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15 Inspiring Quotes and Questions to Guide the Food System Forward

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15 Inspiring Quotes and Questions to Guide the Food System Forward
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By Danielle Nierenberg

Since the first episode of Food Talk Live aired on March 19, our twice-daily live conversation series has featured nearly 150 food system experts, advocates, scientists, chefs and more.


This means that, over the past four months, I've probably asked more than 1,000 questions to these folks about the future of the food system. There has been a lot of news to unpack this week alone, between funding food waste reduction, addressing community food insecurity, and understanding the influence of the food industry on nutrition policy. And during my live conversations, every question I ask raises even more.

This week, Food Tank is highlighting 15 quotes that address thorny, world-changing questions about building a more sustainable and equitable food system.

How do we rectify racial inequities in land ownership?

"As a result of colonial genocide, land grabbing, USDA discrimination, state-level nativism, lynching, and expulsion, over 98% of the farmland in this county is owned by white Americans today. Ralph Paige of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives put it simply, "Land is the only real wealth in this country and if we don't own any we'll be out of the picture." We need a nationwide commitment to share the land back, so that all communities can have the means of production for food security."

— Leah Penniman, founder and director of Soul Fire Farm. Read more here.

How impactful can collective agricultural labor unions be to protect farm workers?

"In 2019, through our collective bargaining procedures, we resolved cases on wage issues amounting to over US$800,000 dollars. If they were non-union, that money would have been lost to the worker's pocket. If this is what we recoup for workers in the union setting, imagine what must be happening in non-union settings."

— Baldemar Velásquez, founder and president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Listen to more here.

What does it mean to support local, regional, and sustainable food by engaging in good food purchasing?

"This is a time I think of as a great reckoning. Seeing the public interest in food and how important food is as a public service is how procurement works — it aligns the purchasing power of government institutions with what the values of the public are. I think an important next step would be to have city or municipal leaders set aggregate purchasing targets and invite, encourage, persuade all large food service institutions to participate in setting these aggregate targets. And then you can really start making accelerated change in the local food economy, which is something we know we need to build back right now. The idea of good food purchasing is to support equity and to support creating economic opportunity for those who have not had that economic opportunity."

— Paula Daniels, co-founder, chair of the board, and chief of what's next at the Center for Good Food Purchasing. Listen to more here.

What is the importance of “middle-man” food processors in supporting local farm-based food systems?

"Can we imagine how to circle out of this in a way that is better than what we had before? I want to shine an uncomfortable light on the farm-to-table movement. It turns out to have a very weak link. I don't know that the answer is to return to that moment, because what this shows is that it wasn't as strong in conception of feeding people and a food system moving forward as we would've imagined."

— Dan Barber, executive chef and co-founder of Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Listen to more here.

What can we do to make regenerative farming not only the norm, but affordable?

"We need to realize that economic justice and the growth of organic and regenerative food and farming and land use go together. We can't have one without the other. That's what's so beautiful about this Green New Deal."

— Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association. Listen to more here.

How can traditional resource-management techniques lay the foundation for food sovereignty?

"Tagal is a traditional fisheries management practice in [the Malaysian state of] Sabah, in which communities swear oaths to nurture wild fisheries until they teem with river carp, and then open them, by agreement, for communal consumption at special times. During COVID-19 the power of tagal has therefore also become a key topic: how communities who have reinvigorated their culture of river stewardship have been able to access their own protein resources in their places."

— Cynthia Ong & Kenneth Wilson of Forever Sabah in Sabah, Malaysia. Read more here.

What role can mutual aid and distributive food systems play in feeding our communities?

"Resilience and regeneration are not a given, they need to be purposefully nurtured. We therefore need to invest and facilitate the creation of distributive food systems based on local needs and capacities that assure a fair redistribution of value, knowledge and power across actors and territories to deliver sustainable food for all."

— Ana Moragues-Faus, professor of economics and business, Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain. Read more here.

How can greater public funding drive food innovation in Latin America and the Global South?

"One of the forgotten links in all these food systems, connections between agriculture, nutrition, and health, is that you need knowledge. You need to do some research, and then you need to innovate. … If we can put trillions and trillions of dollars into good research on safeguarding the economy, we should also be putting in quite a bit of funding for health and food systems."

— Ruben Echeverria, senior research fellow at International Food Policy Research Institute and research associate at the Latin American Center for Rural Development. Listen to more here.

What role can entrepreneurs play in building a better food system?

"We have this really beautiful rich, diverse country where we can produce and we can create so much wealth for all of us, and it's now about zooming in and resourcing these gaps that we know exist."

— Caesaré Assad, CEO of accelerator Food System 6. Listen to more here.

How do we build a new European community-based sustainable food system that doesn’t replicate the past?

"My vision is for a new food economy with more and more of us growing a percentage of our own food, and preferentially purchasing in season and local food from local and sustainable farmers. This future food system will not be identical to those that I remember from my childhood in the '50s and '60s, since the world has changed since then. The internet and other related digital innovations including on-line marketing, and the emergence of farmers markets and community supported agriculture, are all expressions of the boundless innovation of humanity. So, let us hope that the farming community will prosper and come to play a more central role in our future food systems. Let the new food revolution flourish and thrive!"

— Patrick Holden, British farmer and founder of Sustainable Food Trust. Read more here.

How can we understand and prepare for the connections between COVID-19 and diet health?

"Because [the pandemic of diet-related disease] has happened over 30 to 40 years, we've ignored that equivalent or even larger pandemic. And now they're coming together, and we're seeing that we set up an environment of people with poor metabolic health who are predisposed to COVID. … We have not invested in the science that we should have invested in up until this point, to have answers to these questions. People are talking about stocking personal protective equipment and stocking ventilators and stocking vaccines — but what about stocking science on food and health and nutrition? That would've been incredibly important."

—Dariush Mozaffarian, cardiologist and dean of the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Listen to more here.

How is localized, diverse seed security vital to our food security and national security?

"As the world slowly rebuilds and recovers, we all have a fresh opportunity to regenerate and share a greater diversity of seeds—and to honor and return benefits to traditional seed keepers from many cultures. We would be remiss not to sow true, place-based seed sovereignty in every region and among every culture on this planet, well before a future crisis could uproot us again."

— Gary Paul Nabhan, ethnobotanist and co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH. Read more here.

How has the COVID-19 crisis played into forces of industrialization threatening Iranian smallholder farmers?

"There is an irony in expecting governments to kick into action in an emergency to support people and production systems that they actively undermine in the best of times. This shows that COVID-19 is not impacting food systems in a vacuum, but is in fact a shock to an ongoing struggle for power and survival. Like many smallholder producers worldwide who make a massive contribution to food security, pastoralists struggle against forces that seek to upend their way of life in favor of industrial food systems."

— Maryam Rahmanian & Nahid Naghizadeh of the Centre for Sustainable Development in Tehran, Iran. Read more here.

How do we encourage young Africans to stay on farms and improve agriculture on the continent?

"I would argue that what is missing in the [agricultural] sector is those young people who have access to productive resources and have the knowledge and the skillset that can help improve productivity. … If we want young people to stay in agriculture, then we have to make agriculture profitable for those young people. And for agriculture to be profitable, it has to be productive. Giving them access to those productive resources that will allow them to increase the productivity of agriculture will be critical."

— Felix Kwame Yeboah, social science researcher and professor of international development at Michigan State University. Listen to more here.

Finally, what will it take to help us use suffering as a springboard into liberation?

"We're all suffering. But at the end of the day, folks, what makes us strong is our belief in one another, that we will come together to help one another get back on our feet. … This is our time, this is our moment to not go back to politics and Wall Street, but to move forward. It's more about people than profits. This is our time to move forward and change the system."

— Karen Washington, farmer and founder of Rise and Root Farm. Watch more here

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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