Photos by Max Blodgett
Kicking off the ”Future of Food” conference in Gaston Hall on Wednesday, Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, expressed his disappointment with the Washington Post-sponsored event.
“I wish more food industries were on the panel,” he said. “We want a dialogue, want to find areas of common ground, and, even if you don’t agree with us, you’ll find we serve a good lunch!”
Though Schlosser noticed the conspicuous absence of leading agro-business figures, attendees expressed far more excitement over the sustainability super-stars that were in attendence—most notably, His Royal Highness Prince Charles.
A pioneer in food sustainability, the Prince of Wales delved into the complex challenges facing public health, rural employment, environmental protection, and international food insecurity.
While the audience delighted in Prince Charles’ quip about “making embarrassing speeches about my eldest son during wedding receptions,” he gave the conference an air of seriousness, delivering a sober speech about the perils of continuing our dangerously unstable agricultural model.
The “Future of Food” conference brought together a wide range of policymakers, CEOs, and leading figures in food politics. Gary Hirshberg, president and CEO of organic food company Stonyfield Farm, Commander Heidi Michels Blanck of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Georgetown’s own Prof. Tim Beach spoke on panels covering nutrition to international agriculture.
The Prince of Wales noted, “we are told ceaselessly that sustainable or organic agriculture cannot feed the world.” Finding “this claim very hard to understand,” Prince Charles cited the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, who’s co-chair Prof. Hans Herren spoke on a panel.
Prince Charles acknowledged that challenging the status quo “is a risky business,” jokingly adding, “I have the scars to prove it!” Even so, he urged panelists and attendees to “not shy away from the big questions”–and they certainly did not. When Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack—a last minute addition to the conference—answered a question about genetically modified alfalfa, passionate audience members openly challenged him.
Vilsack likened the choice between supporting agro-industry or small, local farmers to “choosing between [his] two sons.” A woman responded, “Well, one of your sons is a bully!”
As Vilsack addressed the difficulty of regulating genetically modified crops, several audience members interrupted him shouting, “Europe did it!” Though the moderator signaled the end of his question period, Vilsack remained on the stage, taking several minutes to defend himself against the outcry.
Despite the enormity of the challenges facing sustainable agriculture, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) left the audience with an optimistic vision in the closing remarks.
“The thing about food policy,” Tester said, “is that if you eat, you’re involved in it. …We can win. Common sense will prevail. Each of you has the power to effect change.”