Notes from This Weekend’s TEDx Conference, Including Some From Our Own Publisher

This Saturday, local and international food and agriculture experts gathered at TEDxManhattan. This locally organized day of discussions dedicated to “ideas worth spreading” was themed “Changing the Way We Eat.” Along with speakers like Laurie David, producer of An Inconvenient Truth, Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, and others, Edible Manhattan’s co-publisher (and frequent Edible Manhattan blogger and Worldwatch senior fellow and Nourishing the Planet co-director) Brian Halweil was featured at the event, which was live-streamed into viewing parties around the city.

At TEDx, we learned a few things about Brian, and about how maybe our small decisions to shop at the Greenmarket on Monday during lunch or split a CSA share with a neighbor can have bigger and lasting affects on the world around us, if only by showing others some new path. In college, Brian told us, he was on track to become a doctor, when he heard a lecture by ecologist Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich claimed that agriculture is the single biggest way humans touch the planet. Deciding he could help more people by focusing on the food system than by becoming even the most prolific doctor, Brian went to work for the Worldwatch Institute.

Initially depressed by his research into the prevalence of factory farms, pesticides, over-fishing, hunger and obesity, Brian eventually wrote Eat Here, a book about the local food movement. Previously, Brian hadn’t felt that his work was having an impact. “I realized what does change minds, what does inspire people to change their behavior, are the glimmers of hope that often show up on the margins.” By focusing on small, local initiatives, he began to see food as the antidote to many of the world’s biggest problems.

“Food is emerging as the solution to our most daunting problems right here in New York, and half way across the world in Africa, where hunger and poverty are most entrenched,” Brian said. Citizen oyster growers on Long Island’s East End collectively seed millions of pollution-fighting oysters in the region each year, according to Brian. At the same time, millions of African farmers fertilize their fields by planting indigenous nitrogen-fixing trees in the margins of their fields. These trees not only nurture the soil, provide animal feed and bedding, fuel, and protection from harsh winds, Brian explained, but the benefits also extend globally. “African farmers planting trees in their field could remove 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year,” Brian said.

Other examples of food as a solution that Brian cited include farming in cities across Africa and the expansion of CSAs and the Green Carts programs in New York City. These efforts bring produce to communities that were lacking it, and simultaneously create new jobs. Edible schoolyards in Eastern Long Island as well as school meal programs in Africa are teaching children about local, nutritious foods, and introducing it into their diets.

“This is what it looks like when food solves problems,” said Brian, “… and we should expect no less from what we eat and grow.”

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