by Brandy Boyle, Produce Staff

The Organic Farming Conference, held in LaCrosse on February 21, 22 and 23, 2008, was an inspirational event. It was great to see so many people who are involved in some aspect of organic agriculture all gathered in one place.

Unhealthy food choices

Friday’s keynote speaker, Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D, was no exception to the conference’s abundant inspiration. Her presentation was called “The Illusion of Choice: Finding Good Food, Food Truth, and Justice for All.” Hailing from Colombia, MO, Hemmelgarn describes herself as an “investigative nutritionist and change agent.” She opened her presentation by addressing the recent rise in childhood obesity and the alarming fact that many of today’s children have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. These disturbing facts can be attributed, at least partially, to unhealthy food choices being made available and advertised to adults and children alike. Hemmelgarn pointed out that the media advertises illusions of choice and promotes low-nutrient, high-calorie foods in a multitude of ways. These include the obvious: TV, Internet, video games, billboards, movies, supermarket aisles, and now even schools are involved. She quoted the Coca Cola CEO as saying, “The school system is where you build brand loyalty.”

A frightening yet enlightening example she used as the proof that we learn this brand loyalty young was when she gave the audience a media alphabet. Each letter displayed on the screen was from a specific logo. And even among the organic farming community, we all knew which logo each letter represented—the C was from Campbell’s, Y from York peppermint patties, and the K from Kellogg’s. We have all learned these logos throughout our lives, whether we have tried to or not!

Hemmelgarn went on to point out the many different illusions that the media tries to portray in our food choices. They give us the illusion of content; if there is a picture of fruit on the box it must have fruit in it, right? They try to sell us on the illusion of compassion in their advertising; these illusions attempt to sell products to people who have a compassionate nature and care about where their food is coming from and how it was produced, yet these marketing strategies may be a far cry from the truth. Fast food and soft drink companies, among others, advertise the illusion of value—super size it and you get more for less—however they do not address the issue that you will be consuming four times as many calories.

Consumer illusions

Some companies project the image of selling a “natural” product. Natural only applies to handling after slaughter in the meat industry. This means that “natural” chicken could actually be full of hormones and antibiotics. Many companies are jumping on the environmental bandwagon these days. There is a new term called “green washing,” which is “ the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue... to sell a product, a policy or rehabilitate an image.”

Many foods these days are also giving us the illusion that they are healthful, such as being “diet,” sugar-free, fat-free, baked, or only 100 calories per bag. Are these processed foods really a healthy choice for our bodies and the environment? Melinda Hemmelgarn advocates for media literacy. She encourages us to be healthy skeptics and to use our critical thinking skills when it comes to believing the messages the media is sending us about our food choices. She recommends that we ask the following questions when critiquing the media: “Who owns the message? What are the persuasive techniques being used? What information is being included and what information is being left out? What is the message promoting?” She encourages us to look even further to find Food “Truth.” Ask yourself, Hemmelgarn urges, “Where does my food come from? Who produced it? Under what conditions? What’s in it (or not in it)?”

Hemmelgarn is an advocate for local, sustainable agriculture and healthy food systems. She covered how our collective society and the environment play a role in our food system as well. She described how the built environment is one that plays a great role in our access to healthy food; do we live in an area where there are more sidewalks or more green space? What is our social and economic environment? Do we have a living wage, affordable housing and health care? These all play a role in access to healthy eating habits. Fast food tends to be quick and cheap, while a healthier diet can be more costly and time-consuming to prepare.

Toxic vs. healing

She described how the food and agriculture environment also plays a huge role in our food systems. She explained that in this country right now there are two distinctly different realms of food systems; they are toxic versus healing food system environments. The healing environment is exemplified with local, biodiverse, organic, relationship based, whole food, vital nutrients, and health protecting food systems taking root. Then, on the other side of the spectrum, we have toxic food systems that incorporate foods traveling many miles, monoculture, use of pesticides, impersonal connection, over processing, use of unhealthy ingredients, and that can be harmful to our health.

True homeland security

Hemmelgarn quotes Alice Waters saying that, “Eating is a political act.” It is true, and now more important that ever. She encouraged us to rethink true homeland security, and to move toward local, sustainable food systems for our communities. She closed with encouraging us to all have gratitude for the food that we eat with words of wisdom from this Vietnamese proverb, “When eating the fruit, think of the person who planted the tree.”

by Matt Luther, Sous Chef

Farmers, educators, students, and industry workers converged on the icy banks of La Crosse, Wisconsin January 21st–23rd for the Organic Farming Conference. The Organic Farming Conference’s primary sponsor is the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). The conference itself serves as two full days of educational workshops and symposiums dedicated to the progress and future prosperity of the American farmer and organic farming and ranching. With many workshops on topics such as fly control, soil biodiversity and the story of sustainable agriculture, as well as workshop discussions on the 2007 Farm Bill and biotech vs. the farmer, the conference was brimming with educational material. This was a great opportunity for anyone at any level of knowledge to learn more about the agriculture industry and the triumph, woes and future of farming in this country.

As a chef, my interests lie in the political and progressive aspects of the present state organic farming practices and U.S. farm policy. Since I work on more of the application side of food and cooking and I appreciate the ability to work with whole organic foodstuffs, I chose to attend workshops that extended that appreciation and knowledge. I attended workshops ranging from “Organics in Academia,” “The 2007 Farm Bill,” “National Organic Action Plan” and “Local Food Movements.” All workshops had invaluable information on the industry.

The “business” of farming

Food is and has been at a crossroads in production from field to mouth. Since the era of the New Deal, the American farmer has been pushed into a corner by the overproduction of commodity crops such as corn, cotton, wheat and soybean, until the price dropped globally beyond recovering production value. Then, as part of stabilizing losses, farmers were subsidized in order to prevent collapse. Large agribusinesses such as Cargill, Monsanto, and ConAgra have cornered our nation’s farmland and turned much of it into single-crop rotations using genetically modified seed varieties patented to be herbicide- and pesticide-resistant.

Of cropland globally, the U.S. has 59 percent of total genetically engineered (GE) crops. It is a billion dollar business that chokes national farmland with pharmaceutical (standard crops genetically engineered to “grow” pharmaceuticals), experimental and GE crops which grow alongside and threaten to pollinate regular food supply. There are 28 pharmaceutical crops in Wisconsin alone. Monsanto is the world’s leading agricultural biotechnology company and provides 90 percent of seed technology for genetically engineered crops. Monsanto produces engineered seed for Roundup Ready crops that are herbicide and pesticide resilient. Currently Roundup Ready crops account for 85 percent United States soybean acreage, 45 percent of all corn, 76 percent of cotton acreage and 84 percent of all canola acreage.

A 2002 census found that eight percent of farms were responsible for 72 percent of agricultural sales in the United States. Many of these large farms with single crop rotations rely on chemical fertilizers such as Roundup Ready and the contractual purchase of genetically altered seeds yearly. Any farmer who chooses to change and grow fruit and vegetables must pay the government up to $8,000 the first year per amount of land allocated to fruit and vegetables vs. a large commodity crop. This practice does not take into account the minimum three-year wait for organic certification, and in that time farmers must absorb all production costs at often a loss with no organic certification.

The 2007 Farm Bill was amended to change and solve some of these problems by providing funding for farmers who transition to organic production. This Farm Bill aims to better manage the supply of agricultural commodities and revert back to market-based price support and establish non-recourse loans creating reserves. This Bill would enact country-of-origin labeling and works to create food sovereignty among global trade.

The American consumer

Aside from the impact of the 2007 Farm Bill, it is the American consumer that needs to be aware of the products they buy and the everyday foodstuffs they expect to be safe. It is the future of the American family farm and the availability to market fresh produce and goods from sustainable resources and make a decent living doing that is at the core. It is institutions like the Organic Farming Conference and Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service that aid in the common causes of farmers and the education of U.S. farming practices and policy for all of us.