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Four Takes: Digging in to the looming challenge of sustainable food, The Boston Sunday Globe


November 3, 2019

Mark Bittman may have done the most in recent years to focus Americans’ attention on ethical dining. A decade ago, in “Food Matters – a Guide to Conscious Eating,” he laid out the link between industrialized food production and climate change. He proposed that we all eat less meat and junk food, and more vegetables and whole grains. For him that might mean porridge for breakfast, ratatouille for lunch and whatever he wishes for dinner. What’s not to like, except the first two?

Amanda Little picks up where Bittman and your sullen inner child part ways. Her focus, though, is less on the menu of the well-meaning than on how climate change will affect the food supply. She notes that scientific models predict declining crop production for the rest of the century, even as the population explodes. Tim Gore, an Oxfam policy expert she consults, asserts that for most people, global warming will be experienced primarily through food: what’s available, how much, and at what cost.

A small preview came in 2015, when an avocado shortage prompted Chipotle to warn that it might have to eliminate guacamole. New Englanders may remember how, the next year, much of the local peach crop died when an early spring induced premature flowering. A freak frost landed the punchline. Yet such losses are nothing compared with the havoc that could be in store, particularly in poorer countries, as weather extremes thwart food production.

As Little is careful to note, experts’ warnings hinge on the assumption that current agricultural practices will continue unchanged. Her wide-ranging quest for alternatives takes her to aquaculture operations; “vertical farms” growing plants indoors; and start-ups producing lab-grown “meats.” (The first lab-grown meatballs taste acceptable to her, but currently would cost around $18,000 a pound.)

Little is a congenial guide who confronts her own prejudices (pro-organic, anti-GMO) in the course of her research. Endearingly, she is a lousy backyard gardener. She is also a realist about how far, in the short term, Americans can move the sustainability needle.

Bee Wilson, in “The Way We Eat Now,” anticipates a new stage in global food consumption that she hopes will translate into healthier eating (less meat, less sugar) and better food-production methods. While living conditions for most people have improved, she notes, nutrition has worsened. Heavily influenced by the West, a standard diet has emerged. Too often, it consists of unhealthy food gobbled on the fly. For children from Colombia to Portugal to China, traditional cuisines are being replaced by packaged cookies, cereal bars, and chips

After training an eye on the usual suspects (multinational food companies, industrial agriculture, misguided subsidies), Wilson seeks examples of pushback. Despite rapid economic growth since the 1960s, vegetables remain central to the South Korean diet. Government-sponsored campaigns promoting locally grown foods may have helped, although Koreans’ lust for kimchi appears embedded at the molecular level.

In India, however, where vegetable cookery comes close to magic, a once- closeted craving for chicken has burst into the open. Globally, in fact, chicken has become the world’s favorite form of protein. As American supermarket shoppers know, it can be produced cheaply under dubious conditions, or more humanely – for a price.

The maltreatment of industrially raised farm animals, and collateral damage to the environment, were what first drove Nicolette Hahn, a confirmed vegetarian, to investigate U.S. meat production practices. Her world quickly became complicated when she met and married Bill Niman, the rancher whose name has become synonymous with ethically raised beef.

In “Righteous Pork Chop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms,” Hahn Niman lays out the ills of industrial hog and poultry operations, noting that, by comparison, cattle are the most humanely raised food animals in the United States. (A follow-up book, “Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production,” argues that cattle grazing is relatively kind, even beneficial, to the environment.)

Hahn Niman reports that her husband eats less meat than he used to, in part because of her vegetarian cooking, but also because he is satisfied with less. The stomach may want what it wants, these writers seem to acknowledge, but maybe, for the good of the planet, it can be talked into hungering for something else.

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