Postcard from the Sustainable Foods Institute in Monterey


I’m here in Monterey for the Sustainable Foods Institute, which the Monterey Bay Aquarium (creator of the Seafood Watch pocket guide) puts on for members of the media before its monster Cheffapalooza event this weekend, Cooking for Solutions. This year there are two full days of programs about issues in sustainable food, farming, and aquaculture, and how the media can help move those issues deeper into the culinary mainstream. And when I say “full,” I mean full. Breakfast was at 7:30 this morning, followed by five panels, four keynote speeches, and minimal breaks for snacks and lunch until 5:30. There are some seriously smart heavy-hitters here, and the information overload can be a little daunting.

(For a sample of the data deluge, check out the live brain-dumping I and several others were doing all day long on Twitter under the search term #sfi09. I’m not here to convince you to follow me or to Tweet. But if you want to, or just want to know what the heck I’m talking about, here’s a good beginner’s guide to Twitter. Think of it like the chat rooms of the olden Internet days: the signal-to-noise ration is high, but if you use apps like Tweetdeck to filter it, some of the signals are worth receiving.)

Just like last year, much of the conference is devoted to attempting to define “sustainability” and how to label it, measure it, explain it, and defend it from companies that would co-opt the term. (I wrote a long post last year about the conversation I had here with Leopold Center fellow Fred Kirschenmann about it.) Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute and a hero to many here (including me), said in his fantastic keynote this morning that “Sustainability is a value term, like justice and health. You cannot define it and you cannot find a perfect example.” He didn’t mean that one shouldn’t attempt to do either, however; just that like other value terms, sustainability is a moving target, and historically, those who care about such terms have had to defend them. On the simplest level, sustainability is about “living within our means,” Jackson said. The best examples of this can be found in nature’s ecosystems — like rain forests, deserts, and prairies — that feature material recycling and run on sunlight.

What about humankind? Well, we were kind of ejected from the sustainability Eden when we stopped being hunters and gatherers. Basically, it’s all been downhill since we invented agriculture.

But it’s gone much faster downhill since we discovered how to convert nitrogen into ammonia in 1909. Jackson called the Haber-Bosch nitrogen-fixing process the most important discovery of the 20th century, and said 40% of humanity wouldn’t be here now if we hadn’t figured out how to convert natural gas into fertilizer, which we started applying to fields in great earnest in 1948 — and commodity grain fields in particular. By way of contrast, Jackson showed a painting by 16th century painter Peter Breugel the Elder, called “The Harvest” (above), which depicts a far different form and scale of agriculture than what we’ve become used to. Among other things, Jackson used the painting as a jumping-off point for discussing the unsustainability of the world’s reliance on fertilizer- and water-intensive and grains.

And that was all just in the first 30 minutes — the tip of today’s (rapidly melting) iceberg. I hope to write more over the next few days, once I’ve had a chance to process mentally. However, I know from experience that the road to blogging hell is paved with the good intentions professed at interesting conferences. Rebecca Gerendasy from the outstanding food-politics multimedia site Cooking Up a Story is here too and filming, so watch her site for videos of some of the talks.

2 Responsesto “Postcard from the Sustainable Foods Institute in Monterey”

  1. Christina Viering says:

    Good idea!

  2. “we were kind of ejected from the sustainability Eden when we stopped being hunters and gatherers. Basically, it’s all been downhill since we invented agriculture.”

    I disagree with that. As hunter/gatherers people have stripped the land and driven species to extinction quite a few times in recorded and prehistoric times. Careful not to over romanticize. Having done both, I find agriculture far easier and it can be done very sustainably. Of course, I’m not talking about CAFOs, mega farms and all of that. Different topic.