Food Leaders Perspectives
Leland Swenson, Executive Director of Community Alliance with Family Farmers
Leland Swenson was appointed Executive Director of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) in June 2002. Prior to his appointment, Mr. Swenson served as president of the National Farmers Union for 14 years, representing nearly 300,000 farm and ranch family members.
As CAFF executive director, Mr. Swenson serves as a spokesperson for the interests of family farm agriculture, rural communities and consumers throughout California. In addition to his responsibilities with CAFF, Mr. Swenson serves on the board of directors of the National Consumers League and on the Advisory Board of California Farm Link.
In 1996, Mr. Swenson served as an official delegate from the United States at the World Food Summit held in Rome, Italy and in 1997, was appointed by President Clinton to serve on the Commission on 21st Century Production Agriculture. Mr. Swenson has also served on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee on Trade, appointed by Secretaries of Agriculture Dan Glickman and Ann Veneman.
Mr. Swenson is also currently a team member on the ROC sponsored Sustainable Food System Partnership Project.
Is the Vivid Picture Project important to California's future?
There are many ways that the project could be very important to California's future.
The project's final vision will outline the hurdles that must be addressed in order to create truly diverse market opportunities within the state. The Vivid Picture is looking at the food system as it currently exists, and then trying to understand what the challenges are in creating this more diverse and competitive market.
One of the ideal outcomes of this project would be a more competitive market for the benefit of both consumers and producers.
The project will illustrate the benefits of a more diverse market, benefits such as value added products that can be produced in a sustainable manner. It will also point us to the priorities that will need to be addressed to create a roadmap for change.
So you see the VP project as important to the future of agriculture?
One of the biggest challenges facing California agriculture is to create a way to produce a diversity of food commodities in the face of growing environmental challenges - including, but not limited to, water use and land use.
In its attempt to understand how to create a locally based food production system, the Vivid Picture will take these challenges into consideration. The final product of the project will simultaneously show all of the various factors at play - both the environmental challenges and the best practices that answer those challenges.
Ideally, the project can help lead the way in offering the producers who answer these environmental concerns a better return on their products.
Throughout the world, we have given up diversity, consistently employing monoculture and more specialized agricultural production. We need to expand diversity. This needs to be done through sound structural change. The Vivid Picture has the potential to really influence federal and international farm policy in this direction.
What if we made a concentrated effort (via policy) to say that 40% of all cotton produced in the state had to be organic? There are ways to create new consumer demand via regulation and to reward producer's change to more sustainable practices in the marketplace. We can create a mandate in the market.
Do you think that it is important that the project is happening now? Why?
The food system is currently going through changes. There is an increase in public awareness of food quality and food safety.
In California, there is also growing public support for maintaining the natural environment. Together, these two trends allow for a great opportunity to create stronger linkages between food producers, environmental issues, and the public.
The opportunity is now. We need to use this discussion of the states food system to link all of these various aspects together.
What is your biggest hope for this project?
My biggest hope is that the final picture and change agenda will offer a clear roadmap for everyone involved in the state's food system, and that the funding commitment will be there to back up that roadmap. I really hope that funders will back up the final picture with the money to put the change agenda into action.
My biggest concern is that the final picture just ends up as a report that gets stuck on the shelf.
What do you see as the short-term benefits of the project? Long-term benefits?
The short-term benefit is the way the project brings together a very diverse group of constituents to talk about the food system. By looking at the whole food system, the project has brought a wide array of people together - from the health world, to sustainable agriculture, to business.
It is my hope that the long-term benefits include the continued development of those relationships.
In order to create systematic change, we need to be able to call on each other's areas of expertise. We each need to use our expertise to benefit the whole. If we can learn to trust each other and really bring our uniqueness and strengths to the table, it will benefit everyone.
How do you see the Sustainable Food System Partnership Project working with the Vivid Picture project?
It is very complementary, really a hand-in-hand approach.
Like the Vivid Picture project, the leadership project also demonstrates how diverse groups can work together to create positive and constructive change. Learning to dialogue about issues that are bigger than any one group is really helpful for all of these groups.
The leadership project has really shown that, over time, education and understanding can be really effective in creating change.
We can't wait for the roadmap to be developed, and then develop the leadership network. Right now they are developing simultaneously, then together they will help the overall vision move forward.
What is your extreme vision of the food system of the future?
In the future, not just food, but all agricultural products, will be produced in a way the supports both our natural resources and a diverse marketplace.
I want to see a food system that doesn't just reward the production of the commodity off the land, but rewards the production of the commodity that supports the conservation of the environment.
Farmers need to be rewarded for stewarding the air, the water, and the soil via government subsidies. This will be the baseline for creating and supporting new markets, markets based on products that are sustainability produced.
Reported by Ali Edwards, Straus Communications