Towards a Sustainable Food System…

192Sustainable Seafood.  Sustainable Agriculture.  Social Justice.  Waste.  Environment.  Food System.  Climate Change.  Holistic.  Innovation.  Investment.  Culture Change.  Messaging.  Transparency.  Corporate Social Reponsibility.

These were just a few of the recurring key words discussed over two days this month at the Cooking for Solutions event hosted by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Foods Institute.  The event was held from May 11-13 in Monterey with scenic Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the background.

Over the course of three days, leaders from multiple parts of the food system gathered with top media executives to explore ways to support healthy oceans and healthy soils.  Both are critical if we are to successfully meet the challenge of feeding 9 billion people and beyond.

Another key word which came up frequently throughout the conference: Urgency.  A clear takeaway was that we need to act not only with transparency, but with urgency to solve the problems of the global food system.  Julie Packard, Executive Director of the Aquarium, kicked off the event by pointing to the importance (and power) of stories — noting that we all need to do a better job of telling stories to help the planet, and that the only thing that will make a difference in solving the problems of ocean and land-related food challenges is human action.  She also noted that we need to do a better job of doing sustainable business.  Well said.

Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, outlined many of the challenges of the food system with an inspiring talk entitled “Toward a New National Food Policy” in which he noted the importance of focusing on social justice in order to transform the food system — arguing that we need to face up to the fact that our food system has long been predicated on social injustice.   Salvador pointed out that in today’s global food system, a substantial percentage of the population in developing countries can have a particular food item within 20 minutes of wishing for it — as our mastery of logistics and cold chain storage ensures broad availability of food items from around the world at relatively low cost on a 24×7 basis.  That capability leads to many problems — including a vast amount of wasted food — food which could in many cases be used to feed those who are experiencing food insecurity.  It also contributes to diet-related illness and rapidly rising obesity levels.   Conversely, billions in the developing world lack access to sufficient nutritious food due in part to inadequate transportation and cold storage infrastructure — with much food going to waste prior to market.  Pointing to the myriad problems of the food system, Salvador quoted Mark Bittman, noting that “it’s hard to imagine a food supply as abundant as ours and doing a worse job with it” — and stressed that we need to change the food system based on equity (and if we do so, all of the other problems will go away).

Maria Damanaki, Global Managing Director for Oceans at The Nature Conservancy, spoke of the need for collaboration across borders, responsible control and regulation, and good global governance to guarantee the sustainability of global seafood stocks.

Themes from these and other sessions fit well with a session on Food Recovery in which I participated along with Claire Cummings (Waste Specialist for Bon Appetit), Mary Risley (founder of Tante Maria’s Cooking School and Food Runners), Ben Simon (founder of the Food Recovery Network), and Stephanie Strom of the New York Times.  It was a privilege to engage in discussion with such a talented group on the importance and benefits of capturing and redirecting excess food, the many barriers that can inhibit recovery programs, and examples of success stories that can serve as a model for future recovery efforts.  A key opportunity taking shape includes blemished/imperfect fruits and vegetables — millions of tons of which go to waste in the U.S. annually despite being perfectly fine for human consumption.  The social, environmental, and financial benefits of capturing and redirecting this high quality food are enormous.  Our group focused on the level of awareness about food loss and waste, misperceptions among consumers and business regarding food waste, how public policy can evolve to enhance food recovery, challenges and opportunities in recovering excess food, how the impact of recovery programs can be measured, and examples of current programs that are having a positive impact. We noted that organizations need to get over traditional fears of liability and lost reputation and embrace food recovery partnerships for triple bottom line gains.  We also pointed out the unsustainable nature of global food waste — which totals between one and two billion tons annually — and the need to optimize food resources and all associated inputs to provide for future generations.  Echoing Julie Packard’s challenge regarding human action from the start of the conference, we noted the importance of moving from a culture of abundance (in which we are desensitized to food waste) to a culture of responsibility (in which we take action to put excess food resources to responsible use). Taking individual action, raising awareness of food waste in the global supply chain (land and ocean), driving change for more sustainable business practices in our organizations, promoting responsible legislation, and forming sustainability-focused public-private partnerships are central to reducing food waste and, more broadly, in achieving the Institute’s goal of making a difference and developing solutions to food system challenges.

Overall, great work by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Sustainable Foods Institute — more to follow on this incredibly impactful event.

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