Climate change, chronic disease, environmental degradation, social injustice, obesity. Those are all results of America’s broken food system, according to speakers at the first annual Farm, Food & Health Conference held this week at the American Royal’s Wagstaff Auditorium in Kansas City’s historic stockyards district.
Welcoming about 200 attendees to the event, American Royal chairman Greg Maday said the Farm, Food & Health Conference is the first event sponsored by the Good Food – Good Futures Institute, an initiative of the American Royal Association, a 110-year-old civic organization “focused on promoting American agricultural education and agrarian values.” The Institute is an alliance of Kansas City-based farmers, food retailers, healthcare and information technology professionals, educators, civic leaders, employers and entrepreneurs “who come together out of a belief that good food and good futures are strongly linked.”
Maday said the Farm, Food & Health Conference was designed to “launch the dialog” on how to explore the connections and “create new forms of demand for good food in local, regional and national economies.” He emphasized, however, that the American Royal is “not an advocate for, or promoting positions” on particular issues. “Ultimately, the consumer will drive production,” and Maday said the conference is “about promoting the conversation. This conversation needs to take place in Kansas City, right here in the breadbasket of America, not in Washington, D.C.”
Much of the conversation at the Farm, Food and Health Conference centered around the idea that a “movement” is taking shape in America to change our food system. John Fisk, director of the Wallace Center at Winrock International, told attendees that the movement is “helping build a 21st Century Food System.”
Larry Yee, director emeritus, University of California Cooperative Extension, and co-founder, Association of Family Farms, echoed the sentiment that “our current system is fundamentally unsustainable. I believe the antidote is a 21st Century recreation of the food system.”
Yee said there are “deep flaws in our global economic paradigm,” and criticized modern industrial agriculture as a system that has been developed only to seek “efficiency and profits.” He said the current system is designed to produce cheap and abundant food and calories.
Specifically, speakers at the event noted that the U.S. healthcare system is growing at an unsustainable rate. Healthcare spending growth is likely to double in the next 10 years, at which time spending will exceed 20 percent of the U.S. overall GDP.
Obesity was identified as a major contributor to America’s healthcare spending. It was reported that 62 percent of American adults are either overweight or obese. At the same time, 20 percent of children are said to be overweight or obese.
To reverse the trend of obesity among Americans, and to have a positive impact on other unintended consequences of modern agriculture, speakers at the Farm, Food and Health Conference encouraged the adoption of “sustainable agriculture,” and the promotion of “local foods.”
The tone of the dialog at the conference was one that inferred that local, natural and/or organic foods are “good” foods, and implied – without actually vocalizing the sentiment – that foods produced with the assistance of modern technology (i.e., antibiotics, hormones, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) are “bad” foods.
Concerned by what they saw in the conference agenda and the list of speakers, Kansas City-area agribusiness leaders contacted American Royal officials this week to voice their objections about what they view as an anti-modern agriculture event.
American Royal officials responded by saying that the Royal is not taking a position on the discussion, “we are simply providing a venue for the discussions to take place.”
Still, many of the American Royal’s long-standing sponsors and constituents have been angered by the Farm, Food & Health Conference. That’s because they see the event, and similar ones across the country, as efforts to promote social causes rather than provide food consumers with facts about modern food production.
In recent months activists have fanned the flames of the anti-Big Agriculture movement. For instance, Katie Couric broadcast an inaccurate and inflammatory segment on the CBS Evening News about antibiotics in livestock production. Other networks have produced similarly damning stories, and the Internet produces volumes of blogs, stories and opinions that distort and mislead consumers about the evils of “factory farms.”
Last August, TIME magazine published a cover story, “The Real Cost of Cheap Food,” which was a wide-ranging frontal assault on all aspects of modern food production, and the story was written in a manner that the very few words included to give agriculture a token voice are quickly trampled by an onslaught of anti-modern-agriculture rhetoric. The article quotes numerous entities critical of modern farming, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, several disenfranchised farmers dismayed about how agriculture has changed, organic advocates and others who sell their farm and food products based on criticizing the products and processes of mainstream farming and ranching.
The fears of Kansas City’s agribusiness leaders about the Farm, Food & Health Conference’s message were confirmed when Ron Doetch, President, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, told attendees during his address that he believed the TIME article “was very balanced.”
One only need to read the TIME article to recognize that it was far from “balanced.” Likewise, the first Farm, Food & Health Conference produced an unflattering and unbalanced view of American agriculture – and provided unrealistic expectations for a 21st Century Food System.