Organic farming took the stage at Kuumbwa Jazz Center last week when locals came together to discuss “The Future of Food” on May 11. Sponsored by UC Santa Cruz’s College Eight, Santa Cruz County Bank and the city of Santa Cruz, the lecture was one of a monthly series that examines community and civic issues.
“In this lecture series, we’re trying to bring community leaders together to address local as well as global issues,” Santa Cruz mayor Ryan Coonerty said in a welcome address to the audience.
Four local agriculture specialists explained some trends in American food consumption and production. They spoke about recent horticulture technology and food movements that could change the way the world grows food.
Scott Roseman, UCSC alumnus and founder of New Leaf Community Markets, said the United States has a monopolized system of factory farming that provides food for most of the country. He said there is a small but growing organic farming movement.
“The current state of the food situation is pretty messed up,” he said. “We spend so much money on things we don’t need, but we won’t spend a little more money to eat organic.”
Films have been made about the horrors of conventional food production, like “Food, Inc.” and internet sensation “The Meatrix.” Books have been written about the moral implications of eating food produced in this environment, like Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation.”
Maureen Wilmot, UCSC alumna and executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, said her biology background and work in ocean conservation made her skeptical of farming because of its negative environmental impacts.
“We in the ocean community always saw farming as part of the problem,” she said. “However, organic farming is part of the solution to save the ocean.”
Organic farms conserve water and soil while reducing pollution. They depend on natural fertilizers rather than chemical ones and pulling weeds rather than spraying them.
Runoff from factory farms can be harmful to the ocean and water sources for local communities. Some innovators of agriculture, like Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard, are trying new methods and substances to improve their products and the land they grow on.
One of the substances Grahm is testing, called biochar, could address global warming concerns and regenerate unusable soil.
“Biochar is a kind of charcoal that activates when mixed with soil,” he said. “It makes favorable minerals available to the plant while it increases the product’s shelf life and nutritional value. It’s like reverse coal mining.”
Another project Randall is working on is the creation of a “polyculture” breeding method. Rather than providing a farming environment with one type of grape, Randall hopes to increase diversity in his vineyard and create hybrids.
“We want to create a genetic range in our vineyards,” he said. “We’re going to see what wine tastes like from a diversity of hybrid types.”
Olivia Chiu, a third-year Oakes student, said she enjoyed the insights panelists brought to the discussion.
“I liked the message [the panelists] sent,” she said. “Farming affects not only local communities but globally too. It’s important to consider this right now because a lot of cities are working toward reducing their carbon footprint.”
The UCSC Farm has been threatened with cuts recently. Wilmot said it is crucial that steps be taken to preserve programs at the farm.
“One of [the Organic Farming Research Foundation’s] goals is to see organic farming at every land grant university in this country,” she said. “We see farming education as so important because places like the UCSC Farm teach students to feed the next generation.”
Dennis Donohue, a local radicchio grower and mayor of Salinas, was also on the panel. He described the Salinas Valley as a “patchwork of family farms.”
Wilmot said unregulated use of supermarket food lingo, like “natural,” “fresh” and “local,” makes it difficult for certified organic farms to compete.
“The term ‘organic’ is the only federally certified label,” Wilmot said. “Organic farming is one of the few industries asking for more regulation. They want the other labels to mean something.”
Roseman said “natural” as a descriptor for meat is abused and therefore meaningless to consumers. Of his own company, he said New Leaf is committed to selling meats that are not treated with hormones, antibiotics, nitrates or other chemical additives.
“It’s frustrating because we’re doing it right,” Roseman said. “But other companies are doing it halfway or not at all and putting the natural label on their meat.”
Wilmot said a combination of economic and political pressure is the best way for individuals to help further environmentally friendly farming practices.
“We need market forces and political forces,” Wilmot said. “You need to write your elected officials and agencies. Be politically active and be a smart consumer.”