Fish Fights, Goat Meat, and GMOs at the Sustainable Foods Institute

The Monterey Bay Aquarium's annual conference gives attendees lots to chew on

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

The action continues on the last day of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's annual conference.

The second and last day of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sustainable Foods Institute, on Friday, May 17, was definitely land-based — with one notable exception.

The morning began with a visit to the Earthbound Farms 2 ½-acre showplace gardens and food shop in Carmel, just down the road from Monterey. Earthbound is the nation's largest producer of organic lettuces and other vegetables, most famously those various assortments of leafy greens in the clamshell packs in every supermarket produce section. Their farms, in California's Central Valley and in Yuma, Ariz., and their packing plants are strictly big business, but their Carmel property is an idyllic complex of herb and vegetable gardens, rows of heirloom berries  — appropriately, since the company started as a backyard berry farm in 1984 — and lavender hedges.

Here, after a California-healthy buffet breakfast that included peach, mango, and carrot smoothies; pomegranate roasted pears; brown rice pudding with strawberries and toasted pistachios; warm sweet potato and kale strata; turkey bacon, Swiss cheese, and apple panini on sourdough; and some local cheeses — alongside one of which I discovered a tiny scattering of shards of brown-sugar bacon, most of which ended up on my plate, we listened to dietician Ashley Koff and Kaiser Permanente Medical Center physician and activist Dr. Preston Maring talk about why we should eat the kale and the pears and not the bacon, though not in so many words.

Maring started what was probably America's first hospital-grounds farmers' market, in Oakland. He knew it would be a success, he said, when a woman came rushing up to him and asked how much longer the market would be open. About another hour, he replied. "Good," said the woman, "because I want some of those strawberries, but I have to take my husband to the emergency room first." Today there are markets at 52 Kaiser Permanente hospitals in nine states and the District of Columbia. Maring went on to decry the fact that only 11,000 acres in the neighboring 200,000-acre Salinas Valley agricultural area are organic, and he proposed that as a predictor of health for his urban patients, "It is becoming more and more apparent that your ZIP code is more important than your genetic code."

Perhaps referring obliquely to Maring's strawberry story, Koff said "I've noticed that fruit always sells out at farmers' markets, while the vegetable guys are sitting there with most of what they came with." People shouldn't have to be nutritionists when they go to the grocery store, she continued, so she likes to tell people just to "eat a rainbow every day" — that is, lots of fruits and vegetables of different colors. She warned, though, that "There are lots of really, really bad vegetable products out there. Some people have a veggie burger and french fries and think they're eating healthy."

The more formal aspects of the day's program, back at the Monterey Plaza Hotel, near the aquarium, began with British chef and food activist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, of River Cottage. The previous evening, the aquarium had awarded him its Sustainable Seafoods Award as Educator of the Year. His current educational project, which he is pursuing with a broad-based campaign ( centered on a new TV series, is called "Fish Fight," and concerns sustainable fishing practices. His first target was discards. This refers to the fish caught in nets that are tossed back into the sea, usually dead, either because they are minor species not worth bringing back to land or because they exceed the daily quota for desirable species.

Fearnley-Whittingstall screened a viral video he'd made, along with excerpts from his broadcast on the subject. "Up to half a million tons of perfectly good, often prime edible fish are being thrown back every year," he said. He felt that he had to focus on a single issue to get the TV audience's attention, and this was something easy to understand, he felt. A scene on a fishing boat showed fishermen gazing in dismay at some 20 baskets of healthy-looking fish — big, beautiful ones that you'd happily pay $30 or $40 for whole at a fish market — on deck waiting to be returned to the ocean. And this, he noted, represented just one of 25 to 30 hauls the boat might make in a single day. "It's terrible," said one fisherman, with a thick Scottish burr, "it's a damned disgrace." The good news is that a new common fisheries treaty, to be ratified by the European Community in the next few months, will ban most discards. Some of the bycatch brought on board will be used to produce fishmeal for animal feed, he added, but at least some of it will go to public sector feeding — food banks, soup kitchens, and the like.

A tougher fight for Fearnley-Whittingstall, he admitted, was the issue of marine protected areas, or MPAs. Scallop dredges and trawl-net chains tear up the ocean floor, he said, destroying more than 90 percent of Britain's sea bottom. Areas designated as MPAs would be closed to these fishing practices. "Whereas many fishermen support me on the discard issue," he admitted, "that's not so with MPAs, and when I read on Facebook that I'm a public enemy, and fishermen say I'm trying to take food off their family tables, it becomes a different conversation, a more difficult one. But I make no apologies at all for being interested in behavior change, and stirring up big conversations, because that's what gets me out of bed in the morning. I find behavior change quite exciting."

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