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Our environment, our food -- why a gubernatorial debate?

07/10/2008

By George Schenk
     
Like a lot of other people I followed the presidential primaries with a level of interest that surprised me. Maybe it was the historic nature of the candidates, the closeness of the races, or the extraordinary voter turnout that moved me, but more than these I came to feel that we are a society at a crossroads: that much of the conventional wisdom that has guided the country's growth and development since the Second World War is being challenged by new technologies and environmental limitations.

As this is true for the nation and the world, it is also true for our state and our communities. Vermont is rich in culture and has many natural resources -- not least of which is the thing we seem to talk about most -- our weather -- but like everywhere, we have our share of difficulties and things that are simply not serving us well.

In my view, the dominant food system is not serving Vermonters or our environment in the ways that it could and, I believe, ultimately needs to.

Food, in all of its various forms, is the largest business on the planet. Its production, processing and distribution have the largest impact on our environment of any other human activity, and it is, along with air, water, shelter, clothing and love, common and elementary to us all. Yet despite its central role in the human experience and its profound effect on the earth, it is a subject that historically we have infrequently talked about in our highest political conversations.

For a long time it didn't seem to matter. American farmers always produced enough to keep our shelves full and prices low. We worried about the high rate of failure of small family farms but felt helpless to do much about it in the face of inexorable market forces. It was the price of progress.

This was the logic for our political silence of the past.

Today there is a new food imperative with a new food conversation. It is a conversation with questions that will not go away and it demands our thoughtful consideration. Why does so much of our food that could be grown and raised here come from so far away? What do residues of pesticides, growth hormones and antibiotics, the genetics of GMOs and cloned meats, and the technology of irradiation mean to our health, the health of our children and the health of our environment? Do consumers have the right to know what's in their food and how it has been treated? How will the next generation of farmers afford the land they need? What kind of food should we have in our public schools? In our hospitals and nursing homes? Could better food be a tool to improve behavior in our prisons? How do we relieve hunger and provide for basic food security for all Vermonters? Is good clean wholesome food only something the rich can afford? Who is responsible for GMO pollen drift that contaminates organic crops? How do Vermont dairy farmers compete in a global market? Can we produce the food we need in greater harmony with the environment we live in?

Together, these questions and others illuminate the central question: How will we feed one another? Directly or indirectly, we are all in the business of food. We are in this together, and it will be together that we will best find ways to create meaningful food that nurtures our health, that promotes the well being of our communities, and that safeguards our environment for the generations to follow.

To help advance this important conversation and to inform the voters of Vermont on the positions of the candidates for governor concerning the environment and agriculture and food policy, American Flatbread is honored to co-host with the Vermont Natural Resource Council (VNRC) and the Vermont Localvores the first Gubernatorial Debate of 2008 at Lareau Farm Sunday, July 20, at 5 p.m. The moderator will be the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the <MI>Rutland Herald<D>, David Moats. The format will be modified Town Hall. Members of the audience are invited to submit written questions and statements. The event is free and open to the public. All are welcome. Please carpool.

A note on political bias:

By any objective measure American Flatbread, or maybe more fairly, I, tend to fall left of center on most political subjects. My intention in hosting this debate is not to promote or support any one candidate or, conversely, set up for failure, embarrass or in any way personally attack or put down an individual candidate. My intention is to facilitate a conversation on subjects that are important to Vermont. Although I may from time to time disagree with specific policies or priorities, I observe that Vermont is blessed with elected officials and civil servants who are professional, conscientious, ethical and have a great affection for this land we call home, and for the people we call our neighbors.

An event like this is the work of many people, thanks to all.

George Schenk, American Flatbread.
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