Food is deeply tied to the human experience. It’s woven into our culture, history, and community. It nourishes us, sustains us, and comforts us. And yet, for something so essential to daily life, many Americans have only a vague understanding of where our food comes from, how it’s produced, and the tremendous impact it has on the environment.
Rachel’s Network explored the global agricultural system during our 2013 Fall Retreat, “Seeding the Future of Food.” Co-chaired by Members Charlotte Hanes and Cari Rudd, the Retreat convened nearly 40 members and guests in Austin, Texas, one of the nation’s major food hubs, to hear expert perspectives on how to advance a sustainable food future.
- Special excursion to Bracken Cave, the summer home of approximately 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats, the largest concentration of mammals in the world. Experts from Bat Conservation International described the critical ecoservices bats provide to agriculture through pollination and pest control, while members enjoyed handling the animals.
- Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet and director of the Real Food Media Project, painted a sobering picture of a wasteful, fossil fuel-based food system that is destroying the environment through chemical overuse, soil erosion, and water pollution.
- Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder of Food Tank, Ronda Rutledge, executive director of Austin’s Sustainable Food Center, and Network Liaison Tensie Whelan, president of the Rainforest Alliance, joined us the next morning to share opportunities to advance sustainable agriculture at the local, national, and international levels.
- Jane Dever, Ph.D., a cotton geneticist at Texas A&M University, and Tom Philpott, food and agriculture correspondent for Mother Jones, led a discussion on genetically modified crops.
- Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side, joined us for lunch to share her research on the importance of wild plants, encouraging attendees to incorporate as many wild and heirloom plant varieties into their diets as possible to reap the full health benefits of fresh produce.
- Tour of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, a research institution that advocates for native plants. Biologist Karen Clary, Ph.D., and Network Liaison Kathryn Kennedy, Ph.D., CEO of the Center for Plant Conservation, discussed the unique value of native plants in conserving water, providing habitat for wildlife, protecting soil, and reducing landscaping costs.
- Anya Fernald, CEO of Belcampo Meat Co., explained how she built a specialty meat business that’s both successful and sustainable. Belcampo is her effort to produce sustainable food on an unprecedented scale and “prove that quality agriculture can be profitable beyond the farmers market.”
- Panel discussion on animal agriculture with Marianne Cufone, executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, Bob Martin, director of Food Systems Policy at Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future, and Lance B. Price, Ph.D., researcher of antibiotic resistance at George Washington University.
- Visit to Bamberger Ranch Preserve in the Texas Hill Country, west of Austin. Executive Director Colleen Gardner and Ranch Biologist Steven Fulton described how the 5,500- acre former ranch was transformed from “the worst piece of property in Texas” to a thriving habitat preserve. Members were treated to a visit from David Bamberger himself, who bought the land in 1969.
At the conclusion of the Retreat, members brainstormed how they would translate what they learned into action. Ideas ranged from buying only meat raised without antibiotics, to planting a demonstration garden, to supporting a sustainable agriculture entrepreneur through the Rachel’s Network Fellowship. Members were outraged by the many problems plaguing our food system, but inspired by opportunities for reform, both on a small and large scale. As an issue that touches our lives every day, our actions can truly make an impact on the future of food.