Food-health-agriculture connections noted at SARE conference

SARE bannerThere was plenty of positive energy and discussion of the food and agriculture connection yesterday at the opening of the three-day Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program’s 20th anniversary conference, held this year in Kansas City, Missouri. More than 800 people were expected to attend, and even more that had been interested but planners had to cut off registration presumably in consideration of space needs.

Jerry DeWitt, who spoke at a plenary session, said that was double the number of attendees compared with 10 years ago yet noted that only 0.13 percent (or one-eighth of 1%) of research acreage was being used to conduct research on organics. In short: Interest is high, but there’s a long way to go before organics and sustainable methods are big priorities in agriculture.

Rather than catching bits of all the sessions, I sat through the full presentations of a few as well as part of the keynote address by Gale Buchanan, the U.S. undersecretary of agriculture for research, education and economics. He told the assembled academics, bureaucrats, farmers, ranchers, extension agents, advocates, and others that “achieving energy sustainability is a bigger challenge than sending man to the moon.” Could be, but I for one am skeptical of his conclusion that the answer will come by way of solar energy as captured by green plants; that is, biofuels.

A few other highlights that caught my attention:

It’s still worthwhile to speak up about the Farm Bill. The long, drawn-out Farm Bill discussion continues, and members of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition gave an update on where things stand as the bill works its way through conference committee. Its priorities include funding for SARE, the Conservation Security Program, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, and organic research. The coalition’s website has good information on contacting your elected officials. Let them know you want them to fund conservation program and organic research. The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture has a list of items that you can refer. The latest emphasizes conservation programs that are at risk.

Farmers aren’t getting younger. Not sure how aware of this people are in states with relatively small amounts of agriculture, but the average age of farmers keeps going up, and the number of farms keeps going down despite the Farm Bill’s ostensible purpose to help farmers stay in business. The subject came up in several sessions, including one on how to get young people involved in the sustainable agriculture movement as well as in the Farm Bill session regarding the beginning farmer program. (The Greenhorns project is attempting to address this on a grassroots level.)

Local foods serve multiple purposes. I heard about a project I was previously unfamiliar with, The Food Project, which looks like a cool way to address multiple issues by engaging urban young people in the production of healthful food, sustainably raised. (That's Anim Steel, director of national programs for the project, at right.)

Opportunities abound. DeWitt talked about future paths for sustainable agriculture, including a need for more documentation of the economics of sustainable methods. What was most encouraging, however, was his assertion that Americans’ growing awareness of the links among their food and health and agriculture. “It’s going to drive what we do,” he said. Although someone (whose name I unfortunately can't remember) quoted Michael Pollan and said it wasn’t enough to “vote with your forks,” his statement underscores that we do need to vote with our forks while also talking to our policy makers (as Elanor asks you to do below), our friends and businesses. The people are way ahead of the institutions when it comes to seeing the need for sustainable agriculture, and we have to help push the institutions in the right direction.

Today is another day of information sessions, and conferees hit the road on Thursday as various tours take them to area farms and businesses involved in sustainable agriculture. They include some previously mentioned on Ethicurean: Local Burger and two farms on the Kaw Valley Farm Tour, Wakarusa Valley Farm, and Pendleton’s Country Market.

4 Responsesto “Food-health-agriculture connections noted at SARE conference”

  1. Thanks for the great re-cap of the SARE conference, Janet. As the person who said that "'voting with your fork' is not enough" during my farm bill presentation, I'd like to clarify and unpack my comment a bit. I made that statement as a way to emphasize the power of federal farm policy and the fact that conscientious consumerism is not a political tool accessible to all people. Working for a better farm bill and 'voting with your fork' are not mutually exclusive. I certainly encourage everyone, who can, to purchase food directly from farmers who are good caretakers of the land. But the current structural inequities in our food system will not be toppled if we do not address the role that farm policy has had in encouraging those inequities, nor the promise it holds in dismantling them. The current farm bill is still being debated and in it we have a good chance of winning new policies that would: increase the fairness of markets for livestock producers, create better access to financing and training for beginning farmers, make business loans available for local and regional food system enterprises, and a lot of other great things for organic production, public plant breeding research, etc.

    The food system is simply too large, too complex, and too inequitable for us to limit ourselves to only being change-makers at the checkout line.

  2. Janet says:

    Alas, the farm bill also is too large and too complex, which makes it a challenge for ordinary people to know how to approach it. Your comments, Aimee, and the links help.

  3. Steph says:

    The Farm Bill doesn't have to be a challenge for ordinary people to approach. Aimee's right, there is still time to voice your opinion of the Farm Bill, and if it feels intimidating, you've got allies to help. There are folks who make it their whole job to not only advocate for good agricultural policy, but also to keep ordinary people informed as to what's going on in Congress. The folks at the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition do a great job, as does the Center for Rural Affairs (www.cfra.org/blog). I try to do my part too at the Community Food Security Coalition (www.foodsecurity.org).

  4. ExPat Chef says:

    If you are interested, I just did an interview with Bryant Terry, the Food and Society Policy Fellow, who spoke on Food Justice issues at SARE. Here is a link to the interview on Eat Drink Better. http://eatdrinkbetter.com/2008/04/09/an-interview-with-bryant-terry-eco-chef-author-and-food-justice-activist/