Sunday, March 29, 2009

Food Fights in Boston

What a week! It went like this:

  • On Tuesday, Michael Pollan spoke at Tufts, presenting a serious challenge to the western nutritionist paradigm;
  • On Wednesday, Friedman faculty, staff, and students discussed his visit at a school-wide forum (bringing him down to earth a little);
  • On Thursday, MIT hosted a panel discussion on the locavore (Oxford Dictionary's 2008 word of the year) movement that featured a veteran locavore chef as well as distinguished scholars of food-systems and sustainability, including Cornell University's David Pimintel, grand-daddy of life-cycle analyses and carbon foot-printing;
  • And finally on Saturday, the highlight of the week was the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy's 3rd annual Student Research Conference.

With over two-dozen students and researchers from Friedman and beyond gathering to present their work and debate the issues, there was plenty of food for thought. The topics ranged from revitalizing industrial wastelands in San Francisco by converting them to food corridors, to analyzing consumer preferences for bioengineered food products in China (where labelling is required). Equally fascinating was the keynote panel discussion, which focused on "new approaches to feeding the world." A lively discussion was inspired by the panelists, all of whom had interesting and insightful remarks on the future of food production and consumption.

Unfortunately, the discussion was quickly framed by the ubiquitous and increasingly tiresome juxtaposition of techno-industrial agriculture against organic agriculture as mutually exclusive approaches to solving the questions of sustainability, nutrition, and hunger that plague current food-systems.

As an aside, though the classic debate posits organic against 'conventional' agriculture, I personally reject the notion that the dominant food production methods practiced today can be generally characterized as conventional. In fact, vast and highly-productive agriculture geared towards producing bulk commodities and industrial feedstocks is an outcome of technological advances and deliberate policy initiatives that have been enacted in the last fifty to seventy-five years. Conversely, the assumption that 'organic' is inherently non-industrial is a false notion.

To be fair, and thanks in part to audience questions and astute moderation by Friedman's Parke Wilde, the panelists partially withdrew each of their Hobson's choices, admitting that there is no single method of farming that is going to meet the challenges we face. Predictably, as the discussion drew to a close, the technocrats and the grass-roots food justice advocates all threw their hats in the same ring. The final remarks all merged into a recognition that everyone in the room was striving towards the same goal: improving the livelihoods of all humans while producing food in an ecologically sustainable manner.

While virtually impossible to oppose, this position is nothing 'new,' as the title of the panel alluded to. To take it a step further, I would say that only vaguely were actual 'approaches' even discussed:
  • Robert Paarlberg of Harvard University and Wellsley College gave some level of detail on the availability and application of the 'precision agriculture' (a euphemism for agriculture dependent on industrial-scale technology and synthetic inputs) of which he is in favor;
  • Susan Roberts presented a basic outline of the potential for organic practices to save the day;
  • Mark Winne of the Hartford Food System offered some prescient insights on the post-production aspect of food justice, but he was sidelined by the aforementioned debate of production practices;
  • Even at the MIT panel, David Pimentel was hard-pressed to depart from his allegiance to 'capital-O organic' as the way to go.

Interestingly, at Saturday's event as well as the MIT panel there was little discussion of actual policy mechanisms that we might employ to achieve the implementation of any or all of the panelists' favored approaches. This, to me, is a grave oversight of the fact that politics and policy have shaped the food-system we have today, from farm to fork. In the US, for example, government programs (from outright subsidization to technical assistance programs to the USDA nutrition guidelines) have incentivized the commodity-based agriculture that dominates producer and consumer behaviors. It is odd to me that only Michael Pollan made a point of suggesting that we need to overhaul our policy framework in order to shift to sustainable agriculture. Paarlberg did mentioned a fertilizer tax, and Roberts referred to UN policy recommendations, but in no great detail.

While I point the finger at past and current regulatory frameworks as a key source of the problems we face, I am hopeful that we can work within these frameworks to put us on a path to sustainability. As my colleague Asta Schuette pointed out in a discussion about water scarcity and emerging technological responses (read: GMOs), there are some relatively low-hanging fruit we've yet to pick from the sustainability tree. Optimizing and expanding on the host of existing conservation programs that strive to implement best management practices at the farm-level can take us a long way towards our goals without resorting to wholesale, exclusive adoption of either techno-industrial agriculture, agroecology, or locavorism. All we need are networks of scientists, farmers, activists, and advocates dedicated to implementing these policies in good-faith and insisting upon integrity and tranparency from all stakeholders. That, and a few other things:
  • We need to supercharge the Conservation Reserve Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program;
  • We need to reorient EQIP;
  • We need a chunk of that stimulus money to fund research and extension in sustainable agriculture;
  • We might consider converting Chrysler's facilities into centers for manufacturing eco-friendly farming equipment for small, diverse farms;
  • We need the authors of the Farm Bill to recognize the important role - negative and positive - of fruit and vegetable production in the US.
  • We need to face up to the global dimensions of our domestic and international policies.
(I'll stop there.)

Go figure: Just as reducing our greenhouse gas emissions will involve a diverse portfolio of geographically and socially appropriate sources of renewable energy, creating a sustainable food-system will require a suite of policy mechanisms to shift producers, processors, and consumers away from the ecologically impractical bind we find ourselves in today.

There are solutions for some of the (many) problems discussed in Boston this week. Effectively employing those solutions is the first step towards greening our food-system. What we lack is the political will to implement them with sincerity and integrity. Slow-foodies, engage yourselves in active citizenship, but quickly!


  1. What a sharp, detailed synthesis and response to a truly overwhelming set of issues. Thanks for providing what so many experts couldn't this week -- actionable solutions. Great post, Jalal.

  2. I second Jessica's response to your post, Jala1! Great work.