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.
"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."