BURLINGTON — Participants at a conference on sustainable agriculture in Burlington last Thursday were adamant about the need for change. University of Vermont Interim President John Bramley set the scene for the “Necessary [r]evolution for Sustainable Food Systems” conference.
“Our rural communities are disappearing, our farmers grow old with no prospects for retirement, and their sons and daughters have abandoned the farms and rural communities. Our nation is obese, and we’re dying of diseases related to poor diet and lack of exercise. Most people have no idea where their food comes from or where it’s produced,” he said.
Bramley also pointed to environmental degradation, loss of topsoil and a system dependent on fossil fuels and chemicals. Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross added food access and hunger issues and fair labor issues to the laundry list.
But both Ross and Bramley said despite current failures of the national and global agricultural system, they see promise in many of the small-scale movements that are happening around Vermont and the nation.
“We’re recognizing that some of the big ideas are small,” said Ross.
Bramley added some specifics.
“We need a food system that is ecologically sound, economically viable, does not rely on vast inputs of fossil fuels ... which protects our soil, water and our air, encourages and nurtures rural communities, and promotes sound community and individual nutrition and health,” he said.
Each of the 13 speakers at the afternoon event had approximately 15 minutes to speak about some aspect of the food system, ranging from food justice to grain production in Vermont. Ross asked the audience to listen to the speakers, learn from them and to go forward and change the food system.
“I ask you to reinvest your commitment to changing our agriculture and food systems so they will meet the needs of the 21st century — the century of our children, and the century of our grandchildren,” he said.
Robert Lawrence, director of the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, warned listeners of the dangers of excessive meat consumption.
“The current high-meat American diet has an impact on our personal health, on the health of the environment, and on our moral and ethical obligation to feed the world with a growing population,” he said.
The average American, he said, eats 200 pounds of meat per year, 1.5 times the consumption recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Lawrence warned that with the entire world on a high-meat diet, the Earth’s capacity would be only 3.5 billion to 4 billion people. On a plant-based diet, he said, the capacity rises to 10 billion.
He said under current large-scale meat production practices, companies often combine feather meal, offal and trimmings, and even fecal matter into feed. This, he said, introduces bacteria and chemicals like arsenic into the diet of the animals.
Furthermore, he said, each year humans consume 3.3 million kilograms of antibiotic to control disease, while animals ingest 13.3 million kilograms to promote growth and to prevent infection.
Lawrence said such rampant overuse of antibiotics has led to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which threatens the ability to use these medicines for human sickness.
Further, he said, studies have shown that excess consumption of meat can be damaging to health, and that cutting back on meat poses a solution to this and many other problems.
The Center for a Livable Future has been on the forefront of the national “Meatless Monday” campaign, which Lawrence said aims to reduce American meat consumption by one-seventh. This, he said, would bring meat consumption more in line with the USDA’s health recommendations, and lower the strain on a strained agricultural system.
KNOW YOUR PRODUCER
University of Vermont Extension vegetable and berry specialist Vern Grubinger described a food system full of interwoven relationships.
“It all comes down to people,” he said.
To Grubinger, much of today’s food system, both nationally and internationally, is built on vertical relationships, where one company controls each progressive stage of the agriculture and food system and carries that food all the way to the consumer.
This sort of relationship goes only one way, he said — the company gives, the consumer receives, and there is no feedback loop.
“What this has yielded is a system that is largely anonymous and has externalized costs,” he said.
Grubinger said in the modern agricultural system, much of the food available is food that we know nothing about, with no information on how it was produced or where. In return, that food is inexpensive and widely available.
Horizontal relationships rely on feedback loops, said Grubinger — the farmer or cook can meet the consumer face to face, and can hear that consumer’s feedback. This type of system, while it tends to be more expensive, often tackles more of the social and ethical issues in agriculture.
Food hubs, farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture (CSA) programs and producer cooperatives are all examples of what Grubinger described as the other end of the system.
“They are engaging and empowering people,” said Grubinger. “Some of it is directly, and some of it is just from honest information on labels, on menus, in workshops ... the community is engaged in the food.”
Vertical and horizontal relationships aren’t exclusive, said Grubinger; they can exist together, and each can contribute to the other.
“It’s not black and white,” he said. “We need a better blend of these two.”
A JUST FOOD SYSTEM
LaDonna Redmond, senior program associate for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said she came to her work through her struggle to feed her child.
Redmond, from West Chicago, said when her son was born with a whole array of food allergies she realized she could not feed him by shopping in her neighborhood — she lived in what is called a “food desert.”
“I wanted the best quality of food I could find for my child, but it was not available,” she said. “In my community, I could get a semiautomatic weapon before I could get a tomato.”
As Redmond began working to start urban gardens and bring produce and other healthy food to stores in her neighborhood, she learned more and more about the agricultural system. And as she learned, she said, she realized that the idea that we need to go back to an earlier time is flawed.
“When did we ever have a fair, just, healthy food system?” Redmond asked.
Not now, she answered her own question, with rampant health problems afflicting many Americans and an anonymous agricultural system. Not during the 1970s, with the rise of the processed foods that got us to this point. Not between 1920 and 1950, when the nation was struggling with the dustbowl. Not in the 1800s, when Americans were building an agricultural system on the backs of slaves.
And she said that time is not as far away as it seems: “We still have a food system built on modern day slavery.”
Irit Tamir of Oxfam America in a later speech pointed to the fact that those who work within the food system are some of the least food secure workers in the country, citing a recent Food Chain Workers Alliance report that found that 86 percent of workers within the food chain — from the fields to the restaurants and food services — do not make a living wage.
Bramley, afterward, pointed out that this system isn’t distant in Vermont: Here, workers produce milk with few rights and struggle to make use of the legal system for mistreatment or pay disputes.
“If you think it’s far away, go look on dairy farms in Addison County,” said Bramley.
Redmond said the answer to these problems won’t be found in this year’s farm bill, which determines USDA policy and funding.
Instead, she said, the future of agriculture rests on creativity and vision, and on informing everyone who eats.
“We need to give people the language to talk about what a fair, just and healthy food system looks like,” said Redmond.
SERVING THE CONSUMER
Heather Darby, a University of Vermont agronomist, discussed her work with farmers and artisan bakers to create hearty, tasty Vermont grains.
Farmers can grow all the local crops they want, said Darby, but if it isn’t what buyers are looking for, the system doesn’t work. With a crop that brings paying customers, she said, farmers have a chance to make a living outside of the industrial agricultural system. But before a couple years ago, grain hadn’t been grown on a large scale in the state since the mid-1800s, and farmers jumping back into grain production struggled to find a market for their product.
What bakers and brewers needed, said Darby, was a type of grain that tastes good. Yield and climate adaptability mattered to the farmers, but not to the consumers.
“We had to understand each other’s needs,” said Darby.
For several years now, Darby has been working with bakers, brewers, farmers and plant breeders to create strains of wheat and other grains suited to Vermont — the type of strain that existed 200 years ago, but that has been lost to time.
In doing so, Darby said it’s been important to pay attention to the history of the region — Cyrus Pringle, known as the father of grain breeding, was a Vermonter — but also to learn from what other small-scale grain projects around the world are doing.
And as she’s worked on the project, Darby said she’s also worked to share with others trying to create their own small grain systems.
“We’re making our own history,” said Darby. “Our farmers are innovators, and they are leading the way.”
FUTURE OF FARMING
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin weighed in with his own experiences watching his family’s cows leave the farm three years ago as it was shut down.
“I thought I would never see Jerseys on that farm again,” he said.
But Shumlin said he’s taken heart from the fact that young farmers and value-added producers are pioneering new ideas in the state. Now, he said, a young farmer is back in the family barn, using it to raise and milk his own Jersey herd.
Recently, he said, “I’ve heard from at least 20 farmers under 30, and they’re making money farming in Vermont.”
Shumlin said efforts within the state, from farmers, entrepreneurs and research institutions like UVM, are helping to keep Vermont agriculture strong.
“We’re working to ensure that our best ag days are ahead of us,” said Shumlin.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: This article has been edited to reflect the fact that Irit Tamir of Oxfam said 86 percent of food workers do not make a living wage. Originally, the article mistakenly stated that 86 percent of food workers do make a living wage.