by Marion Nestle
May 5 2011

Future of Food: the food movement goes mainstream

I’m just back from yesterday’s Future of Food conference in Washington DC.  The event, designed by WashingtonPostLive to “advance the conversation” about sustainable food, featured a glittering array of speakers from many aspects of the food movement. (You can watch the conference on video here, and the Washington Post will have a special section on it next Wednesday, May 11.)

The keynote speaker was none other than the Prince of Wales, fresh from his son’s wedding, who gave a serious and inspriring talk that touched on a great range of pressing issues related to agriculture, health, and the state of the world.

Anyone who has been involved in food issues for any length of time had heard these opinions before and most of the speakers were talking to an audience of a few hundred of the converted.

Nevertheless, I think there’s a story here, and not just because I was on one of the panels.

The story is that the event happened.  The food movement has gone mainstream.

The conference—sponsored by the Washington Post no less—brought in heavy hitters.  These included the Prince of Wales, of course, but also the President of Georgetown University, where the event was held, Eric Schlosser, Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, and officials of the FDA and White House.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack came, gave thoughtful remarks, and responded with equally thoughtful answers to not-always-friendly comments from the audience.  This was the first time I’d seem him in person and I was impressed by how carefully he has thought through the issues he has to deal with.   Even when I viewed the issues differently,  it seemed clear that his were the result of much intelligent thought and weighing of alternatives.

Montana Senator Jon Tester, of the Tester amendment to the food safety bill, gave closing remarks.

The speakers, young and old, famous and not, made it clear that concerns about the relationship of agriculture to the health of people and the planet were major and were getting focused attention at very high levels.

The food movement can no longer be considered fringe.  It’s mainstream.  Speakers provided much evidence for that from their own points of view.

They said, it’s now time to take the movement to the next step, and that means doing what it takes to become even more powerful.

For example, see if you can find the remarks of Robert Ross, President of the California Endowment and listen to the opening remarks of his speech about the analogy with tobacco and the need to counter the power of food corporations.

My slightly facetious suggestion: if Congress is for sale, let’s buy our own.

Perhaps you have other ideas for expanding the movement and making it more powerful?  Do tell.



  • I am as biased as anyone, but I think doctors need to carry more of the load here. I have a unique platform to influence people one-on-one about their health and I use it. Not hours-long lectures but small nudges towards healthier choices.
    One of the healthy choices I have made for my family is buying organic and local food when possible and choosing restaurants that do the same. I often bring this into conversation with my patients as we talk about healthier life choices.
    Jamie Oliver just lost his platform to influence millions at once – I need to influence everyone I can whenever the opportunity arises.

  • Suzanne

    Posted today at 10:22 a.m. : Don’t believe what you read about Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” being canceled:

  • Well, if congress is for sale then I’ll take congress for $1, please.

  • Roxanne Rieske

    The number one priority needs to be demolishing and reorganizing the USDA. The USDA in it’s current form is just too outdated for the 21st century. This country’s agricultural industry NEEDS sustainability, environmental protection, major re-prioratizing of subsidies, and a resurrection of the family farm. In essence: We need a 21st century agricultural revolution.

  • Raising awareness through social media likes this blog certainly helps. Ultimately it will be the consumer making different choices that will eventually bring about change.

    I have very little hope that our government will be part of the solution. Right now they’re part of the problem.

    Blog on Marion!

  • “My slightly facetious suggestion: if Congress is for sale, let’s buy our own.”

    I’ve been saying this for a long time. Still feel I’m one of the few who thinks this.

  • Paul Charles Leddy
  • Re Food Movement:

    The senior nutritionist from General Mills had the most useful insight on this issue.

    People who care about food or are aware of the issues around them on such issue account for around 20% of the population.

    The vast majority of people who simply walk in to stores, buy their weekly groceries and walk out again account for 80% of the population.

    Wal-Mart’s internal management know that across all customer visits, people spend an average of just 20 minutes in a store.

    People go in, shop on cost, trust and brand visibility, and walk out as quickly as possible. People shop on auto-pilot, they don’t have the time or energy to consider the health consequences of each purchase decision and defer the decisions to the people that provide the stores and the products.

    Try it yourself, walk into a store and make a mental note to record how you feel about being in the store. Better still, go on a trip with someone else, make an excuse for the need to be in a hurry and watch them go on auto-pilot.

    This is where big brands win, every time and where they are failing customers who trust them to do the right thing.

    The work of brands is done outside the store, long before customers make a choice about where to shop.

    The food movement has to do the same, work on educating the customer long before they get to a store.

    The only way this can be done without an organized structure and with a zero budget is for the 20% to talk with everyone they can to change the ratios around (unless government decides to stand up for customers health).

    Failing that, I think Marion should consider becoming a Presidential candidate. No, seriously, we can do this: “If anyone can, Marion can” – every campaign slogan grows on you, give it time.

  • Rick Adams

    Cue the Mudd-slinging.

  • The heavy subsidies on grains is costing our government way too much money. They pay once by subsidizing huge grain farmers then pay again via medicare/medicaid to care for people who depend way to much on grains as the biggest source of calories.

    How about subsidizing vegetable farmers and traditional livestock farmers. This would drive down the cost of healthy food options. The result would be more access for the masses and also more awareness to the healthy benefits.

  • Laura G

    I’m afraid that a mainstream food movement means more challenges sorting through advertising and politics to find out what we are eating. We critical food consumers will be looking to you and others for guidance Marion.

    I am continually surprised that so many people I meet know so little about what they eat. As people who invest time to learn about our food systems, we can share what we know in a way that doesn’t drive people away from the issues.

    If ‘corporate health’ is the result of government health initiatives, more critical consumers concerned with personal health can make this movement more powerful.

  • Peter

    I am shocked by the first comment by the so called doctor Eric Marcotte: “One of the healthy choices I have made for my family is buying organic and local food when possible and choosing restaurants that do the same.” … There is not a single study that proves organic is healthier than conventional food. I hope your patients are not as stupid as you to spend premiums on food thinking they are buying something healthier when really they are not…

  • Rise

    I am glad to see this interest hit the mainstream. It’s about time! But two things work against big changes in the general population: first, the general population has health-information whiplash from the last few decades of recommendations and reversals (Low-fat diets are good — no, wait! High-fat, low-carb diets are good! Saturated fats are bad — no, wait! Saturated fats are OK!), and second, food is about culture and comfort, not just about health and nutrition, so we keep on making and eating the pecan sticky-buns because they remind us of Grandma, even though we know they’re bad for us.

    Re EdSanDiego’s comment: This is why I do very little of my shopping at big-box grocery stores, and as Marion has been teaching for years, spend very little time in the center aisles. But my town in Colorado has a lot of competition, so I am ridiculously fortunate to have small, selective grocers and farmer’s markets that stock mostly organic products (and reduce the overwhelming array of choices), and not just a Wal-Mart or Safeway nearby, which is what most people have to make do with.

    I tend to agree that we are overly reliant on grains, but honestly, in practice I find it difficult and prohibitively expensive to substitute meat and plant foods for all of the breads, cereals, and grains in our diets, even with all of these great shopping options in my area. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way, but that doesn’t make it any better or easier.

  • Suzanne

    Peter –

    Would you suggest to any member of your family to stand in a field when it was being sprayed with fumigants or pesticides? No? Then why would you possibly suggest that conventionally grown produce is equal to organic?

    Oh. One of the chemical companies or industrial agri-businesses is paying your salary.

  • I think there needs to be more of a focus on acting as citizens, not just as consumers. Acting as the latter can mean you are working within the choices offered more than generating/advocating for new ideas and choices yourself. It also precludes the involvement of those who, for whatever reason, cannot be very choosy about what they eat.

  • Peter

    Suzanne, I don’t work in this business at all… unlike you (whose salary is tied to the organic crap), I am a consumer who looks at both sides of the issue and draws my onw conclusion. If you are interested in the facts (which I doubt since you can’t handle the truth), check out this link:

  • It’s important to note that all suggestions add to the dialogue, and only in combination can we really begin to make positive strides toward rebuilding our broken food culture. This entails repairing each person’s relationship with food, an enormous amount of education and understanding so that we can pass sound advice and practices onto future generations, and some persistent and persuasive people to lead the crusade in politics.

    Everyone serves a different purpose. I’m not the type to lead the political crusade, and I am okay with that, because my strengths lie elsewhere in educating people about the pleasures of eating and learning about good food.

    But we must continue to reinforce that no positive contribution is too small – the person who always eats out can cook a meal at home instead, the person who only buys at the grocery store can check out a local farmers market, the person who only buys local can try to plant something, someone who cooks every night can invite someone else over to teach them, the one who laughs at others’ attempts to “do good” by only buying organic can introduce that person to a local farm. No step in the right direction is too small. If we all work in the right direction together we will begin to change things for good.

  • Suzanne

    Well Peter, I don’t work for an organic business. I work for a school district in San Diego advising teachers. I just prefer to minimize the chemicals I ingest voluntarily. My well being is quite tethered to my health, and eating organic and whole foods is one way I take care of myself.

    I’m always open to read opposing views, so I will check out your article link. I just found it a little extreme, and quite discourteous, that you called the doctor who posted “stupid” for recommending organics to patients.

  • Peter –

    So did you actually read the very first paragraph of the document you use to dispute Dr. Eric Marcotte’s assertion that organic is healthier?

    “This review does not address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs”

    So you ‘evidence’ that organic is no healthier than conventional doesn’t even look consider what pesticide, herbicide and fungicide residue may do to the human body.

    Great ‘evidence’, Peter. Keep up the good work.

  • Doc Mudd

    Peter is correct.

    His observation regarding an M.D. recommending organic food to patients is cogent, as well. Such a ‘recommendation’ is not founded in science; it is unprofessional, to say the least. The M.D. may as well be recommending to the patient what color to paint his/her house or what breed of dog is best for apartment living.

    Don’t let the loopy baaastids wear ya down Peter.

  • Roxanne Rieske

    I do think it’s a disservice for a doctor to tell his patients that they should only be eating organic. In the middle of a recession, that’s not an option for many people. How about just encouraging them to eat as many fruits and veggies as they can get, whatever they can afford?
    Simply washing produce well will remove about 98% of pesticide residue. There is no difference in nutritional value in conventional vs. organic.

    Yesterday, at the grocery store, a 2 lb. box of organic strawberries was on sale for 7.99. The 2 lb. box of conventional strawberries was on sale for 2.99. Which one do you think I’m buying when I’ve got $30 to spend on groceries for the week? The boon for the regular strawberries is that they were perfectly ripe and actually smelled like strawberries.

  • Suzanne

    Dr. Marcotte gave no indication that he tells his patients they should only eat organics, only that his family is committed to doing so and that he encourages patients to eat them in the context of making healthier life choices.

    Some pesticides are absorbed inside the fruit or vegetable, resistant to any amount of washing or peeling. I prefer to prioritize my food budget to include organic produce, and when I wasn’t working, I bartered my cashiering services at Farmer’s Markets for organic produce. I realize this isn’t an option for everyone, but it’s a small step I could take to protect my health.

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  • Marion, great seeing you. I had a slightly different take:

    What is the “Future of Food” without Food Safety?

  • Doc Mudd

    Doc Mudd, evil corp shill – February 4, 2011 7:39 AM

    There is no clear ‘superiority of nutritional content’ for organic vs. conventional food, regardless of how far away the misrepresented food may have been smuggled:

    ‘Certified organic’ is a marketing classification developed by USDA, and that is its only true significance. Looks like they’ve created an unregulated honor-system market that is prone to chicanery. A market where caveat emptor is the rule of law.

    But, please ignore the unwelcome exposure of market dynamics. Maybe heaping on more propaganda will obfuscate things and keep paying customers in a ‘trusting’ frame of mind?

  • Per Marion’s comments on Robert Ross’s presentation at the conference. Here are his remarks.

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