ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Notes from the Sustainable Foods Institute - A Shifting Food Suppy

Blue Fin Tuna

For several years now, the Sustainable Foods Institute at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has held a stimulating conference for journalists and food writers in an attractive location -- the aquarium itself.

So while scientists, food industry reps, academics and journalists talk about the future of food,outside the conference room, sea horses bop, sea otters munch and mystical pink jellyfish swirl in their tanks.

There's always a moment when I leave the talk about dwindling fish and the warming global climate and visit a quiet room to watch the giant blue fin tuna. Somehow the discussions about the rapid disappearance of bluefin are all the more meaningful when you actually can marvel at these wondrous creatures swimming about. 

That's really the point of the aquarium -- to communicate what goes on in the invisible oceans so that we understand them a little better. The conference takes this a step further by connecting the impact of farming and fishing, and yes, cooking, on our food supply and natural world.

What struck me about this year's conference was a slight glimmer of hope amid a usually gloomy subject. This note was struck in the opening remarks by Aquarium director Julie Packard, who noted that 37% of all retailers were now avoiding unsustainable fish supplies, up from just 20% a few years ago. This is due, in part, to the aquarium's Seafood Watch program, one of several by reputable organizations.

She also revealed a few tantalizing figures from an upcoming survey of 22,000 consumers which showed that a third - a figure I found surprising - had heard about sustainable seafood. And among those consumers, most “strongly agreed” with the statement “I worry about the future availability of healthy seafood.”

There were other positive tidbits throughout the two-day conference. Earthbound Farm - the largest organic produce company - revealed that 44% of the spring mix salad segment (which includes spring mix, baby spinach, mache, and arugula) was now organic. And that segment is the largest of the salad business itself.

For those fretting about the 3% share of the market held by organic food, and the less than 1% of farmland in organic production, this figure was stunning. Nearly one of every two salad purchases is organic. We always hear that organic is more expensive, less efficient, a luxury, etc., etc., but these arguments miss the cutting edge of the market.

Now in its 25th year, Earthbound and its partners farm 33,000 acres, a part of it in the Salinas Valley near the Monterey Bay. By farming organically, they avoid applying hundreds of thousands of pounds of pesticides and millions of pounds of fertilizers, much of which ends up in streams and the sea. The fish are clearly better off. So are the people who work in these fields. Locavores might frown, but for the supermarket shopper the company is bringing an organic choice to the table.

Finally, in a discussion about humane animal production, Tim Amway of the American Humane Association said he expected 35% of all livestock operations to be certified humane in the foreseeable future, based on business in the pipeline. Now only 3% are certified. Now we can quibble about which certification regime makes the most sense, but nonetheless this figure was startling. More than a third!

What these figures show is that markets can change. But consumers and companies -- both pushing and pulling -- have to make the right choices. And if they do, we're all better off.

- Samuel Fromartz