KHI News Service

Agriculture and health summit coming up in Topeka

By Phil Cauthon | November 13, 2012

How methods used to produce food affect the health of those who eat it will be examined at a conference here Friday.

The “Healthy Farms, Healthy People: Agriculture and Health Summit" is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 16 at Washburn University's Bradbury Thompson Alumni Center in Topeka (map). About 120 people are expected to attend, said organizer Julie Mettenburg, executive director of the Kansas Rural Center.

"The point of the day is to start a wide-ranging discussion about a variety of health issues in our communities that intersect with agriculture," Mettenburg said. "For example, the issues surrounding consolidation in the farm industry. We are concerned about antibiotic use, chemical use, and pollution of our water, air and soil. But we don't advocate a certain agenda that anyone will be pushing that day. We work with farmers to find alternative practices."

Among the scheduled speakers is Bob Martin, a senior policy advisor for Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore. Mettenburg said he was invited to speak, in part, because of his experience as executive director of the National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Among other things, the commission recommended fostering more competition in the livestock market and banning non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal husbandry.

Officials at the Kansas Livestock Association recently raised concerns about Martin’s appearance because of his support for the "Meatless Mondays" campaign.

That initiative was briefly proposed this summer by officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a way of encouraging agency staff to cut meat from their diets for a day. Protests from the beef industry caused the department to abandon the campaign.

Todd Domer, communications director for the livestock association, said he could not specify what Martin's tie was to Meatless Mondays other than "he's a supporter."

"We didn't ask to keep him off the program, but we did express some concern over what message he might deliver," Domer said.

"Obviously, we would oppose Meatless Monday for a variety of reasons," he said. "It's pretty apparent that animal agriculture is vitally important to our state. Our members are really proud to continue producing a safe, great-tasting, nutritious product in the most sustainable way we know how and we try to get better at doing that every day."

At least one representative of the association is planning to attend the conference, Domer said.

Mettenburg, a beef producer, said she doesn’t know whether Martin plans to mention the Meatless Monday campaign. But she acknowledged some topics at the summit could be controversial.

"There are certainly serious questions that need to be examined about how we grow and consume the food we consume. Friday is a conversation that the state needs to have, or begin. Certainly industry groups like the Kansas Livestock Association speak for their members and industry — we think that's a healthy part of the dialogue."

Presentations will focus on healthy eating behaviors and influences, farming and food systems in Kansas, the role of food and farm policy and the challenges in producing healthy food. In addition to Martin, speakers will include:

• Barb LaClair of the Kansas Health Institute,

• Rhonda Janke of Kansas State University,

• Paul Johnson, public policy contributor to the Kansas Rural Center, and

• Donn Teske, president of the Kansas Farmers Union.

The event is being coordinated by the Kansas Rural Center in partnership with the Kansas Health Institute, Kansas Farmers Union and others with funding from the Centers for Disease Control.

Registration is required for the event and may be done online. The cost is $35, which includes lunch: braised chicken with bacon, brusel sprouts and risotto, a salad, and desert.

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