Future of Food: Post-Conference Knowledge Dump

photo from Future of Food

Like most endeavors worth undertaking, attending a good conference is an exercise in physical, mental and emotional endurance.  Nonstop information!  Bold soundbites!  Inane chatter!  Straight talk! Obfuscation!  Uncomfortable folding chairs!

Last week’s Future of Food conference offered the full spectrum: an all-day barrage of ideas challenged the mind, emotions rollercoasted through dramatic highs (Wendell Berry’s speech), disheartening lows (Vilsack’s stance on GM crops) and 15 hours of nearly uninterrupted sitting provided an epic test of posterior resilience.

Having allowed some time for my brain to process the stimuli and allow all the Big Thoughts to marinate, I'm pleased to present some highlights of the conference.  For the convenience of those who don’t like reading, I've summarized the entire event in the Top Five Big Themes section below.  For those who prefer details, see The Full Report for a speaker-by-speaker compilation of good ideas, bad ideas, compelling quotes and noteworthy observations.  And for those who'd rather avoid the written word altogether, visit the Post’s website to find video clips from the conference.  (Be sure to note prominent logo placement of event sponsor, Mars, Incorporated.  Ponder the implications.)

Top Five Big Themes:

  • Cheap industrial food is actually quite expensive.
  • Consumers have the power to drive markets – so they need to be educated about the value of sustainable food and must demand change.
  • Local and regional food systems built on networks of small-scale sustainable farms bolster food security and represent a viable solution to the problems caused by the existing industrial model.
  • A key component of a sustainable food system is fairness; farmers must be able to earn a living, farm laborers must be afforded safe working conditions and a just wage, and the food produced by the system must be accessible to everyone.
  • Good soil is essential – we need to produce more and protect that which already exists.

Bonus Big Theme:

  • We need campaign finance reform!

The Full Report

Panel I: Impact on Ordinary People

Opening Remarks: Eric Schlosser (author, Fast Food Nation; co-producer, Food, Inc.)

Schlosser underscored the theme of his recent article in the Post, noting that organic food isn’t just a luxury good for wealthy gourmands.

  • The people who need organic most are the two million farm workers in the US who handpick almost all the nation’s fruits and vegetables.
  • The EPA estimates that 10,000-20,000 farm workers in the US suffer acute pesticide poisoning on the job (this is probably a drastic underestimate – the real figures are likely closer to 40,000-50,000 per year).
  • Industrial agriculture “hurts the weakest and poorest in America more than anyone else.”


Will Allen (Founder, Growing Power)

  • Fostering community involvement in food system reform is essential; involving the youth is a particularly effective means of engaging communities.
  • Production of new soil is tremendously important – particularly in poor urban areas where existing soil is often contaminated.  Growing Power now composts millions of pounds of food waste every year!

Commander Heidi Michels Blanck (Division Chief, CDC)

  • We need to promote water as a beverage!
  • 1/3 of American children drink at least one soda per day.  17% of kids are obese.

Angela Glover Blackwell (Founder and CEO, Policylink)

  • Government policy needs to make healthy food choices the easy food choices; you can’t tell people that they need to eat well and exercise, but then fail to provide good food options and infrastructure for exercise.
  • Lack of food access poses a serious challenge – as does the long history of divestment in low-income communities.

Ronald Shaich (Founder, Panera Bread)

  • If we want to change the food system, we have to reclaim our government.  (Currently it’s in Big Ag’s pocket.)

Lucas Benitez (Co-Founder, Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

  • If we talk about sustainable food, we have to talk about human rights.  The consolidation of purchasing power at the top of the food industry has enabled gross abuse of farm workers to occur.
  • If the wage earned by farm workers were increased by 40%, it would only cost the average American household about $40 per year.
  • Consumers can change markets – see CIW’s Fair Food campaign.

Greg Asbed (Co-Founder, Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

  • Look to corporations – they're capable of making changes faster and more efficiently than the government.
  • People support the protection of farm workers' rights – there’s a consensus that includes “everyone from anarchists to archbishops.”

Keynote Address

The Prince of Wales (environmentalist, organic farmer, heir to the British Throne)

Though I have very little interest in celebrities, high-profile royal weddings or the British Throne, I was excited to witness the keynote address, because the Prince of Wales is a serious environmentalist and longtime advocate for organic agriculture (i.e., he started practicing and promoting sustainable ag 30 years ago).  There’s already been plenty of outstanding coverage of the keynote address elsewhere (see Paula Crossfield’s post on Civil Eats, or the Post’s article and slideshow).  You can also watch a video of the entire address, or read the transcript.

Panel II: Future of Agriculture

Opening Remarks: Wendell Berry (writer, visionary, food movement guru)

Wendell Berry is a poet.  His speech (my favorite of the day), describes what we must do to change the food system.  I highly recommend watching the video here.

  • My personal favorite point was #5 : “We must give up the notion that we are too good to do our own work and clean up our own messes. It is not acceptable for this work to be done for us by wage slavery or by enslaving nature.”
  • Soundbite runner up: “There is no justification ever for permanent ecological damage.”
  • Amusing fragment of conversation overheard before the panel: Bro #1 : “Who’s Wendell Berry?” Bro #2 : “Some farmer.”

Fred Kirschenmann
(President of Stone Barns, Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture)

  • As described by Ernest Schusky, we've entered the “neocaloric era” in which food is produced using fossil fuel, synthetic fertilizer, etc.  This isn’t sustainable.
  • Local shouldn’t be the only objective (i.e., the agricultural techniques utilized are important).

Wes Jackson (President, The Land Institute)

  • We need to address the political power wielded by corporations.  We should also address population growth.

Dennis Belcastro (Executive VP, Industry Affairs & Collaboration, Grocery Manufacturers Association)

  • The mindset of the average shopper: “Save me time, save me money, provide me with solutions for health.  Also, I may want to be indulged sometimes.”
  • Demand drives supply; if consumers request sustainable foods, stores will offer them.

Fedele Bauccio (Co-Founder and CEO, Bon Appetit Management Company)

  • Young people are now driving change within the food system – they want to know the source; is it local? Is it safe? Who’s the farmer?
  • The distribution problem needs to be solved.

Stephen McDonnell (Founder, Applegate Farms)

  • Every week, Applegate’s farmers sell almost half a million pounds of meat from animals raised without antibiotics; less than 1% of the animals ever get sick.  “You don’t need the antibiotics – and once you withdraw that, there’s a level playing field.”

Panel III: Health and Nutrition

Opening Remarks: Robert Ross (President, California Endowment)

  • Policy wonks and researchers want to gather more science.  But sustainable food advocates aren’t in a policy debate; we're in a fight.  Ross: “We need to bring as much rigor to the fight of this issue as we have to the science.”
  • Idea: use investment portfolios to invest in regional food economies that offer healthy foods (see the Fresh Food Financing Initiative).  This creates a public health benefit, provides pro-health economic development in underserved communities and is an investment that will make money.
  • What if every philanthropic organization invested 1% of their investment portfolio to support healthy food economies in food deserts?


Marion Nestle (Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU)

  • We need campaign finance reform.  Until then, “maybe what the food movement should be doing is buying congressmen.”
  • “The most revolutionary thing people can do is to teach kids to cook.”
  • Nutrition advice: “It’s simple: just eat real food!”

Susan Crockett (Vice President and Senior Technical Officer, Health and Nutrition, General Mills)

  • General Mills buys 10% of all grains produced in the US.  Green Giant (owned by GM) is the biggest vegetable brand in the world.
  • 27% of consumers surveyed said cooking is a bother.
  • 20% of Americans choose a healthy diet.  The challenge is to deliver healthy food to the other 80%.
  • “Stealth Health” – General Mills has been slowly improving the nutritional quality of its foods, adding food groups of need (e.g., fruit, vegetables, whole grains) and reducing “limiters” (i.e., calories, fat, trans fat, sodium, etc.).  But they've kept this quiet in order to avoid scaring off consumers.

Deb Eschmeyer (Co-Founder of FoodCorps, Outreach Director for the Farm to School Network)

  • The overwhelming interest in FoodCorps demonstrates the tremendous support for sustainable agriculture – especially among young people.  (Check out Erin McCarthy’s interview with Deb to learn more.)
  • Perhaps my favorite quote of the conference (in response to GM’s stealth health efforts): “Hopefully in the future, you won’t have to hide health.”

Bigshot Speaker #2

Tom Vilsack (Secretary of the USDA)

Vilsack is a clever politician and a skilled orator (watch a clip of his speech here).

  • In the US, 17 million kids live in food-insecure homes.
  • Of the roughly 4.1 million farms in the US, 200,000 (~4.8%) produce 85% of the nation’s food.

But things really got interesting during the Q & A:

  • When asked about the irresponsible overuse of antibiotics by the livestock industry, Vilsack seemed to be rendered speechless.
  • When asked about GM crops, Vilsack busted into his old “I-love-my-two-sons (organic and industrial) equally” routine.  Which was disappointing since the analogy is ultimately inaccurate unless he’s envisioning a Cain and Abel sort of family.

Panel IV: Future of International Food

Hans Rudolf Herren (President and CEO, Millennium Institute)

  • “The single most efficient method to change the system would be to be to internalize the externalities into the food prices.  Because if you do that, you solve the problem of all the subsidies; you make the cheap food of today, which is of low quality, more expensive and… the organic food, the sustainably produced food more affordable."
  • Instead of doling out $400 billion per year to subsidize industrial food, the US should use this money to make sustainable food affordable to low income families.

Vandana Shiva (Director, Navdanya; physicist; world-renowned environmental activist)

  • Seeds belong to everyone; life shouldn’t be patented.
  • Industrial agriculture reduced food to a commodity – we need to reclaim food as our nourishment.
  • We currently measure agricultural productivity in crop yield per acre – we need a new index: health per acre.

Gary Hirshberg (CEO, Stonyfield Farm)

  • Genetically modified foods should be labeled as such [insert thunderous applause].
  • Stonyfield buys 140 different organic commodities; every farmer makes money – their yields increase, their inputs decrease, and they're less susceptible to shocks due to fluctuations in oil prices.
  • “The power that we've got is the power in this room… it’s the power of voting multiple times a day.”

Closing Remarks

Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana; third-generation family farmer)

  • The local food movement is growing – but the future of food depends on educated consumers.
  • Feel-good final soundbite: “Smart, sustainable food policy is common sense – and if you fight for it, you will win.”

Want to add anything to our list of points/quotes/thoughts from the conference? Leave a note in the comments section.