When I accepted an invite to the 2008 Cooking for Solutions / Sustainable Foods Institute Conference at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I was mostly envisioning a few presentations on safe seafood, some nice buffet spreads, and a dose of beautiful California coastline. But the impressive minds gathered there quickly grabbed my attention on a much more serious level.
"Food as a single subject has more impact on human, societal, environmental health than anything else," said chef Michel Nischan, during a breakfast presentation that included discussion topics like native bison reintroduction and "harvesting" on the great plains, and the rBST-free labeling ban in Pennsylvania. It certainly isn’t as if I hadn’t heard a lot about the big issues before—how industrial agriculture, ocean resource policies, and our personal food choices are affecting the planet (not to mention our health) in a major way. Over the course of the event, I began to see how truly profound the situation is, and how changes in our environment now are forcing us—finally—to take a harder look. With an Earth that’s essentially being cooked, what does it mean: “sustainable food”?
I know, I know. You’re sick of “sustainable”. So am I. And it IS complex—so much more complex that just buying at farmer’s markets or favoring organic produce. But after hearing the expert testimony (underscored by the fact that it was a scorching 90 degrees in Monterey—hello global warming!) I’m convinced that "sustainable" should hardly be the inflated buzz-word it seems to have become. (For some simple ways you can start making a difference right now with your own diet, scroll down. For those of you who want to learn more about the larger issues, read on.)
"Climate change is a vice that is closing in on sustainable food systems," said Chris Field, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University and founding director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology. It will only exacerbate the problems that already exist, leading to:
1. Increased demand for water (higher temps mean more evaporation)
2. Higher pesticide and fertilizer use (most are petroleum-derived and costly to produce) as weeds invade and temperatures create more difficult growing conditions
3. Rapidly degraded ecosystems such as the already existing "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico (caused by nitrogen run-off into the Mississippi largely from corn planted for biofuels, cattle feed, and the nation's high fructose corn syrup addiction)
And that's just a tiny fraction of the picture. On the production side, farmers, fishermen, and ranchers will need to adapt by creating more efficient systems and use of resources. Some already have. Sixty percent of California vineyards have recently undertaken a sustainability self-assessment, and many have adopted measures to minimize water usage and change to more energy-efficient equipment, for example.
For the average person, like me, with two small kids (not to mention a voracious athletic spouse) to feed, it can seem daunting, not to mention inconvenient, to consider whether our food was sustainably produced or not. But it’s really not that difficult. The bottom line is this: Our food choices matter, and we're running out of time. More than one luminary pointed to the fact that consumer demand drives change. So start with these. You'll also save money, improve your health, and perhaps most importantly preserve our ability to provide healthy foods for our kids, and their kids, on down the line.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
1. EAT LESS MEAT. Beef, in particular. Aside from the fact that animal production pretty much decimates natural ecosystems, it uses a heck of a lot of other resources, too. (You've heard this before, I know. But it really does bear repeating. It was a recurring theme throughout the conference; as middle classes grow in China and India, and they adopt a western diet, the world's beef demand will likely skyrocket.)
If you must have your meat, eat only certified grass-fed beef, pasture-raised animals—preferably from a local source—and EAT LESS. Eat it less often, and eat smaller portions when you do. Our protein needs really aren't as great as we think (see our recent article Puzzled by Protein? for specific guidelines). As Fedele Bauccio, CEO of the Bon Appetit Management Company (the progressive food-service enterprise behind the Low Carbon Diet) put it: "No one needs to eat an 8-oz. steak in one meal."
2. LEARN TO LOVE SARDINES. In other words, learn to love foods further down on the food chain. It takes a far greater amount of natural resources (e.g. other fish who have eaten other fish, etc.) to create a pound of tuna (nearly 25:1) than it does a pound of sardines. Plus, sardines are healthier for you. Our senior food editor Elisa Bosley talked about this last week on the blog. I hate to say it, but salmon may not be on the menu much longer.
As for any seafood choice, it's important to purchase green-light choices from Seafood Watch, which tracks sustainability and contamination issues. And ask your fishmonger or restaurants for Marine Stewardship Council–certified seafood. These two organizations make it really easy to make the right choice. Our oceans are already seriously degraded, so don’t think “oh well, there are other fish in the sea.”
3. EAT (AND COOK) IN SEASON. This goes hand-in-hand with eating locally. Produce in season usually has fewer miles to travel. Was the organic apple you ate yesterday from New Zealand? Read labels for place of origin and ask your grocer where he gets his produce, if the store doesn't display that kind of information. Ask your store to carry locally produced foods. And come springtime just say no to those delicious pears from Argentina. Check out Local Harvest to find out about farms and farmers' markets near you.
Learning how to cook seasonally benefits your health, too, because you’ll be less tempted into the same old ruts. Purchasing a good cookbook such as Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone or Farmer John’s Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables can inspire amazing meals given any fresh seasonal item you’ll find—be it a root, fruit, nut, legume, or other. And don’t forget that Delicious Living recipes are also developed to help you eat in season—and eat well for the planet, not just your body. Keep reading, and refer to our recipe archive often.
These are immensely complex and important issues, and my hope is that you won't just take my word for it. Get educated and stay abreast. For starters, check out the websites and resources peppered throughout this post, and the additional resources below. And vote. Tell your local, state, and federal government representatives about the environment/food issues that matter to you most. Get to know your local farmers: What’s at stake for them? And keep talking to us. Send us your questions, comments, resources, and strategies—please post them as comments here. As always, we'd love to hear from you.