Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines, the Staff Ruminant Nutritionist for Organic Valley. Dr. Abel-Caines will be speaking at the summit.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?
Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines (SAC): Growing up in a beautiful Caribbean island, I witnessed how the lack of a well-structured, developed agricultural system resulted in a shift to a service-based economy. That, along with a lack of support to the sectors that grow traditional food staples, had a direct impact on the choices and pricing of food available. Highly processed food replaced many local-grown products, and that had a tremendous effect on the health of those with no access to fresh, quality food.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
SAC: The biggest impact will take place when people are educated to make food choices based not on the cost per weight or size, but on the nutritional content of the food. The increase in the demand of nutrient-dense food will stimulate the production of this type of food, and the resulting increase in the supply will drive down their cost to the consumers. I believe that educating people and putting them in contact with how food is grown, preserved, and traded changes their food preferences and eating habits. And that affects not just the quality of the food they choose, but also the quantity they will consume. The earlier that training takes place, the better.
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
SAC: I am very optimistic about how the sharing of information about holistic, sustainable ways to grow organic food will impact the efficiency of the farmers involved in the process. Easy training and access to solutions that answer challenging issues related to crop and livestock production will encourage people to participate in agriculture. More confidence in the success of non-conventional methods of growing food and raising livestock will encourage participation in agri-business. More local growers means less dependence in high-food-miles, corporate-produced food.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?
SAC: I had a professor during my undergraduate years that encouraged me to research alternative ways to feed cattle without using imported corn and soybeans, which are primarily used for human consumption in my country. That experience led me to an interest in research, and the ability to learn, document, and share what I learn from others. That same professor was also involved in the reforestation program that improved the fertility of soil-eroded crop land.
FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?
SAC: I [hear a lot of] positive feedback from people that have made small positive changes in the way they feed their animals—in particular their dairy cows—and that resulted in better health of the animal, and I know that has a direct correlation with the quality of the milk. Every meal I prepare for my family, with food from farmers I know, is a happy meal.
FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?
SAC: The load of toxic residues left behind after years of indiscriminate use and abuse of the land, the water, and the air. We now know better. But it will take a couple of generations to recuperate from the desertification process we’ve created and to implement different technologies to grow nutrient-dense food at levels that keep up with the growing population.
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
SAC: The pricing of the food based on its nutritional content. Whether it is conventional or organic, we should have access to food that not only has a specific weight or size, but is providing the nutrition our bodies require to stay healthy.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
SAC: Consume more food that is as close as possible to the way it is grown.
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
SAC: The reduction in the use of harmful processes to preserve the food or extend the shelf life.
FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?
SAC: The labeling of genetically-modified food. We should have access and full disclosure of what goes on in the different stages of food production. There should be collaboration with other countries, exchange of scientific studies, and public access to the information related to the effect of GMOs on humans, livestock, and the ecosystems that surround them.
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