On Food & Conservation

Last month I was in San Francisco at a brand new restaurant called The Perennial. I’d seen it previewed on Eater and was intrigued by its overt manifesto of “progressive agrarian cuisine” – what reporter Andrew Dalton described as “a platform for experimentation in service of a new food system that could ultimately begin reversing climate change, and do it all without sacrificing the diner’s experience.”

I enjoyed my meal, which included celeriac gnocchi with chicories and house-made ricotta, but I enjoyed more my brief conversation with The Perennial’s co-owner, Karen Leibowitz, who stopped by my table for a chat. I asked Karen about her priorities in terms of The Perennial’s sustainability credentials, and I confess that her answer surprised me. Not because I don’t agree with what she said or the values she represented (I do), but because it crystallized for me how personal people’s individual commitments to environmental sustainability are, and how idiosyncratic our resulting food choices can be.

Karen explained several of The Perennial’s priorities for sustainable operation, like energy efficiency in the kitchen and whole-animal butchering to encourage nose-to-tail eating. Perhaps the component that intrigued me the most was a bar program designed to reduce ice use – and hence, water consumption. These elements are part of a coherent philosophy based in reducing the restaurant’s carbon footprint. As a restaurateur, she was thinking about this from a completely different angle then I was, as a conservationist who directs the Americas programs at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

What does it really mean to eat sustainably, if you want to align your personal environmental values with good eating? Especially for those of us who adore the culinary pleasures of dining out, it sometimes seems impossible to choose from a restaurant’s menu in a way that reflects an environmental commitment. Among the many lenses you could choose in order to read that menu are ones that magnify concerns about carbon footprint, about use of pesticides and fertilizers, about deforestation, about food waste, about crashing fish stocks, and about the inhumane treatment of livestock. And there are others. It’s not possible to maximize responses to all these concerns at the same time. It’s also not easy to tell which menu choice (or purchase choice in a grocery) best responds to the concern, or combination of concerns, any one eater chooses to prioritize. But many of us feel strongly that we should try, and in the trying, we should identify which personally held environmental values inform our food choices, knowing others will make other choices.

What does it really mean to eat sustainably, if you want to align your personal environmental values with good eating?

The salmon seems less damaging than the steak (all that methane and deforestation), but only if it’s wild caught and not over-fished. Is it? Even if it is, aren’t we really supposed to be eating further down the food chain, and not fishing out the top piscine predators for our eating pleasure? The quinoa risotto seems like a wholesome natural choice, but does it actually mean that the grain I’m eating comes out of the mouths of an impoverished family in the Andes, who no longer can afford to buy it because the price has skyrocketed along with quinoa’s popularity? Certainly the organic tomato salad should be a winner, but what if the organic tomatoes are imported from Mexico because it’s winter in New York? Does the fact of their being organic trump the carbon footprint of their journey from Mexico? It’s enough to cause a diner to throw up her hands and order Chinese delivery.

What drives my own philosophy of environmental commitment as expressed through eating?  Considering my work at WCS, a 120-year old conservation organization whose mission is to save wildlife and wild places worldwide, it’s perhaps then no surprise that my own personal, admittedly idiosyncratic food values are driven by two basic rules: I am committed to foods that are 1) ranched, farmed, fished, collected or otherwise sourced sustainably; and 2) produced or procured in a way that does not harm wildlife or wildlife habitat.

What does this mean my food and dining choices look like in practice?  Four things, essentially.

First, I don’t eat meat. No matter how you come at it, eating beef or other kinds of meat is one of the least environmentally sound choices one can make. Care about tropical deforestation and loss of wildlife habitat? Terrible choice. Care about climate change driven by carbon emissions from burning forests or methane emissions from cattle? Terrible choice. Care that vast monocultures of corn and soy for animal feed are replacing native prairies and forests? Resulting loss of bees, birds, and other pollinators? Dead zones from all that pesticide and fertilizer runoff? Terrible choice. Terrible choice. Terrible choice.

Second, as much as possible, my fruits, vegetables, eggs, and milk are organic and/or local.  Organic to avoid chemicals and local to avoid the climate emissions involved in food transport. This ensures transparency in farming practices and supports farmers creating a local foodshed.  My husband and I grow most of the greens, peppers, and herbs we eat in our backyard garden and we belong to a CSA that fills in the rest of what we need. We also get our eggs (cage-free) from the CSA and our milk delivered by a local dairy. In fact, the dairy is not certified organic, but follows strict sustainability and animal treatment practices, including a totally transparent production chain complete with onsite dairy and non-GMO feed to complement pasture grass in a “free-choice” feeding system.

Third, my fish and shellfish are certified as sustainably harvested by someone I trust. In the grocery store, I buy from MSC-certified fisheries or at the very least those that are labeled green or yellow (never red) at the Whole Foods fish counter. I’m also the one in the sushi restaurant furtively checking the Seafood Watch app on my phone under the table to evaluate each of my potential nigiri selections (usually, slim pickings in the “best choice” category).

Sadly, it’s getting harder and harder to choose good fish, as most of the world’s fisheries are dramatically fished out with many near collapse. I don’t, for example, buy even certified Chilean sea bass because globally the species is in serious peril. These days I try to buy more fish from lower down the food chain (fewer top predators and more of the less popular fish, like sardines and mackerel). It would be great to see more of these options on menus, instead of the usual tuna, salmon, and swordfish, a point Dan Barber emphasizes in his excellent book, The Third Plate. And I would never buy tuna that didn’t avoid dolphin bycatch.

Fourth, I try not to eat animals that would feel pain or fear in the killing process. As one slightly unusual example of this rule, I no longer eat octopus. This was a hard decision, because honestly, I really love octopus. Avoiding those yummy tapas plates of grilled octopus with fruity olive oil and pimentón on a recent trip to Barcelona was not easy. But I’ve decided I can’t do it – octopi are really smart animals, they react to human interactions, and they’re clever about problem solving.

When I was 22, I was a docent in the invertebrate exhibit at the National Zoo in Washington, and one of my tasks was to feed the octopus. We did this not just by dumping food into the tank, but by providing some mental stimulation for the animal. Sometimes this meant placing pieces of fish or shrimp into glass jars with screw-on lids. The octopus was incredibly dexterous at discovering the jar, figuring out how to access the food inside, and using its arms to unscrew the top to extract its meal. It was fascinating and beautiful to watch. So now I feel I can’t eat them.

This last point illustrates that while all the environmental arguments resonate strongly for me, so do the animal welfare arguments, with concern for the humane treatment of both livestock (more typical) and for wildlife (given my profession).

Fifteen years ago I was traveling in Bali when I passed a motorcycle on the road. It had a large basket strapped to the back and inside the basket was a pig, being transported to market. And the pig looked frightened – he knew what was happening. I decided in that moment that I could no longer eat mammals – they feel pain and fear, and I didn’t want to be a part of that. I haven’t eaten a piece of meat since that Bali trip.

What if the organic tomatoes are imported from Mexico because it’s winter in New York? Does the fact of their being organic trump the carbon footprint of their journey from Mexico?

This is also why I don’t eat hunted meat, even though it avoids most of the negative environmental impacts that trouble me about livestock. I think I’m the only person I’ve ever met who explains her version of vegetarianism by saying “I don’t eat mammals.” That’s probably something only a wildlife conservationist would ever say.

For many of my Latin American colleagues in conservation, meat is a central part of their cultural identity and culinary traditions – just try telling an Argentine not to eat asado. But one of these same colleagues absolutely refuses to eat tuna, since it’s both an apex marine predator and because nearly every tuna fishery worldwide is highly unsustainable. I respect his values, and they confirm again that there is no single route towards conscientious eating (I wrote this sentence while eating a sandwich from Pret a Manger made of pole-and-line caught tuna).  The important thing is that each of us reflects on what impact we want to have in the world, both positive and negative, and ensure that our food choices, whether dining out or cooking at home, support this as best they can.

In the end, there are myriad reasons to eat in a more environmentally conscious way, and depending on your personal values and beliefs, you can put together a diet that feels morally consonant for you. The Perennial is an example of a new type of restaurant, one that has done comprehensive thinking about the set of environmental values that inform the food and drink they want to serve their diners, and everything from their kitchen to their bar program to their décor to their menu reflects this.  A diner for whom those values resonates feels really good about eating there.

This is my inaugural column for New Worlder. Going forward, I’ll be writing regularly on the intersection of food and conservation in the Americas from a very personal perspective. I’ll be sharing stories from my travels as I do my work for WCS in countries ranging from Canada to Chile. I’ll be discussing the rising popularity of star chefs and the related growing culinary consciousness throughout Latin America, and what that might mean for creation of a more sustainable gastronomy in the Americas. And I’ll be exploring the themes of food, cultural identity, and sustainability throughout the region, drawing from my training as an anthropologist, my professional role as a wildlife conservationist, and my personal passion for good food, dining out, and cooking. I’ll be joined regularly by my colleagues working in the field on behalf of wildlife conservation, who will provide first-person accounts of their work.

As I’ve described here, my personal food and dining values are driven by love of and respect for animals, both wild and domestic – one of myriad ways of being thoughtful about the links between food and conservation. And in being thoughtful, environmental sustainability can be a delicious choice.

Illustration generously provided by Anna Koska.

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