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My SXSW ECO 2012 Experience Wrap Up

Sustainability in food and environment and culture! Oh, my!

By Jessi Cape, 2:00PM, Sat. Oct. 6, 2012

My SXSW ECO 2012 Experience Wrap Up

The second annual South by Southwest Eco Conference was one for the record books. The number of attendees doubled from last year and the panels included an international smorgasbord of environmental experts, farmers, writers, composers, and other movers and shakers all dedicated to sustainability.

An enormous amount of information was shared and discussed, and I feel safe saying I am not the only conference goer who walked away feeling inspired and empowered by the arsenal of fascinating information we took home.

Day 1

The Food Anthropology panel was gold-starred in my schedule and it certainly fulfilled my expectations. Moderated by Kitty Greenwald (The Wall Street Journal), the panel included Anna Brones (EcoSalon), Penny De Los Santos (Saveur Magazine), and Constance Okollet (Osukuru United Women Network; Climate Wise Women). The women discussed the various ways in which food affects culture and vice versa.

Climate change plays a large role in agriculture and thereby dictates food choices and traditions in food culture. Okollet explained that in her rural Ugandan village, “food is a problem,” in part due to recent weather patterns, such as bipolar extremes of flooding and drought. Peasant farmers are forced to “just gamble with agriculture”; they plant what they can, when they can, and hope for the best. In contrast, the panel discussed the American crisis in food culture given the bleak realities of food deserts and mounting environmental and economic hardships related to commercial food processes.

Interestingly, despite stark differences in obesity and malnutrition, American and Ugandan food cultures share the unfortunate truth that current problems in food culture are negatively affecting our children. A reduction in the availability of food quality and variety coupled with an increase in poverty results in circumstances that place education below basic survival needs- a surefire way to halt socioeconomic improvement.

On the flip-side, American culture shows a marked increase in citizen interest in good food, with significant emphasis on local, sustainable, organic, and healthy. Of course, “it’s not sexy to talk about the 23 million Americans without access to real food,” said Anna Brones. The ideal food consumption pedestals are simply unattainable for many people and this creates a severe disconnect between the oftentimes-elitist luxury food consumers and those simply aiming for a quantitative measure of good food: having enough. As a result, we have a “responsibility to discuss food politics,” said Brones.

Ultimately, the panel was positive, and the women talked about the bonding nature of food. De Los Santos spoke of many awesome experiences photographing food culture in 45 countries, citing a universal awareness that food brings people together. The anthropological elements included speaking of the need to preserve traditional recipes of all cultures, especially as the generations see changes in eating habits and farming patterns. I caught up with Okollet after the panel and we discussed briefly the gender roles in food acquisition and preparation. We also talked about the differences in meat consumption between her generation and her children’s as well as the contrast between how many meals center on meat in American culture versus rural Uganda.

It is possible to shift the negative aspects of global food culture into flourishing, multicultural celebrations, but it will certainly require an open and ongoing conversation.

The second Wednesday panel I caught was Mix Parts, Stir Well: Tech Soup for Food Economies. I usually try to avoid techy-type jargon, but found myself rapt listening to their discussion of the intricacies of food commerce facilitation and improving the direct relationships between farmers and buyers. Panelists included JD Kemp (OR FoodEx), Astrid Scholz (EcoTrust), and Amanda Osborne (FoodHub).

A floodgate of brilliance opened and innovative solutions poured unique insight into the ways of food transportation. Discussing the hills and valleys of navigating the food tech landscape and the importance of focusing on the root issues, Kemp quipped, “it’s about potatoes, not squash blossoms.” Announced during the hour was a new merger between nonprofit EcoTrust’s gorgeous online marketplace FoodHub and social venture OR FoodEx. The hope is a smooth operating facilitation between local vendors and regional buyers, complete with an efficient means for sustainable transport and reliable sourcing of good food. All three panelists agreed that this “resilience revolution” must include everyone and that collaboration is welcome and encouraged. Very cool indeed.

Wednesday evening, nestled into a not-so-far east corner of Austin, Johnson’s Backyard Garden hosted the SXSW Eco Welcome Dinner with Local Orbit. Chef Sonya Cote and huntsman Tink Pinkard and their dedicated kitchen staff toiled for days in preparation for the seven-course meal. The artfully designed and delectable family-style dishes incorporated food from a variety of regional sources including fresh organic veggies from the host venue, antelope from Broken Arrow Ranch, and pig from Loncito Cartwright. A conglomerate of flavor that touched each taste bud with grace and pizzazz was the antelope tartare with quail eggs, rice wine pickled pears, spicy napa cabbage, and red onions.

Awesome DJ choices and a bright fall moon added to the ambiance and topped off the vibe of freethinking and free flowing conversation with so many people dedicated to various facets of the sustainable food industry. I enjoyed the Texas Sake Company’s chilled Whooping Crane sake, hand-crafted in Austin with certified organic local rice and a craft beer – Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ from Lagunitas Brewing Company. Also tantalizing from the stellar menu was the star of the show: an enormous pile of “peaceful” porchetta: sake kasu brined with Texas olive oil, lemongrass, and fresh herbs; served with a miso BBQ sauce and creamed onions and celery. Fried rice cakes dripping with honey butter and strawberry jam sent me over the edge, and after a few more delightful chats, I headed home to bask in food coma glory.

Happy announcements informed us of the launch of two new ventures that will surely enhance our wonderful city. The Homegrown Revival, a key player in the night’s festivities, will now collaborate with the Sustainable Food Center to further their similar missions of bringing healthy, local food to the entire community through education and accessibility. Brenton Johnson, East Austin organic farmer extraordinaire, is launching FarmShare Austin , a local nonprofit that aims to increase food security. Johnson hopes to engage youth and potential farming apprentices and provide education and opportunity to learn the ways of our land.

Day 2

The Intersection of Art & Sustainability panel was a fascinating look into the complex global issues of sustainability through the lens of artistic mediums. Award-winning composer and writer Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, and Maranda Pleasant, editor of Origin Magazine, vacillated between friendly banter and heavy-hitting dialogue discussing cultural awareness and wellness as related to art.

Miller emphasized his belief in eclecticism and science portrayed in art as catalysts for positive change. Pleasant spoke of her concept to include celebrity-penned articles touching upon consciousness of self and awareness of current events and human rights. Disseminating information across multiple platforms and focusing on unique endeavors in the arts seems critical to both.

Origin Magazine is a collective of cool people activists; giving a voice to topics not usually covered by mainstream media is a major goal. “Collage is the basic vocabulary so many of us speak,” says Pleasant. Recent articles include subjects such as the texture of sunlight, the Brooklyn Bamboo collective, a brief American cult following of a New Jersey native posing as an Indian guru, and Ai WeiWei. Even more, the duo stressed that celebrating individuality and supporting sustainability through diversity is critical in the rapidly changing world.

DJ Spooky performed his latest project, Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, at the Stateside Theatre on Thursday evening; and the post-show Dwell Media/Origin party was a blast, according to a Chronicle colleague.

Overall, the talk was right up my alley with its merger of art and human rights/environmental issues and I cannot wait to check out the upcoming issue of Origin.

Day 3

The Friday Keynote address by filmmaker activist Annie Leonard received a standing ovation and seemed to light an inspirational (but definitely toxic-chemical-free) fire in the hearts of the audience. Starting with her 2007 film, The Story of Stuff, Leonard heads a project that now includes 8 movies (with one on the way!) aimed at educating the world about the environmental issues surrounding our stuff and its surprisingly long reaching tentacles.

In her talk, Leonard engaged us audience members with her friendly humor and encyclopedic knowledge of many facets of the human preoccupation with stuff. She explained that the “non informational barriers to change” deserve highest priority because millions of people do know and do care about the growing global problem of waste versus sustainability. It is the infrastructure, the culture, the social norms and habits that require massive overhaul.

Leonard honed in on the idea that as global inhabitants, but specifically as Americans, we have a duty to strengthen our citizen muscles and let our consumer muscles atrophy. Reframing the environmentalist message and boosting the fun factor in local civics, while simultaneously storming the gate to take back our federal government, were key elements in her message. My conference buddy and I thoroughly enjoyed Leonard’s real talk and I will definitely be watching the films.

The Future of Farming panel included Kitty Greenwald (WSJ), Cornelia Hoskin (FarmAid), moderator Jerry Stone (Discovery Channel), and local organic farmer Brenton Johnson (Johnson’s Backyard Garden). Primarily the discussion focused on the hits and misses of the current farming industry, with specific attention paid to the successful model that Johnson has created using equal parts happenstance, determination, and passion.

The American generational situation means a decreasing number of farmers and, consequently, a need and opportunity for people willing to take the gamble of farming- a sometimes-risky business. All four panelists seemed to agree that food culture is shifting and that major changes must occur in agriculture to meet the demands of our 21st century Earth. Governmental assistance, financial help, and start-up guidance from nonprofits and retiring farmers were all cited as plausible solutions to boosting the numbers of farmers; and actively engaging the community via social media, newsletters, and CSA programs were also championed. Homegrown.org and ideas.farmaid.org both have resources for those interested in joining the future farmers movement.

I have plenty of inspiration to hold me over, but I'm already excited about SXSW Eco 2013!

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