Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Do you trust your food information?

My column on California's vote on GMO labeling actually started several weeks before the election, at the James Beard Foundation's annual October food conference.

A little background: I am the chair of the JBF Leadership Awards, which honor people and organizations for their work on things like sustainable agriculture, sound food policy and safe food systems. For the record, my role was to craft the procedures for how the awards work, but I don't vote on the honorees. I helped to lay the tracks and I make sure the train runs on time, but I don't drive the train. Setting it up that way was my attempt to avoid a conflict of interest with people and issues I cover.

As part of the Leadership Awards for several years now, the foundation holds a conference on food policy. The conference covers everything from sustainable policies to the future of food. This year, conference director Mitchell Davis set up an intriguing and thought-provoking subject -- trust. Trust in your food supply, trust in food information, trust in food regulation.

It was edgy stuff. There were discussions on the pressures within the dairy industry, and the role of government in creating food systems we trust. Dennis Treacy, the chief sustainability officer for Smithfield, set on a panel with Tensie Whelan from the Rainforest Alliance, Shauna Sadowski from Annie's and Hal Hamilton of the Sustainable Food Lab -- and looked some vocal critics straight in the eye.

The panel that caught my attention, though, was the one on GMOs. That's the one I quoted from in my column. Jason W. Clay, one of the winners of this year's Leadership Awards and the VP of market transformation for the World Wildlife Fund, spoke sensibly and reasonably about the importance of research into GMOs, which usually are shorthand for "evil empire." It was 2 o'clock in the afternoon after a big lunch, in a sunny 44th-floor conference room with windows overlooking Central Park -- and I was not only fully awake, I was transfixed by what he had to say.

Yes, I know that it's easy to make snap judgments about food science. It's faster to decide "I don't like it in my gut" than it is to do the hard slog of reading through reporters and research, to sift through seemingly conflicting bits of information to decide whether what your gut is telling you is something you can trust. But as Jason Clay is fond of saying, "It’s not what to think, it’s how to think."

You can see clips of all the panels on Livestream, including that panel with Clay and moderator Fred Kaufman, a contributing editor at Harper's and author of "Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food." The other I'd recommend: The talk by one of the other Leadership Awards honorees, Kentucky farmer, poet and farm activist Wendell Berry, on the 50-Year Farm Bill and the future of American agriculture.


Anonymous said...

Kathleen, certainly you're aware that there are restaurants all over Charlotte (and everywhere else) that advertise their food as being "locally sourced" from "sustainable providers" but then sidestep those pesky conditions and buy their stuff from wholesalers and even the old neighborhood Teeter. The consumer is none the wiser, and the almighty dollar rules.