Aquarium’s flagship event expands upon ‘sustainability.’

Staying Power:

For many in Monterey County, and the nation, 9-14 was as scary as 9-11. That’s the day the FDA issued a warning on E-coli contamination in spinach. It dawned on Americans that we could be attacked by food. No one would be able to hide.

Thanks to events like 9-14, the terms we use to describe food are shifting. For years, “sustainable” food production meant simply organic farming; now the definition is rapidly changing to include food safety and other criteria. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sixth annual Cooking for Solutions last weekend, the evolution of those concerns about seafood and terrestrial food sustainability were a major theme.

Barry C. Lynn, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, hit on food safety during the opening event. He pointing out how interdependent—and therefore fragile—our global food industry is, as demonstrated by the poisoned dog food crisis that resulted from just one tainted supplier.

“Even if the FDA inspected 100 percent of food, the problem is still huge. The danger is that so many ingredients in our food supply come from factories concentrated in a few places overseas,” said Lynn during Thursday’s Sustainable Foods Institute. “Any break in normal trade could crash the system.”

Unsurprisingly, then, consumers are demanding transparency. We want to know where our food comes from, and how it is produced, processed, and prepared. We want to trust the chain of supply.

Product labeling must be improved, yet the layers of criteria present trade-offs so dizzying as to stimulate nostalgia for the simpler days of deciding between free range and feedlot. Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University offered a poignant example.

“We don’t know what’s better...should Britain help Kenya create jobs by importing millions of pounds of green beans?” he asked, pointing out that green beans account for a huge chunk of import emissions, “at the cost of fuel-inefficient air freight and taking vast quantities of water from semi-arid sub-Saharan Africa?”

Fortunately consumers are being educated, primarily by chefs, many of whom volunteered at the Friday night gala (along with organic winemakers). Together they fed the public a delicious host of sustainable solutions. From the looks of the joyful capacity crowd, the conscious options are absolutely devoid of self-sacrifice.

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The farmers, scientists, industry experts, chefs and winemakers who anchored the Cooking for Solutions weekend explained what the public needs to know about food in ways that ranged from the poetic to the prophetic. But their approach was also pragmatic—several indicated that the romance consumers have had with how food is produced is waning.

“There is a psychic toll,” said Joe Rogoff, vice president of Whole Foods Market’s western division. “It’s our responsibility to defend compassionate standards for raising animals.”

In addition to labeling, industry standards and certification are needed, and groups are emerging, like the Marine Stewardship Council, as well as reputation-reliant companies like Whole Foods, who places representatives globally to inspect checkpoints in the food supply chain to verify suppliers’ claims. With Wal-Mart’s recent shift toward more sustainable seafood, products and practices, the need to set standards has become imperative.

No one knows the exact point at which the use of a resource becomes unsustainable, but many scientists agree there is danger on many food fronts. Top predators like tuna and swordfish that are high in poisonous mercury pose a serious health risk, but are Americans’ favorite fish, and therefore command a higher price for fishermen, and easy sales for restaurants. Overfishing and run-off from nitrogen-based fertilizers boost algae growth in oceans that has caused oxygen-deprived “dead zones.”

“If nothing else changes, commercial fishing stocks will be depleted by 2048, based on FAO research,” said Steve Palumbi, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University. “Yet ocean species can rebound more rapidly than most species—marine protected zones can accomplish this.”

By promoting solutions like lower food chain seafood, and encouraging consumers to eat fish caught or farmed by responsible suppliers, the Aquarium has been at the forefront of shaping the discussion through exhibits, events, and the Seafood Watch program. A plaque posted at restaurants and retailers who follow the recommendations is becoming instantly recognizable to more and more area residents every day.

So, in this increasingly complex world of food production, what specific criteria of sustainability are most relevant? Over the course of the weekend, seven primary factors were presented (see box, below). But a sum solution also emerged: Think before you eat. And let your favorite restaurants and food purveyors know their commitment to sustainable practices is important to you.

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