Last Thursday, a couple of us had the pleasure of attending the University of Vermont’s Food Systems Summit—Leading the Necessary [r]Evolution for Sustainable Food Systems. The event was modeled after a TED conference, and speakers gave succinct, but poignant presentations to a captive audience. The presenters at the Food Systems Summit came from a wide spectrum, each bringing a unique perspective to the necessity of building a sustainable, 21st century food system. Some general themes were woven throughout the conference, including the challenge of feeding an expanding world population, the power of growing your own food, the corporate influence on our food system, and the various ways to enjoy & preserve fresh, whole foods.
Chuck Ross, Secretary of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, spoke about the complex challenges we face in building a more sustainable food system, particularly in the face of climate change and an increasing human population. He contended that we’ll need a combination of organic, conventional, local, and biodynamic agricultural production to feed the world into the future. Secretary Ross expressed his concern that many people in the United States lack basic agricultural literacy, and do not understand the interconnectivity of local communities, agriculture, the economy, and the environment. He pointed to Vermont as a leader in rebuilding the food culture, and highlighted the work of programs like Vermont FEED (Food Education Every Day).
Dovetailing off of Chuck Ross’s themes, Tom Vogelman, the Dean of the UVM College of Agricutlture and Life Sciences, spoke about the interwoven fabric of food systems across the areas of labor, capital, and markets, as well economic & environmental sustainability. He highlighted the intergenerational renaissance which has guided the food system forward, and the creative solutions people are continually coming up with. Vogelman said that the greatest challenge will be in reconciling dense agricultural production systems with lessening their environmental footprint. He also emphasized that the main petrochemical inputs that nourish the industrial food system—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—are finite resources and are bound to disappear later in this century. Thus, nutrient cycling becomes all the more important. His presentation ended with an examination of how climate change will effect the growing season of Vermont, presenting farmers with new opportunities, as well as new challenges in food cultivation.
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a professor at the University of Ottawa Medical School, spoke about the trappings of a food culture that is fueled by the marketing of fast food and junk food. He offered several examples where corporations like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut are sponsoring everything from youth hockey leagues to national reading programs. While some may demonize these fast food companies, Freedhoff suggested that these companies are simply driven by profit and are ultimately catering to popular tastes. He believes that overall, we need to actively change our consumptive patterns—though he admits it is quite challenging to work against what the food industry has helped established as the contemporary, junk food driven American diet.
Touching on a similar theme as Dr. Freedhoff, Mary Hendrickson, Director of the Food Circles Networking Project at the University of Missouri, spoke about the corporate control of our food system. She explained how a small handful of corporations, such as Monsanto, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, ConAgra, and a few others control a staggering amount of the food supply—from seed, to production, to processing, to distribution. She proposed that anti-trust laws should be enacted and strengthened to ensure healthier competition, which will cultivate a more dynamic and robust food system. At the same time, she championed the efforts of grassroots movements working to build a more vibrant and diverse food system, and talked about her work in fostering local agricultural programs in Missouri.
Tanya Fields, Executive Director of the BLK ProjeK in the South Bronx, captured the audience with her passionate presentation about the work she has done to empower people in her community to grow their own food and take greater control over their food choices. She differentiated between food security and food sovereignty, contending that enabling members of the community to produce their own sustenance is more critical than the temporary security programs like SNAP and WIC provide. Karen Washington, a fellow South Bronx community member, added to Tanya’s assertions in her own presentation by arguing that we need to encourage people in disadvantaged communities to take food production into their own hands, particularly because labeling such communities as food deserts can have a disempowering effect.
Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Vermont, Teresa Mares, presented on related efforts in her work with migrant workers in Vermont. Even though they are directly involved in food production, migrant workers are among the most food insecure people in the state. To combat this unfortunately reality, Mares has been working with an offshoot of UVM’s Migrant Education Program known as the Huertas Project, which is leading an effort to give migrant workers the resources to cultivate their own gardens.
All told, the University of Vermont’s Food Systems Summit was a thought-provoking event which probed a variety of aspects in the food system both in Vermont and on a broader national & international context. These conversations are valuable and need to continue in order to help build a more sustainable food system, but ultimately action at the local level will be key in driving this [r]evolution forward. If you are interested in watching footage from the conference, the video feed can be found here.