By: Sarah Romotsky, Dietetic Intern Date: 5/4/11
It goes without saying that the speaker line-up for this year’s Atlantic Food Summit (held on April 26 in Washington, DC) was both diverse and impressive. Star speakers drew a capacity crowd, with Sam Kass (Assistant White House Chef), José Andrés (Chef and Owner, ThinkFoodGroup) and Alice Waters (Chef and owner of famed restaurant Chez Panisse) featured on the program, as well as government leaders Kathleen Merrigan (USDA) and Michael Taylor (FDA) providing Agency perspectives on agriculture, nutrition and food safety.
Attendees included a variety of food, nutrition and agricultural stakeholders, with academicians, non-profit leaders, media, culinary professionals, government and industry representatives, as well as students and interns in the room. As a first-time participant in this type of meeting, it was a privilege to hear such a renowned group of experts from across the food chain debate critical issues, including sustainable agriculture, global food safety, access and affordability, and nutrition policy.
Among all of the stimulating panels, the one that focused on sustainable agriculture provided, in my opinion, one of the more dynamic, albeit sometimes contentious, discussions of the day. The expert panel featured representatives from The Keystone Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a professor from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the CEO of an organic food company. Here’s what I learned from the panel discussion that followed:
Sustainability Outcomes: Is There Common Ground?
The first question posed to the panelists was: “What does sustainability mean to you?” Sustainability, described as the “umbrella term of all umbrella terms” by the moderator of the panel, generated a surprisingly common response from the panelists. In the general sense, there was agreement that the overall goal of sustainability is to provide for today’s generation without compromising resources for future generations. There was recognition among the panel that sustainability is a “team sport,” with stakeholders from “farm to table” playing key roles in moving towards a more sustainable food supply. Across the board, sustainability was viewed as much broader than environmental outcomes: societal health, farmer/worker livelihood and wellbeing, as well as animal health were all mentioned as critical aspects falling under the traditional pillars (social, environmental, economic) of sustainability.
The Critical Divide: How Do We Achieve a Sustainable Food Supply?
The more contentious question for the panel was: How do we produce a more sustainable food supply? The debate among panelists centered on the type of food production method, with viewpoints favoring both organic systems as well as the use of modern food production practices (including food technologies like biotechnology), to feed the growing population. It was noted that a variety of systems, which aim to balance inputs and outputs like food, land, carbon, and water, while decreasing food waste (through effective pre and post-harvest management systems), will be critical in producing a sustainable food supply in the future.
Collaboration: A Common Ingredient for a Sustainable Future
It was clear that sustainability is not “one size fits all”, meaning, producers and communities of varying size and scale will undoubtedly have different approaches and methods to achieve agricultural sustainability. It was apparent that everyone with a tie to agriculture, from scientists to producers and manufacturers (and really, anyone who eats), will need to come together to achieve local and global sustainability goals. Creative, innovative, and science-based solutions will play a key role, with future efforts aiming to establish the “metrics of sustainability” in order to measure and evaluate progress.
Given all the different viewpoints on the path toward sustainable agriculture, it’s clear that, as one panelist explained, “We need to use the entire toolbox at our disposal moving forward.” In the future, this may include multiple sustainability visions with flexible pathways that lead to the achievement of our collective goal, a sustainable food supply now and in the future.