Sunday, April 22nd, marked nearly 50 years since millions of people gathered for the first Earth Day. Their celebration raised awareness in the US and across the globe of modern environmental threats, including those posed by agriculture. Just one year later, Frances Moore Lappé published Diet for a Small Planet, one of the first books advocating that people adopt vegetarian diets for environmental reasons.
Since then, thought leaders such as writer Michael Pollan and chef Alice Waters have carried the torch forward, diagnosing the ills of our food system. US agriculture generates as much greenhouse gas as all of Britain. Excess farm nutrients pollute rivers, lakes, and coastal areas such as the Gulf of Mexico to the point that fish can’t survive. And pesticide use harms farmworkers, children, and wildlife.
The solutions, according to many advocates, lie in cutting back on modern indulgences and supporting alternatives to the conventional food system. These include buying food from local farmers, shopping organic, eating less meat or at least eating free-range meat, and avoiding processed foods. One of the most well-known rules of thumb in this school of thought is, as Pollan writes, to eat only what your great-grandmother would recognize as food.
While these recommendations have merit, and certainly intuitive appeal for many, the reality of sustainability is far more complicated. For instance, locally produced food often has a greater environmental footprint than imported food. Organic farming typically requires more land use and contributes more to nutrient pollution of water bodies. Most free-range beef emits substantially more greenhouse gas emissions than beef from a feedlot, or factory farm as it’s commonly called. And many types of food processing have reduced food waste by increasing shelf life — just think of how long a bag of frozen fruit or loaf of sliced bread lasts.
Recent research into sustainable agriculture has given rise to a new paradigm. I call it Ecomodern Eating. Ecomodern Eating challenges many widespread assumptions, highlighting the importance of agricultural productivity and innovation in building an eco-friendly and delicious food future.
Historically, increasing agricultural productivity has been key to growing more environmentally friendly food. Advances in livestock production, such as nutritionally-optimized feed, have enabled North American chicken, beef, and dairy producers to emit less greenhouse gas emissions per pound of meat, eggs, or milk produced than most other regions in the world.
The same is true in crop production: the high levels of productivity and efficiency often derisively likened to industrial production has enabled North American crop production to emit less greenhouse gases per unit calorie than any other part of the world.
Agricultural productivity continues to advance and drive sustainability forward. A suite of new “precision agriculture” technologies such as GPS-driven tractors and drone imagery enable farmers to grow more food while using less fertilizer and pesticides. And advances in indoor farming are enabling companies like Plenty and AeroFarms to grow many times more food than traditional farms while using a fraction of the water and land.
In addition, we also need substitutes for foods with the largest environmental footprints. Many of the greatest environmental successes of the past have involved finding replacements for ecologically harmful practices. For instance, when wild sturgeon were on the precipice of extinction, the caviar industry found ways to raise and harvest farmed fish instead. And today, plant-based and cultured meat start-ups are developing hamburgers, fish, and other animal products that taste like the original thing, but with fewer of some important environmental impacts (especially compared to beef).
For chefs and others willing to challenge the status quo, there are many ways to embrace Ecomodern Eating. One approach is to recognize the existing benefits of highly productive and efficient farms. Another is to support innovative agricultural practices and foods. Buying plant-based meats, for instance, helps this nascent industry keep developing products that replace conventional meats. And embracing the new wave of genetically engineered foods can have large environmental benefits. For example, non-browning apples and potatoes, which only recently hit the market, can reduce food waste.
Using innovative and sustainable foods doesn’t have to come at the expense of taste or culinary creativity. While most people tend to stick with the foods they know best, many respected chefs have already adopted foods that fit the mold of Ecomodern Eating. Brad Farmerie helped launch the Impossible Burger into the limelight when he began serving it at Public, his Michelin-starred restaurant in NYC. And chefs from several top NYC restaurants buy herbs and greens grown indoors under state-of-the-art LED lights.
In celebration of Earth Day, let’s celebrate both the planet and human ingenuity. After all, it is through ingenuity, through innovation, through technological progress, that we can best address today’s environmental problems. Foods produced with groundbreaking machinery and technology should not be spurned. Rather, these are the exact types of foods we must consider with open minds. As it turns out, we may not want to eat like our great-grandparents after all.