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Experts Convene to Discuss Future of Food as Agriculture Reform Initiative Is Launched

(Beyond Pesticides, May 6, 2011) On Wednesday this week, the Future of Food conference, organized by The Washington Post, convened at Georgetown University in Washington, DC and featured experts in science, industry, and agriculture discussing ways to reform local, national, and global food systems to work toward justice and sustainability. The keynote speaker for the conference was Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, who has been a longtime advocate for the natural world and for sustainable systems of food production.

The event also featured such noted speakers as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, global sustainability advocate Vandana Shiva, nutritionist Marion Nestle, writer Wendell Berry, urban agriculture pioneer Will Allen, organic researcher Fred Kirschenmann, author Eric Schlosser, Stonyfield CEO Gary Hirshberg, and many more.

Prince Charles in his speech (text available here, video available here) discussed many of the problems currently facing food production and advocated for a swifter and more direct move toward more sustainable, or “durable,” as he called it, systems. Pointing out the many dangers caused by an industrial farming system that depletes natural resources and impairs biodiversity, he argued that we cannot afford to continue operating under the current system for very much longer before it starts to fall apart. In order to foster the necessary change, the Prince said that agricultural policy, in the U.S. and around the developed world, needs a drastic overhaul in order to incentivize and reward farmers undertaking positive change. The current system actually penalizes farmers and food utilizing sustainable methods while paying huge sums of money to farmers who plant monocultures of corn and soybeans on every available strip of bare land, he said.

He also pointed to research that was done by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) – convened by the United Nations and the World Bank – which demonstrated that small-scale systems of agro-ecology are fully capable of producing enough food for the developing world while helping to preserve and replenish natural resources. Hans Herron of IAASTD was there to speak in a later panel. Additionally, a report put out earlier this year by United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food came to similar conclusions, even going so far as to say that these more sustainable systems can actually double food production in certain regions.

Later in the conference, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a last minute addition to the conference agenda, took questions from the audience after a short speech about current projects at USDA. Several of the questions relayed a sense of frustration from the general public stemming from recent regulatory decisions.

One question in particular cut to the heart of the matter when filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia (Future of Food) asked how Sec.Vilsack could approve deregulation of Monsanto’s GE alfalfa http://www.beyondpesticides.org/dailynewsblog/?p=4888. Sec. Vilsack’s reiterated his belief in the potential for “coexistence” between organic and GE agriculture and said that he can’t favor one over the other because it would be like asking him to chose which one of his sons is his favorite. Ms. Garcia, referring to the agribusiness lobby, said to Sec. Vilsack, “one of your sons is a bully,” which brought cheers from the audience. The Secretary responded that he wants to move away from this kind of antagonism and gather a group of stakeholders to discuss ways to move forward with agreement, despite the fact that the burden of harm is unequally placed upon organic farmers who may find their crops contaminated with GE crops.

Dr. Vandana Shiva, a strong advocate for reducing corporate control of the food system in developing countries, later criticized the approach proposed by Sec. Vilsack in saying that it is not democratic for a small panel of experts to decide the future of food production for an entire population. What is needed, according to Dr. Shiva, is for all of us to take part in our food system in order to achieve true justice and sovereignty.

Elsewhere, eight of the world’s leading foundations have launched AGree, a new initiative that will tackle long-term food and agriculture policy issues confronting the nation and the world as the population continues to grow and resources become ever-more constrained.

AGree’s mission to nurture dialogue among diverse opinions on agriculture issues is embodied by the leaders of the initiative: Dan Glickman, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton and a former congressman from Kansas for 18 years; Gary Hirshberg, chairman, president and “CE-Yo” of Stonyfield Farm; Jim Moseley, former deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President George W. Bush and Indiana farmer for more than 40 years; and, Emmy Simmons, former assistant administrator for Economic Growth, Agriculture and Trade at the U.S. Agency for International Development and a board member for several organizations engaged in international agriculture and global development.

“Our current food system is broken for farmers, consumers and the environment,” Mr. Hirshberg said. “We must move beyond the political knee-jerk defense of traditional agriculture and face the need for change armed with real-world, scientific facts and analysis that AGree can provide,” Mr. Hirshberg said.

“Agriculture has evolved from simply producing food to feed people and now has numerous demands placed on it. As a result the current discussion on agriculture and food policy is having problems focusing on what is really important; stakeholders talk past one another and often fail to comprehend policy implications beyond a specific sector,” Mr. Moseley said. “The key to solving these diverse policy questions is through dialogue across sectors. AGree will promote these conversations and help us find the right balance on these conflicts to meet the broader public demands we are experiencing,” he said.

“We face a world where nearly a billion people already go hungry everyday; those numbers will continue to rise if we do not address underlying issues of quantity and quality of the world’s food systems,” Mr. Simmons said. “AGree can help align our domestic policies with the growing needs in developing countries for food security, nutrition and equitable development.”

The past 20 years have created competition and division among stakeholders on priorities such as environment, production, economy and nutrition, creating an impasse as lawmakers try to develop food and agriculture policies here in the United States and abroad.

According to AGree, it intends to foster these necessary answers by starting with an open mind to new solutions and by convening a diverse set of stakeholders including conventional and organic farmers, ranchers, nutritionists, energy experts, environmentalists, financiers, international aid veterans and public health specialists.

AGree is funded by Ford Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and The Walton Family Foundation.

For more information on the benefits of organic agriculture and the risks of conventional production, see our page on organic food, as well our Eating with a Conscience guide, which demonstrates why organic is necessary for you, farmworkers, and the environment. Beyond Pesticides’ executive director, Jay feldman, serves on the National Organic Standards Board, which regulates allowable practices and inputs in certified organic food, and advances organic food production practices that meet defined standards of sustainability and the protection of human health and biodiversity.

The Washington Post will be publishing a story on the Future of Food conference in the next week. In the meantime, several video excerpts have been posted to the Washington Post Live website which you can view at any time.

Source: Agree press release


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