March 4, 2010

Food-focused conferences to bring up lots to chew on

— These days, it's impossible to talk about living more lightly on the planet without talking about what you're putting on your plate.

A report from Greenpeace is a good example. It cites industrial agriculture -- with its reliance on harsh chemicals, foreign oil, factory farms and intensive land-use practices -- as contributing from 17 to 32 percent of all human-related greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.

A similar story can be found in a frequently referenced 2006 report from the United Nations, which calculated greenhouse gas releases from the livestock sector alone at 18 percent of total emissions, putting it ahead of the worldwide transportation sector.

These statistics, and others like them, are clearly on the minds of organizers bringing two food-focused conferences to Portland this month.

Next Friday and Saturday, the nationwide Bioneers event comes to downtown Portland in the form of Kindle. The conference aims to spur environmental and social change through a series of talks, workshops, performances and informal chats over lunch.

Food isn't the sole focus of the conference, with sessions addressing everything from peak oil and medical marijuana to clean water and eco-friendly campuses, but how we feed ourselves is a clear theme running through the conference.

According to Kindle's founder, Ted Regan, the solution to most of these problems can be found in the adage: ''Think globally, act locally.''

''It really comes down to economics more than anything,'' he said. ''We need to begin to localize the economy. And one of the ways we can do that is with food.''

Talks by authors Michael Pollan (''Omnivore's Dilemma'' and ''In Defense of Food'') and Dr. Andrew Weil (''Eating Well for Optimum Health'' and ''Healthy Aging''), who will be beamed in via satellite to Bioneers sites around the country, are sure to be big draws.

Another speaker to watch for is Abby Rockefeller, an organic farmer from New Hampshire and the daughter of philanthropist David Rockefeller. Her keynote address, at 9:15 a.m. on Friday, is titled ''Rethinking Sewers,'' and explores the use of human waste as fertilizer.

''She's coming at food from a very different perspective -- at the end of its life,'' Regan said.

The full life cycle of food will be on the agenda during the New England: Feeding Ourselves conference, setting up shop at the Eastland Park Hotel from Oct. 29 to 31. Hosted by the New England Association of Resource Conservation and Development Areas, this U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded conference doesn't typically open itself to the public, but the organizers have made an exception this year.

''Because of the theme, it was important to broaden the audience,'' said Mark Hews, coordinator of the local group that is hosting the event.

To accommodate Mainers interested in food and farming, the organizers are offering $15 tickets to the Thursday night keynote speech by University of Southern Maine professor Mark B. Lapping and $90 passes to the Friday and Saturday workshops. Numerous movers and shakers in Maine's local food movement will be participating in the event, with sessions addressing the production, processing, marketing, distribution and financing of local food.

''The industrial food system is fragile,'' Hews said. ''It's not capable, in some respects, of feeding us nutritionally. The idea (of the conference) is to lay out the need for a strong, local food system.''

Or in the words of a slightly tweaked saying: Think globally, eat locally.

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

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