Dec 19, 2012

Agriculture and Health Summit

Conference Focuses on Multiple Issues Impacting Food, Farming and Health 

        by Tracey Graham

“How does the way we grow our food affect our environment? the nutrient value of our food? our ability to provide access to food for all? and the health of our food and farm workers?” These were the questions posed by Julie Mettenburg, Executive Director of the Kansas Rural Center, as she framed the day’s discussion at the beginning of the recent Agriculture and Health Summit held in Topeka, Kansas.

More than 80 people attended the “Healthy Farms, Healthy People” conference on November 16. The topic of the day was “Exploring Kansas Perspectives on the Connections Between Farms, Our Food System, and the Health of Our Population”.

Mettenburg challenged attendees to consider not just community action for change, but also public policy solutions to help support and drive that change. She also challenged them to open their minds to complex problems and solutions, and to set aside preconceived notions, such as that subsidies alone are the cause of food price inequities, or the common statement that Kansas farmers feed the world. “Are we even feeding our own state’s population?” she asked. “You will learn later today that we are not.”

Keynote speaker Robert Martin, policy analyst for Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, shared the results of the Pew Commission on Farm Animal Production, a two-year study he led along with former Kansas Governor John Carlin.

In 2008, the 16-member commission provided 24 recommendations for industrial animal agriculture, including the elimination of non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, a common protocol in confinement feeding operations.

Martin reported that some efforts at reducing antibiotics are being discussed by the FDA and that anticipated water quality policy changes in the Chesapeake Bay region may become a model. Martin said he expects the Pew Commission to release a 5-year anniversary update this coming April.

As for action that Kansans could take to improve agriculture for public health outcomes, Martin recommended contacting senators and representatives to demand a more democratic food policy. Also, ask questions at the meat counter, such as “How is this meat raised?” and don’t take “I don’t know” for an answer. He also suggested that HHS head Kathleen Sebelius might be receptive to Kansans requesting that the FDA address antibiotics in animal production.

Recent studies on the eating habits of Kansans, as well as issues of access, nutrition, food safety and environ-mental impact, and health impact on farmers and farm workers was the topic of speaker Barbara LaClair, policy analyst for the Kansas Health Institute.

LaClair distinguished between food deserts, rural regions and urban pockets where there is little or no access to healthy foods, and Food Swamps, where unhealthy food options are overabundant. Nearly half of Kansas counties contain USDA-designated “food desert” communities, with some western counties having no grocery store at all.

She said that KHI recommendations to improve the food environment include changes to farm policy to align food production more closely with dietary recommendations, emphasizing nutrient value and transparency in labeling, and making the healthy choices the easiest and most attractive choices.

“We’re all consumers and can vote with our food dollars. Ask the questions, force industry to respond,” LaClair stated. “ If industry can’t sell GMOs and antibiotic-filled meats, they’ll stop.”

Speakers Rhonda Janke, Ph.D., of Kansas State Research and Extension, and Paul Johnson, public policy analyst for the Kansas Rural Center, provided an assessment of the Kansas food and farming system.

Dr. Janke critiqued the recent controversial Stanford analysis of 230 research studies on organically grown foods, citing several areas of flawed methodology and the exclusion of numerous research projects with organic-favorable results.

Both speakers pointed to data that shows that Kansas farmers produce only a small fraction of the fruits and vegetables that we consume -- a total market value of $767 million. Janke said that to feed ourselves the fruits and vegetables that can and do grow well here, we would need 121,000 acres of farmland near our population centers.

Johnson shared policy programs that are making a difference in other states, citing Michigan’s Good Food Charter, North Carolina’s Farm To Fork campaign, and Iowa’s Local Farm and Food Plan.

Both Janke and Johnson called for citizen and corporate action in Kansas, to change food and farming policy. Janke pointed out that only one food-related bill was proposed in Kansas this last session, and it was defeated.

“Kansas state senators and representatives need to learn what we know, and need to know we care.” Johnson also said, “Kansas needs a more comprehensive Food and Farm Policy, with emphasis on diet and health outcomes.”

Donn Teske, president of the Kansas Farmers Union, shared the history, status, and prospects for the Farm Bill and the agriculture committees in Washington. He questioned the claim that industrial agriculture is needed to feed the world. “Peasants still feed at least 70 percent of the world population.”

With an eye toward finding community food and farming solutions, attendees participated in a series of round table discussions, facilitated by Marci Penner of the Kansas Sampler Foundation. Topics included Local Food Policy Councils, Farm to School, Food Cost vs. Food Quality; Work Place Wellness, Local Food Business Development, Food Hubs and Infrastructure (Aggregation/ Distribution), Farmers Markets, Rural Groceries, Organics, and food assistance programs.

Participants were asked to make action commitments, which they recorded on postcards that will be mailed back to them in several months as reminders to check their progress. They were also asked, who was not at the summit that should be included? And what policy ideas could drive change? Their answers will be considered by the organizing team and funders as they consider follow-up activities from the summit.

In addition to KRC, organizers of the summit included the Kansas Health Institute, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Kansas Farmers Union, and Bon Appétit Harvest Café, with funding from the Centers for Disease Control through the National Network of Public Health Institutes, and additional support by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas Foundation.

Jennifer Billig, of Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Minneapolis, and liaison for the national organizing team, explained that the summit was one of seven being held across the country to start conversations about the intersection of food, farming, health and public health. 


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