By Mary-Howell & Klaas Martens, Lakeview Organic Grain, Penn Yan, NY
Added January 14, 2015
In November, we were privileged to participate in the NY Times “Food for Tomorrow” conference at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Tarrytown, NY, along with a group of about 200 farmers, journalists, restaurateurs, nutritionists, policy-makers, politicians, university researchers, food activists, and consumers.
The topics were broad and the tone intense, ranging from food safety, the treatment of livestock, accessibility to farm-fresh products, the rise of diabetes and other food-related health issues, soil health and its role in both food nutritional quality and climate change, the next generation of farmers, and the problem of food waste.
Speakers included prominent food writers Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Raj Patel and Sam Sifton; Chobani and Panera CEO’s; Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, the former deputy secretary of USDA; Sam Kass, the White House’s Senior Policy Advisor on Nutrition Policy; and Chellie Pingree, organic farmer and US congress representative from Maine. US Farmers and Ranches sponsored one workshop with large-scale conventional livestock farmers who discussed their highly positive perspective on the style of agriculture they represent. Stone Barns executive chef, Dan Barber, eloquently presented his views on connections between food quality and agriculture as he described each highly creative and delicious dinner course in detail, with many of the ingredients coming from our farm.
It was indeed two days of intense and sometimes contentious ideas, with opinionated larger-than-life personalities. We left with many new ideas and understandings of the massive change that our food industry is currently experiencing - changes that give new opportunities to some farmers, and make others feel remarkably threatened.
Here are some highlights:
Many involved in conventional ag are beginning to admit that the system is struggling. Roundup and Bt resistant weeds and insects are rapidly proliferating, clearly demonstrating the fragility of GM-based agriculture. Manure/nutrient overloading is causing widespread water pollution. Research is showing clear links between conventional ag, declining soil health and climate change. Indeed, American-style conventional ag has been termed a ‘brittle system’, increasingly non-resilient and vulnerable to failure. Honest and experienced researchers, such as Dr. Molly Jahn of the University of Wisconsin, are calling for urgent change - perhaps not all the way to organic, but for the incorporation of dramatically more sustainable management, with diverse crop rotation, soil health management, significant reduction in pesticides, and greater decentralization of livestock production.
Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of food quality, and the agricultural system and values that their food dollars support. Because of social media, internet, and popular books, today’s consumers know more about agriculture, they expect greater transparency, and they have informed opinions they are willing to express through food purchases. Often organic milk is the ‘gateway drug’, as parents will spend more on their children’s diet. Then, as awareness of food quality grows, especially if their experience with organic milk is good, they buy a wider range of organic and local products, both at home and in restaurants. This trend is actively being reflected in chain restaurant success - Chipotle and Panera, offering high quality, nutritious food with emphasis on flavor and sustainability, are experiencing rapid expansion and profitability, while McDonalds and similar fast-food businesses are shrinking in market share. Chefs admit that while sourcing fresh food locally is often neither as convenient nor inexpensive, quality is usually higher, and most importantly, consumers expect it. This is creating a major opportunity for us organic farmers - milk demand is growing rapidly, vegetable farmers have more market opportunities, and grain farmers are taking advantage of the emerging flour, wholegrain, dry bean, malting, and distilling markets.
One issue rarely considered is that approximately 40% of the food produced in the world is never eaten, roughly 1.3 billion tons, is lost to waste and rot at all points along the supply chain - from farm, to warehouse, store, restaurant, and consumer. Most of local and world hunger issues could be solved if we develop better ways to reduce and intercept this waste, instead getting it to where it can be used.
We strongly believe that it is important for farmers to participate in discussions and meetings such as this. Food writers, consumers and restaurant operators should listen to our farmer perspective, but equally importantly, we must listen to theirs. If we are going to benefit from new opportunities and be valuable partners in the changing food industry, we must better understand the concerns, frustrations, needs, and logistics of our buyers, and of their customers.