Raising the Bar at the Future of Food Conference

Corn production in Colorado.  Photo by Scott Bauer.

Corn production in Colorado. Photo by Scott Bauer.

Washington Post’s Tim Carman asked the leading participants of the recent Future of Food conference, which gathered members to discuss pressing food production and nutrition problems, some of which included a decline in biodiversity, obesity, the impact of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on health and the environment, and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), to come up with a short list of the most weighty concerns facing us today.

The answers can be grouped into three broad categories: climate change (the biggie), industrialized forms of food production, and nutrition.  Any way you look at these categories, however, one thing is clear:  people’s personal attitudes and consumption habits must change.  Many know it, some people do it, and more people need to get on the band wagon for real changes to be effectuated.

Climate change. It’s real, it’s here, and it must be taken seriously now. Enough with the time-consuming yet useless debate (are homo sapiens to blame or is it just cyclical?) and let’s get down to addressing the daunting issue. Laura Anderko, RN PhD at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies, had the following to say about climate change:

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.

And as food commodity prices skyrocket, some large hedge funds, investors, corporations, and even world’s governments are betting big on food scarcity in the near future primarily as a consequence of changing climate and continuing population growth. Remaining large tracts of land still owned by local farmers in developing nations, such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa, have become another hot commodity fueling further speculation.  It is against this background that we must analyze the intricate tie between food security, political stability, and climate change.  Agriculture, after all, is not just about production.

Prince Charles underscored the problem during a speech given at the conference when he said:

Only by safeguarding nature’s resilience can we hope to have a resilient form of food production, and ensure food security in the long term.

And that brings us to the next point.

Industrialized Forms of Food Production. CAFOs, unjustifiable use of antibiotics in healthy farm animals, soil erosion, genetically modified crops, dramatic increase in pesticide use, and superweeds are just some of the new legacies of the massive-scale industrialized agriculture system that has emerged in just a few decades.  This industrial approach to producing food exerts many direct and indirect costs on society.  Just think of the externalized costs produced by CAFOs — air and water pollution, destructive impact on the surrounding communities, health problems in animals and workers, and the increasing ineffectiveness of antibiotics.

Let’s dispense with the Big Ag’s self-serving battle cry that feeding the world and its growing population requires “massive, global ramp-up of industrial-scale, corporate-led agriculture.”  Recently, as reported by Tom Philpott, researchers led by the eminent Washington State University soil scientist John P. Reganold, urged “organic farming, alternative livestock production (e.g., grass-fed), mixed crop and livestock systems, and perennial grains,” as the way to feed in the future.  Similarly, earlier this year, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on food, Olivier De Schutter, cracked the agro-biotechnology myth about farming and infused legitimacy to the organic method’s ability to feed the world when he released a report that stated that “[s]mall-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years in critical regions by using ecological methods.” Likewise, Prince Charles noted:

Nobody wants food prices to go up, but if it is the case that the present low price of intensively produced food in developed countries is actually an illusion, only made possible by transferring the costs of cleaning up pollution or dealing with human health problems onto other agencies, then could correcting these anomalies result in a more beneficial arena where nobody is actually worse off in net terms?

The conference also spotlighted the biotech industry, which promotes large-scale intensive farming and then tries to export those systems to developing nations, salivating over the opportunity to control the agricultural methods for billions of people.  This was explored by Vandana Shiva, the world renown physicist, environmental activist and eco-feminist, who tirelessly fights for the rights of small farmers and sustainable agriculture.  She shared her insights at the conference on the privatization of the common good, the seed, and its impact on Indian farmers.

Shiva pointed out that when farmers cannot pay back for the patent seeds and chemical formulas, Monsanto comes in to confiscate the farmers’ land, an action which in many cases leads farmers to suicide. According to Smita Narula of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University Law School, who co-authored a new report on farmer suicides in India,1 when facing crushing debt and looming land take overs, small farmers have taken their lives, on average, at the rate of one every thirty minutes.

“[C]orporations are trying to dispossess people of their democratic rights and nature of her rights,” noted Shiva recently to Laura Flanders in an interview with GRITtv.  Looking forward, Shiva warned that “we have to dismantle the rights corporation have assigned themselves or corporations will destroy this planet.”

“The seed is not an invention,” Shiva said at the conference and urged that “there should be no patents on seeds, and the minute we don’t give patents on seeds, everything gets sorted out.”

Nutrition.  Michelle Obama makes an important statement with her program Let’s Move – kids need to learn proper nutrition at an early age so they grow up knowing and doing healthful things and educating others.  Sam Kass, the assistant White House chef and senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives, pointed out that as a nation, “[w]e’re already spending huge amounts of money, $150 billion a year, just on obesity-related conditions alone…”  Samuel Fromartz, the Washington writer and author of Organic Inc., said that “Big Ag must shift its thinking on how to address many of the problems we face.”

That’s true.  But Big Ag will not change unless once of two things happen:  laws or regulations force a change or consumers force the change. Beholden to lobbyists, however, not many politicians will actively seek to change the current system and the responsibility for the future of food, therefore, falls on the consumer.

It’s trite but true, a single person can make a difference.

  1. “Every Thirty Minutes: Farmer Suicides, Human Rights and the Agrarian Crisis in India”