A food activist and author representing three of our sister magazines in the New York area opened the 33rd annual Eco Farm Conference at Asilomar with a rousing call to action that had audience members on their feet in a standing ovation.
Brian Halweil—editor of Edible East End in Long Island and co-publisher of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan—started with some examples of how the local food movement has blossomed near his home on the eastern tip of Long Island, but he insisted that it’s not nearly enough. He pressed conference-goers to think big and embrace “radical transformational change” when it comes to using food to save the world.
“Agriculture is still the single biggest way in which humanity touches the planet. We cannot have a sustainable future without sustainable agriculture,” said Halweil, explaining that farming occupies about 40% of the Earth’s landmass, uses 75% of its water and accounts for about 33% of greenhouse gas emissions.
He advocated nine grand scale measures, which need to be moved forward at warp speed:
1. Walmart should commit to buying 30% of its produce regionally or get out the food business. A small percentage is not good enough.
2. Put the food hub concept into action by constructing infrastructure needed to rebuild regional food systems, in turn creating tens of millions of good food jobs.
3. Reduce Food waste, which can reach 25-50% of the harvest. More groups like City Harvest will be on the front lines of field, grocer and restaurant food waste, saving perfectly good food from the dumpsters.
4. Reduce food packaging and increase composting on mass scales, creating energy for cities by way of giant bio-digesters, turning spent processing food waste into usable energy.
5. Ban the disposal of organic waste in landfills to make a big impact throughout the food chain—changing the way supermarkets deal with use-by labels, the way farms deal with seconds and damaged fruit, and the way households deal with leftovers.
6. Prevent run off of nitrogen fertilizer into rivers and streams by planting an additional crop rotation of rye grass, which would reduce leaching by 60%; and adding more trees and hedgerows would improve the problem even more.
7. Create real incentives and programs to pay farmers for storing carbon in their soils and on their land. This would help with greenhouse emissions, increase yields, protect against extreme heat and drought and provide natural fertilizer for crops.
8. Meld the health and the food community. There are now fruit and vegetable prescriptions redeemable at farmers markets in Massachusetts and Connecticut, an idea from chef Michel Nischan and his Wholesome Wave foundation. Offer incentives for employers to cover CSAs as part of their employee wellness programs.
9. Increase the number of cooperatives and add local milk bottling plants with decentralized infrastructure. Local bottling plants allow consumers to purchase fresher milk with more health benefits, because it does not have to be ultra-pasteurized to travel long distances. Fuel costs won’t affect the price of milk if it is produced and bottled in state and doesn’t have to be trucked hundreds of miles.
Halweil wrapped up his talk by asking us to soak in the knowledge of the conference and implement what we learn on our farms and in our businesses. He urged us to think “bigger than we could ever imagine because farming is the industry and endeavor that is most sacred and most central to sustaining us for generations to come.”
He said, “It’s farmers who can help shrink our massive health care bill. It’s farmers who can jump start a stagnant economy and it’s farmers who can even save us from climate change.” Halweil believes food can change the world. And after his speech, we all believe it too.