On Food and Conservation: A Reflection : New Worlder

Two and a half years ago, the Wildlife Conservation Society embarked upon a partnership with New Worlder to explore connections between conservation and gastronomy throughout the Americas. As a conservation non-profit organization working in 15 countries across this region, we believe that food is a delicious medium through which to convey the value and importance of preserving nature. In writing about food and foodways, we would be writing about the wildlife and wild places that my colleagues and I work to save. This column marks the final installment in our WCS series.

Throughout our collaboration, we told conservation stories from around the Americas, both in-depth explorations of food and nature, and the intersection of food and cultural identity. We reported from the Amazon and the Arctic, the Rocky Mountains and the Paraguayan Chaco, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef and the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands, the Yukon and the Adirondacks.

In the Amazon, we documented culinary expeditions to remote national parks and indigenous lands in Bolivia and Peru where native peoples are conserving huge swaths of tropical forests. Our community partners are rooted in traditional knowledge and use of uncounted plant and animal species, both wild and cultivated. On a series of “gastronomic expeditions,” our scientists and indigenous conservation partners were accompanied by some of Latin America’s best chefs, keen to discover and interpret novel ingredients from the remote regions where we work. These culinary stars, in creating new dishes and beverages with unfamiliar ingredients, are redefining national cuisines. In doing so, they are creating new culinary identities in cities like Lima and La Paz, giving value to the act of conservation, and creating new incentives to culturally resonant food that supports local communities.

In the Far North, subsistence hunting and fishing practices represent the original nose-to-tail style of eating. In the Arctic and the Yukon, traditional knowledge and technology are handed down from generation to generation, fish and game are shared communally, and no animal parts — even caribou heads and shins — are wasted. These practices continue even as new tools, such as power-driver ice augurs and modern kitchen equipment, are incorporated. Far to the south, innovations in fishing management and gear, whether at artisanal scale as in Belize or in the industrial fishing fleet of the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands, demonstrate respect for the health of fish stocks and the importance of building awareness and markets for sustainably harvested fish. In some contexts, a certification seal helps, while in others, awareness is raised through hyper-local communication channels (in Belize, a soap-opera style radio show) to engage local restaurants and diners. Similarly, new ranching practices in deeply traditional ranching cultures, such as those found in Montana and Paraguay, demonstrate that where a sense of stewardship of nature and culture exists, cattle production and wildlife can coexist if respect for the values that open space provides simultaneously for people, for wildlife, and for livestock is shown.

Our inaugural column, titled On Food and Conservation, explored individual food choices as a manifestation of a personal commitment to environmental sustainability. As the column’s author, I sought to define some basic principles for eating sustainably and aligning one’s environmental values with one’s dining habits. I started with the myriad variables you could prioritize – say, minimizing the carbon footprint of food or the chemical pesticide and fertilizer load it represents. Or supporting local farmers and the open space provided by farmland. Or the humane treatment of livestock. Or the avoidance of food waste or fish from crashing fisheries. And I came up with a couple of basic principles for choosing off of a restaurant menu or in a grocery store, such as selecting foods that you know are sourced sustainably, and choosing foods from production systems that won’t harm wildlife or degrade wild habitat. Finally, I talked about my own idiosyncratic culinary choices, which include not eating meat, trusting in certain certification labels for sustainable sourcing, buying as local as possible, and avoiding causing pain to animals.

Now, as we close the series, it seems an opportune time to look back on where we traveled and what we experienced in order to revisit our definition of conservation-friendly food. While I believe we laid out good principles from the start, in re-reading the columns contributed by my colleagues throughout the Americas, I see several themes and fundamental principles that help expand our concept of sustainable gastronomy.

First is respect for working lands and the labor of food producers. Ranches, farms, and indeed the seas provide vital open space for wildlife, but can only be maintained if ranchers, farmers, and fishers are incentivized to practice a food production that is compatible with conservation. It is costly and effortful to produce food in a way that doesn’t maximize the take and leaves something – food in the ocean or habitat in the fields – for wildlife. This means that we may need to pay more for what they produce – the grass-fed and finished beef, the organic grains, fruits, and vegetables, the fish carefully caught with special gear. Whether a Montana rancher, a small farmer in the Adirondacks, or an artisanal fisherwoman in Belize, there is effort involved and labor, a personal investment of time, that should be respected and valorized.

Second is the celebration of community identity, whether old or new. Through our articles, it becomes clear that so much of cultural identity is formed through food – both the practices involved in producing the raw ingredients and the acts of cooking, eating and sharing these foods. This is as striking for an urban Paraguayan sitting down to a social asado on a Sunday as it is for a Native Alaskan bringing home sheefish for the community elders. Conserving foodways, then, isn’t just about respecting what nature provides (sea ice, Chacoan grasslands) – it is also about respecting cultural identity. And often, as in the Falklands/Malvinas where one finds Patagonian toothfish on a plate of fish and chips, ancient ingredients are being reinterpreted in the hands of urban chefs into a new kind of fusion cuisine.

Third is the critical importance of traditional foods and foodways to nutrition, health and food security — both our own and that of traditional communities. Eating foods such as quinoa or bison, high in healthy fats or amino acids and lacking additives, isn’t just healthy for the folks that consume them. Yes, we urban dwellers can also choose to eat bison, recognizing that in doing so we are incentivizing the preservation of the open-range lands that support these keystone grazers. But we can also choose healthy eating indirectly by choosing, for example, to support actions to combat climate change protecting the sea ice that enables Arctic fishers to continue their practices and, thus, their own food security, or by supporting conservation actions that enable Andean communities to continue to farm native tubers or quinoa, rather than abandoning their altiplano farms to work an oil field or a coca plantation.

Fourth is inclusion, by which I mean both ensuring that conservation-friendly food is widely accessible in terms of both price and culinary setting, and also engaging diverse audiences, particularly urban diners in cities that drive food trends, to participate in choosing sustainable foods. I wrote about price accessibility and “authentic” dining experiences in my story on Asheville, North Carolina, but the issue of engaging a broad audience in support of conservation-friendly eating is pivotal in all our Amazon Rainforest stories as well, where support among the city dwellers of La Paz and Lima is crucial to conservation success. And indeed this was the overarching purpose of our column — the desire to reach urban readers and eaters – with our message about eating to save the planet.

Finally, there is shared stewardship and the collective commitment to sustainable food production and consumption in a world where maximizing uniformity, efficiency and volume is the norm. In nearly every article – from the Arctic through the Rockies to the farthest reaches of South America, the importance of finding a steady market for conservation-friendly foods, a buyer willing to be patient with traditional production methods, to accept lower quantities, to see seasonally fluctuating production as a defining characteristic of environment and place rather than an inconvenience to an anonymous commodity market, comes through. Conservation foods require a buyer who understands and values uniqueness rather than standardization, and is willing to invest in supporting small producers, often with limited means or technical capacity, to continue to produce. Those of us who eat this way should see ourselves as investors in a different kind of food system and we should see ourselves as being in a relationship with those who take time and effort to steward the lands and waters that produce the foods we eat.

As we conclude this series on food and conservation, we have seen throughout our work in the Americas that no matter where we land, healthy wildlife equals healthy lands equals healthy people. Eating well for the planet is not just an optional conservation action meant for the sliver of society that considers itself to be environmentalist. Rather, taking time to learn about the origins of your food, to do a quick a calculation of the chemical load or carbon footprint of what you are about to eat, to give thought to who and how it was produced, is also an act of creating culture. Food is nature and culture both. And in this sense, every one of us is a conservationist.