Can Sustainable Gastronomy Save Us?

The United Nations General Assembly has declared today, June 18, Sustainable Gastronomy Day. “Sustainability” is one of those words, like “wellness,” or “holistic,” that has filtered into the collective consciousness, even though many people who use it couldn’t expound on the details. We have some truths down pat–We want a food system that meets everyone’s dietary needs. We want a food system that reduces impact on the environment. We all want food to taste good. We don’t want fish tangled up in those plastic things that hold our six-packs of beer and we certainly don't want to get sick (like, really a life-threatening sort of sick) from polluted waters. 

Many of us understand, at least intellectually, that the standard way of life in the United States is unsustainable for myriad reasons, including our insatiable demand for cattle meat, our love of cars, our current presidential administration that seems intent on thwarting research and our garbage. But with all the scary and often conflicting information about what’s healthy for us, the economy, the planet and the future, we may find ourselves at a loss about what to buy and consume. Sustainable development, according to the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In other words, it’s cool to make stuff, build stuff, grow stuff, sell stuff and enjoy your life, but in a way that lets future living beings enjoy their lives, too. 

In every sector, we can aim for improved sustainability—from how we live day-to-day (what’s your carbon footprint?) to architecture (the U.S. Green Building Council was established in 1993 to determine whether or not buildings are “green”) to economics (many businesses pollute the environment, and those who wind up paying for the damage tend not to be those who benefit from the businesses) to what may be the greatest environmental threat: food production.

The sharp rise of industrialized agriculture in the mid-1900s led us to a conundrum: lots of affordable food, created inside a food system with a lot of flaws, including greenhouse gas emissions and habitat and ecosystem losses. The food industry is run by a handful of giant corporations that can be cynical in their business practices. For example, in response to the rise of trends like “organic,” “small farm,” and “locally sourced,” corporations took to tweaking the phrasing on labels, finding loopholes to make their ingredients sound appealingly wholesome. “Anybody can manipulate these terms,” says Liz Vaknin, co-founder of Our Name Is Farm. “You can just write ‘natural’ on your label.” Perhaps it’s a positive thing that the desire to preserve our planet is so trendy now, corporations feel pressure to create, or at least pretend to create, sustainable products.

“In the past decade, sustainability has boomed,” notes Taylor Lanzet, Director of Supply & Sustainability at Dig Inn, a chain of 19 locally farm-sourced restaurants. “If I walk up to a news stand, I’m bombarded by magazine covers with headlines that read ‘Five Easy Ways to Go Green.’” At the same time, the trend means that a lot of restaurants and smaller businesses are doing what those large corporations are doing. It's called greenwashing and, according to Lanzet, it means to  “deceptively promoting the perception that they’re maintaining environmental policies, when in reality, they’re not.” 
Even if a farm is growing nutritious food, if they’re not paying their employees a fair wage, they’re not sustainable.
Some companies that claim to be sustainable are indeed taking some green actions, though the actions are often just gestures. “Even if a farm is growing nutritious food,” Vaknin says, “if they’re not paying their employees a fair wage, they’re not sustainable.” Nor is a company sustainable if it’s doing everything right, but, because it’s pricy to play by all the rules, charging astronomically for their products.To work toward sustainability, many would suggest a) buying local and b) educating yourself about all products you consume. Others would suggest going vegetarian, or at least cutting down on beef consumption.

Most would at least agree on voting for representatives who believe in research. Says Vaknin, “We need to make a transition from industrialized food back to a regional food system, as a means of minimizing impact on the environment and improving public health.” Farmer Matthew Raiford of Gilliard Farms adds, “If we don’t start embracing sustainability from the standpoint of buying local first, regional second, and national third, we will wind up dependent on other countries. Start with sustaining your local economy.” Those who work to promote sustainability talk a lot about “voting with our dollars.” That is, if we demand sustainability by refusing to buy food that is manufactured and sold using irresponsible methods, we will put unsustainable companies out of business or force them to become more sustainable. “Get to know what you’re putting in your stomach,” Vaknin advises. “Tyson makes 3.1 billion chickens a year. Now they’re antibiotic-free because the people voted with their dollars. These ‘cage-free’ labels don’t come from nowhere.”

Voting with dollars is, of course, much harder for those who have fewer dollars to vote with. Poverty remains a barrier for many to eating sustainably. A recent study showed that the 40 million-plus people in the U.S. receiving food stamps would have to spend hundreds of extra dollars a month to maintain optimal diets. Says Ted Norhaus, founder of the Breakthrough Institute, “‘Sustainable gastronomy’ is nonsense. We can prove that empirically. It’s for rich people. Most ‘sustainable’ things aren’t sustainable.” He gives the example of organic produce, which has lower yields and requires more land and more water than non-organic and are more expensive because organic agriculture is high-labor and low-output, both of which are environmentally disastrous. “Conventional agriculture out-performs organic agriculture in every measurable way, the only exception being synthetic pesticides. But what many don't know is that while organic farmers don't use synthetic pesticides, what they replace them with is still toxic."

Norhaus goes on to add that our elite society has gone on to develop a "romantic notion" of farming, forgetting that the grueling work has forced many to leave the industry. He continues, “All of this is a way for the liberal elite to reconcile their wealth. Farmer’s markets. ‘Organic.’ It’s a fantasy. If you actually cared about the environment, you would buy mass-produced food from Safeway...We don’t need four million small farmers to do the right thing. In the developed world, what we need are the few large farmers to do the right thing.”
And keep in mind, there are some large, thriving food companies out there that do work toward sustainability.

Clif Bar is one example. They are absolutely a corporate food company, but they seem to have their priorities straight: Some of their green moves include the use of wind energy, the elimination of shrink-wrap, and their commitment to community service. They’re also raking it in (they hold a third of the entire health bar market), which undermines a common myth that caring about the planet isn’t lucrative. “Doing the right thing is profitable,” says Clif Bar’s CEO Kevin Cleary. “We aren’t perfect, but we do take care of our employees. We pay for them to work out with a trainer. They get massages. We have on-site childcare. We could cut costs by getting rid of any of those programs..We invest in our employees’ lives. And we have a product they can feel good about. So they’re happy at work, and that drives engagement and growth.”
One thing seems certain: The more knowledgeable you are about your food sources, the more power you wield when it comes to making the world sustainable. Which is not to say that everyone with knowledge is going to draw the same conclusions about what to eat or not eat, any more than all knowledgeable people are going to arrive at the same political positions. “I get to advocate for an industry with no downside,” says Bob Rheault, Executive Director of East Coast Shellfish Growers’ Association.  

The reason the question of sustainability seems confusing is the reason a lot of things seem confusing right now, the reason some people have resorted to calling news they don’t like “fake,” the reason the stances of half the people you know seem so totally, bafflingly wrong: Your worldview determines how you filter information. “We live in a post-truth era,” Nordhaus says, “where once you know your ideological commitments, evidence gets waived.” So here’s what we can do: cut down on beef, vote in politicians who value in scientific research, self-educate, be practical, be open-minded, and perhaps most importantly, be empathic. Empathy is necessary if we’re going to prioritize fairness and the health of the earth. It’s a tall order to convince people in power to be empathic (though Dr. Judith Orloff, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide suggests “framing an issue in terms of what will serve them, e.g. ‘You will make money if you create sustainable products.’ This is tedious ego-stroking,” she adds, “but it mostly works”).

“If you don’t like the idea of sacrifice, then use a different word instead: legacy. Let's each leave a legacy for the future that we can be proud of, says Roman Krznarik, author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How To Get It.

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