Editor’s note on the Future of Food conference

Consumers are demanding “better-for-you” food at the supermarket, according to Dennis Belcastro, executive vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “People aren’t stupid. They get it, and they’re beginning to make changes” in what they eat, said Ronald M. Shaich, founder of the Panera Bread restaurant chain. 

They were among the 30 speakers at the Washington Post Live Future of Food conference last week, many of whom talked about a growing food movement, about rising demands that more Americans — especially the poor — have access to fresh food and that big commercial farmers should not be allowed to pollute the water system with pesticides or feed animals vast amounts of antibiotics. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day-long conference was when the keynote speaker, Prince Charles, a longtime organic farmer, addressed the politically sensitive issue of farm subsidies: “what many environmental experts have called the curiously perverse economic incentive system.” Speaking to the crowd at Georgetown University and to a global audience watching live on The Post’s Web site, he asked: “Has the time arrived when a long, hard look is needed at the way public subsidies are generally geared? And should the recalibration of that gearing be considered so that it helps healthier approaches and techniques?” 

They were remarkably pointed questions from the heir to the British throne about critical issues shaping the Future of Food.

Mary Jordan, editor, Washington Post Live

Ronald M. Shaich, chief executive, founder and chairman, Panera Bread: “If we’re going to serve good food, it’s got to taste good. It’s not enough to set government policy, and it’s not enough to want it. On every menu in every cafe, we provide caloric information. What we found is, for 80 percent of the consumers, it didn’t matter. But for the 20 percent that it did, it affected them; they thought about it and they made some choices. So all of our work over the past decades is getting to people.”

Will Allen, founder and chief executive, Growing Power: “We need more people growing food in their back yard, side yard, community farm. We need to support those existing farmers that are struggling. Our rural farmers are struggling, and they have been the backbone of our food system for so many years. In 1960, they told us farmers to grow soybeans and corn, fence row to fence row; we were going to feed the world. And we have what? A million less farmers. That system hasn’t worked.”

Robert Ross, president and chief executive officer, the California Endowment: “Nothing short of a powerful movement will reverse the trends that are in front of us. The scientific community first understood that tobacco was bad for your health in 1921. And it wasn’t until 1965 when the Surgeon General got permission to put the warning label on the side of a cigarette pack. It wasn’t until the 1990s when we began to see some of the significant and meaningful policy and practice changes. And again, that victory is not done. So, if we do a side-by-side comparison of the complexity of the issue before us today — health and nutrition and food access and sustainability — compared to tobacco it is a far more complicated and complex undertaking. At the end of the day, that was a power issue, and it continues to be a power issue. And the only way to confront issues of power is to craft a movement that wields power.”

Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health, New York University: “The food movement will get bigger and bigger and bigger. It feels like an avalanche to me, because I’m in a university that started a food studies program that discusses these issues. We started our program in 1996 which suddenly seems like a very long time ago. Now every university that I’ve visited in the last year is starting some kind of academic food program. So, to us it feels like an avalanche. Just keep it going!”

Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “We just proposed rules that would require calories, labeling in restaurant menus in chain restaurants around the country... We are going to be updating the nutrition facts panel on the back of packages and (the government is) looking to update serving sizes ...We’ve got a lot on our plate.”

Debra Eschmeyer, outreach director, National Farm to School Network, and co-founder of FoodCorps: “Well, Julia Child had it right. It’s about romance, it’s about relationships. We’ve taken the relationship out of food with the farmer, with where it’s grown, how it’s grown, who picked it. I quote Julia Child left and right and she really does bring it home a lot about trying to make it so that when you’re having a meal, you’re having it with friends and family, you’re sitting down, you’re enjoying it.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana): “The rise of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and who controls the seed is one that’s particularly disturbing to me as a farmer. With GMOs, farmers don’t control the seed, multinational agribusiness does. You’ve probably heard about these transgenic plants. A gene is taken from a microorganism, a plant or even an animal, inserted into another plant. You and I have heard over and over that our only hope to feed the planet, as our population grows is GMOs. Well, I’m here to tell you that I don’t buy it. What is has done and what it continues to do is take away options for family farmers. And it takes away options for consumers. If we keep moving down this path, farmers won’t be able to control their seed, something they have done since the beginning of time. And no longer will you truly know what you’re eating. And once the genie is out of the bottle and they’re introduced there’s no going back. For family farmers in rural America it’s hard to compete with consolidation and centralization. Consider this. Four meat cap--meat packing companies control 84 percent of our nation’s beef. Just 10 percent of our nation’s egg producers produce 99 percent of the eggs we consume. And only two-tenths of one percent of the nation’s food manufacturers produce 53 percent of the nation’s food. That’s the reason--there’s a reason why in the ‘70s, Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz said, “If you’re in production in agriculture you need to get big, or get out.”

Sam Kass, assistant chef and senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives at the White House: “Our greatest grain agriculture is 80 percent of our farmland. We eat more wheat, in particular, than we eat corn, oats, all the grains combined. So if we are going to change the food system, it seems to me that we’re going to have to learn to both re-appreciate and learn to regrow this mix of whole grains, often inherited grains – grains that don’t easily grow in a monoculture but grow in great succession and are better for the soil and better for our health.”

Dan Barber, chef, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.: “We eat to nourish ourselves. That is the Number One reason we eat. And although flavor and enjoyment makes life worth living, right? — I think we both would agree with that — I think the core reason we eat is to nourish ourselves so...I think chefs do have a responsibility to keep that close and make sure that what we’re putting on the table is doing that.”

Gary Hirshberg, chairman, president and chief executive officer, Stonyfield Farm: “I have yet to meet the consumer who says, ‘I want the milk with more synthetic hormones, please.’ We have got to change the law. We need labeling. It’s not very complicated. Those of us who have some discretionary income, some ability with our purchases, we’re reshaping the world by our daily purchases whether it’s at a restaurant or a store or a farmer’s market.”

Hans Rudolf Herren, president and chief executive officer, Millennium Institute USA: “This idea that there’s a God-given right for cheap food has got to go because that’s the problem we have. But we have to figure a system that the poor of the world also can afford food. There are $400 billion of subsidies a year for a few (large-scale) farmers. Take that money, support the poorer people to afford better quality food grown by small farmers, organic farmers. Then you have solved the problem. “

Dennis Belcastro, executive vice president, Grocery Manufacturers Association: “When you look at everything in the landscape of today, many of the manufacturers are looking to improve their products, to make better-for-you products. While we have made significant progress in that area as an industry, we still all can agree we still have a long way to go.”

Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and chief executive, PolicyLink: “We really do have to change government policy and change private policy to make the healthy choice the easy choice. People need to know what it means to eat a healthy diet, but it is so cruel to tell people, “You need to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. You need to get exercise.” And then in their communities, there are no places to make those choices. I can’t emphasize enough how much Latino and African American poor communities are at a disadvantage in terms of not having the things in their communities that would be the healthy choices.”

Cmdr. Heidi M. Blanck, division chief, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Sugar drinks are the largest source of added calories for our youth. We have one in three children having at least one soda a day. And the top consumers are having about 400 calories a day from sugar drinks. All of us are paying for this society that we live in that has too many calories and not enough activity. The estimates that the CDC put out in 2009 was $147 billion. So, really, this isn’t just a personal issue.”

Fedele Bauccio, co-founder and chief executive, Bon Appétit Management Co.: “Young people today are driving change. We serve well over 100 colleges and universities. We serve Google, lots of young people, Yahoo, EBay. So we have a good sense of what’s happening with consumers and where they want to go and so forth. I can tell you that the young people across the United States ask good questions. They want to know where their food comes from. They want to know: Is it safe? Is it local? Are you supporting local communities? Who’s the farmer? Who’s the rancher? Who’s the honey maker? They ask us those questions more so in the last year than I’ve ever heard before.”

Stephen McDonnell, founder and chief executive, Applegate Farms: “The time for antibiotics (in animals) is coming to an end. There’s three ways you can cheapen meat, and all of them are attributed to the use of antibiotics. It allows these factory farms to crowd, to use cheaper feed, and to accelerate growth rates. That is what changes the playing field and allows cheap meat, but it also creates systemic disease. So you’ve got 80 percent of all the antibiotics produced in this country going into animals, and as the issues around antibiotic resistance -- you know, as moms start having to use ever more powerful doses of antibiotics to try to treat an illness with their kids, as that resistance continues to grow, that is going to activate the consumer base to push through this inevitable legislation. So I think that issue will eventually balance itself out, and the use of the antibiotics will reduce dramatically over the next 10 years.”

Wes Jackson, president, the Land Institute: “I think we’re living with the great illusion that we’re going to save the planet with Priuses and squiggly light bulbs. We’ve got to start thinking about what extent that’s the product of that industrial mind. [We have got] to stop this nonsense about efficiency as the way to get ourselves out of this.”

Fred Kirschenmann, president, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture: “There’s some good news here. The City Council of New York recently published a new food charter for the city called Foodworks, and one of the elements is a citywide composting program. Now just imagine what could happen if the whole city of New York started to compost its biodegradable waste and then returned that to the soil. That could be an enormous effort to begin restoring the biological health of the soil. And then if New York does that, probably every other community in the world is going to pay attention. I’m not saying that’s going to solve the problem, but it starts to move us in the right direction and to begin thinking appropriately. It’s not simply a matter of always having those old calories to insert into the soil, we’ve got to deal with the foundation -- with the soil itself.”

Patrick Holden, organic dairy farmer in Wales and the founder of the U.K.-based Sustainable Food Trust: “I think that this morning’s speech by the Prince of Wales was a landmark. I think it will come to be seen as marking the beginning of a new chapter in the discussion about sustainable agriculture. What he really was saying was that not only is the current model of agriculture and food systems unsustainable, but it needs a radical transformation if we are going to address the challenges of climate change and resource depletion and all the other things he touched upon. Those of us who are involved in sustainable agriculture have a new responsibility which wasn’t on us before. There was a certain comfort in being adversarial, but now we have to work with others and rebuild the food systems for the future.”

Vandana Shiva, director of Navdanya, a network of seed keepers and organic producers in India: “In 1984 we had the Bhopal disaster, we had extremism in India in Punjab …. and I was forced to ask myself the question: ‘Why is agriculture like war?’ I found out it is like war--industrial farming is like war because it came from war. I was thrown into discussions around patenting, genetic engineering, way back in 1987, and the attempt of industry to create an international architecture which became the World Trade Organization with two treaties that affect farming directly and are a big block to the transition we are collectively trying to make. The first is the intellectual property treaty that allows corporations to own seed and life on earth as if it’s their creation. The second is the agriculture agreement which takes $400 billion of subsidies in the rich OECD countries, creates an unlevel playing field for industrial farms and just puts small, honest, hard-working farmers at a disadvantage worldwide to such an extent that the combination of monopoly on seed and inputs and these subsidies are squeezing farmers out. I started to save seeds, promote ecological agriculture. We’ve set up 55 community seed banks with the basic recognition that seed is not an invention, therefore not property of any company. It’s the common property and the commons of all people and we save seed as a commons. We’ve trained 500,000 farmers [in India] in ecological farming techniques. We’re helping the government of Bhutan becoming: to become a 100-percent organic nation.”

Lucas Benitez, co-founder, Coalition of Immokalee Workers: “If we want to have sustainable food that respects the environment and the rights of animals, we also have to have human rights for workers and for small farmers. This we can do by addressing the consolidation of power in the market by the biggest buyers of food. So if we’re talking about sustainable food, we have to address human rights. “

Tim Beach, professor of geography and geoscience and Cinco Hermanos chair in environment and international affairs, Georgetown University: “I’ve been working in soils for 25 or so years, and it’s been my goal in life to take as many students as I possibly can and plop them down into soils to understand that they are the most important thing, which the Prince [of Wales] has already told us before. Where I’ve been studying them has been in Central America, to look at how soils function and soil fertility, but also how ancient people and modern indigenous use soil in farming systems. Because in many cases I think there are some gems of information that we can still use in the modern world. One of those is ancient wetland systems and another is ancient terrace systems.”

Greg Asbed, co-founder, Coalition of Immokalee Workers: “The idea that you can impoverish millions of people at the bottom of the production chain in order to lower prices a penny or two isn’t terribly just. But you can actually improve lives instead of impoverishing them at the bottom with just a change of a penny or two pennies at the consumption end. It’s very exaggerated in the consumer’s mind how much it would take out of their pocket to make a change. That’s sort of a myth we have to work against.”

Hans Rudolf Herren, president and chief executive, Millennium Institute USA: “This idea that there’s a God-given right for cheap food has got to go because that’s the problem we have. But we have to figure a system that the poor of the world also can afford food. There are $400 billion of subsidies a year for a few (large-scale) farmers. Take that money, support the poorer people to afford better-quality food grown by small farmers, organic farmers. Then you have solved the problem. I mean the large farms, what do they produce? They produce corn for ethanol and soybeans for feeding animals. I mean, really, if you look at the system the way it is today it is totally upside down.”