Monterey Bay Aquarium 2014 Sustainable Foods Institute

Climate change hedge funds, artificial meat, "food apartheid," one billion Walmart bananas, and much more at this year's event
The speakers and panel discussions deal with a wide range of issues, both practical and conceptual, having to do with almost every aspect of our food supply.

As I learned last year when I attended my first Sustainable Foods Institute, an annual two-day conference that's part of the celebrated Monterey Bay Aquarium's ongoing Cooking for Solutions program, the fact that the aquarium organizes this event and holds it on the edge of Monterey Bay doesn't mean that it's all about seafood. Far from it. The speakers and panel discussions deal with a wide range of issues, both practical and conceptual, having to do with almost every aspect of our food supply.

Julie Packard, executive director of the Aquarium, welcomed the assemblage of program participants, media, and chefs (Rick Moonen, Michael Leviton, Mary Sue Miliken, Susan Feniger, and Art Smith were among those I spotted), reminding us that this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Aquarium and the 15th anniversary of its influential Seafood Watch program. The oceans, she further reminded us, occupy three-fourths of the earth's surface and constitute 99 percent of the planet's living space.

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"The oceans," she added, "are our pantry, our lungs, our playground, a massive incubator of new technology, and a large source of joy." As to why the Sustainable Foods Institute focuses so much attention landward, she explained that "The future health of our oceans depends on what we do on land. Society is just starting to make that connection. For now, the land and the oceans are seen as two separate domains — but they're not."

Kate Sheppard, environment and energy editor of the Huffington Post, began the program proper with a conversation with award-winning environmental reported McKenzie Funk, author of Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming. Noting that "capitalism is agnostic about where it is going to make money," he talked about some of the people he'd encountered in researching his book, including one hedge fund manager who was buying up water rights in California and Australia and another who was acquiring vast tracts of farmland in South Sudan in partnership with the son of a powerful local warlord. He quoted the climate change expert at Deutsche Bank as saying that "Climate change is the biggest market mover ever."

Funk added "You don't get much climate change denial on Wall Street." He suggestd that Wall Street, local church communities, and the military could all help influence people to believe in climate change, but also proposed that "A lot of very well-educated people who have all the science at their disposal are still deniers. They just don't want the regulation that acceptance will bring."

A panel called "Reinventing Food: Can Technology Solve Our Environmental Problems?" brought together Ethan Brown, CEO and co-founder of Beyond Meat, a company working to create "meat" out of plant protein; Isha Datar, director of the non-profit New Harvest, which seeks to reproduce meat in the laboratory; Walter Rakisky, senior vice president for emerging business at Solazyme, now focused on converting microalgae into oils for food, fuel, and other uses; and — odd man out — Jorge Heraud, who works with a very different kind of technology, using computer vision and robotics to thin lettuce fields and potentially other crops.

Brown recounted how he came to the conclusion that livestock was a bane on the planet, not just because of health concerns (including the purported role that animal protein plays in the growth of cancer cells) but because livestock uses natural resources inefficiently, and because an estimated 51 percent of greenhouse gases — he admitted that this figure was disputed — are produced by livestock. He also invoked animal welfare, revealing that when he was growing up on a farm he could never understand why the animals in the barn (cattle) were treated differently from those in the house (dogs). Acknowledging that humans have a taste for meat, he said that he believed the flavor and texture of animal flesh could be replicated by using all natural ingredients from vegetable sources that are heated, cooled, and pressurized in an extrusion process. "It takes seven weeks to raise a chicken," he said, "and two minutes to produce a chicken substitute by our process. We're seven times more efficient in our use of nutrients, 15 percent more effective with water use, and 30 times more efficient in using land."

He also revealed that one of the largest tuna-packing companies in the world has approached Beyond Meat about creating a new source of tuna. The panel moderator, Marc Gunther of Guardian Sustainable Business, questioned whether "Beyond Meat" was a good name for Brown's concern. "Nobody called the first cars 'Beyond Horses,'" he pointed out.

As a reminder that this was, after all, a Monterey Bay Aquarium program, Eric Schwaab, senior vice president and chief conservation officer at the National Aquarium, delivered an address called "Is Well-Managed Good Enough" — "well-managed" referring to fisheries, a fishery being a defined entity that raises or harvests fish (the term commonly refers to both the fish and the people who do the raising or harvesting). The short answer: No. He observed that some 90 percent of the seafood we consume in America is imported — some of it caught here, then sent to other countries for processing and returned to us — and that anywhere from ten to 30 percent of the fish we buy has been illegally caught. "I don't think there is any more important issue in fishery management than traceability," he said.

Fish was also the subject of the next panel, "Four Fish Stories: Models for Seafood Traceability on a Local, Regional, National, and Global Scale," moderated by Lindsay Abrams of Salon.com. Alan Lovewell, chief executive officer and co-founder of Local Catch, a Monterey-based CSF (community supported fishery) rued the fact that while sardines, anchovies, and squid, all extremely sustainable, are caught in profusion around Monterey Bay, these aren't the fish most consumers want. Michael Bell, director of the California Coastal and Marine Program at the Nature Conservancy, proposed that "Regulation alone will not protect and restore our ocean health. The most logical stakeholders in this are local fishing communities, so we need to ask what's in it for them. With some fishermen you'll never get any traction because their buyers are interested only in quality, not in sustainability. In some markets, though, a 'sustainable' label will have influence." He added "Fishery management isn't about managing the fish, it's about managing the fishermen."The future health of our oceans depends on what we do on land. Society is just starting to make that connection. — Julia Packard

Susan jackson is president of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, and an expert on worldwide tuna stocks. Bemoaning the prevalence of "IUU" fish — illegal, unreported, unregulated — in the marketplace she pointed out that since tuna are so migratory, it is necessary to get anywhere from 16 to 64 countries to agree on policy for management. TJ Tate, director of sustainability at Gulf Wild — an organization started after the catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to help local fisheries literally sustain — make last — their stocks. The Gulf Wild project includes tagging all fish caught by members with QR codes and identification numbers, and is developing an initiative by which video cameras on fishing boats will record the catching and packing of fish, allowing consumers to see the exact origins of what ends up on their tables. The organization is also developing an "adopt a fisherman" program.

Back on dry land, the afternoon sessions began with "Farming: The Next Generation." Moderator Luke Runyon of Harvest Public Media started the discussion by noting that in 1970, the age of the average farmer was about 50, while today it's 58-plus — but at the same time, the number of young farmers has increased by 11 percent since 2007. Nonetheless, farmer Rebecca Thistlethwaite, author of Farms with a Future: Creating and Growing a Sustainable Farm Business, begged the media to stop using the term "young farmer" and refer instead to the "beginning farmer" — because some of these farmers are immigrants who are 40, 50, 60 years old, often with experience of agriculture but no training in the economics of farming. She also noted that she had had many farming interns drop out quickly. "They think it's all going to be unicorns and rainbows," she said, "and then they find out that they have to work in the pouring rain and that they're going to get really tired."

Leah Penniman, a farmer, teacher, and activist from Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, told us that in the 1920s, African-Americans owned 14 percent of the farms in America and now it's more like one percent. "I found that a lot of the training programs for beginning farmers of color were unhelpful," she said, "if not downright racist." She helps to combat what she calls "food apartheid" through a farm training program for black and Hispanic children; Soul Fire Farm's community supported agriculture program also makes home deliveries, and accepts EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards from the SNAP program, the successor to food stamps.

Scott Sibbel, who raises hogs and cattle for Niman Ranch in Carroll, Iowa, offered lowkey, amiable remarks about the work ethic among the young ("I see it less and less in Iowa; a lot of people just don't want to mess with farming") and the need for farm families to establish a structure to insure that their children can inherit their land if they want it. The ebullient Nikiko Masumoto, daughter of farmer David Mas Masumoto, author of Epitaph for a Peach and, with Nikiko and her sister, Marcy, of The Perfect Peach, suggested that "The 'cultural' part of agriculture is important. We need storytelling in farming, formal or informal. We need people who know things with their bodies, know that out of all the rows, rows 13 and 15 are always the hardest to water. You can show somebody how to use a shovel, but they have to feel it." She also said that she thought art was important in farming, because you needed something to get you through times of great difficulty. "Art is a lifeboat for farmers."

Penniman said she thought people needed a minimum of two full seasons on a farm before they could call themselves a farmer. "Just yesterday," she said, "I had to explain to an apprentice that you don't hoe up the carrots you've just planted so that you can plant beans." Sibbel said "It's not like my father gave me a list and said 'This is how you farm.' I had to watch. and learn. ' During the audience question period, somebody asked how organic farmers should respond to those who thought that conventional farming was the only way. "I'd tell them that this is how people farmed for 10,000 years," Thistlethwaite asked. "The last 70 years of 'conventional' farming are just a blip." Masumoto added, though, that "I know where these people are coming from. Are you telling them that they've been doing things wrong all their lives?"

Artist and information designer Arlene Birt next gave an address about "Information Design: Making Science Digestible for Consumers," in which she spoke of the power of informational imagery to convey ideas that mere facts and figures could not. She showed an image of a café table she'd helped created in Sweden which, when you put a bottle down on it would come alive with graphics offering detailed information about the origin of its contents. She also showed a short, silent video of a grocery store checkout system that would bring up detailed information about each item purchased on a video screen.

A discussion moderated by Wall Street Journal consumer reported Sarah Nassauer paired Brittni Furrow, director of sustainability for Walmart Stores, and Sabine Ritter, executive vice-president of Consumer Goods Forum, a global network of some 650 companies, to discuss "Major Buyers as Changemakers: Accountability and Traceability in the Market." Ritter's organization spearheaded two international initiatives in 2010, one to achieve deforestration neutrality by 2020, the other to phase out refrigerants that are damaging the ozone layer. "Now we're working to try to reduce food waste around the world," she said.

Furrow got our attention with the statistic that Walmart sells about one billion pounds of bananas annually around the world — about 32 pounds a second. With this kind of buying (and selling) power, she said, "We have to think seriously about what our role is in global food production." Walmart has a business-to-business Sustainability Index category-specific scorecard that they ask all their suppliers worldwide to fill out (it will become available to the general public online later this year). "We have to make sustainability part of our business relationships," she said. "It needs to come up in the buying decisions, not afterwards. Sustainability has to get to the point where it's not something people have to pay extra for. It has to become standard practice. Customers expect us to take care of sustainability for them."

The day's sessions concluded with "Rooftop Farms to Supermarket Shelves: The Future of Urban Agriculture." Moderator Dan Charles, of National Public Radio, asked panelists whether urban farms were realistic for feeding people or just useful for teaching or as symbols. All four panelists — Paul Lightfoot, CEO of Brightfarms; Paula Daniels, founder and chair of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council; Nevin Cohen, assistant professor of environmental studies at the New School; and Becca Self, executive director of FoodChain — were reluctant to admit that such enterprises were primarily the latter, but more or less ended up doing so. Self's operation was the most interesting: She operates an indoor farm in an abandoned bread factory in Lexington, Kentucky, where she raises tilapia and salad greens. The tilapia waste fertilizes the greens, and the greens, grown hydroponically, clean the water the fish grow in. Whenever she harvests either, she walks them directly through a convenient door to Smithtown Seafood, a restaurant next door, which uses everything she produces. "It's not food miles," she said. "It's food feet."

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