” he says.

The chef points out that, as a country, we are dealing with the consequences of a poor diet. “We’re already spending huge amounts of money, $150 billion a year, just on obesity-related conditions alone, and the CDC is predicting one in three Americans of our youngest generation will have diabetes in their lifetime,” Kass noted. “The breakdown of our health, unless we’re able to solve this, will make it such that every level our society will not be [functioning] the way it should be.”

Which explains why first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign focuses on kids. They’re young, open to new ideas and able to carry on the message of proper nutrition throughout their lives. In the process, they could possibly transform the way a country eats. At least that’s the idea. “Focusing in on our kids and their health will be the single most effective way” to deal with the nutrition problem, Kass said.

Vandana Shiva, the influential physicist who founded Navdanya International, an organization devoted to promoting sustainability and protecting small farmers, suggests that Big Ag will doom the long-term viability of agriculture unless it’s revamped soon. She says companies that patent seeds and force more chemicals on farmers are leading to the demise of food producers. Literally, in many cases. Shiva said that in India, according to government data, thousands of farmers have committed suicide in the past 10 years because of mounting debt.

“Seventy-seven percent of rural debt is through input costs: chemicals and seeds,” she noted. She’d like to see the end of seed patents. “The seed is not an invention,” Shiva said. ”Patents are given for an invention. Therefore, there should be no patents on seeds, and the minute we don’t give patents on seeds, everything gets sorted out.”

The final thought on this Level 1 Priority discussion will go to Samuel Fromartz, the Washington writer and author of “Organic, Inc.,” which explains the rise of the natural food movement into a multibillion-dollar industry. He said the first step needs to be something more fundamental: Big Ag must shift its thinking on how to address many of the problems we face.

“The whole mind-set has been relatively narrow for at least the past 30 years, and you hear it every day in the mantra of ‘We have to feed the world.’ Always, the next sentence is to promote solutions that basically have been used in the past 30 years, which have not achieved that goal,” Fromartz said.

“There is no discussion on the other issues, such as the amount of organic matter in the soil. There is no discussion of what crops we’re growing and how basically the diet’s changing to a more meat-centric diet as people get wealthier, which leads to a whole series of decisions on what to plant,” the writer added. “I guess my basic issue is that I don’t feel there’s enough discussion. I mean, there is in these kind of [organic/sustainable] circles, but I’m not sure it gets out beyond this.”

It would seem, then, that the time for discussion is not over.

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