The Future was Yesterday

| May 8, 2011

Last week, I published the Tweetscript of the Future of Food Conference held in Washington, DC on May 4, 2011. I was pretty proud of myself that 1) I tweeted (feel very hip), and 2) I didn’t overdo it with the spelling errors typing live (thank you, sixth grade keyboard class).

In any case, for those of who listened in, it was incredible…but also felt a bit like my brain was exploding. I wanted to learn more about the people there and their works. Here is a bit of a cheat sheet that highlights a few lessons I culled from these discussions. Woohoo to the Zomppa-esque theme that everything is interconnected…to food:

Not Jack, but I wish I could take him home. Source: Doggiedealer

Go Washington Post and Jack the Bulldog
Credit to Washington Post Live and Georgetown University for collaborating on an impressive conference. Georgetown President Dr. John DeGioia and Dean Chester Gillis being there says much that about the university’s priorites. Washington Post Live Lindsey Anderson did a fantastic job tweeting live. Very impressive was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist & Washington Post Live editor Mary Jordan, who was NOT about to let anyone off the hook!

Another great moderator was food writer Jane Black, who has reached super coolness in my book. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there for the lunch with Sam Kass.

Source: The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment

I heart HRH Prince Charles
No, seriously, I really do. The Heir to the British Throne is a committed organic farmer and supporter of sustainable agriculture. He has numerous charities, from promoting teaching to the arts to historical preservation, I can’t keep up. A few examples: The Prince of Wales’s Business & Sustainability Programme, which brings business leaders together to integrate sustainability principles; The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Foundation, which focuses on sustainable design and architecture; The Prince’s Regeneration Trust, which rescues historic building sthrough green and sustainable methods; The Prince’s Rainforests Project; The Countryside Fund, which focuses on on sustainability of rural farms and supporting farmers during crisis.

He spoke of his battle wounds talking about sustainable food, which is “risky business,” but that there is a serious need to wake up for the sake of our grandchildren. He pushed for accounting for sustainbility, that companies and governments need to start looking at the true costs of food and of the Earth,  that subsidies create a false sense of cost, and that it’s agriculture, not agri-industry that will determine our survival. He pushed for a new Washington Consensus to essentially stop screwing around and do something together, and do something urgently.

HRH Prince Charles, you rock.

Nature Needs Help
Discussing the “increasingly insane picture” of our food system, our environment, and our future, HRH Prince Charles stressed that as resilient as Nature is, we have got to help her. It’s very basic: sustainability means you keep something going continuously. You put back what you get. But with water and soil depletion, Nature is at some point just not going to have enough to keep giving. For HRH Prince Charles, topsoil is the cornerstone of our future.

Fred Kirschenmann of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture (non-profit farm and education center in NY – also home to the famed Blue Hill Cafe) agreed that the biological health of our soil is the #1 priority. He outlined how historically we did pretty well until about 10,000 years ago when we went the agricultural route. That, he said, was the moment we decided we didn’t need Nature anymore. He argues that we are now in the Neo-Caloric Era, where we have used up the calories stored up in the Earth. Instead of ignoring Nature, we need to look to her as a model – she’s not a monoculture and neither should our food production. Wes Jackson of the Land Institute (works on problems of agriculture) agreed that it is critical we start looking at prennial grains to mimic the natural ecosystem. Diversity is critical.

Patrick Holden of the Sustainable Food Trust (work to transition to more sustainable food and farming) echoed the need for a system that is resilient to shocks. He highlighted the Agriculture at a Crossroads report by the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. The report stresses the multifunctionality of agriculture and that our future with sustainable food, food security, and food sovereignty, is impacted by many issues, including poverty, human health, equity, investments, biotechnology, climate change, trade and markets, traditional and local knowledge, and of course, natural resource management.

Nature, after all, knows what she’s doing. We just gotta work with her.

Make Money and Do Good
The live feed was down for a bit, but caught snippets of wisdom. Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser did not mince words. He threw it out there why many food companies declined the invitation. It was notable (at least to me) that companies like Panera Bread, Stonyfield, Applegate Farms, and General Mills not only showed up, but were quite vocal about their opinions and transparent about their practices.

Ronald Shaich, founder of Panera Bread, called the fast food drive through “nutritional cocaine.” Yikes! But if you’ve ever gone to a Panera, you probably may have been impressed like me at the quality of the food, the transparency of their ingredients, and yet also the speed. His pay-as-you-go community cafe really goes to show that people are inherently good – 15% of customers actually pay more than the listed price.

Fedele Bauccio founded Bon Appétit Management Company, which aims to “revolutionize the food service industry by bringing fresh, made-from-scratch food to the contract market.” Prettily incredibly, he looks to find sources withint 150-miles of each campus. And yet, as he said,”we make money and do good.” With a preference for local over organic if he had to choose, he noted, however, that his biggest problem is not being able to find enough farmers and producers to meet the demand that is there.

Susan Crockett of General Mills have been doing something called “stealth marketing” where gram by gram, they reduce sugars and increase fibers into their products so slowly that customers don’t get shocked by the changes in taste or texture and run away to the nearest sugary cereal.

Jackson stressed that, “the ecological world view has to take place of the industrial mind.” As such, corporate charters should have a judiciary responsibility for including sustainability practices.

Label and Let the Market Decide
Idol Marion Nestle put it about as basically as you can get: just eat food and you don’t need to worry about labels.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t just eat food, but eat other foods that do have labels (or should have labels).

Stephen McDonnel of Applegate Farms (big fans of their organic, antibiotic-free products) put it out there that antibiotics in meat completely changes the playing field. It’s not fair to compare retail food prices when the true cost of antibiotic-pumped meat includes health & environmental costs. Their products might be slightly higher, but they also pay the network of small farmers with whom they work with what they deserve to earn.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Secretary of Agricultural Tom Vilsack even offered his personal perspective that he too wants to know what’s injected in his “natural” chicken. OK, Vilsack, since you agree that it is important to give people (everyone – consumers, farmers) information and choice, and let the market decide, let’s do it!


Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield (you know my ongoing affair with Stonyfield. I mean the their CEO raps.) stressed over and over and over again that we need labeling. While he’s grateful that he can actually say the word “organic” in public spaces now, he notes that 50% of GMO-foods come out of the U.S. He argues that the lack of labeling has to do with big companies wanting to maintain the economic status quo. Yet it’s a false market when consumers do not have the information to truly decide for themselves what they want and what they would buy. With labeling, he believes the market will work itself out.

Organic sales still make up only 4% of U.S. sales. Hirshberg argues that the single driver to bring down premium is volume. Cheap food is a myth, Hirshberg and Herren say. Consumers have the power. If consumers knew what was in their food, their purchasing decisions may shift from what they currently are.

Hirshberg also emphasized that the science behind organic yields is good, while the science behind the pros of GMO crops is not good. Kinda flies in the face of arguments like this report from the Marketplace that suggests organic and local will not feed the world. As much as I love NPR (really, I listen to it while I exercise), the folks I heard at this conference all suggest otherwise.

Dr. Vandana Shiva of the Navdanya International (one of 7 most influential women in the world and not one to dance around tough subjects) argues that dishonesty just “gets her goat.” Even though there is an increase in small-scale, sustainable farming, continued artificial costs has got to end. It’s not just about commerce, but about the environment, society, and health. Saving seeds is one way, but rather than just looking at bushels as yield, it is important to measure how much health you are yielding per acre.

Dr. Hans Herren at the Millennium Institute (works to develop a global sense of shared responsibility in the environment and renewable natural resources) credited for his incredible work saving cassava crops from a bug, thereby averting famine and possibly 20 million lives (sure, I save 20 million lives every day) SANS chemicals, argues that there are indeed ways to work with nature. The issue he sees is that we are dealing with the symptoms, which is “great for business, but bad for every else.”

He rightly notes that “the time to act was yesterday.” Let’s stop writing reports on things we already know and have the “political courage to change,” which Herren outright said he didn’t see at the conference. I heart Dr. Herren, too.

Food is a Human Rights Concern
All too often we overlook those who labor for our food. We romanticize the small family farmers, but often selectively forget that the majority of food is still produced and picked by countless of faceless laborers who are not always compensated fairly. Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers stressed that it is critical that folks start recognizing that food IS connected to human rights. Only then, he argued, will change happen.

Will Allen, founder of Growing Power (great organization that works to develop community food systems that support people from diverse backgrounds) stressed that it doesn’t matter where people live – rural or urban – but that “a local, sustainable food system is the  only way to feed the world.” And people from all backgrounds need to be included in this conversation. He pointed out the irony that industrial agriculture had promised to feed the world, but now billions find themselves without food or sufficiently nutrient food.

Place Matters
Food insecurity, as we’ve often talked about here, is not only a developing world issue. Angela Glover Blackwell of PolicyLink (national research and advocacy group advancing economic and social equity) pointed out that 8% of African Americans live in areas with supermarkets. 8% (*may have referred to low-income African-American subpopulation. Video went down for a bit, so this was taken from twitter feed). So it’s not even an issue about healthy choices when there is no choice if you live in a food desert.

Dr. Robert Ross of the California Endowment (seeks to expand access to affordable, quality health care for underserved peoples in California) likened food deserts as blue squares with little yellow dots as places of healthy foods. He argued the need for more yellow dots and that the only way to get more yellow dots is by wielding power. Noting that life expectancy can be estimated by zip code, he pushed that more of: consumer purchasing power through government and private sector programs, improved school meals, food labeling, placement of healthy foods, financing; and less of: marketing unhealthy foods to children, consumption of sugary beverages and overly processed foods.

Yet as Ross noted, the ongoing tobacco issue has been going on for 100 years, and food and our Earth do not have 100 years. There’s got to a triple-bottom line: 1) clear public health benefits, 2) pro-health development, and 3) investment to incentivize healthier option.

On the flip side, those who live in food oases or have the means to buy whatever they want don’t always eat well either.

What We Got Ain’t Working
Ross quoted: “if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” What we got ain’t working. McDonnell noted that factory farms went too far, he isn’t naive to think that we can go completely back to the 1900s. He argues that we need to take the best practices. Black agreed that it’s key to find something that works today in the 21st century.

Nestle pushed for two major changes: 1) election campaign laws, 2) the way Wall Street evaluates companies. True, true.

Vilsack noted that out of the 2.1 million farmers, 1.3 million barely make enough money as residential farmers. Even though there has been a 30% increase in farmer’s markets, 200,000 of them produce 85% of the food consumed in the U.S. and this small number at the top are not hurting for revenue. Vilsack seemed to recognize that something isn’t working right, but argued the need to support the big guys while providing incentives to the small- and middle-sized producers (how?).

Vilsack also seemed to get the twin problems of hunger and obesity, which can increase health care costs by 20% over the next few years. Noting a need to focus on healthier school options, he pointed out what the administration is doing: better school meals, more research dollars into land-grant institutions, improved conservation methods, and getting younger people engaged and connected to the food system. He wants kids in 4-H programs to speak up about the Farm Bill. Although he danced around the issue of antibiotics in food and GMO foods, he stressed – even pleaded – the necessity for all sides to come to the table, not be defensive, be willing to talk and listen and not fear being attacked, can something be done.  Play nice, duly noted. And honestly.

Senator Jon Tester (Montana) spoke as a farmer (to him, the farm is “sanity), arguing that the current Farm Program just isn’t working. Noting that it used to be a patriotic duty, it has now led to monoculture crop and multinationals controlling the seeds. He simply stated, “I don’t by that GMO is the only way to feed the planet.” (Yay, Tester, I think I heart Senator Tester too). He argues that the current system where 10% of egg producers produce 99% of what we eat needs to change. The future, he believes, is in family farms and in consumers that understand that smart policies are needed on all levels. An overly centralized food system does not work.

Shockingly, Senator Tester had the audacity to say “common sense prevails.” If you fight for comment sense, you win. Who knew this Montana farmer was such a radical. It make sense to me to want to know where my food comes from….

We ARE the Change
One consistent theme throughout the conference was about the much-needed collaboration and cooperation among all parties in food – which really is, everyone – consumers, small producers, big companies, government, lobbyists. Yes, lobbyists. Dennis Belcastro of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, noted that from his perspective, it starts with the consumer. Even though there are expanded offerings, consumer demand is just not there.

It’s been said it before, but I’ll say it again, vote with your forks (or chopsticks or spoons or whatever). Everyday. The change must occur at many levels. Jackson wryly noted that it isa great illusion that we’re going to save the earth with Priuses and squiggly light bulbs.”

Supporting local is great, but Krischenmann stresses that it’s not just how many miles a food has traveled, but how it also engages people as local “food citizens.” Instead of viewing cooking as a bother and blaming women for not cooking, engage the family. Debra Eschmeyer of Farm to School and FoodCorps stressed that food is also about romance, community, and the family. It’s as much a question about subsidies as it is about attitudinal change for individuals to act.

It is clear that young people are one tremendous, powerful source of real change. Bauccio with  sees everyday that young people are questioning where their food comes and how it came to be. He wants more people to question, because the more we question, the more we push, then something will change.

Author and poet Wendell Berry blew me away with the power of his words. He noted that folks, we’re just like any other animal and we’re subject to nature. He said that there is never, ever an excuse for permanent ecological damage and that we really shouldn’t break things we cannot fix. He stressed “local sunlight, local intelligence, and local work” – especially work because we just simply have to “give up the notion that we’re too good to do our own work and clean our own messes…by wage slavery or enslaving nature.”

It’s up to ordinary people to commit to the most humble of service – that for the Earth, for each other, and for our future.

More info?

Don’t forget to head to Washington Post Live for more information.


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Category: Featured Articles: Food Politics, Food Politics

About the Author (Author Profile)

With a flair for spontaneity, pizzazz, creative excellence and her own unique sense of aesthetic grace and perspective, we have our very dear friend, Belinda (or B, to some of us). Although an incredibly accomplished professional and career woman, B’s down-to-earth approach and demeanor transcends all scenarios, communities and people. She manifests, in her day-to-day, the essence of the word “Zomppa” as demonstrated by her extraordinary commitment to creating sustainable and positive change for us and future generations to come. She’s asked for a dog every year since she was five. Check out Belinda’s work on global education research and coaching: or more about her portfolio

Comments (6)

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  1. Jeanne says:

    Oh my! This makes my brain explode, too. The food industry really is such a complex issue, and you certainly nailed the bottom line: we can all vote with our forks and our wallets.

  2. a Nordn'Ireland dad says:

    Great report, Belinda!

  3. kristy says:

    Belinda, I need to put on my glasses! Am feeling quite dizzy right now actually. haha…. Thanks for all the info. Hope you’re enjoying your day.

  4. kristy says:

    Btw, I wish I can keep that doggie! ha…

  5. Thanks for the comprehensive summary. Everything is totally related to food and politics. We’ve become so far disconnected from it that we don’t see it that way.

    The fact that I eat locally and grow my own is my way of making a statement and not giving into the crap that’s pushed on to us.

    As for Stoneyfield, I’ll keep my thoughts on them aside, but I will say that the “rap” was horrendous.

    Appreciate the wrap-up again. I’ll certainly have to bookmark and reread it.

  6. Beth says:

    Prince Charles was talking about organic food long before it became popular. Who knew he was such a trendsetter?