Messages from the U of O Food Justice Conference

This past holiday weekend, hundreds of people gathered for a free conference, called Food Justice, hosted by the University of Oregon’s Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics. In the words of the conference organizers the purpose was to, “Explore the history and future of our food system with a focus on three themes: community, equity and sustainability.”

With a heavy hitters Fred Kirschenmann and Dr. Vandana Shiva offering inspiring plenaries and a host of academics and practitioners sharing their latest research and ideas, the event was as stimulating as it was frustrating. As Dr. Shiva so eloquently said in her closing plenary, “No other species has achieved the amazing success of depriving itself of food.”

As I was manning the Civil Eats table at the food fair in the student union all day Monday, I wasn’t able to attend as many sessions as I’d like, but I do want to offer a few notes and ideas that I gathered. There is no way to capture everything, clearly, and the following may seem out of context, but hopefully something will spark new ideas and actions.

I’m particularly interested in the language we use to express this movement and advocate that we all get on the same page, so to speak, especially with terms that will resonate with consumers, therefore new or recommended terms always peak my interest. To that end, some of the words I overheard: The word local isn’t cutting it, we should use instead, “resilient” and “foodshed.” We need no longer say “climate change” when we should call it “climate destabilization” and need to refer to GMOs as “transgenesis.” The best wheat to buy is “small wheat” and fish from the Pacific Northwest should be “troll caught” to ensure the future for farmers and the fish. And, finally it looks as if almost everyone has started to say “Food and Farm Bill” in reference to the 2012 Farm Bill.

At Saturday night’s opening plenary with Kirschenmann, we heard from Pete Sorenson, Lane County Commissioner, who started the evening off saying, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Kirschenmann followed and framed my experience for the conference when he said, “We are all just citizens of the biotic community and we need to start [designing a just food system] from this perspective.” He continued by saying, “Not all local systems are the same size … therefore it’s about community engaged as a local ecosystem as a part of a larger ecosystem … so it’s about the health of each impacting the health of the whole and about a network of healthy foodsheds.” He also talked about “coming into the foodshed” and that “our first priority should be to make food for people in the foodshed by people in the foodshed.”

There were conversations about: Measuring the cost of food by its nutrition value; a resurgence of the concept of food commons; the idea that we’ve become too linear in our thinking as a result of the industrial food system – that it causes us, as humans, to think in terms of either this or that, one or the other, rather than holistically and bio-diversely; that there is no one definition of food justice.

Net neutrality, a free Internet, should be a second priority to any food security solutions we work towards.

What if deliciousness were the solution to the problem? How would that re-order our priorities? What would that food system look like?

As citizens participating in food, we have obligations, we have power and our resources are supposed to be equitable, so it’s up to us to fight for them. (There were a lot of references to Egypt … when will Americans stand up for what’s truly just?)

Chuck Benbrook, a leading scientist at The Organic Center told us, “Our community needs to up its game in terms of how we respond to our current food system.” He and University of California Berkeley’s Ignacio Chapela presented on my favorite panel entitled, “Sustainable Agriculture & Emerging Research in Plant Genetics.” Chapela, whom I’ve heard speak on transgenesis in the past, is a total anti-GMO bad ass. He presented, in detail, how the scientific community was derailed and high jacked by the promises of the Manhattan Project and how a small group of people created a national program, in secret, to push technology as the new frontier and led us inevitably into what he calls a “bio ponzi” scheme, or “faciscm as they call it in Italy” – the GE era. He advocates for science that is free and independent (more reason to support the Union of Concerned Scientists) and says “we are bundling when we should be diversifying.”

There was a riveting presentation about wheat production and seeds that lead to the question, do you want to rent your seed or own it? Resulting in a call for revitalizing local mills and keeping wheat in county; as well as breeding our own varieties so Monsanto can’t sue everyone for saving, cleaning, or supposedly stealing seeds.

Our very own Naomi Starkman presented, with Leslie Hatfield on New Media & Food Activism. In “Digitally cultivating food justice” they explored the impact of Twitter (“it’s the tool”) and Facebook, advocated for everyone to use Wikipedia to define their work, and told us that the Huffington Post is our friend. Naomi encouraged anyone interested to become one of their bloggers because, “If we don’t frame this debate, they will.” Plus, it’s quite easy and once you do, “the doors are open.”

One of the attendees asked a question that I must throw out there: When thinking about a new food system, it’s become apparent that we’ll have to do it with the big guys, not against them. So, if that’s the case, that we’ll have to work with Monsanto, McDonald’s, Wal-mart, etc., what are some of the non-negotiables? Panelists didn’t have any answers, but I thought of two, to start: People who work to produce food are paid a fair living wage and if commodity crops get subsidies so should soil health and bio-diversity.

These snippets are a mere tip of an iceberg of notes, fodder for my own advocacy and continued learning, all valuable indeed. But as my head spun with theories, facts, concepts and case studies, I had to wonder why we don’t use our time together more meaningfully when we gather at these conferences. Here you have rooms full of activists, academics and advocates — all concerned, interested eaters hungry for action and change and yet we do nothing but listen and ask questions. Fill our heads with more information. I’d like to challenge all future conference organizers to come up with one action that everyone can take, en masse, some galvanizing call that will give these people something to actually do when they are all together. You know, the old power in numbers theory.

On a final note, Alison Carruth, the conference organizer and resident scholar at the Wayne Morse Center for Law & Politics, said in her closing remarks, “Food justice happens when communities define it with each other.” Great. Let’s get to it!

4 thoughts on “Messages from the U of O Food Justice Conference

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  2. Great article. Thank you for asking the questions and posing some answers. Your suggestion about everyone being together and actually performing an action as a common group is, I believe, one of the answers (when any collective mindset convenes), this should be a given.First time on this site. Where the hell have I been?

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  4. “I had to wonder why we don’t use our time together more meaningfully when we gather at these conferences. Here you have rooms full of activists, academics and advocates — all concerned, interested eaters hungry for action and change and yet we do nothing but listen and ask questions. Fill our heads with more information. I’d like to challenge all future conference organizers to come up with one action that everyone can take, en masse, some galvanizing call that will give these people something to actually do when they are all together.”

    Yes, I completely agree! I have to admit, I cringed a few times reading the report back on the conference. Oh dear, another gathering of the converted. What for? We have to be more ambitious in future meetings like this. It’s no longer enough to sit in conference rooms and sing the same songs.

    I refuse to start saying “climate destabilization” — LOL! Lord have mercy.