It’s all Connected! It’s all Alive!

Beaming Bioneers and your local food co-op

“The Annual Bioneers Conference is a hub of practical solutions for restoring the Earth—and people. It’s a thriving network of visionary innovators who are working with nature to heal nature. The bioneers draw from four billion years of evolutionary intelligence and apply nature’s operating instructions in practical ways to serve human ends harmlessly. We herald a dawning age of interdependence founded in nature’s principles of diversity, kinship, community, cooperation and reciprocity.”

These words from the program of the 2006 Bioneers conference could also be describing the members, managers, and staff of food co-ops around the world. In this article we want to familiarize you with the Bioneers and, more important, make clear the synergistic connections between the Bioneers and cooperative grocers. Both our movements focus on positive solutions to real world issues like food security, environmental concerns, social justice, democratic economics, holistic medicine, and the systems that link these concepts and ourselves with the world.

A favorite example is the science and methodology of biomimicry. At the 2005 Bioneers Conference, Janine Benyus was a keynote speaker, beamed to us all from California, and discussed this topic. Biomimicry is a discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. It is a science based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it.

For example, a mid-rise building in Harare, Zimbabwe, has been designed using termite technology. Macrotermes michaelseni termites maintain the temperature inside their mound within one degree of 31C day and night—despite external temperature variation of up to 40 degrees C. This mid-rise building uses 10 percent of the energy of a conventional building its size and saved millions in air cconditioning costs.

Bioneers, or “biological pioneers,” are real people working on real solutions to today’s issues. Since 1990, the annual Bioneers conference in California has been the pre-eminent gathering of leading social and scientific visionaries with practical solutions for restoring the Earth. Informed by the biological truth of interconnectedness, this conference showcases grassroots solutions to issues surrounding food and farming, independent media, regenerative business models, health and healing, and democracy.

Six years ago, Bioneers started “beaming” the keynote speakers live from California simultaneously to selected sites all over the country. In 2006, with 20 sites, over 10,000 people participated in this growing conference, becoming more deeply connected to their neighbors and receiving sustenance for body and mind. Three of these sites are highlighted below.

We are meeting at the crossroads of ecology and social justice … and eating really well!

Atlanta, Georgia (Steve Cooke)
While attending the first Southeast Bioneers Forum here in Atlanta in October of 2005, I looked around the room and recognized that about half of the attendees each day were either members or regular customers at our co-op. A giant light bulb lit up over my head: For the full 30-plus years of our existence, Sevananda had been espousing the same concepts that were being presented at this conference.

There was organic local food supplied by restaurants, farmers, and vendors with whom we work closely. Workshops on the precautionary principle, local food campaigns, open-source software, herbal healing, and modern rituals took place later in the afternoon. Keynote speakers included a green architect, the director of the Georgia Hunger Coalition, and a local Cree healer named Tom Blue Wolf, who led us in an opening ritual chant complete with drums and smudge sticks.

The next realization was that the other 50 percent of the attendees, who might not have known about our co-op previously, were obviously kindred spirits. Once they heard about the co-op, they would most likely become shoppers and perhaps members. At the very least, it was clear that I was in the right place at the right time.

For 2006, Sevananda decided to take a more active role in producing and promoting the event. Several months before the event we helped plan a fund-raiser at a co-housing development. During the conference in Atlanta, we produced two sessions, one entitled “Beyond Organics,” focused on what to do now that the organic label we fought so hard for is being co-opted by mainstream competitors. The panel included a biodynamic farmer, a permaculture practitioner, an organic urban gardener, the director of our state sustainable agriculture organization, and an herbalist from upstate. The other session dealt with herbal medicines and growing them in harmony with nature. “Healthy Bodies, Healthy Land” featured several local herbalists as well as one of the founders of Guayaki company, who spoke on how they are protecting the rainforest, with our wellness department manager as the moderator.

The local college where the event was held this year catered the forum and was not as open to local food sourcing as the 2005 host. But we were able to offer attendees a continental breakfast from our co-op and other neighbor businesses. One of our area restaurants put on a special prix fixe dinner, which was completely sourced locally with brook trout, Carolina rice, greens, and other local delicacies.

Sevananda also contributed ad space in our monthly newspaper and featured several columns dedicated to letting our membership and readers know about the special nature of the forum and how much in common we shared. We also scheduled several days in our education room to show DVDs of previous plenary sessions from the big event in Califor-nia, and many members of the community stopped in to watch a half-hour segment.

Bloomington, Indiana (Ellen Michel)
In Bloomington, Bioneers is beamed into an auditorium in the fine arts building on the campus of Indiana University. The live dimensions are exciting: there is a thrill in knowing that the cheers that go up, or the tears that are shed, are making a wave across the nation among an audience of progressive change agents.

One of my favorite moments in Bioneers 2006 occurred during Michael Pollan’s talk, “Beyond the Bar Code: the Local Food Revolution,” when he said that some of the most important political work occurring today takes place at our farmers markets. There was a lot of knowing applause and whoops and hollers when he said that, and I immediately wanted to add, “and at our food co-ops, too!”

Part of the value of hosting a Bioneers conference is simply that it gives you a goal to work for throughout the year: building broader connections, coalitions, and relationships to produce a good conference with meaningful local components. Bioneers 2006 in Bloomington offered workshops about the local food supply (featuring members of our local growers guild) and alternative health options. Bloomingfoods and other groups across both campus and city—such as the Center for Sustainable Living—sponsored a Friday evening keynote address by author Tony Hiss, whose book The Experience of Place offers environmental strategies for restoring America’s cities and landscapes. A fund-raising party took place at a local wine bar on Saturday night; there was a nature walk Sunday morning at a retreat center; and community Bioneer awards were given to individuals who do creative, positive ecological work. Our mayor, who has initiated a sustainability commission, declared a Bioneers Day, helping build broader awareness of the conference.

As we plan for October 19–21, 2007, we are developing ways to call attention to Bioneers throughout the year. Part of this involves utilizing the affordable, easily available Bioneers resources, which are designed to circulate widely even in places where the conference doesn’t beam. We plan to replay portions of Bioneers 2006 at the local public library, using them as a springboard for further conversations about specific topics.

For example, the talk by Tzeporah Berman, program director for ForestEthics, is about saving the world’s last great boreal forests and ecosystems in Canada, often from destruction by major U.S. corporations. It could provide a contextual springboard for a conversation with southern Indiana’s Andy Mahler, co-founder of the forest protection group Heartwood. Because Andy is also helping create the new Lost River Community Co-op in Paoli, Indiana (and is a former board member of Bloomingfoods), the connection between food awareness and other environmental issues is reinforced.

The plenary sessions at Bioneers offer inspiration and hope to those of us working in areas of environmental and social justice and the politics of food. I’d encourage everyone to become aware of the many Bioneers resources, and to find ways of using them to underscore the messages and values of your co-op, while building meaningful long-range connections with others sharing the Bioneers vision.

Traverse City, Michigan (Sarna Salzman)
For six years the Great Lakes Bioneers in Traverse City have espoused the slogan “Food Is the Revolution!” We’ve hosted workshops with that name and we’ve invaded kitchens all over the region helping conventional chefs and managers to produce delicious local food—even using shockingly exotic (and Oryana Co-op
produced) ingredients like tempeh!

Our conference is flavored by the freshwater that surrounds us. Nowhere does that come through more clearly than during lunch, when hundreds of people make their way through hundreds of pounds of food produced, processed, and prepared locally. After deciding as a committee that we would not serve “conventional” food to our participants, we asked our host site’s catering staff (Aramark employees) to work with us. With diplomacy and luck we have been allowed to utilize their kitchens and staff for the Bioneers weekend while maintaining our commitment to
fresh food.

This lunch success has led to our reputation as local-foods caterers and we have found ourselves happily consulting with event planners and caterers about how to source and use local ingredients.

The Oryana Co-op has been instrumental in the success of the Great Lakes Bioneers in many measurable ways, including:

  • Direct sponsorship of the conference.
  • Offering space in the newsletter and the store for articles and advertising.
  • Lowering mark-up on food orders for Bioneer programming.
  • Suggesting and sometimes facilitating workshop topics and presenters.
  • Registering employees to attend the conference.
  • Being a drop-off site for donated products; and the list goes on.

What is less measurable is the more than 30-year influence Oryana has had on our community by launching healthy dialog about food and democratic business practices and how it really is all connected. This history has made our community receptive and engaged with the same paradigm-shifting messages that the Bioneers are in dialogue about. In return, the Bioneers are bringing even more people together and inspiring them to utilize their energies. For example, Great Lakes Bioneers has worked with our local organic Fair Trade coffee roaster, Higher Grounds, to raise $10,000 to build a much-needed school in an Ethiopian village that produces coffee beans sold at Oryana Co-op.

The partnerships between our co-ops and the Bioneers have been natural and beneficial, each engaging our communities more deeply in the work of restoring and healing our systems—biological, economic, cultural, spiritual. As is so often true in a symbiotic relationship, as one movement and network grows stronger so does the other.

Unsurprisingly, many satellite Bioneers sites are located in cities with cooperative grocery markets. Perhaps there are Bioneers in your town! We are all allies working toward a regenerative and dynamic future. Take part in this fertile network, rich with inspiring ideas, and resources—and powerful connections.

Find out more by looking at any of our websites:

Atlanta, Ga.:

Bloomington, Ind.: “www.simplycsl.org

Great Lakes – Traverse City, Mich.:

Also, check the headwaters Bioneers website:

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