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Voting with Forks

BU hosts international conference on food’s future

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Elizabeth Amrien (above). Illustration (below) by Janusz Kapusta

The unexamined lunch isn’t worth eating. Or, as Elizabeth Amrien, managing director of Boston University’s Institute for Human Sciences puts it, too many of us choose our food “unconsciously,” unaware of the economic, ecological, and ethical ingredients in every bite.

She says this between sips of her lunch, a slightly pulpy green juice made from celery, dandelion greens, an apple, and a lemon, which she juices and drinks daily. By contrast, I pull one thing after another from my lunch bag — a turkey sandwich, a banana, blueberry yogurt, and iced tea — feeling like Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club. We’ve met to talk food; our own habits, yes, but mostly larger issues such as industrialized agriculture, genetic modification, safety, and local sourcing. These topics are part of The Future of Food, a two-day symposium starting tomorrow that will feature panel discussions, film screenings, workshops (and, of course, refreshments), engaging international thinkers, gourmands, and sustainability experts, including several BU faculty. The conference is part of a larger project exploring the intersection of politics and culture, funded by the European Commission Delegation in Washington, D.C.

In recent decades, the developed world’s supermarket-centered food supply has grown fantastically abundant, but also increasingly industrialized, additive-laced, processed, packaged, and nonlocal. Symposium organizer Amrien (GSM’08) cites Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, who surmises that there’s been more change in the way we eat in the last 30 years than in the previous 30,000. This conference, Amrien says, “is meant to explore the consequences of that kind of sweeping change.” The idea isn’t to tell people what to eat, she says, but to help people make more informed choices.

Amrien decides what she eats based on her evolving understanding of what’s healthy and natural, which began when she was an All-American runner at Trinity College in Hartford in the 1980s. “Like a lot of women athletes, I wanted to stay thin and fit,” she says. She shopped at a local natural food store, but also developed an “unhealthy obsession” with her body and grew dangerously thin. Part of her recovery, she says, was to allow herself to indulge food cravings, whatever they might be, without worrying. But about seven years ago, after a decade of eating “normal” food, Amrien says she started feeling lousy. “I realized that eating like this wasn’t normal and healthy at all,” she says. “Our whole culture has an eating disorder.”

She started making connections between food that was healthy for her and for the planet. She became a vegan, trying to shop only at farmers’ markets in warmer months. The rest of the year, she harvested the Whole Foods produce department (which she has some problems with, but more on that later).

While healthy eating guides her choices, Amrien says others might be more influenced by a concern for small farm survival, global warming, or biodiversity. This weekend’s symposium tackles many of these topics. The panel discussions include: From Farm to Fork: The Global Food Chain, moderated by James McCann, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of history, who has spent years researching links between corn crops and malaria in Ethiopia; The End of Cheap Food: Food and Geopolitics, moderated by Cutler Cleveland, a CAS professor of geography and environment; What’s in What You Eat? Food Safety in a New Ecology, moderated by Adil Najam, a CAS professor of international relations and of geography and environment and director of BU’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future (who is part of the UN group that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore); Eating Green: Food and Climate Change, moderated by Henrik Selin, a CAS assistant professor of international relations; and What Is “Good” Food? The Ethics of Eating, moderated by independent sustainability consultant Molly Anderson.

There will also be a demonstration of fermentation, a screening of the film King Corn, introduced by filmmaker Ian Cheney (left, with producer Curt Ellis) and followed by a question-and-answer session with director Aaron Woolfe, and a lecture and dinner with author and activist Bryant Terry, who is dedicated to educating lower-income Americans about diet and health. Saturday’s keynote speakers are Satish Kumar, peace activist and editor of the sustainability journal Resurgence and Michael Ableman, a farmer, writer, photographer, and authority on sustainable agriculture.

Amrien concedes that the symposium isn’t balanced with representatives from giant food producers such as ConAgra or Archer Daniels Midland or companies, such as Monsanto, that specialize in using genetic modification to improve crop yield.

“These people have a lot of money to get their message out; they don’t need our little grant-funded platform,” Amrien says. Besides, the symposium is more about individual choices, she says: “We can make decisions about what we eat every day for lunch, and those decisions matter.”

With that, we take stock of my lunch.

Two strikes against my banana: it’s not “fair trade” or ripe enough and thus bad for digestion.

My low-calorie yogurt contains the artificial sweetener Aspartame. “That’s just poison,” says Amrien. “It’s not something I’d ever touch.”

There’s more nasty stuff in my turkey. I’ve brought its plastic packaging — another ecological sin — to identify its ingredients, and I’m gratified to see “turkey” as ingredient number one. But after water there’s sodium four ways (lactate, phosphate, diacetate, and nitrite), and then comes the real slap in the face: “turkey flavor.” As the chemicals add up, a cool glass of celery and dandelion greens starts sounding better.

Amrien takes it easy on me. “We all make compromises,” she says. After all, she admits, her green juice leaves a sizable carbon footprint, using Florida lemons, Washington State apples, and California dandelion greens. Everything is from Whole Foods, which many food activists criticize as “industrial organic,” bypassing small, local farmers in favor of fewer, larger suppliers to ensure that every food will be available every season.

Then again, Amrien says, she’s not a purist. “I have no problem with getting lemons from Florida or spices from whatever distant land they come from,” she says. “It’s depending on California for dandelion greens, which grow abundantly in Massachusetts, that’s the problem.”

Amrien notes that it might not be possible to retool the world’s food system and feed a global population approaching seven billion. “We can’t have pie-in-the-sky thinking,” she says. “But we need to be able to make informed decisions about our own food, so we can vote with our forks.”

Check BU Today tomorrow for a visit with some BU-based vegetarians who frequent a Boston-based farmers’ market.

The Future of Food events will take place Friday, May 8, and Saturday, May 9, at the Boston University School of Law Auditorium and at 808 Commonwealth Ave. Most events are free and open to the public, although a few require a small admission fee; the symposium’s organizers encourage registration online. More information is available here.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

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