My latest US trip spanned most of October, and as with previous visits, (eight over the last two years), it reflected the mission of the Sustainable Food Trust – helping to build better connectivity between organisations and individuals, including those in leadership positions, who are connected, one way or another with the wider food movement. Part of this trip included attending the Iowa Hunger Summit, now in its sixth year and the stage of the World Food Prize awards, at the invitation of Howard Buffett.
I first met Buffett by appointment, as it were, in the cab of his John Deere combine in Decatur, Illinois last September. I subsequently learned this is his favourite meeting venue, which I can relate to, not just because it is probably an effective way of restricting access, (I imagine that the prospect of a long and lonely pilgrimage to his relatively remote farm for a meeting at an early hour with a man in a field, probably succeeds in weeding out at least some of the applicants), but also because any conversation about farming that takes place in the context of an actual farm has a completely different energy to when it is discussed in city offices.
For those reasons, his ‘meet me in my combine’ tactics merely heightened my desire to make his acquaintance. There was something wonderfully exhilarating about discussing cutting edge issues pertaining to sustainable agriculture, with the roundup ready corn pouring into his combine tank behind us, whilst observing the yield variations on his ‘state of the art’ computer screen, some of which, according to Buffett, were related to the manuring patterns of the beef cattle which had grazed the field more than twenty years before.
Back to Des Moines. At last year’s event, which took place shortly after I met him, Buffett was the winner of the world food prize and Bill Gates was in the front row of the audience listening to his challenging acceptance speech. This year, I was to join him at a lunch where he was the guest speaker, but since he and his son Howie hadn’t arrived, I decided to attend the morning conference session, without, to be honest, enormously high expectations. There was a surprise in store however, as there seemed to be hundreds of invited high school students and undergraduates, (a brilliant tactic as it created an atmosphere of optimism and future opportunity), swelling the ranks of senior representatives of the agribusiness multinationals, including DuPont, Monsanto and Cargill.
The last keynote speaker, Patricia Quinlisk, who works at the department of public health in Iowa, gave an amazing speech about the human biome. She informed us, with some relish, that within the various orifices and internal organs of our bodies (she did actually name them all, without embarrassment), there are vast numbers of micro organisms, mostly bacteria, which collectively comprise 5 – 10% of our body weight and whose numerical total is greater than the number of cells in our body. These microbes do not merely coexist with our bodies, they actually participate interactively in many symbiotic relationships, the most obvious of which is digestion, and in doing so, play an active role in helping to maintain our health.
She gave a fascinating example of an alternative treatment to the now widespread use of antibiotics used to treat diarrhoea, which can actually often make things worse, by wiping out all the beneficial bacteria in the gut of the patient, perhaps leaving only the pathogens which have become antibiotic resistant. A recent trial, which involved ‘transplanting’ fecal material, usually from a spouse, into the gut of the patient through an enema, achieved a 80-90% cure rate.
It was amusing to witness the reaction of the college students in the audience to this information – there were a lot of ‘how disgusting’ type expressions and utterances – but at the same time you could tell they were actually totally fascinated. It reminded me of what David Wilson, the Prince of Wales’s farm manager, had recently told me he heard from a visitor to the farm, who said we should think of the soil as being like ‘the stomach of the plant’, due to the immensely complex and interactive relationship between the root zone of plants and the symbiotic community of micro organisms, bacteria and fungi in the soil which the plant actually feeds and upon which it depends for its nutrition.
At lunch time security was high, since it was rumoured that there would be an attempt by campaigners, (I am not sure of which persuasion) to infiltrate the meeting. In the event, nothing happened, but I couldn’t help thinking that Howard Buffet, who gave the after lunch speech, would have been more than a match for any heckling protesters. His message was raw, from the heart, and I thought courageous – actually much more challenging to the delegates inside the hall than it would have been to the protesters outside. How could it be, he asked, that even in the richest country in the world, producing, at least in a normal year, huge surpluses of corn for export to developing countries in the form of aid, that there was still an underclass of starving people, even in the most productive agricultural regions on the planet, such as Fresno county?
In my book, the answer is that our whole globalised industrial agricultural system is deeply flawed and its massive and embarrassing disparity of wealth is the symptom of a deep malaise, the corrective treatment for which is fundamental reform. That was not Buffet’s message today, although he is definitely a radical enough thinker to countenance such a view. Instead, his implication was of a moral deficit, the antidote to which, he proposed, was to donate an acre of his harvest to the world’s underclass of hungry people.
I was seated at the same table as Howard’s twenty nine year old son, ‘Howie’ and his lovely wife, who comes from a farming family in Tennessee. Howard junior previously worked in the USDA and the White House, both during the first Obama administration, and now runs the Howard Buffet Foundation. You definitely get the strong impression that he had inherited some of the family genes!
The lunch itself was actually very meagre, deliberately so to reinforce the message of Howard’s speech, so afterwards I met up with Ellen Gustafson, another Buffett family acquaintance and rising star of the emergent US food movement, to fortify ourselves at a nearby organic juice bar, whilst discussing ways in which we could join forces in pursuit of our shared mission!
Later on that afternoon, I left the conference for the airport and caught the plane out of Des Moines to New York, feeling much enriched both by the hospitality of Howard Buffet and his son and from the very interesting ideas that were discussed at the conference.
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