We are not living in a sustainable food system.
The root of the manmade weed strangling the shoots of blooming food ecology is that globalisation has further complicated our relationship with food. Most of us lost track of how our food is produced, where it grows, and forgot the pleasure of cooking a meal from scratch. Vandana Shiva, an Indian biologist and recipient of the Alternative Nobel prize, warns: “Only where cultural diversity has been able to persist does biodiversity continue to exist.”
The dichotomy between the behaviour of living nature and our mechanising culture essentially creates an unbalanced system that we may not be able to sustain fort he future generations. Arnaud Apoteker wrote in Slow Food”The appearance of diversity conveyed by industrial food preparations is an illusion since modern people are consuming fewer and fewer vegetable varieties.” We all eat Hass avocados, Costa Rican bananas, red round tomatoes in winter and other global plant foods, while the local seasonal produce evades our shopping carts. Buffalo, seasonal game and ostrich meat rarely appear on the convenient plates where beef, chicken and pork rule. Tuna, salmon and sea bass reduced our oceans and seas into a triad of overfished species.
Summer squashes
Although we live longer mainly due to the advances in medicine, the quality of long life crippled by lifestyle-induced chronic disease is worth considering. Small habitual adjustments towards eating more sustainably can benefit us with a better health, more diverse flavours, and even prosperity for the local economies in which we can directly engage. Creat more sustainable community around you by eating local.
Here, I dig into the timeline of food chain related changes, so you can understand better what is now happening and set your mind to the positive choices in your daily life.
Summer squashes at Union Square farmers market

Learning from the past: What should we do and how can we eat ecologically?

Quick and easy solutions are appealing, yet whether shortcuts lead to the desired destination reminds to be puzzled only over the long run. The problem is that we may not experience the consequences yet, but the future generations, your children, probably will. It is the same with us. What our ancestors did wrong only now floats to the surface of real time. Now we know that the post-war agrochemical revolution was unsophisticated and at large unable to cheat nature. The same applies to genetic engineering that potentially irreversibly threatens natural biodiversity. Our nuanced understanding of the biological cycles and employing natural, integral pest management were perfected by patience. Mindful observation of nature noted over generations lead some of our ancestors to sustainable solutions for their daily lives. The makeup-free face of the gene revolution is yet to be revealed, and since our planet is not in a controlled laboratory environment, we can hardly predict many negative interactions and synergies of the GMOs in the complex world we live in. Nevertheless, the same warning applies to the “natural” crossbreeding, which to the credit of a single gene enhancement, is potentially even less predictable.
We should be cautious and strict, while tough regulations should be applied when considering the GMOs public use. Put the ravenous scientific pursuit on a long-term trial to mature and thus evaluate it over time. For now, do what the repetitive trials of the eventful centuries proved to work.
LESSON: Avoid buying the GMO produce, but keep reading about its advancements. Be open, not blind. Get traditionally grown, chemicals-free and unprocessed food.
Although we live longer mainly due to the advances in medicine, the quality of long life crippled by lifestyle-induced chronic disease is worth considering. Small habitual adjustments towards eating more sustainably can benefit us with a better health, more diverse flavours, and even prosperity for the local economies in which we can directly engage. Creat more sustainable community around you by eating local.
In this research article I dig into the timeline of food chain related changes, so you can understand better what is now happening and set your great mind to the adjustments and positive choices in your daily life.
Ecology

Tracing the food chain: from being in control to being controlled 

We used to produce food for ourselves and in so we were much closer to independence than we are now. There were no large companies making our food, supermarkets bringing bananas from Guatemala, pineapple from Hawaii, salmon from Alaska, açai from Brazil or beef from cattle raised in the savaged, treeless patches of the Amazon rainforest. It deserves our critical attention that, “the supermarket represents the most radical change in the history of food purchasing”, writes Peter Scholiers in his essay on Novelty and Tradition published in Food: The History of Taste. In fact, if you lived in a landlocked country like Austria, you never saw a shrimp or fresh tuna on your plate.
Further, the raised productivity led to falling prices. Scholiers notes: “it became more profitable to produce and trade meat, milk or deluxe fruits than to till the land for grain.” So we got less fibre, more saturated fat and methane pollution into our bodies or the environment. The numbers are shocking: “Today the average household in Western Europe spends merely 15% of its total expenditure on food, as against 50% or more before 1940.” Invest in your wellbeing and you will get high return in good health.
So much in the supermarket gets wrapped in plastic and other wasteful packagings, is pasteurised or conserved so it lasts for eternity. We almost forgot how to grow vegetables, herbs, fruits and how to pickle, ferment or in other way preserve the seasonal bounty without added chemicals ourselves.
How we got here? In his classic critique of society titled Conspicuous Consumption, the historian Thorstein Veblen suggested that luxury was one of the engines of capitalism’s long-term growth, since its view that “unproductive consumption of goods is honourable”. He hinted at the industrial revolution, the voracious have-it-all bug of capitalism as well as the global population’s growth enticing demand for efficiency, speed, quantity and an effortless pursuit of nourishment. Further, the timing of the 20th century  spotted it on since everything ‘desirable’ was marketed through trendy advertising.
For a long time, countries with established culinary traditions resisted and countered the import of these modern snacks and “foods”. Italy responded with even a stronger binding to its culinary tradition, so did France, which fed itself self-sufficiently and even increased its own food exports. Since the knack of the new millennium though, even these proud nations have yielded to the global food trend behemoth. Now in France, I see more McDonalds and beef burgers than made-from-scratch quiches to go.
Sustainable lifestyle was once integral to our ethics, yet over quite a short period the corporate world took saliently the charge of all our consumerist needs. But, how it knows what we want and need?
It doesn’t since it dictates to us through advertising what we want.
LESSON: Get fresh local ingredients, which can be traced back to their soil. Visit the farms. Avoid plastic and any unnecessary packaging and BYO shopping bag/basket.
sustainable cooking with local vegetables local traditional vegetables in Liguria

Nourishment enchained by feminism

As more people joined the workforce, women inclusive, blinded by progress we lost control of our food intake. The higher productivity swept the house kitchen guardians and family health custodians – women into the career and the work rat race. We cook less than ever in history! Hopefully, as women’s salaries continue to rise and match those of men’s, their economic strength may shift the unsustainable scales closer to balance. Women tend to be more morally and health conscious, therefore their demands for a more nutritious, fair-trade and ecologically sound food seem already now enticing for more companies to focus more on these values. Women were evolutionarily programmed to seek safety and sustaining health. These empowered consumers can sow the seed of the green sprouting solution to our impoverished soil, unfair work conditions for the poor countries’ plantations, polluted air, waters and ultimately the tinted chemical food system whose safety standards need to improve to balance the gravity-free speed of progress. Perhaps the limits of exploitation of our Planet’s resources were reached, and the food industry is realising that it has to transform into more emotionally appealing, sustainable purveyors.
Change-averse Italians like Giacomo Bulleri, a 90-years-old restaurateur in Milan shares his concerns in his book Recipes For Life. Saddened by the current state of culinary ignorance caused by our fast-paced lifestyle, he writes: “The balance has been broken. We don’t have the time to understand where we are, life is much further ahead than the point people have actually reached, so we eat as if in a petrol station: ‘Fill’em up, please.’; therefore, although today we are rich, we don’t eat anymore.”
LESSON: Cook at home from local ingredients as often as possible. Prepare your work meals ahead and carry in reusable containers. Sign up for a cooking class with a friend.

Reducing food waste sustainable food

Local food vs exotic ingredients available in all seasons

The growth of affordable traveling boarded also our taste buds on the plane. How far have we got just within decades! Refrigeration and fast transport changed dramatically how we eat. As the most expansive inhabitants of the Earth, with the mechanised fast transition we changed our landscape, the soil, the air, and perhaps aggravated the climate instability.
The immense growth of migrants and travellers over the past century brought along the international food blend now available everywhere. Moving afar, the distance between the producer and consumer of food grew and so did the length of the food chain. There are so many steps involved in getting a yogurt to your table that it is more likely that this pharmacy product adopted by Danone has not as many “life bacteria” left. Making yogurt in reusable glass jars at home is easy, reduces CO2 emissions and is not compromised by long distance handling.
The all-too-same supermarket chains were initially exciting, but now the customers with choices seem to want change and buy more of the real food; fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and meat that is not pre-packaged in a vacuum plastic.
The global growth of “conscious” supermarket chains like Wholefoods prove that as the world becomes more informed and democratised then it demands fresh, healthy and safe real food. In most affluent countries this trend is growing. But, there were also movements and voices halting the speed of novelty. Frances More Lappè, food expert and the author of the classic book Diet for a Small Planet advises: “The single most important first step in rediscovering the traditional, healthy diet is changing where you shop.” By this she does not mean looking for the trendiest grocery chains stocked with miracles promising packaged foods from around the world such as Wholefoods does these days, but “community cooperative store filled with whole foods and foods from local producers.”  Going further, you can even adopt a tree from the Matsumoto family in Central Valley, California, so you harvest peaches annually for yourself.
The poorer population in the rich West can eat sustainably as well. As reducing food waste has floated more mainstream, there are more accessible resources to fresh food available to all.
The recent rejuvenation in the popularity of local produce sold directly by the growers at farmers markets is a green light for the ride to rehabilitation. This direct trade makes us curious about how our food is grown, boosts mutual trust and brings wealth directly to the area, not to the multinational food companies interested in their own annual growth more than the intrinsic quality of their raw produce. Vocations on the brink of extinction that can nourish the present cosmopolitan lifestyle are being rehabilitated. The rise of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) hallmarks this balancing instinct.
To solve the contemporary dilemma whether to buy seasonal local or imported certified organic, adds heat into the slow versus fast food debate. As the culinary nutrition course with NGI in New York taught me, the ultimate best is unprocessed local produce farmed sustainably. Such food is the freshest, does not pollute the soil, benefits the farm workers and does not cause necessary suffering for the animals.

VW truck of Mentonaise farmer Jean Mario next to local McDonald's

Millennial consumer’s dilemma: Local farmer’s truck next to McDonald’s in Menton


LESSON: Buy locally grown or raised organic food directly from the farmer, via CSA (AMAP in France) or at local co-operative. Cycle, walk or take a public transport to shop.

Biodiversity threatened: the future of food questioned

Safeguarding biodiversity is one of the most critical concerns of our time. Vandana Shiva, wrote in Slow Food: ”Monocultures are particularly susceptible to pests and diseases: if plants are afflicted by a disease, it will immediately spread to the entire monoculture.” In the old path, mutual crops growing together in one field that were traditionally planted have mutually adjusted over the centuries to complement, support and not to deprive each other of their respective essential nutrients. Unlike the soil heavily taxing conventional farming of the 20.th century, by using naturally complementary crops the soil’s productivity increases. In New York’s Hudson Valley The Stone Barns farm and Centre for Agriculture is leading the diversity game on a high roll supported by the farming spirit of its owner, the Rockefeller family, and the sustainably minded chef Dan Barber.
Also in the US, Polyface in Virginia has been farming with mixed-species to increase their yields since the 1960s when the Salatin family purchased the farm. The almost three centuries old Ethos Farm in New Jersey became not just a National Historic Landmark, but also the guardian of endangered species, some of which (like wild brook trout) were thought to be extinct. Hopefully, more sustainable farming efforts of such calibre will crop around the world.
In Italy, efforts to trace rare, localised vegetables are tangible in the work of enthusiasts such as the expert on plant biodiversity Mauro Carboni, but mainly by the influential Slow Food movement. The later is dedicated to restoring and encouraging diversity through its catalogue of endangered heritage foods The Ark of Taste. Slow Food seeks to “preserve at-risk foods that are sustainably produced, have a unique  taste, and are part of a distinct ecoregion”. These include for example the Reggiana cow of Emilia Romagna. The annual Rural Festival in Emilia and in Tuscany showcase some impressive local farmer raising these rare species. Eataly food stores across Italy differ from the US branches in their offerings of almost forgotten regional crops such as the Rovegna pulses from Umbria. I found these chickpeas and lentils blending legumes more intriguing than either of the staples in our cupboards. The white truffle of beans – Figiolo Bianco di Pigna – has also an unforgettable, more delicate taste.

rare Pigna beans

Fagiolo Bianco di Pigna – the rare Pigna beans


The meat industry’s push for fast-growing breeds had tragically reduced the animal breed diversity, that was once the local pride of regional cuisines. Imperatively, the rare breeds of animals and plant species must be shielded from extinction. In Ibiza I met a Scottish farmer Ronnie, who is saving the rare Formentera black pig from disappearing on his Ca’n Pere Mussona farm. More, the produce from two of his organic gardens and orchards appears seasonally on the island’s cafes and restaurant menus. While educating children about sustainable farming there, he created a holistic environmentally supportive activity model. On their Facebook page, the mission is broadened: “Our education project ‘Food for Life – From Plough to Plate’ offers local school children of all ages and at no cost the opportunity to visit the farm and experience the reality of animal welfare and organic food production. Our rare breed programme ‘Back from the Brink’ allows the children and adults to see for themselves very rare local farm animals who because of supermarket pressure had almost become extinct.” What an experience! I fell in love with the happy piglets immediately.
Formentera black pigsustainable farm Ibiza
It is our ethical but also survival determining duty to sustainably affect how our food is grown, raised, produced, cooked and consumed. Now, that we have plenty of ingredients around and do not suffer from long-term hunger, but rather diseases from overconsumption of processed foods, we must assure that our future generations have diverse natural resources for their adequate nutrition and that the environment thrives instead of turning into a health-harming toxic place to exist.
I wrote in-depth about monocultures and plant diversity in the Future of Food.
LESSON: Ask your food producer about more choices from heirloom vegetables, ostrich meat or ancient local varietals of plants. Demand brings more of these ‘rarities’ back into our food system.

The most impressive role models tackling food waste

Perhaps the most influential chef of this year Massimo Bottura, an Italian maverick chef that stirred the food waste movement during the Expo in Milan last year, continues to raise his already powerful activist voice in favour of sustainable food. Addressing culture, nourishment, and community, is the three Michelin-starred chef’s brainchild project Food for Soul.
The less affluent can use social media apps such as the California-born Crop Mobster selling more cheaply organic produce leftovers from farmers markets also in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
In AmsterdamINSTOCK collects oversupply from cooperating supermarkets and sells freshly prepared delicious meals at its contemporary designed restaurants and a food truck cruising around the canal-laced city. Similar businesses have grown in Denmark and France.
Reducing food waste was integral in my Czech culture until the consumer age swallowed our consciousness. It was instilled by my cost-wary parents, and by having a garden, raising chickens, rabbits and own compost we understood the great taste of our food produced with patience and eaten with respect.
Just buy what you need and if there is any fresh produce you do not eat before traveling, freeze it and use in a gazpacho, smoothies, ice lollies,… Using leftovers gets your creative juices flowing and can be fun!
LESSON: Get creative with root-to-tip cooking and get inspired by traditional recipes using leftovers. Support quality over quantity, pay what real food is worth.
Italian chef Massimo Bottura

Eat sustainably: the dairy and meat controversy

The intensive farming model is unsustainable: each cow drinks 30-60 litres of water per day taxing heavily our resources. Drought areas like Australia, California and Texas are totally unsuitable for cattle farming!
The reduction of scale is adamant since the intensive farming model degrades the environment, the animals, the workers and our health. What is absolutely key to change about our eating behaviour is to reduce to a minimum our consumption of meat and dairy. As the WWF reports  “Land for farming crops, livestock and poultry currently covers 38% of the world’s total land area. 78% of agricultural land is used for livestock production.”  In the shocking, but well-researched documentary Cowspiracy the statistics were probably slightly exaggerated by bias, but alerted us to our consumerist ignorance. Realistically, what we can do is to reduce our consumption of beef and seek certified sustainably raised beef on the rare occasions we eat it. Sadly, as the film Cowspiracy has documented, the agricultural ties are politically so involved that even some environmentally-responsible NGOs are blind to this polluting threat. The exception being, for example, the WWF, that states that one of the biggest problems is that “Cattle is raised in some of the most fragile natural areas on Earth, such as the Amazon, East Australia, the Cerrado, the ecoregions of Pantanal and the Chaco and the Northern Great Plains.” 
As documented in the Slow Food book, long transport of animals is often stressing them so much that the quality of the meat decreases. It was tested by BSI that “the better the animal feels, the better it tastes”. The accumulated lactic acid in the muscles, water retention, and low ph cause undesirable tough meat. The Japanese have long known this and apply a more “humane killing” even to fish and fish seafoo.
LESSON: Reduce consumption of meat and dairy to, ideally, once per week. Lean towards goat and sheeps’ milk in dry regions. Totally cross off beef and substitute with delicious seasonal game or humanely raised, grazing and fresh local poultry. It is healthier and does not devastate the rainforests!
line caught fish

The fishy business

Scientists predict that wild fish may become non-existent by 2048 if we continue the wasteful pursuit of industrial fishing that we support now. By-catch is widespread and troubling. Purchasing line-caught seafood, while respecting seasonal bans is more sustainable as it allows for the new generation to reproduce and grow. As in Ibiza, government protection and sustainable organizations like Peix Nostrum issue a label for sustainably caught seafood: Line-caught, in the peak season (yes even fish grow over a period of time), and in areas that have been approved for fishing by the organisation.
For example, the spiny lobster is allowed to be caught for only half a year, while the six-months break serves for renewal of the population. Similarly, in the US the Washington State restrains fishing the Sockeye salmon only during specified months.
There are limits to our resources, therefore we must reduce our consumption of wild fish. An important Harvard University study warns about the fishery decline and its potential consequences on our nutrition and survival. Be adventurous and try lesser known fish lower in the food chain.
LESSON: Eat only line-caught or sustainable certified whole fish once in a while. The bones release calcium into the flesh when cooked so you can reduce dairy intake.
Grilled Mediterranean fish bitter green local vegetables

Processed food and the perils of advertising

The popularity of capitalism was fed by the innate human cravings for novelty and cheaper goods, and as a by-product, the consumer society was born. Yet catering excessively to the so-called “motivational triad” of pleasure seeking, avoiding pain, and our exerted energy conservation is perilous to humanity. The advertising gurus take advantage of it unashamedly. By their profits-driven exploitative models the ads have infected our society so seriously, that we became our biggest enemies. Ceaseless growth with accent on quantity and standardisation of food seems to be ill-suited for high quality, naturally nutritious food production for humanity unless it becomes trendy or advertised as cool.

LESSON: Don’t guide your lifestyle by advertising, but by what truly benefits your health and wellbeing of the Planet in the long term. Check reputed universities for up-to-date research.

Sustainable waterreducing packaging waste

NOW: Green business is cool, beware

The farmer of today is cool again. Michael Pollan, the best-selling and respected US author, said: “Food is about community and today farming is a new tribalism.” His books were inspired by farms like Polyface in Virginia, that I mentioned above, where next to its sustainable efforts the business nourishes the overall happiness of its employees. Today, farming is a lifestyle of choice, that is based on passion and care. In the words of Joel Salatin, one of the family farmers, what is needed is to “excite the passion of the young mind” to continue regenerative farming like his. Making sustainability trendy is essential for engaging the new generation’s spirit in small-scale farming. The comeback of the community farm has been anchored, but now it needs our support to sustain it. In my essay on Small Farms Back in our Foodchain, I wrote: “More conscious decisions about how to treat the crops and animals are more likely at the small farms.“
Green is the new black – ecological, organic, sustainable lifestyle captured the millennial vogue. But it is also “new” and the “omnivore paradox” coined by the sociologist Claude Fischler and psychologist Paul Rozin confirms that we “physically need food diversity, hence [we] have a biological inclination towards food innovation”. This impulse plays into the tales of marketers, but can also hit against us, be vigilant.
What in the 1960s was just embraced by hippies, is now reaching mainstream consciousness. The sustainable lifestyle is now supported by acclaimed chefs, Hollywood stars (Leonardo DiCaprio is voiced in ecological solutions), and other than just the Green Party politicians. The Paris Climate Agreement signed the past December promises a chance for a cleaner, better future, if the newly elected politicians stick to it.
Urban farming took off in Berlin, Brooklyn, Hong Kong, London, Monaco, San Francisco, Shanghai, and will surely spread to every major city. Just look at the inspiring stories of the Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm, or the rooftop of the John Lewis Department store in London that at least grows herbs for its cocktail bar. The later like the gourmet purveyors to the Queen – Fortnum & Mason – keep bees and sell their own honey. The chocolatiers Mast Brothers grow herbs for their London-exclusive chocolate range underground in their East London hydroponic garden. Hops, oregano, fennel, and any herb that inspires the creative team.
In Shanghai, the hip K11 Art Mall attracts more visitors with its indoor hydroponic garden (pictured bellow). Soon, if your business is not involved in anything “green” you will be out of vogue.
sustainable food indoor vegetable garden in China indoor vegetable garden in China
From the lessons I concluded above, it is clear and quite simple to eat and shop ecologically. Start now and fit as a missing part of the landscape puzzle forming smoothly the green movement.
Read here about the most interesting restaurants and chefs that take sustainability in their dining concepts beyond your imagination, while keeping the taste on a high roll.
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Further reading:
Dan Barber: The Third Plate
Carlo Petrini with Ben Watson and Slow Food Editore: Slow Food
Massimo Boturra: Never Trust the Skinny Italian Chef
Frances More Lappe: Diet for a Small Planet
Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry: GRUB ideas for an urban organic kitchen
John and Ocean Robbins: Voices of the Food Revolution
Paul Freedman editing Food: The History of Taste
Erik Eckholm and Frank Record: The Affluent Diet: A Worldwide Health Hazard in the first edition of Sourcebook on Food and Nutrition

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