Hot topic: our fragile food system

Times Staff Writer

WITH all the talk about “sustainable” agriculture, sustainable fishing and sustainable eating, it was remarkable how little agreement there was last week at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s 2nd annual Sustainable Foods Institute about what sustainable actually means.

The daylong symposium gathered 50 food writers and assorted food retailers, farmers, academicians and scientists to discuss the state of the world’s increasingly fragile food system, both terrestrial and aquatic. The goal was to increase awareness of the need for a sustainable food supply.

It sounds simple, but everyone came with his own definition of “sustainable.” Some participants labeled any move toward a more efficient use of resources as sustainable, while others said they believed that nothing short of complete energy self-sufficiency fits the bill. Most people held opinions that fell somewhere in between those extremes.


A detailed guide

UNDOUBTEDLY the most effective program designed to promote the fuzzy concept is the aquarium’s own Seafood Watch Program. The simple pocket guide, also available online, lists which fish are best choices, which are acceptable alternatives, and which should be avoided. A separate, more detailed guide helps chefs connect with fisheries and fishermen who follow good fishing practices. Yet no other programs to help consumers find “sustainable” food were promoted.

The point, however, wasn’t to parse words but to inspire discussion. Startling information -- such as the fact that 90% of the world’s large predatory fish have vanished due to over-fishing -- shared the stage with standard environmental stump speeches on buying organic, buying local, buying less.


Samuel Fromartz, author of “Organic, Inc.,” led a panel on the challenges big corporations face when they embrace organics, and New York University nutritionist and food studies professor Marion Nestle gave a talk about threats to food safety. Dan McGovern, publisher of Sustainable Food News, led a discussion of “food miles” -- a calculation of the environmental cost of transporting food long distances. Los Angeles Times environmental writer Ken Weiss led a discussion of sustainable seafood, and I moderated a “Marketing Sustainable Wines” panel.

“Food is the new social movement,” Nestle said. Health concerns and a newfound appreciation for quality have politicized dinner. “It’s grass-roots democracy,” she said. “The more the public is educated, the better they will be able to make good choices.”

Organic practices are part of the sustainable ideal, according to many of the speakers.

“I want to grow the perfect peach,” said organic farmer David Mas Masumoto. His Sun Crest peaches have been hailed by chefs and food writers. “What is perfection? It is committed to memory. If you don’t have a memory of the flavor of heirloom peaches, how do you know what you are missing?”

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, has started to stock organic produce. Their customers haven’t demanded organics, said Peter Redmond, a Wal-Mart vice president and seafood buyer. But he believes they will.

The company is also instituting its own version of a sustainable seafood program. For instance, Wal-Mart buys 50 million pounds of shrimp per year -- 75% from shrimp farms in Thailand, Redmond said. For 2 cents more per pound than he has been paying he can set standards for how Wal-Mart’s Thai shrimp suppliers operate their farms as well as spot-check to make sure they follow those standards. “And I still have a lower price than our competitors,” he said.

None of the shrimp farms in Thailand, however, meet the aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program’s standards of sustainability.

“We try to influence how the shrimp is produced,” said Redmond. “If we stopped offering shrimp from Thailand we couldn’t influence it at all.”

For food service provider Fedele R. Bauccio, chief executive of Bon Appetit Management Co., sustainability means following the aquarium’s Seafood Watch guidelines. He also insists on free-range poultry and seasonal produce and gives the chefs at the 400 institutions served by his company a free hand to develop their own menus and work directly with local farmers.

But it’s still a work in progress, he pointed out as he picked up a bottle of San Pellegrino water his company was serving at the symposium. Considering the food miles issue, he said he’d stop importing water from Europe as well. “The idea of sustainability has taken on a life of its own,” Bauccio said.

Organic produce that has to be shipped in or local conventionally grown produce: Which is better? McGovern of Sustainable Food News said local trumps everything. “We know that we have a more socially just, economically secure and culturally viable system when we move to a locally based food supply,” he said.


‘Organic’ comes first

NOT so fast, said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. “Organic is the platform,” he said. “Other eco-labels are valid but not enforceable. There are 400 definitions for sustainable.”

Certainly “sustainability fraud” is occurring, said Thomas Tomich, director of UC Davis’ Agricultural Sustainability Institute. “I want there to be science-based standards for ‘sustainable.’ If we don’t move quickly to give it a concrete basis, people are going to become disillusioned.”

“Sustainability is a term like truth or beauty,” said Fred Kirschenmann, a senior fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. “We struggle but never get there.” It means something different to different communities. “When asked if my farm is sustainable, I say, no,” he said. “We’re working on it. I have to keep changing, keep trying new things, keep adjusting.

“Sustainability is not something we can accomplish and be done with it. It is a matter of conscience, a moral commitment to a way to live,” Kirschenmann told the group. Without question, the Earth’s energy supply will dwindle, water resources will shift and the climate will change. “If we are serious about sustainability,” he said, “we’ve got to think about it in [the context of] this future.”

For peach farmer Masumoto, the ultimate definition of sustainability may rest with his daughter, Nikiko, who graduated from UC Berkeley last week. He considers his organic farm to be sustainable because it is in balance with nature as well as being economically balanced. Now Nikiko wants to join him on the peach farm, which means it must grow. “It opens up all sorts of possibilities,” he said. “She is young and naive. That is what you need to be creative, to find new solutions, to find a new sustainable balance.”