Bring Sustainable Gastronomy to Your Kitchen
In recent years, many prominent chefs and food writers have become rightfully concerned with the environmental impacts of the food on our plates. Agriculture is a major driver of deforestation, species and habitat loss, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Yet growing more food is also key to feeding a world going on 9 billion people. How can we meet growing food demand while lowering the environmental impact of our diets?
Sustainable Gastronomy features ingredients that are efficient, innovative, and technological: the kinds of ingredients that can scale up to feed a growing global population that will be eating higher on the food chain as billions of people make the transition from subsistence poverty to modern living standards.
We’ve researched and compiled a guide specifically for chefs about the qualities that define environmentally forward-looking foods.
Note that we don’t receive sponsorship or support from any companies or industries.
Improvements in the productivity of crops and livestock have led to lower levels of water, land, and fertilizer use, as well as lower greenhouse gas emissions per pound of food produced. Growing salad greens and herbs indoors has far greater yields than outdoors and uses a fraction of the water and fertilizer normally required. Even intensive grain-finished beef production has environmental benefits; fattening cows on feedlots makes them grow faster, emit less methane, and use far less land than keeping them on pasture. The preference among many for low productivity food systems - small farms with lower yields and extensive livestock systems - is not a pathway to sustainability. Rather, high productivity, intensive food systems which get as much food output for every unit of land, water and chemical input will almost always outperform less efficient extensive food systems by almost all quantifiable sustainability metrics.
The history of agriculture is largely one of technological innovation and development. From domestication of ancient grains to genetic engineering, farmers, breeders, and scientists have continually made crops more productive, more hardy, and less resource-intensive.
Today, cutting-edge methods, such as gene silencing, are used to develop crops like the Arctic Apple and the White Russet Potato. These were developed to reduce browning and bruising, and have the potential to significantly reduce food waste and hence the amount of resources needed to grow crops. Other modern breeding methods have been used to create Bt Sweet Corn, which allows farmers to apply far fewer insecticides. Mostly, these innovations have been deployed in service of reducing costly inputs and food losses for farmers and food processors. But there is no reason to stop there. Biotechnology and other new innovations might equally be utilized to improve the culinary qualities of these ingredients.
Developing replacements for environmentally harmful foods is key to many wildlife conservation and environmental efforts. Few of us eat wild game anymore, which has allowed large populations of deer, elk, even buffalo to recover in the United States. Where impoverished communities still depend on hunting for food, wild animals are frequently hunted to extirpation or extinction. Domesticated livestock have substituted for wild animals as a source of protein in most parts of the world. Farmed fish are relieving pressure on wild fisheries in many places. Substitution between domesticated sources of protein can also bring large environmental benefits - shifting from eating beef to chicken, for instance, can cut greenhouse gas emissions more than almost any other dietary choice.
Entrepreneurs continue to develop environmentally beneficial substitutes today, and these efforts are important to support. Advanced aquaculture systems, such as raising shrimp and sturgeon in tanks and ponds or kampachi in deep-ocean pens, take pressure off of wild fish stocks while avoiding the environmental downsides of conventional commercial fish farms. A new wave of start-ups is trying to entirely eliminate the need for fish and other animals. Some are perfecting plant-based meats; others are culturing meat and even milk that are molecularly identical to the real thing. But they all are on the cutting edge, developing substitutes that dramatically reduce environmental and wildlife impacts.
Scale and Precision
Large-scale food production enables remarkable efficiencies. Big agricultural producers are able to invest in technologies that would be too expensive for many small operations to adopt: tractors that apply the precise amount of fertilizer that plants need, drip-irrigation systems that cut water use, and machinery that turns animal manure from a source of pollution to a source of clean energy. California rice, for instance, is grown on large fields that are laser-leveled and often planted by airplane. The scale and technology involved makes the rice more productive than rice from nearly any other region, with correspondingly low greenhouse gas emissions. The average supermarket tomato is also produced on large California farms, where most growers use drip irrigation, and use less land and emit fewer greenhouse gas than other growers.