Monterey Bay Aquarium 2014 Sustainable Foods Institute Day 2

Seven-story greenhouses, 'flying prawns,' Oreos schoolbooks, and more on the second day of this year's event

Hosted by Earthbound, the proceedings were an untitled conversation, hosted by Russ Parson, food editor of the Los Angeles Times, on the role of farm chemicals or their alternatives in modern agriculture.

Cooking for Solutions program, began away from the hotel events space where most of the sessions were held. Instead, participants gathered at the Earthbound Farms "farm stand" (a shop, garden, and outdoor events venue) in Carmel, about a ten-mile drive southeast of the Aquarium itself. (Earthbound, whose packaged salad greens and other vegetables and fruits seem to appear in every grocery store in America, began as a berry stand down the street from the current facility and is today the largest producer of organic produce in the country.)

The proceedings here, after the assembled media, speakers, and chefs had enjoyed a breakfast buffet (scrupulously organic, of course) hosted by Earthbound, were an untitled conversation, hosted by Russ Parson, food editor of the Los Angeles Times, on the role of farm chemicals or their alternatives in modern agriculture. Parsons summed up the dilemma many consumers face: "It seems like you're either buying your fruits and vegetables from barefoot baby Jesus or you're mainlining Agent Orange. Is there a middle ground, a way that allows for a responsible use of chemicals when needed?"

Urvashi Rangan, director of the consumer Safety and Sustainability Group for Consumer Reports, began by reminding the audience that "It is only comparatively recently that we've realized that what hapens to the environment affects our health. For decades, we used to put lead arsenate in the ground, for instance, but when you put it in the ground, it stays in the ground. Today we have to ask whether we know what the unintended consequences of our actions will be. We have to know not just that something is effective now but whether it's going to do harm in the long run. That's the issue I have with GMOs. The long-term studies just didn't get done. We don't know — and we arebn't figuring public health costs into the cost of producing food.

Jim Lugg, a consultant for Fresh Express/Chiquita Brands International, Inc., revealed that "Nearly all of our producers today grow both conventional and organic crops. There's not enough organic land available to satisfy demand. In the future, we may be moving towards enclosed spaces where you can control light and temperature and external contaminants. My fantasy is that at the edge of every city you'd have a seven-story building with a glass front, like Baskin-Robbins, where you could go in and order greens that were just harvested upstairs."

Parsons next asked Todd Kodet, Earthbound's senior vice president of farm supply, whether organically produced food could ever scale enough to feed the world. Kodet thought that it could. "We're great at agricultural yield, but not at productivity. If you look at productivity instead of yield, we're equal to Bangladesh. A third of our cultivated land goes to animal feed, five percent goes to biofuel, a third of what we produce is wasted. We're at a point where 70 percent of our resources produce 30 percent of our food and vice versa. We have enough to feed 2700 calories per day to every person on earth, and will have that even in 2050, when there are nine billion people to feed. It's not that we don't have the food, it's a question of getting it there."

Returning to the subject of GMOs, Parsons asked if they have a place in our food supply. Lugg said "In my personal opinion, we just don't think they fit into our agricultural production system. It just isn't worth it." Rangan: "We don't have he answer." Lugg: "The definition of sustainability is that whatever you do in your daily practices is something you'll be able to keep doing in the future. If not, it's not sustainable." On another subject, he noted that "We want to kill the 'natural' label on foods. There have been lots of lawsuits over the use of this term. The FDA was asked by the courts to define 'naural' and they respectufully declined. The term just has no meaning — and our research shows that a third of consumers confuse 'natural' with 'organic.' It's a good time in the marketplace for people to stare that down."

Back indoors in Monterey, writer and editor Francis Lam kicked off the sessions with a panel called "The New American Plate" — which he redefined as a "game show" he dubbed "Food Trends: Hot or Not?". Addressing the trend terms he threw out were Georgia-based chef and cookbook author Hugh Acheson and Andrew F. Smith, who has taught food history and politics and food writing at the New School in Manhattan since 1996.

"Flying prawns" (i.e., crickets) and or other instects. Acheson: "Crickets are hot, if you fry them. They're crunchy and people love crunchy things. They're also high in protein, and a renewable resource. Other bugs are really gross, though." Smith [addressiong the audience]: "How many of you eat insects? [A few hands go up.] How many eat processed foods? {Considerably more hands.] If you eat processed foods, you're eating insects."

"Four Fish, More Fish" (i.e., bycatch). (Bycatch is fish or other marine creatures caught accidentally while fishing for target species. "Four Fish" is a reference to journalist Paul Greenberg's book of the same, about the four varieties that dominate our menus — salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna). Acheson: "If it's hot, will it still be bycatch? If we start targeting lesser species, prices will go up. Bycatch will be hot for a time until it becomes a commodity." Smith: "If you look at accounts of American fish markets in the 19th century, there were 150 kinds of fish or shellfish for sale. We don't have anywhere near that variety in our markets today, but there's constant replacement. We will use whatever seafood is available — even invasive species like lionfish or Asian carp. These things just need advertising and promotion. They need to be on 'Top chef.' I'm serious."

Kelp and other seaweed. Acheson: "Very hot. People werent' eating seaweed in the U.S. ten years ago. Now it's a snack you give your kids to take to school. All the chefs are using dashi as a stock, and not just for Japanese Night."

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Soylent [a kind of super-protein shake] and other food replacements. Acheson: Not. Products like this show the diviision between people who care about food and people who don't. If you just think of food as nourishment, then maybe you'll use it. Some people already eat imitation food. It's called McDonald's. I'd like to see fake meat, fake cheese, and all that give way to real grains, real vegetables, real tofu. Convenience foods to me are the devil." Smith: I think it's hot and not. I like experimention and wish the producers of Soylent well, but there's a real P.R. problem. I think there's going to be a huge backlash."