By Tracy Sides
Tracy Sides, PhD, MPH promotes mindfulness, sustainable living, and healthy communities through her Minneapolis-based company, Soul Revolution. She is also a veteran public health professional with more than 18 years experience in a variety of settings at the local, state, national, and international levels. Currently, she is a Senior Epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota in the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
Zebu cattle on a finishing farm in Costa Rica. (Photo credit: Tracy Sides)
A white-throated Capuchin monkey sat in a nearby tree, apparently listening in, as instructors Dr. Scott Wells (University of Minnesota), Dr. Armando Hoet (The Ohio State University), and colleagues, Andreia Passos and Carlos Alfaro, from the National University of Costa Rica facilitated the final discussion of a 5-day Farm to Table course that highlighted numerous aspects of the Costa Rican animal health and food systems related to poultry, cattle, and fish. Costa Rica is an important exporting country for the United Sates.
The 15 participants and small team of instructors and staff included a diverse, vibrant, and passionate group of animal and public health professionals, agriculture program directors, educators, a development expert, veterinary students, and researchers from the United States and Costa Rica. I was fortunate to be among them. The depth and breadth of experience and knowledge related to food systems represented within the group was impressive. This included the students, who not only contributed their own experiences, such as on farms in the U.S., Costa Rica, and Sudan, and internships in government agencies in the U.S., Costa Rica, and Uruguay, but also contributed their contagious energy and added fuel to my hope that, as a species, we might yet learn how to live on this planet in harmony with the rest of our biotic community.
Although more financially expensive to create these types of learning opportunities, classroom learning cannot compare to the available wisdom afforded through viewing food systems through firsthand observation and the collective knowledge, culture, and experience present in a diverse group such as ours. Program participant, Nicholas Mayer reflected that “as a second-year veterinary student at the University of Minnesota interested in food production medicine, I thought I was knowledgeable in several aspects of international food production and safety. After completing this program I realized how much I still need to learn about governing organizations and procedures that help ensure the safety of imported and exported food.” Nicholas’ words speak to every participant’s experience – we all learned a great deal through the program, but also came to recognize just how much we do not know. This sort of appreciation for the complexities of the challenges before us and openness to learn from one another is necessary to build the bridges across disciplines and political boundaries that are necessary to address our most pressing local, national, and global agriculture, food, and health issues.
Of course, there is no guarantee that merely bringing a diverse group of people together will give participants access to the collective knowledge, culture, and experience represented in the group. A “collective lens” must be created by cultivating the conditions in which each member of the group feels valued, comfortable, and compelled to share their knowledge and experience when relevant; the greater the diversity of a group, the more challenging this task, but also the greater the reward. This task was accomplished in the farm to table program primarily through facilitated sharing and roundtable discussions throughout the week along with ample opportunities for individual and small group conversations during meals, while traveling to and from different sites, and in the evenings.
Kudos goes to the organizers of the program and the individual participants themselves for envisioning and then co-creating such a positive shared learning environment. Trust was built through demonstrated respect and curiosity. The positive environment enabled everyone to “see” more deeply into the complex phenomena, challenges, and opportunities within and between national food systems and recognize the myriad ways that these systems are interconnected and function as integrated parts of a single global human food system. With 7 billion people and counting, it is increasingly imperative that our global agriculture system (for food, fiber, feed, and fuel) shift its relationship with the land and oceans to one that supports, not undermines, the self-renewing capacity of living systems. Accomplishing this will require more people to adopt and develop so-called systems thinking. Every participant’s capacity for this type of thinking was expanded through this course.
Leana Zumbado Gutierrez, DMV, program participant and professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the National University of Costa Rica commented that “the Farm to Table course was a wonderful experience because I learned more about my own country’s food system as well as from the expertise of each of the participants.” She and I plan to stay in contact about developing some joint educational programs. Scott Wells commented that the value of the professional relationships cultivated during the week may be difficult to measure, but according to previous participants are among the most valuable benefits of these farm to table study programs.
Coming from the human health perspective, my experience this week has significantly deepened my appreciation and understanding of animal health, zoonoses, food production, and international development. And I plan to apply this learning and the new professional connections to interdisciplinary projects I am developing back inMinnesota– some of which may now include partnerships inCosta Rica.