Essay: The Future of Food

Today’s post and essay is brought to you by Molly, one of Dinners With Dan‘s featured contributors!  

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The Future of Food

Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to Austin, Texas for my organization’s annual fall conference.  I was very excited for the conference not only because it was the culmination of many months of work and planning, but also because the theme was sustainable agriculture!  The topics we covered during our three days could each be a blog post on their own (in fact, I’ll be delving into many of these topics in future posts), but for now, here’s just a taste of what we learned.

Greetings from AustinGreetings from Austin

The conference kicked off with a keynote address from food advocate Anna Lappé, daughter of renowned food activist Frances Moore Lappé.  Frances and Anna co-founded the Small Planet Institute to promote a more democratic and sustainable food system.  Growing up, Frances’ classic book Diet for a Small Planet was a well-worn standby on my mom’s cookbook shelf (Roman rice and beans was a weeknight favorite), so I was especially excited to hear Anna speak.  She painted a sobering picture of how the means of production in the global food system contribute to climate change through soil erosion, water pollution, and chemical overuse.  Climate change, in turn, affects our ability to produce food, creating a vicious cycle.  Despite these challenges, Anna describes herself as a “possiblist,” believing that anything is possible as more and more people take interest in where their food comes from and work to produce healthier means of food production.  She expressed hope in the growing awareness she’s witnessed around the world as communities demand a more equitable, healthy system of growing and distributing food.

Over the course of the conference, we learned all about the many issues surrounding the modern food industry, from the controversy around GMOs and pesticide use to crop subsidies and food distribution.  These issues are especially pressing given that the global demand for food is expected to double by 2050.  This will not be due to the rapid increase in the world’s population, but because more people are eating like Americans, meaning that they are increasing the amount of meat and grains in their diets.   According to Food Tank, in the U.S., the research and development devoted to growing grains is 13 times higher than what’s spent on growing fruits and vegetables.  This focus on producing resource-intensive, monoculture crops that fill people up, such as wheat and corn, rather than nourish them, results in a food system that is harmful to people as well as the planet.  Furthermore, existing policies and subsidies give farmers an incentive to maintain the status quo and create artificially low food prices that fail to take into account the cost of the water, energy, soil, and chemicals used to produce food.

But the conference wasn’t only bad news!  There are a lot of initiatives taking place all over the world to transform the way we produce and distribute food.  In Austin, the Sustainable Food Center is improving access to nutritious, cost-effective food by helping food-insecure families find the most affordable items at the farmers market and offering classes to help these families learn how to prepare fresh, nutritious, inexpensive meals out of the ingredients most accessible to them.  Organizations like Rainforest Alliance are working to develop new standards all the way through the supply chain taking into account environmental protection, social equity, and economic viability.  Consumers are seeking out the Rainforest Alliance certification, and this demand has allowed the organization to engage big companies and encourage them to change their practices and become more sustainable.  In addition, the Recirculating Farms Coalition is working with communities around the country to develop innovative closed-loop food production systems that use clean, recycled water, rather than soil, to grow plants (hydroponics), fish (aquaculture), or both plants and fish together (aquaponics).   These are just a few examples of the many groups striving to transform our global food system to one that is economically and environmentally sustainable.

The biggest takeaway from my three days in Austin is it’s truly up to citizens to demand change.  Our daily purchases make an impact and can create a market for more sustainable farming practices, whether it’s by shopping at the local farmers market or buying antibiotic-free meat.  I left Austin feeling inspired by the growing desire of people around the world to take charge of what they eat and develop systems that ensure healthy food for everyone.  Change is happening, slowly but surely, and I encourage you to be a part of it!

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Thank you so much, Molly!  I can’t wait to hear more about what you heard and learned about in Austin!

Until next time, happy cooking!

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