It’s World Food Day and the focus this year is on food security within the context of soaring world food prices. To mark the occasion, here’s a short report on a food and community conference I attended recently. Good, healthy food. Local food. Organics. Food security. Food and climate change. Urban agriculture. Food from farms to cafeterias. All of these topics, and more, were on the menu at the Community Food Security Coalition’s annual conference held in early October in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Food’what, how and who we eat and from where’is fast making its way up the list of priorities for groups and individuals working on global warming, land and water pollution, biodiversity protection, improved public health, and issues of equity and social justice. Seven hundred people traveled from around the U.S. and a few from overseas to Cherry Hill, about a half an hour outside of Philadelphia, to further the discussion.
“Grow food everywhere,” was one of the recommendations offered by Deb Habib, director of a Massachusetts family farm and non-profit called Seeds of Solidarity, as a direct way of limiting “food miles.” That’s the distance food travels from farm or production center to plate, consuming fossil fuels all the way. “Where,” she asked, “are available open spaces?” such as lots, community spaces, school yards, house of worship grounds, interstitial areas where vegetables or fruit can be grown.
Maria Jose Bezerra from the Landless Workers’ Movement/Via Campesina, in Brazil described her group’s efforts to resettle poor Brazilians on abandoned or unused land. Here, they produce food and, increasingly, energy, using ecological principles and respecting local, regional, and national cultural traditions. So, small-scale production, no agro-chemicals, and no genetically-modified seeds. It is small agricultural producers, Bezerra said, who are the first to feel the effects of climate change. She called for a new model of production and consumption, terming the industrial agriculture model, as seen in the vast plantations of sugarcane grown for biofuels and soy for animal feed, “a project of death.”
In his keynote speech over a rather climate-unfriendly lunch of beef (local, organice or pasture-raised, but still…a vegan-friendly, also local tofu and rice dish was also available), Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of California-based food policy think tank Food First, also argued for a new local and global system of agriculture. It should localize the “food value chain” and democratize the food economy in favor of the world’s poor and non-industrial producers. Twenty-eight million Americans, Holt-Gimenez reminded the audience, rely on food stamps, a record level, tallied before the current financial crisis.
Campaigns to raise awareness of and action on the intersection of food and global warming were at the center of the plate in an afternoon session. Moderated by Anna Lappé of the Small Planet Institute and the Take a Bite out of Climate Change campaign, four panelists described their strategies, their successes and obstacles they’d encountered. Andrea Samulon of Rainforest Action Network discussed her work to hold big agribusiness, including Archer-Daniels-Midland and Cargill, accountable for the negative impacts of their soy operations in Brazil on small farmers, indigenous communities, the Amazon rainforest, and the Cerrado savannah.
Meredith Niles of the U.S.-based Center for Food Safety described the “Cool Foods” campaign, which seeks to get individuals, organizations, and institutions to sign a pledge to take a set of actions to lessen the impact of their food choices on the global climate (among the actions: choose organic, avoid packaged foods, reduce consumption of conventional dairy and meat products). Both speakers noted the difficulty of getting people’s sustained attention in a world of 24-hour media and a raft of pressing personal and public issues. Danielle Nierenberg of the Humane Society of the U.S. reported on her work to bring the issue of farmed animals into the global warming discussion’fully 18% of global greenhouse gases come from the livestock sector. Increasing, she said, there’s an openness among scientists, public health experts, government officials, and even environmentalists to acknowledging and addressing these connections, as well as the conditions of animals in factory farms.
Finally, Ben Burkett of the National Family Farm Coalition and a Mississippi Delta farmer spoke of the importance of international coalitions around food issues, including Via Campesina, a network of small-scale farmers and their supporters in which he’s a leader. “We all have to eat,” he said, and urged his audience to consider ways of solving the food and climate crises on local levels, including by working toward community food self-sufficiency. “We have to solve the problem,” Burkett said. “We have no other choice if we want to continue on this planet.” He related how climate change became evident to him: the four seasons he’d experienced when he started farming in 1974 have now shrunk to two, summer and winter. Eggplants and bell peppers can be picked into mid-November. The end of the harvest used to be in October. Burkett ended with this food for thought: we need to create a conversation with people that makes issues of food and climate meaningful in their lives.