By Melissa Kogut, Executive Director, Chefs Collaborative

“We need to take some very brave steps to address our food system.”
— Prince Charles at “The Future of Food” Conference at Georgetown University, May 4, 2011

Yesterday, I joined 700 leaders and activists from the sustainable food, organics and environmental movements, policy makers, students and members of the media for the Washington Post “The Future of Food” conference at Georgetown University.  There were many stars of this conference but the main event (if the level of security is a measure) was Prince Charles – His Royal Highness.

I knew that Prince Charles had a passion for sustainable agriculture but I was struck by the inspiring, passionate, smart, all-encompassing speech he made emphasizing that the current system of centralized agriculture is depleting our natural resources around the world, and we need to do something – fast!

Putting the issue of a sustainable food system into an international context, he started with the very basic – “according to the Oxford Dictionary, sustainability means keeping something going continuously,” and built his case from there.  He outlined the evidence for a food system in crisis – food insecurity, depleted water supplies, degraded soil, dwindling supplies of fossil fuel… “There are necessary limits to what the earth can do, he said.”

He culminated his talk by saying that the true cost of food production needs to be part of the bottom line – an accounting for sustainability, and with a call to action for the United States, which clearly bears the brunt of responsibility, to find alternatives to business as usual.

The lineup of speakers was impressive, including Eric Schlosser (“Organics is a matter of life and death” for the farmers doing the harvesting and the poor and working people who most need a new food system.), Greg Asbed, of Imokolee Workers, (“If you want to make changes in the food system, look at corporations.”), Marion Nestle (The most revolutionary thing people can do is to teach kids to cook) – and many more!

The surprise guest, Secretary Tom Vilsack, addressed the Farm Bill and said the debate is going to be difficult.  Alluding to the financial crises and the importance of the Farm Bill for supporting all kinds of production, he added “as we make choices about deficit reduction we can’t simply cut our way out of a deficit.”  During some of the most controversial moments of the conference, he responded to audience questions about his positions on GMOs and labeling as well as the use of antibiotics in animal production.   He said that he looks at both sides of the GMO debate like his sons – “I love them both,” and that he wants both sides to come up with a solution together.  Many in the audience were not satisfied, including one woman who said, “one of your sons is a bully.”  Gary Hirschberg of Stonyfield Farm, who is actively advocating for GMO labeling and consumer choice, pointed out that it is a milestone that Vilsack is bringing organics and industry into the same room together to talk.

U.S. Senator Jon Tester and a third generation family farmer from Montana closed out the day with inspiring remarks about the importance of our work.

Check out the Washington Post article about the conference.

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