In mid-May, the Monterey Bay Aquarium hosts a three-day conference and food fest to discuss the state of the food system. Chefs, writers and newsmakers converge on the seaside town to attend Cooking for Solutions. After distilling my notes from the conference, I came away with these rules of the road for better living:
1. Reduce food waste
Thirty to 40 percent of the food grown each year goes to waste, with an estimated market value of at least $1 trillion. A number that big has far reaching implications and repercussions almost beyond human measure. The losses represent wasted hours, lost revenues to farmers, reduced water supplies and the destruction of habitats to make way for farmland. In the U.S., uneaten food goes to landfills, where it constitutes the single largest component of municipal waste. The upshot is, not only do we need to make a conscious effort to eat what we purchase, but the manner in which food is produced needs to be systematically overhauled.
A series of measures to reduce waste needs to be taken, ranging from improving the storage and food preservation techniques of places with little to no electricity to shopping less impulsively. Moving in the right direction on food waste would reduce scarcity in times of need and improve the likelihood that we can feed the 7 billion and counting people born in the years to come.
2. Eat invasive species
Asian carp, lionfish and feral boar are among the most reviled invasive species in the United States, belonging to a rogues' gallery of species that disrupt ecosystems and damage crops. According to the USGS, invasive species cause in an estimated $130 billion in damages to the U.S. economy each year, often outpacing native species in the competition for habitat and resources. And it’s not just a domestic issue, but also a global phenomenon; in a networked and globalized world, thousands of non-native species have hitched rides to places where they don't belong. So it stands to reason minimizing their environmental impacts would be beneficial. In recent years, innovative chefs have banded with conservationists to convert unwanted pests into protein, guided by the ethos: If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em. The aim is to promote regional cuisine, while reducing the number of unwanted species in the process.
3. Support urban farming
As anxieties mounted about the sorry state of the economy, the recession of 2008 spurred a renewed interest in growing your own food. In subsequent years, peoples' interest in gardening remains strong. So it's a good time in the U.S. to be a food activist or entrepreneur engaged in turning a passion for growing food into dollars. In cities across the U.S., small plots of land have undergone a rapid transformation as city dwellers begin to grow more of their own food in small batches. In turn, entrepreneurs and nonprofit groups have reclaimed abandoned spaces in forgotten neighborhoods in places like Detroit and Baltimore, creating new economic opportunities, even for people who don't like kale. The upside, growing food locally has the potential to be an economic driver in the form of job creation and tax revenues for cash-strapped cities. Secondly, urban farming is by definition local. What would you rather support? Locally grown food that responds to the needs of the surrounding community, or produce grown anonymously and shipped to urban areas from hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away?
4. Shift away from feedstock
Biofuels production increased in recent years, displacing arable land potentially used to feed people. The conversion to biofuels was based on the premise crops used to produce clean burning fuel would reduce carbon emissions. In hindsight this proved to be shortsighted, especially when the solution to curbing green house gas emissions failed to live up to its promise. According to critics, the combination of clearing land for biofuels and fertilizer use not only increased carbon emissions, but in some instances made living conditions worse for some of the world's poorest people.
The alternative to growing sugar and corn for fuel might be algae. Ubiquitous and fast growing, single-celled algae convert sunshine into lipids, which in turn can be converted into fuel for transportation. Currently researchers based in California are seeking ways to unlock its energy potential for future commercial use. Algae wallop other biofuels, yielding 1,000 gallons of fuel per acre- roughly 50 to 70 times more than corn ethanol.
5. Get past meat
If you do the math, raising cattle for beef production is unsustainable. For every 100 calories of grain used to feed cattle about 20 percent comes back to humans. With more people being added to the planet with each passing second, it seems unethical to dedicate large swaths of farmland to feeding livestock. Not to mention, raising beef lends itself deforestation, pollutes rivers and cows produce methane, accounting for 14 percent greenhouse gas emissions. Even more daunting, consumer demand for beef is rising and expected to double over the next 50 years.
One possible solution is faux beef. Cultured meat that looks like meat and tastes like meat holds considerable promise, if it can be marketed and sold to consumers weary of food recalls and pink slime. While not a panacea, at least in theory, meat produced in the lab requires fewer resources and hundreds of millions of livestock won’t be killed to satisfy our taste for meat.
6. Promote genetic diversity
Recent studies show what food experts have suspected all along that diets around the world are becoming standardized, with abundant supplies of staple crops being produced and consumed around the globe. Farmers are dedicating much of their land to a handful of vegetables and grains. Wheat is a major food staple in 97 percent of countries, as is rice at 90 percent, with soybeans placing a distant third. In contrast, regional crops like cassava, millet and sweet potatoes are losing ground to more global fare.
Abundance, not scarcity, is the norm in most parts of the world. The downside to plenty, however, has to do with an over reliance on mono crops, grown regardless of the climate. The failure of such crops, due to drought, plant disease or global warming, will come at a very high price for the billions of people that have come to rely on them for food.
Food security experts believe one way to avoid a disaster is to promote greater crop diversity. Even among staple crops like apples and potatoes, there are hundreds of varieties to choose from, not just the five or six types frequently sold in stores. Growing a wider variety of staple crops to boost genetic diversity, the argument goes, would make them less prone to ongoing problems, such as water scarcity, infestation and disease.
7. Learn how to cook
Seriously, it’s not rocket science. The jury is still out on what came first, overeating or obesity, but gluttony and weight gain are clearly interrelated. One way to break the viscous cycle, is to learn how to cook nutritionally balanced meals that leave you feeling sated and satisfied that tame cravings for food and beverages laden with salt, fat and sugar. Much like SUVs and McMansions before it, the American waistline is expanding at an unsustainable pace, largely due to diet. Growing more crops more cheaply won't change that equation, and it will likely lead to more environmental problems, such as toxic weeds and dead bees. In the long run, knowing what to cook and how to cook it, will lead to better health outcomes and hopefully a more sustainable planet.
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