Eating their words

On the importance of getting personal with your food

William Emery, author of Edges of Bounty. Real food doesn't often compete with the delicious paper-and-ink smell of bookstores, but last Saturday, chefs, farmers, photographers, and writers filled Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company with their wares: two appetizing reads. The back-to-back book events featured the authors of Chefs on the Farm and Edges of Bounty. One lesson I walked away with that day was that food is only as good as the relationships on which it's based. These relationships can be between soil and seed, eater and herb, farmer and goat, or even you and your neighbors. Both books' authors reinforced this idea and went on to suggest that diverse, well-tended, and personal relationships produce the best meals and the best stories.

The crop-diversity crisis

By naming the root cause behind food crises, we stand a chance at solving them

This is a guest post by Cary Fowler, executive director of the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust and co-author of Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity. ----- Southern Africa, 2030. A throng of emaciated people waits for food rations to arrive. The maize crop has failed, devastated by hot weather and drought. Yet again. A "food crisis?" Yes. That's what we'll call it in 22 years. But not today. If we want to do something about future food crises, we should name them today, and name them properly. Problems unnamed or improperly named are problems left unsolved. In many cases, what we call food crises are more precisely thought of as crop-diversity crises. That's what history's most famous "food crisis" -- the Irish potato famine -- really was. A paper recently published Science -- abstract here -- by a group of scholars with whom the Crop Diversity Trust collaborates, predicts a drop in maize (corn) yields of 30 percent in southern Africa by 2030 as a result of climate change, unless new climate-ready varieties of maize are developed. A huge drop in production of the region's most important food crop will bring instant famine.

Fish stories

Impressions from the Seafood Summit in San Diego

My plunge into the complex world of sea stewardship has been invigorating but also overwhelming. I find myself among literally hundreds of people who know various aspects of the topic intimately. My mind buzzes with ideas to develop and questions to ask -- more than can be done in the span of a few days. I'll be developing Grist's coverage of the impacts and potential of seafood production over the next weeks. In the meantime, here are some impressions:

So sushi me

A new sustainable sushi book, restaurant, and debate

Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time, the definitive guide to sustainable sushi, was written by Casson Trenor, alum of the International Environmental Policy Program at the Monterey Institute. What I particularly like about this volume is that Casson outlines vegetarian alternatives to fish at the end of the book, since as he freely admits, not eating fish is one of the best ways to protect the oceans. Casson is not only spreading the printed word, but also walking the walk by putting all of his knowledge into practice at his new sushi and sake bar Tataki Sushi in San Francisco -- the world's first sustainable sushi restaurant. It has garnered rave reviews and has been nominated for the city's No. 1 sushi restaurant. He is constantly updating the menu to keep pace with developments in science, policy, and business practices. And for anyone who can make it to Monterey, Calif. on Feb. 19, Casson along with Kim McCoy of Seashepherd (and the star of the show Whale Wars), Stanford PhD student Dane Klinger, and myself will be participating in a debate entitled, "Seafood sustainability: Is it real and is it enough?" Info here.

Don't eat the wildlife

New travel and cooking shows valorize the very practices destroying frogs and other living things

Remember when food shows were about cooking stuff? Now we have shows featuring guys who travel the world stuffing food in their pie holes just so they can tell us how it tastes (usually while the food is still in their mouths). You just can't get a fresher description than that. Because we can only eat so much, we can now entertain ourselves between meals by watching other people eat. The latest incarnation is the Man V. Food show where Adam Richman runs around the country trying to eat the ubiquitous gargantuan promotional meals offered by so many restaurants, which include everything from a seven-pound monster breakfast burrito to an eleven-pound pizza (which was barfed back up). One show I find particularly irritating is the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, who for some reason reminds me of a turtle. He eats a lot of wildlife, which can't help but fan the flames of the growing wild food trade that's consuming biodiversity. From a recent NYT opinion piece: As global wealth rises, so does global consumption of meat, which includes wild meat. Turtle meat used to be a rare delicacy in the Asian diet, but no longer. China, along with Hong Kong and Taiwan, has vacuumed the wild turtles out of most of Southeast Asia. Now, according to a recent report in The Los Angeles Times, they are consuming common soft-shell turtles from the American Southeast, especially Florida, at an alarming rate. Here he is eating a still beating frog heart:

Free corn!

Denny's serves up a plate of petroleum

The millions of Americans (Grist included!) glued to their TVs Sunday for Super Bowl XLIII got a personal invite from fast food chain Denny's to swing by any of its 2,500 U.S. locations this morning for a free "Grand Slam" breakfast -- two eggs, two sausages, two slices of bacon, two pancakes (a whopping 800 calories).

Food reform, meet climate change

True agricultural policy reform may require climate reform first

I'm becoming more and more convinced every day that addressing climate change and reforming food production are pretty much the same thing. You can't do one without the other. And -- as Yogi Berra might say -- vice versa. The food and agriculture industries, aided and abetted by governments worldwide (not to mention by consumers), have succeeded in offloading just about all external costs involved with feeding us. Environmental issues, public health issues, natural resource utilization issues, even most economic issues related to food have all been socialized to the extent that the industry is almost totally isolated from the societal consequences of its actions. Until now, few have complained, as this system has led to ever lower food prices in the developed world and thriving export markets in the developing world. But the costs, which for 60 years or so seemed to have been pushed back beyond the horizon, are beginning to loom. Many of us have high hopes that the new administration can make serious progress on reform, but it's important to focus on how serious the challenge before us actually is. In this way, it's like the global warming debate back in the '90s. The science was pretty clear even then. There were visionaries like NASA's James Hansen and, yes, Al Gore, who understood that we needed to act. But for most Americans, hearing about climate change in the '90s was like being reminded to carry an umbrella on a sunny day. Where exactly were the portents of doom?

Me, at the Seafood Summit

Taking a dive into the murky future of extracting food from the troubled sea

In my work on food and agriculture, I've focused nearly 100 percent on land-based issues. But the earth's vast and gaping oceans have always been a major source for human nutrition -- and will be only more so as population grows over the next decades. No one who writes on intersections between food and ecology can ignore the seas. I need to educate myself. With that in mind, I'm currently attending the Seafood Summit, a confab sponsored by a combination of NGOs (e.g., Marine Stewardship Council), foundations (e.g., Packard), and corporate interests (e.g., Darden, which owns Red Lobster and other restaurant chains). The hottest topic here is aquaculture -- a truly new practice with a history of around 50 years, compared with agriculture's 10,000-year track record. The question isn't whether aquaculture will continue to grow explosively over the next decades; the question is whether it will mimic the blunders of land-based industrial agriculture, or move in more sustainable directions. Look for my seafood-ish posts over the next couple of days.

Bean town

Seattle museum opens coffee exhibit, downs third cup of the day

Photos by Andrew Waits. Coffee culture is king in Seattle. Whether it's because of the eternally gray weather, the cool, rainy climate, or our inability to socialize outside a dimly lit café, there's no denying the importance of the caffeine bean in a Seattleite's daily life. And certainly we've earned our rep as a highly caffeinated metropolis, with more coffee shops per capita than anywhere else in the country -- many of them artisanal roasters selling specialty coffees. But the story of your steamy mug of joe doesn't begin and end with a moody barista. In fact, it probably started in the hands of someone like Edwin Martinez, a third generation coffee grower who has been picking coffee beans in Guatemala with his family since he was a young boy. From there, they may have passed through a co-op set up to help small farmers process and market their beans. Then they'll move on to someone like David Griswold, the founder of Sustainable Harvest, a specialty coffee importer who bridges connections between the farmers in tropical coffee-growing nations and the roasters in, say, Seattle. The roasting process will awaken the coffee beans' complex aromas and flavors -- and they'll soon be passed from barista to half-awake patron. And though you might be sipping on a half-caf soy latte with sugar-free vanilla syrup, you've really got the whole world in your cup. It's this story that a new exhibit at Seattle's Burke Museum aims to tell. Opening weekend of Coffee: The World in Your Cup featured exhibit tours, coffee tastings, and informative talks by Martinez, Griswold, and University of Washington professor Max Savishinsky. "We're really putting a huge topic in a small space," said Education Director Diane Quinn.