Simran Sethi quit a job she “couldn’t get fired from” – tenured associate professor – to follow her bliss: food. “I am someone who is quite interested in what I eat, how I eat and eating well,” she admits.
“Once I understood that every element that makes food and agriculture possible was being compromised - the loss of agricultural biodiversity in the soil, the seed, the pollinators, plants, animal, aquatic life - I realized that this was a story I had to tell.”
Sethi embarked on a five-year, six-continent journey to track down and understand our food sources. She documents her quest in the book Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love. Sethi joined two other professional foodies at The Commonwealth Club to talk about how growing, distributing and preparing the foods we love affects our planet.
Helene York paired her love of good food with a background in business and environmental science for her first job at Bon Appétit: educating their chefs on the link between food choices and the sustainability movement. “I'm really interested in the relationships and building partnerships,” she says. “It seems to me there’s this extraordinary divide between urban people and rural people who actually grow our food.”
York hopes that, in working with the chefs at Bon Appétit, the notion of food awareness will be imparted to customers as well. “What I really want to have happen is that the chefs get their eaters excited about things…and then they go to their supermarkets or their farmers markets and they asked for those products.”
But the road to change doesn’t end there, she warns. “It’s not just okay if you go to a farmers market looking for those things…I’m talking about systemic change; you gotta go to the supermarkets and you gotta ask for those things.”
Jonathan Foley, an environmental scientist, has worked on a number of global environmental issues: climate change, water scarcity, biodiversity. “Kind of all these doom and gloom issues, right?” he smiles. “And one thing that kept on popping up every single time was the importance of the food system as the biggest culprit in the environment.”
Foley cites climate change as a prime example. Somewhere around 25% of climate emissions we cause come from agricultural uses, he says. “That's bigger than any of the individual energy sectors. It’s bigger than all the world's electricity, all the transportation in the world, all the manufacturing; you name it.
“So no matter where you look around the planet, agriculture is kind of the biggest thing this planet has been hit by since the last Ice Age,” Foley continues. “And we don't really think about it that way…we really do need to.”
Getting people to connect the dots between food and the environment may be one way to engage them in the climate change fight, suggests Sethi, starting with that morning cup of coffee. “We do this one cup at a time, one glass at a time, one decision at a time.
“I don’t have an emotional connection with the electrical grid. But I can tell you about the foods I ate. And that will connect me back to you…I believe this is the pathway to change.”
Foley authored a National Geographic article detailing the problem of worldwide food shortages. As countries like India, China and Brazil have risen out of poverty and developed a global middle class, he says, they’re following the lead of Western countries by demanding more meat, dairy and “a lot more other things that probably aren’t very good for us - and certainly not good for the planet.”
“I like to look at food at the ratio of good that it does for the world. What nutritional value did it give you? What jobs did it create? What culture did it enhance -- divided by the environmental and social harms that it might have caused all the way through its supply chain?” Asking those questions is one way to ensure that we make the healthiest food choices, not only for ourselves but for the rest of the world.
Sethi points out that, ironically, one person in eight in the U.S. is hungry; meanwhile “we’re throwing 40% of our food away. These [are] things that we really need to understand and try to grapple with in a way that that brings more people to the table …what we have an absence of is justice and equity.
“It’s not that we can't feed people,” she continues. “It’s that people, some of the poorest people in the world ironically, are smallholder farmers. We don’t have enough money to buy this food. And that’s where the problem is.”
Jonathan Foley: A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World
Simran Sethi: Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love