What do war and conflict have to do with food and water? Everything, according to Fred Kirschenmann.

Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and an organic farmer, is coming to Maine Friday to deliver the kickoff keynote at the annual Camden Conference, where this year’s topic is the Global Politics of Food and Water.

“We have to remember that as a global community everyone needs food and water, and when those resources are scarce, for whatever reason, civic unrest begins to play a role and that affects the entire global community,” Kirschenmann said in a recent interview. “As just one example, much of the civic unrest in the Middle East emerged from various food shortages and costs during the 2007 to 2008 food crisis.”

Now in its 27th year, the popular conference takes place in Camden and aims to get people thinking and talking about complex global affairs. Last year the conference explored current events in the Middle East.

The two-and-a-half-day program features 10 talks and panel discussions with leading thinkers in the area of food and water politics.

The lineup includes talks by Andrew Guzman, a Berkeley law professor and author of “Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change,” and Robert Paarlberg, who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School and is the author of “Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.”


Sen. George Mitchell will offer a few remarks during the introductory program, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, delivers a talk on Sunday titled “Food Security Challenges Facing Maine and the United States.” Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

A panel on Saturday afternoon could raise some eyebrows, as it mixes a Monsanto scientist with former Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan and trade expert Jim Harkness. They will discuss the best farming practices to feed the world.

During her tenure at the USDA, Merrigan championed small-scale, organic agriculture through initiatives such as Know Your Farmer. Earlier in her career, when she headed the agency’s marketing services department, she helped craft the national organic labeling rules.

Merrigan’s sustainable farming pedigree stands in stark contrast to agribusiness giant Monsanto, whom detractors fault for selling pesticides, creating GMO seeds and engaging in aggressive legal tactics. While working for Monsanto, Dave Gustafson developed a computer model now used by regulatory agencies to predict water contamination from pesticides. More recently, he’s worked on predicting how climate change will alter agriculture around the world. He’s written that in coming years, rainfall issues – either too little or too much – will plague most farmers, as will migrating pests and diseases.

The panel is rounded out by Harkness, an expert in sustainable development in China and president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Washington, D.C. He has written about food worker rights and called attention to the meat industry for imitating the lobbying tactics of Big Tobacco.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is to help people understand the issues in the debate and have civil discourse on these very emotional subjects,” said Sarah Miller, board president of the Camden Conference. “What we are trying to do here is present a balanced picture of views and opinions.”


Miller said both the programming committee and conference attendees have said food and water are issues they want to learn more about.

“I’m very pleased with the way the topic has developed, and I think we have a great program,” Miller said. “I think different people have widely different reasons for finding the topic compelling. The foreign policy experts and some other board members feel that food shortages – and in some cases water shortages – are a critical question in a lot of conflict situations around the world. It certainly has been in the Middle East.”

All the seats in the Camden Opera House have already sold out, but tickets are still available to watch the conference from satellite locations in Rockland and Belfast. Those tickets offer access to a high-definition live stream of the opera house speakers. Participants at the satellite locations will be able to submit questions remotely.

And there will certainly be much to raise questions and stir debate.

Kirschenmann said this wide-ranging topic is not just impacting foreign affairs but plays a role in many domestic issues. In the U.S., he points out, aquifers are being drained, water bodies polluted with agricultural chemicals and many Americans don’t have enough to eat. Such trends show no signs of abating.

“We should all know that we will be facing significant challenges in the future, and we should begin anticipating the changes and getting a head start preparing for them,” Kirschenmann said. “One of the ways I will frame the issue is that we can imagine that in 10 years crude oil will rise to $350 a barrel, that fertilizer and pesticide costs will be five times what they are today, that we only have half the amount of fresh water available and that we have twice the number of severe weather events. So a question we should all address is: What kind of food system will we design to meet those challenges and still give nine billion people the right to food?”


The answer has implications for us all.

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelancer who lives in Portland, where she writes about health food and spends a lot of time thinking about our food system. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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