Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Zachary Scott Dashner of the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition Foundation, who will be speaking at the summit.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?
Zachary Scott Dashner (ZD): I think my initial involvement and interest in agriculture came from my fascination with plants. I found it miraculous as a child that you could plant a single seed no bigger than a grain of sand and weeks later pull a delicious carrot from the ground or experience the joy of digging through a tomato bush to find a juicy and undiscovered tomato. The real connection came when I saw just how much diversity there was in many of the crops we consume, which made me start questioning why we eat what we eat and led me to start reading more about the subject.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
ZD: I personally believe that the biggest opportunity to fix the food system is the curiosity and the hands-on learning opportunities that can come out of people’s current interest in food and agriculture. Hopefully between classrooms that integrate plant and agricultural science and people gardening in their own backyards, we can all have a greater appreciation for where our food comes from and how it gets to us. Out of that gratitude, we can begin to ask the right questions, pay fair prices for food that is grown sustainably, and demand products with practices that don’t hurt the environment.
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
ZD: Perhaps this is due to my education and being close to Silicon Valley, but I believe that genetics and Big Data are two factors that appear to be crucial to unlocking the secrets of improving food security and the sustainability of our food system. In the process of learning more about each, I have come to fear them less and to start thinking of how their applications could solve current problems. Big data and better understanding plant genetics can help us to understand the context of each interaction between the plant and soil microbes, pollinators, and much more. Knowing about all of these will allow us to protect crucial elements that we may have previously taken for granted as well as maximize output in a sustainable way.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?
ZD: As cliché as it is for me as a student in plant breeding, I would have to say that Norman Borlaug is my food hero. I thought it was particularly impressive how a single person along with his dedicated staff and fellow researchers could improve production and stave off hunger and malnutrition for millions in the world by improving a crop through a breeding program. This example also helped to spotlight the importance of maintaining genetic diversity as a resource for the future, which I think oftentimes goes unnoticed by the general public.
FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?
ZD: Perhaps this is selfish, but I think the number one reason that drives me to improve the food system is the sheer passion and excitement I feel when trying to solve a problem creatively. This especially true when it comes to topics in food and agriculture and could very well be the same driving force a lot of researchers and scientist feel when trying to answer the questions in their own respective fields of study.
FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?
ZD: Globalization isn’t necessarily new, with examples dating back further than the Roman Empire transporting goods across its territories. It does seem, however, that the issues that globalization presents to the food system are more pronounced today. And even though globalization provides some obvious benefits, it also increases the number of challenges to food security and food sovereignty. Over recent decades, it seems like there are a greater number of pest and disease threats as well as a general inability to screen all imports and ensure that exports aren’t taking food off people’s plates.
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
ZD: It seems apparent that farmers are the cornerstone of the food system yet they are the first to feel the hardship during over- or underproduction. Coming from a family in the industry, this sentiment seems to hold true. It seems that one of the most important and immediate issues we need to solve is providing farmers with the resources they need to overcome these periods of hardship. Hopefully, as a result, that will increase the likelihood of someone pursuing a career as a farmer.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
ZD: I believe that one small choice everyone can make which can drastically change the food system is the decision of what to put into your grocery cart. Consumer demand can be the greatest power we have in the food system because industry follows the dollar, and if we demand items that are produced in a responsible and environmentally way, they will be produced in that way.
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
ZD: One issue that I would like to see completely solved for this next generation is access to clean and safe food and water. By doing this, it gives people globally the opportunity to lead a healthy and productive life and doesn’t disadvantage anyone more than another from the very beginning.
FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?
ZD: Well I would have to be greedy and say two things. The first and most important being access to clean water throughout the nation as well as providing food for those in food deserts or for school children that lack access to nutritious food. The second I would say would be to increase public funding of agricultural research in order to allow researchers to continue breeding programs for crops that are important in terms of nutrition, sustainable production, and global development but don’t bring in the big bucks like some of the major crops that private industry has taken over. By that same token, to continue to support gene banks where critical genetic diversity is maintained for the future.
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