May 19, 2011
It's scarcely 11am at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Cooking for Solutions' Sustainability Institute—the issues-and-policy mini-college for journalists and food-and-wine industry players that precedes the wider, public CFS—is already swimming with vital ideas.
As she does annually (this is the institute's sixth edition), Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard set the tone with her opening remarks. This year she struck a familiar balance between optimism and realism that will likely define the entire event this year and for years to come.
"Sustainability is a word that probably didn't exist 15 years ago," she said, so now, as her surveys reveal more than half of Americans understand the term "sustainable seafood," the progress taking place is real. New commitments from big businesses like Whole Foods—who has agreed to remove all red-listed species by Earth Day, 2012—are proliferating. Aramark and Cindy Pawlcyn, who is in her CFS as MBA's culinary partner, continue to usher in a new era of food at the Aquarium itself ("Farm to table in everything we do," Packard said).
"We're on a roll," she added, "but as we learn more and do more, the world has been getting more complex, and it's getting really confusing, with the public saying, 'This is overwhelming.'
"And despite all the hard work and success, what's going on in the oceans remains nothing less than grim…with all the issues out there, environment slips [in priority], and among environmental issues, oceans aren't high, and it's the biggest piece of nature we have."
Keynoter Anna Lappé, educator, founder of Small Planet Institute and author of vital eco-tome Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It, picked up on that duality with a pair of airport moments. One one hand, she was buoyed by the sparkling Farm to Flight local sustainable foods at San Francisco International's Terminal Two, singing the praises of a mushroom-greens wrap with miso dressing; on the other, she was deflated by word from a fellow passenger that his rural Maine patients are requesting dentures in their 20s because their diets are so saturated with sugar.
She then turned to something that's clearly bothering her. As she tours speaking to diverse audiences about food systems, she can't shake three questions:
Isn't industrial ag the most efficient way to produce food? Isn't it true that people can't afford organic food? Can organic food really feed the world?
The short answers: No, no, and hell yes. The reason we don't hear them: Million dollar campaigns by oft naughtily named groups like Alliance to Feed the Future—whose 52 members, she says, include trade groups like American Frozen Pizza Institute, the Organization of Dressing and Sauces and Calorie Control Council, who reps the fake fat and sugar industry—that mirror those designed to obfuscate and confuse the hard science evidence against tabacco and proving climate change.
"These entrenched doubts are in the public's mind because of very powerful and well-funded food machine shaping our beliefs about what's healthy," Lappé said.
She referenced a little-known super-resource on the feasibility of organic farms, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, Technology and Development, which was conducted over four and half years by hundreds of scientists and developmental experts in a host of countries.
They found that any increases in productivity were not only fleeting, but tiny compared to the soil, energy, environmental and health costs. Lappe saw some of the most terrifying casualties of that personally visits to India, where farmers who bought into synthetic fertilizers and pesticides at the West's bidding were so distraught by debt and distressed health that a wave of suicides struck farmers, with some ingesting the pesticides in their fields to do it.
Check out the IAASTD reports here.
Another example of the insidious misinformation out there: The thought that with increasing populations, the only way to meet the need is with mass ag. Not so, said Lappé, again citing India, where communities with better farm practices, which tended to provide women at least a modicum of education, saw a decrease in population growth.
And while the comparisons with Big Tabacco's spin machine are haunting, the sea change that came as enough people spread word of real science is promising. As Lappé pointed out, it wasn't so long ago that hospitals had cigarette vending machines; now whole hospital blocks are no-smoke areas. The same can happen here.
"Like [tabacco and climate change]," Lappé said, "there's a growing global consensus on the way to feed the world."
The antidote to the vested-interest B.S., she said: sharing honest information.
"The thing that I hope we are all doing is continuing to educate ourselves," Lappé said,"to be out there professionally and personally helping shape the story of food. We're not going to shift system just by shopping differently."
~~ To close the first session, the institute welcomed Louise Nicholls of Marks and Spencer via Skype.
The fact that she selected Skype over a carbon-dripping trip from England was just one of the indicators that her famous upscale English retailer is trailblazing sustainable practices with such comprehensiveness and enthusiasm that insiders say there is no comparison to be made with, say, the Wal-Marts of the world.
Marks and Spencer hatched its pioneering "Plan A"—"because there is no plan B," Nicholls said—after its leaders saw their "Look Behind the Label" campaign net bigger gains and prestige for their fair-trade coffee and free-range eggs.
They built 100 initiatives around pillars like climate change, waste and health.
"I can't say how powerful it's been for us as far as galvanizing change," Nicholls said. "It enabled us to really start to tackle things."
They've laid out aims—including being the world's most sustainable retailer by 2015—and promptly started figuring out how to meet them. To sell only sustainable fish by 2012, they partnered with World Wildlife Fund, who was given full access to analyze everywhere Marks and Spencer sourced. They simply eliminated bag giveaways, chopping bag waste by 80 percent. Their packaging weight is dipping as they look to cut 25 percent out. They even have a high-protein, low-carb Fuller for Longer brand designed to battle obesity, and carbon-neutral lingerie.
After three years of aggressive self-auditing—and a corresponding kick in credibility among consumers—they dug the success so much they added 80 more initiatives.
So yes, Ms. Packard. We've come a long way. But there's a lot more ahead. And a lot more to cover at CFS 2011. Next up: The efficacy of eco-labels.