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2010 Nobel Conference considers whether we are what we eat

More than 4,000 people gathered for the sold out two-day 46th Annual Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota, on October 5-6, 2010, to address the question “What Makes Food Good?” The conference looked at the role and effect of food in our culture, on human health, and the planet’s ecosystems, as well as social and global security.
Marion Nestlé, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, and Professor of Sociology at New York University, was the opening speaker. She told the assembly that “good food is that which is good for health, clean for the environment, fair for animals and people, safe, accessible, and just.”

Cary Fowler talks to conference attendees after his presentation at the 46th Annual Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College. Photo provided by Matt Thomas, Gustavus Adolphus College

In spite of technology and our capacity to grow more food, 1.02 billion people suffer from hunger in the world. This is an increase of more than 100 million people in two years. With such an alarming jump, the Nobel Conference brought food to the public agenda in Minnesota where speakers whose research from multiple disciplinary perspectives helped us to focus on food and what makes it good.

“Food is personal and intimate to everyone. There is no one right way to grow food.”

Nestlé highlighted the role of the food industry’s marketing apparatus in influencing what we buy and eat. Every time we go to the grocery store, she explained, we experience the highly competitive processed and packaged food industry which offers choices on the shelves with unsubstantiated claims to improve health and life. Nestlé provided a lens on the ways that food companies are dependent on expansion of their markets and increased consumption by people around the world in order to produce the profits that Wall Street requires of successful corporations. She wondered whether this is what makes food good, healthy, sustainable, and secure.
Cary Fowler, Executive Director of Global Crop Diversity Trust and a specialist in International Environment and Development Studies, addressed the environmental vulnerabilities that threaten the global capacity to produce adequate food. “We are the first generation to take food for granted. We assume food abundance,” he said, explaining that the current food production is depleting plant diversity, farmland, forests, water and fossil fuels. He warned, “We face a gathering storm.”

Eating is a very complicated endeavor

Others presented research on the role of biology and genetics in shaping choices about food consumption and preference. Jeffrey Friedman, Professor in Molecular Genetics and Director of the Starr Center for Human Genetics, researched the role of leptin, a hormonal signal that regulates food intake and energy expenditure, and its relevance to the development of obesity. Professor of Community Dentistry and Behavioral Science at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Linda Bartoshuk presented her research exploring genetic variations in taste sensation and how those variations affect food choices and health.
Bina Agarwal, Professor of Economics and Director of the Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi, spoke about the value-laden relationships with food in culture, community, and time. She focused on the systemic relationships that inform food production, distribution, preparation, and consumption and the interconnectedness of gender, poverty, and development.
Agarwal sees hope in the small, voluntary food production collectives that she has researched. They demonstrate the ability to increase food security for the most vulnerable people in the world. Together the members have access to more arable land, labor sharing, better access to credit and inputs, less isolation, a diversity of skills and knowledge, and increased bargaining power in community and the marketplace. Like those involved in small-scale food and farm production in the U.S., she emphasizes the need for increased support in research and development to strengthen the small-holder farmers.

Bringing in the local

Minnesota food production was looked at in two sessions. The documentary film, Farming Forward, tells the story of small-scale farmers in Minnesota who are farming sustainably with concern for the future. The film was produced by Martin Lang, Gustavus Adolphus College assistant professor of communication studies and junior student Ethan Marxhausen.
“Building a Food-Secure Minnesota” featured presentations of four local residents who spoke on their distinct niche in the food system in Southeast Minnesota: large-scale production and reliance on technology, regional food distribution, small scale organic farming, and local food co-ops.
Margo O’Brien, general manager of the St. Peter Food Co-op, said, “Food is personal and intimate to everyone. There is no one right way to grow food.” She identified safety and justice as key issues and emphasized the importance of making informed choices about the food we eat and the impact of our choices. “We are neighbors and we know each other. Networking and dialogue will keep us connected as community. Together we can learn the consequences of our choices.”
Paul Thompson, W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food, and Community Ethics, Michigan State University, presented ethical and philosophical ideas to inform participants’ thinking about food and what is good. Frances Moore Lappé, author, democracy advocate and world food and hunger expert, reminded attendees that it is far too late for pessimism. She said, “Food has been a good teacher.”
Lappé has followed food to make sense of the world — hunger, history, economics, and politics. She emphasized the reality that all people are participants and that democracy in which all people have a voice is the “music of life.” What we need is the courage to live our best with bold humility, according to Lappé.
Nobel Conference videos of all sessions are available on the Gustavus Adolphus College Web site to guide and further inform the building of community, conversation, and action related to food — its production, distribution, preparation, and consumption. Visit for information.
Eva Jensen is an ELCA pastor with a Ph.D. in Development Studies, and has served in the Global Mission Unit of the ELCA. She is a consultant in the Twin Cities area and coordinated the recent ELCA World Hunger Region 3 “Ethics of Eating” training event.

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