A Palatable World
Three ways the way we eat can save the planet.
Mark Bittman: Why We Need a Food Police
In more than 30 years of writing about food, Mark Bittman has influenced millions of home cooks with easy-to-replicate techniques and recipes that demystify and take the fear out of cooking, well, just about everything — to paraphrase the title of his most famous book. His credo is simplicity, exemplified during the more than a dozen years writing his New York Times column “The Minimalist.” But his big idea these days is surprisingly maximalist: We need to eat less meat, and governments should make us do it.
“You know, one good thing about being an authoritarian state,” says Bittman of China, “is that if you want to do something, well, you can just do it.” And with an estimated 350 million new people expected to join the Chinese middle class by 2030 putting strains on food production, Beijing just might have to. “The current state of meat production — and everyone wants to eat meat now, just like Americans — is unsustainable,” Bittman says. “It simply cannot last.”
“More than 50 percent of corn is fed to animals to produce beef, or turned into ethanol,” Bittman says. “It’s inefficient at best, and simply unsustainable at current levels of production. But you can make beef sustainable, as long as we agree that we’re going to eat less of it.”
So how do you get to that point? “You need the rule of law. If you want to prevent oil shocks, if you want to prevent destruction of the environment, if you want to slow global warming, then you have to move to a sustainable agriculture,” Bittman says. “If industrial agriculture and massively subsidized meat production is destroying the environment, why can’t there be laws preventing it? But today we have anarchy. We have a system of food production with no sense of the global public health in mind.”
It seems a somewhat incongruous argument for someone who’s made a career of educating readers on how to grill the perfect marinated flank steak or make a sublime roasted leg of lamb. But Bittman’s moved away from a meat-centric diet these past few years, authoring a follow-up book, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.
“I’ve seen food get worse. When I grew up, things were much more local. Today, it’s all industrialized. It’s all agribusiness. $2.99 lamb or $1.29 pork is unbelievable. It represents nothing close to its real costs.” So what to do if governments won’t step up and enact laws to encourage more sustainable food production? “On a personal level,” says Bittman, “people can move away from junk and processed foods and animal-central products. Even eating 10 percent less of these things could make an enormous change.”
But Bittman avers that he’s no saint. “I was just driving recently and had to stop for gas. And I was so hungry. I only had a dollar in my pocket and I was starving so I bought some Cheetos. They were awesome.”
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Alice Waters: The Children Are the Future
“It’s all about the children, about feeding them ideas,” says Alice Waters, the doyen of the American sustainable food movement. Since founding the now-iconic Berkeley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971, her name has been synonymous with the organic food movement. She began as a young cook in search of simple, tasty, local produce that reminded her of time spent in France, where restaurants sourced their produce and meat from nearby farms. But agriculture in California in the early 1970s was still dominated by industrial farms, “so I took seeds from France and planted them myself.”
Since those early days, the ovens and stovetops of Chez Panisse have become the classroom for a generation of America’s finest chefs. But it’s a different kind of teaching that now animates Waters. In 1996, she founded the Edible Schoolyard, an organic garden and kitchen classroom at a middle school in Berkeley, where food and farming is a part of the curriculum. Today, the majority of California public schools have some form of garden and there are Edible Schoolyards across the United States, from the concrete boulevards of Brooklyn to Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.
The soft-spoken Waters has her critics, notably Caitlin Flanagan, who eviscerated the movement in a 2010 article in the Atlantic, claiming that the “dowager queen of the grown-locally movement” is robbing a generation of children of higher learning — digging for potatoes instead of cramming for pre-calculus. Waters is unfazed by this argument: “We’re a microwave culture right now … but when one in two African-American or Hispanic children, or one in three Caucasian kids, are going to get diabetes from poor diet, what could be more important than teaching children about food?”
“I look back to President Kennedy on this, who said in the early 1960s that students weren’t fit for the next generation … and so he made physical education a part of the country’s curriculum.” We need to do the same thing with sustainable food, says Waters, arguing that schools and all public institutions for that matter, should be required to buy “good, clean, and fair food.” It’s a question of scale, she says, noting that her restaurant only serves 500 people a day. But if institutions were required to change their purchasing habits, “it would change farming over night in America.”
That might seem like a long shot, but the visionary chef has the ear of some important people in Washington. Waters has spent decades plumping for the White House to plant an organic garden, and in March 2009 First Lady Michelle Obama picked up a shovel, inviting dozens of schoolchildren to help her ready the soil. Two years later, they’ve had three harvests and the garden has grown by 400 square feet. Waters’s next mission? “I’m going to China with a team in November.”
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Dan Barber: Sustainable Science
Somewhat reluctantly, the literate philosopher-chef Dan Barber has become a kitchen celebrity. He’s been lauded with the James Beard award for America’s most outstanding chef, appeared on countless TV shows, given TED talks, and serves on the advisory board of the Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment. His small New York City restaurant, Blue Hill, was the site of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first dinner date after taking office.
Though his day job usually has him behind a hot stove, what gets Barber really fired up is food policy. His flagship restaurant in the rolling hills of the Rockefeller estate just outside Manhattan, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, has become a test bed for a sustainable system of food production, using everything from locally raised animals to vegetables grown just outside the dining room. It’s become a Mecca for foodies and the farm-to-table movement.
But Barber warns not to throw the baby out with the bathwater: “The farm-to-table movement has done an excellent job of calling attention to endangered heirloom varieties and heritage breeds, and for good reason — these varieties are consistently superior in flavor and texture to those bred for industry … the things you find in the center aisle of every supermarket. But in championing only what’s old, we’ve marginalized the development of new varieties with better resilience, improved nutrition, and more exciting culinary properties.”
To many in the locavore movement this would be anathema, but Blue Hill has recently launched a test program with Cornell University to conduct new trials of yet-unnamed breeds of tomatoes, onions, squash, and other vegetables. Call it sustainable science. Barber doesn’t reject the traditions of peasant farming, but seeks to combine ancient techniques and appreciation for land and culture with the possibilities that agricultural engineering provides.
At heart, however, he’s still a chef. “Taste is fundamental,” he says. “Around the world, many people no longer realize what an apple should taste like, because industrial agriculture has prioritized breeds that travel well and look good on supermarket shelves over those that taste good. And it’s up to chefs to remind people how good food should taste and remind them that there are better options.”
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