TEDx Talks Take On Food Policy

This past Saturday hundreds of food-focused individuals filed into Manhattan's Times Building to hear five hours of TEDx speeches made by leaders in food policy. TEDx (an independently organized offshoot of the TED Talks) is an all-day conference where speakers are invited to make 10-minute speeches relating to the day's theme. Saturday's conference, organized by the Glynwood Institute, had the ambitious theme of "Changing the Way We Eat!" TED Talks and TEDx conferences are held all over the world and interested parties can live stream the events or watch the videos later when they're posted on the TED websites (Changing the Way We Eat! talks will be up later this month).

Each of the three speaking sessions began with a previously recorded TED Talk having to do with the food system. The first video was of 11-year-old Birke Baehr explaining why he gave up his dream of being an NFL player for his new dream of becoming an organic farmer (if you haven't seen this you should watch it immediately; we've embedded it below). After the video, we heard talks by Dr. David Wallinga of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Wenonah Hauter of Food & Water Watch, Dr. Robert S. Lawrence of Center for a Livable Future, Patty Cantrell of Regional Food Solutions LLC, and Urvashi Rangan of the Consumer Safety and Sustainability Group. Between the five of them, they covered antibiotic resistance in factory-farmed meat, the ills of CAFOs, the rebuilding of the local food system, and the proliferation of deceptive labeling on food packaging.

The speeches featured healthy servings of doom and gloom, as is unavoidable when discussing issues like CAFOs. Wallinga noted, "If you go to the supermarket and buy a conventionally raised chicken, the odds that it won't have antibiotic-resistant bacteria in it is practically nil." Following this uplifting fact, the organizers announced we'd be having Chicken Pot Pie for lunch. Antibiotic-free chicken pot pie, they were quick to add. As the talks continued, scary warnings about the superbug MRSA were tossed about and Rangan from Consumer Reports made sure that we knew how meaningless labels like "natural" and "free range" are. But the news wasn't all bad — speakers noted that even chain restaurants like Chipotle are using exclusively antibiotic-free meat and that legislation is in place to prevent the use of misleading labels like "cold-pasteurized."

After braving the chicken in the Pot Pie, we returned for the second session, which started off with a video of chef/activist Jamie Oliver's TED Talk from 2010. Next we heard speeches by Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Michelle Hughes of GrowNYC, Mitchell Davis of the James Beard Foundation, Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society, Howard Hinterhuer of the Veteran's Food Project, and Stephen Ritz, teacher and founder of the Green Bronx Machine. Talks covered the complexity of soil, the integral role of immigrant farmers, the value of taste, the rights of farm animals (which are practically non-existent), the rehabilitation of veterans through urban agriculture, and the urban farming techniques spearheaded by a class in the South Bronx.

All of the speakers were excellent, but Stephen Ritz, teacher at Walton High School in the South Bronx, gave an electrifying performance that couldn't be matched. Not only was it unbelievable how much information he was able to squeeze into 10 minutes, but his story about venturing into urban farming with his class and their resounding academic and financial success earned Ritz a standing ovation.

The third and last session of the day kicked off with a video of chef Arthur Potts Dawson's TED Talk on sustainable restaurants. This was followed by speeches by Cara Rosean of RealTimeFarms.com, Marianne Cufone of Recirculating Farms Coalition, Kerry McLean of WHEDco, Paul Lightfoot of Brightfarms, Kavita Shukla of Fenugreen, and Gary Oppenheimer of AmpleHarvest.org. Perhaps wanting to finish on a bright note, the speakers were optimistic as they discussed ideas like connecting consumers and farmers through the internet, using aquaponics to revitalize local food systems and collaborations between home gardeners and food banks.

After eating a bland tomato on stage, Brightfarms CEO, Paul Lightfoot informed us, "All produce is grown for travel instead of taste." But he left the audience in good spirits after explaining that Brightfarms is teaming up with big box retailers to plant gardens nearby or even on the roof of their stores, making local, fresh produce an economic reality in supermarkets. Kavita Shukla provided a solution for keeping that fresh produce from rotting by simply placing a sheet of Fenugreen paper next to the fruits and vegetables. Fenugreen paper is treated with natural Indian herbs that preserve produce two to four times longer, and it's reusable and biodegradable.

While the food system's prospects seemed bleak at the beginning of the day, things were looking up by the end. Gary Oppenheimer succinctly stated the core theme of many of the talks when speaking about AmpleHarvest.org's promotion of local food, saying, "We're moving information instead of food."

Watch an 11-year-old talk about wanting to be an organic farmer: