Eating into the future is the title of the Australian first conference on food, health and the environment, which will be held at the Adelaide Hilton International, on 11 - 13 April 1999. Tim Marshall interviewed conference chairman, John Coveney and committee member, Patricia Carter, on behalf of Acres Australia.
Tim: Eating into the future is an interesting title. Broadly, what are the themes of the conference?
John Coveney: There are three main themes, they are:
>> Current and future issues concerning population health and the food supply,
>> Barriers and opportunities for a sustainable food future, and
>> Actions and advocacy for a sustainable food future in Australia.
Tim: Where did the title originate?
John: The title has a double meaning - we need to think strategically about the food supply, what is it doing and where is it going. We also need to make sure that what we are doing now is not eroding what is available in the future and that we are thinking about issues of sustainability and the implications of eating on the earth's resources. We know that we are using resources badly and that we have to find ways of minimising our impact.
Patricia Carter: Issues which are of obvious concern are things such as energy inputs used in growing, transporting, storage and packaging of food and the whole of the consumption system, or what we choose to eat, and the disposal system for food waste and sewerage. What we eat has an impact right through the food and nutrition system.
John: Paul Ehrlich talks about the 'footprint' which we make on the earth. I like to think of the 'bite mark'. Some people don't drive cars or do other things which damage the earth, but we all eat. Eating is the most powerful impact we can have, has been the most powerful thing we have done. There is an intentional reference to Tim Flannery's work here, but we are not just concerned with our influences on the physical environment, there are also effects on the political environment.
John: I definitely feel that these issues have been under represented in the environment movement and that it is time to ask more questions about the food supply.
Tim: I remember that when I started out working with farmers to talk about organic growing, some colleagues in the environment movement asked me "why would you work with them, they are the ones who bulldoze trees and spray chemicals around". I told them that was exactly why I needed to work in this area.
I note that the conference is sponsored by Eat Well SA. What is Eat Well SA?
Patricia Carter: It is a government funded health promotion project promoting consumption of nutritious, safe and environmentally sustainable food. The key target of Eat Well SA is young South Australian families.
Tim: Why are you holding this conference now? Is there some special issue or timeliness which makes the conference appropriate to hold in 1999?
John: There are three issues which make us think this is the right time. The first is the issues of sustainability which we have mentioned, the second is the blossoming, even rampant nature of the technology. We do need to look carefully at the technology and regulations which are necessary. Up to the present time we have not really had a full and open debate about issues such as food irradiation, genetic engineering and so on. The third issue is the impact of the food system on population health. The BSE scandal in the UK is a prime example, what happens when there are changes to the food supply that are not well thought through.
I noticed recently where Rosemary Stanton was saying that nutritionists or other professionals involved with food really know so little about food. This is the first time a conference such as this has brought these themes together in Australia, and it has not been done often anywhere.
Patricia: The public health industry has started to embrace environmental sustainability and there is a rising concern about these issues amongst health professionals.
Tim: I saw an article in The Advertiser this week which was talking about processed food. It was saying that processed food was healthy and defending it against detractors. It suggested for instance that nutrition losses in food processing was only equivalent to cooking losses at home. I also note that there has been a lot in the papers about food safety recently. While I believe in basic hygiene I sometimes think that food safety promotion goes a little overboard. Shouldn't natural health be about some synergy with the environment, especially the local environment where we live. For instance I believe that I can safely pull a carrot from my garden, wipe it on my sleeve and eat it straight down. I should be able to drink my water straight from the tap, whereas I accept that if I go somewhere else and drink the water I may encounter a different bug which could upset my stomach. The papers made a big splash about Gaillardia recently, but is Gaillardia really a problem for anyone who is not an infant or already very ill?
John: I am an academic in the area of primary health care, but I do feel that a lot of our teaching about food lacks politics and values. I read recently where Kate Cherry and Joan Dye Gussow where saying that home economics used to be about values. We would be pleased to think that we can lift the level of debate about these things by holding our conference at this time.
Tim: Who is speaking at the conference?
John: Tim Lang is our international keynote speaker. He is Professor of Food Policy at the Thames Valley University. He was Director of the London Food Commission from 1984 to 1990, and Director of an organisation called Parents for Safe Food. He is also involved with the National Food Alliance, SAFE (Sustainable Agriculture, Food and the Environment) and Friends of the Earth.
On the first day we will be unpacking the issues. We will here from Professor Richard Bawden about production of food, from professor Richard Head, who is Chief of CSIRO Human Nutrition and Professor Mark Wahlqvist, who has held chairs in both medicine and nutrition.
We will also be holding a public forum associated with the conference, which is free. It will feature Tim Lang, food consultant and writer Rosemary Stanton, Dr Dick Copeman from the Consumer Food Network and Matt O'Neill, a nutritionist from the Australian Consumers Association.
And of course there are very many other invited and offered papers from people in many different fields who are concerned for an eco-friendly food system.