Day 1 of Shared Tables Symposium poses bold challenge

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A food symposium runs the risk of becoming a mawkish gathering of foodie intelligentsia basking in the glow of the locavore's paradise that is here in Durham and Chapel Hill.

Except on the first day of Shared Tables: A Triangle Symposium on Global and Local Food Studies, sitting in UNC-Chapel Hill's Hyde Hall listening to a lecture on food and fuel, I heard this from a professor on the distinguished panel:

"We have a food system that sucks."

And then I heard it again, coming from the moderator.

These people are serious.

The bold approach to food issues began around Jacqueline Olich's kitchen table. As Associate Director of the Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies at UNC (CSEES), she was looking for a way to use a Title VI U.S. Department of Education grant awarded to the center for four years of Interdisciplinary Symposia on Sustainability & Innovation in Global Contexts. She thought of the impact of food on global economy and culture and settled on her topic.

Then, she learned that Triangle University Food Studies (TUFS), an organization comprised of members from N.C. State, UNC and Duke, had already scheduled nationally acclaimed urban agronomist and community organizer Will Allen to come speak. It was then that she invited members of TUFS, CSEES and the Kenan-Flagler Center for Sustainable Enterprise to meet around her own kitchen table and collaborate on a two-day event at both UNC and Duke. Why?

"Our brazen challenge or question was: How can we feed the world?"

Today's theme focused on global perspective, kicking off with a panel discussion on food issues, politics and farming in the European Union, a region tangled in economic turmoil. An example of Polish farmers taking the reins of small agriculture and pushing for change proved particularly inspiring among students, professors, researchers and local professionals in the lecture room.

The next panel, titled "Food Security, Sustainable Food Systems, and Global Change," began with a list of harrowing global statistics, such as the fact that by 2050, our global population will reach 9 billion. Currently one-seventh of the world's population (925 million people) experiences chronic hunger. Food production will need to increase by 70 percent by 2050 in order to make sure that number doesn't rise. L. George Wilson of N.C. State provided the statistics, also highlighting food waste and his efforts with U.S. Aid's Feed the Future program to implement programs in developing nations that help preserve the quality of their food in the time it takes to travel from the harvest to the market.

Meanwhile, nutritionist, professor and author Suzanne Havala Hobbs presented the "the global problem of over-nutrition," stating plainly that the United States is "the fattest country in the world," with 30 percent of our citizens listed as obese. "Obesity is a national security issue, in my opinion," she stated.

UNC Department of African and Afro-American Studies Chair Eunice Sahle intrigued the audience with her research on development in Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya, where she said "African countries are forced to destroy their own agriculture in order to export commodities."

The outspoken honesty in these statements carried over to the audience. One woman, a student studying public health, stood up and asked, "As an American consumer and inherent capitalist, what can I do?"

"Your American citizenship, you can use that," Sahle said. "It has a lot of normative power in shaping agrarian policy."

While the after-lunch panel focused on food and fuel, the power of consumer choice in a first-world nation remained a bold theme. We learned that in 2008, the depreciation of the dollar coupled with the rise of the cost of grain increased global food prices by 20 percent. Grain is an energy drain, too, as the crop that uses the most fertilizer.

Another connection with food and energy: meat production. Osei Yeboah, Associate Professor in Agribusiness and Applied Economics and N.C. A&T University, stated that one beef cattle requires 2.5 acres to raise. Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy, who facetiously prefaced his talk as "unreasonable," said this posed an issue of "the denial of self-satisfaction" for consumers in this country.

"If consumers don't demand those changes in agricultural policy and health," said Yeboah, "it's not going to happen."

The audience left wide-eyed. At Duke tomorrow, they tackle local issues—point-blank.

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