COLUMBIA — A panel of six Boone County residents expressed concerns such as land sustainability, animal welfare and obesity prevention at a public forum this weekend, but they were all united in their advocacy for a reformed food system. The panel included Eduardo Crespi, John Ikerd, Chris Kelly, Julie Fisher, Leigh Lockhart and Clarise Keith.
The Mid-Missouri Animal Legislation hosted "Plate, Palate and Ballot," a panel discussion at the Columbia Public Library on Saturday afternoon in which educators, business owners, politicians and students discussed the relationship between health, agricultural, political and social problems.
In previous years, the group hosted small-scale public forums on animal welfare each October to celebrate Farm Animal Welfare month and to honor the birthdays of Mohandas Gandhi and St. Francis of Assisi, both of whom the group recognize as supporters of animal rights.
But this year, the group added discussion points including food, health and environmental stewardship to the discussion.
“The discussion catered to so many facets,” said Leigh Lockhart, owner of Main Squeeze. “Animal welfare was one of the main points of discussion, but environmental and health issues are interwoven. You can’t speak about one without including the other.”
The background and perspective of each panel member varied. John Ikerd, an agricultural economist, touched on the instability of the food system, which he said produces high-calorie, nutritionally deprived food and harms the environment. He also criticized corporate farms for harming small communities and controlling government activity.
“We need food that is healthy, clean and fair (to our farmers and the environment), but government has abandoned our interests for economical development,” Ikerd said. “The government is the only thing we can control, and right now, it is dominated by the global food market, which is in the hands of three to five clusters of corporations (linked together by various legal arrangements).”
Eduardo Crespi, director and founder of El Centro Latino, alluded to the obesity epidemic during the panel discussion and touched on his new project, Comedor Popular, an eatery and retail shop aimed at distributing fresh produce to lower-income Columbia residents.
Lockhart discussed the sustainability of her local business, and Julie Fisher, local landowner at Arrow Rock, talked about the legal battle between citizens of Arrow Rock and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
Fisher immersed herself in the lawsuit against the department when it issued a permit to a corporate-owned farm operation that wanted to establish a factory farm near the community.
In the summary judgment, Arrow Rock won a 15-mile buffer — later reduced to two miles — against the corporate farming operation. On Saturday, Fisher gave tips to the audience for legal fights against government agencies.
"Keep it simple. Deal with one avenue at a time. Our lawsuit focused on public health," she said. "And network, network, network."
Clarise Keith, an MU student and member of Mid-Missouri Animal Legislation, said that animals exhibit feelings and emotions similar to humans, and encouraged the audience to consume a vegetarian diet.
State Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, the final speaker from the panel, asked the audience to increase their political involvement.
“What really matters is money and power," he said. "People who own corporate-owned farm operations believe and contribute, and if you don’t want to lose to them, you have to out-perform.”