Tag Archives: sustainable food

Solving the World Food Crisis

IRAS image
THE INSTITUTE ON RELIGION IN AN AGE OF SCIENCE
Fifty-ninth Annual Summer Conference
Silver Bay, New York
July 27 to August 3, 2013
 

Co-Chairs: Solomon H Katz and Pat Bennett

Food occupies a central place in human life. Not only are its nutrients necessary for our survival, but feasting, fasting, and sharing are integral to our history, cultural identity, and religious traditions. Yet, today, and for the foreseeable future, nearly half of the world’s people cannot enjoy the fullness of their potential due to problems with food affordability, safety, and access. Serious problems with food production and price increases currently leave about one billion people experiencing hunger, and many of them facing starvation. Another billion spend over half their entire income on food, but still have only marginally enough to eat. Yet, concurrently, at least another billion people in the world are experiencing problems from consuming too much food and/or from dietary imbalances and safety problems that result in serious chronic diseases and infections.

Among the questions to be addressed at this conference are the following:

  • What are the origins and evolution of human diet and the food system, and how does this knowledge provide new insights about our contemporary food problems?
  • What is the status of world food resources? How does it relate to macro and micro food problems locally and nationally in the United States and throughout the world?
  • How does food serve as a symbol and a substance of various religious traditions? Has the loss of social traditions surrounding food production, preparation and consumption contributed to the problems noted above?
  • How can the human food system be made more sustainable? How can healthy diets be safely and economically made available to all humanity? How can new scientific and medical knowledge optimally help with sustainability, safety, and access?
  • What are the tensions created by climate change; population growth; demographic change; global trade and commodity pricing; market and business forces; water management; energy resources; food to fuel; new GMO technologies; agricultural practices; land use and agricultural practices; increased meat, dairy, and egg production; food sovereignty at local, national, and international levels; increased socio-political interests; and the demands for human rights and just food policies?
  • What secular and religious ethics and values can help to balance and/or solve food problems at all levels of the food system? What human and institutional resources are now available or need to be developed to catalyze meaningful solutions to food problems?
  • What are the potentials of a combined science and religion approach to achieving sustainable solutions to world food problems?

One of the conference’s aims is to derive, develop, and disseminate a statement of principles for achieving sustainable solutions to some of these issues, based on such a combined approach;  and to issue an accompanying call to appropriate action at personal and communal levels.

An IRAS conference is a rather unique interdisciplinary experience, combining serious cutting-edge talks with many opportunities for in-depth discussions and workshops, as well as relaxed, informal conversation. Most speakers spend the entire week at the conference, giving plenty of opportunity to follow-up points over coffee and meals. Also, since conferees represent a wide spectrum of disciplines in the sciences and humanities, as well as coming from many different religious traditions, discussions are eclectic, stimulating and sometimes robust! And alongside the hard work of thinking and talking, and our traditional reflective sessions, there’s plenty of less serious stuff to enjoy too – music, art, laughter and jokes at Happy Hour, and all the rich and varied recreational facilities on offer to us guests at Silver Bay.

The deadline for poster proposals is April 19, 2013 and for workshop proposals is May 6, 2013. Visit the conference website for additional information, including a list of confirmed speakers that include several SAFN members.

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Filed under anthropology, Call for Papers, culture, economics, farming, food policy, food security, Food Studies, foodways, GMO food, markets, nutrition, obesity, sustainability

Evolution and Meat

Smoked chicken!

There was a fascinating piece on the National Public Radio news program Morning Edition (on the August 2, 2010 show) regarding the links between human evolution, meat eating and cooking.  Naturally, this caught our attention here at FoodAnthropology.  It featured insights from several anthropologists and was about food.  What more can one ask from a news story?  Read and listen to it here.

There are several points of interest.  First is the idea that eating meat allowed humans to develop the kinds of brains that we have now.  A good idea, but apparently eating the meat raw was not sufficient.  In fact, eating most things raw was more difficult and, in some cases, less nutritious than eating the same things cooked.  Of course, this adds culture to evolution.  Fascinating aspect of adaptation, really.  This is precisely the kind of thing that makes evolution so amazing.  This may be an old insight in anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss made some observations on cooking, culture and evolution, for example), but it is not really appreciated by non-anthropologists, I think.

Now, I can imagine that all of this could be considered controversial from some points of view.  Folks in the vegetarian, vegan and raw food camps probably have interesting things to say about this.  They might assert that pre-historic diets of nuts and fruit, eaten raw, were really all our (very distant) ancestors needed.  So why should we need more?  They may make strange assertions about what our guts are designed to digest and suggest that we avoid meat, milk, cooked foods, etc.  The archaeologists and biological anthropologists can show that their view of our ancestors is incorrect, but that may not matter.  They will invent new ancestors.  People love to legitimize their positions through imagined ancestors.

In addition, if you read the comments at the end of the NPR piece, you will see people grappling with another kind of issue: if our ancestors developed big brains by eating meat, they seem to ask, does that mean my kid will get a big brain if he or she eats steak?  Well, no, not exactly.  There is a misunderstanding here between the idea of what is adaptive for populations and what is healthy at any given time for individuals.  Here too, people are looking for legitimacy in ancestors, but the problem is that the units of analysis are off.

The links between diet and evolution—including the choices to eat meat and to cook—were probably not well understood by our ancestors, but they did prove to be adaptive.  Are they still adaptive?  It is hard to tell.  Are they healthy for us as individuals?  You can’t really read that from the evolutionary record.  That said, it seems likely that the manner in which we produce most meat today is not sustainable.  And by sustainable, I mean that it harms the environment in ways that may harm us.  Does this mean we should cease eating meat?  Eat less of it?  Produce what we do eat differently?  I like some of those ideas, but not because I know they will prove to be adaptive in an evolutionary sense.  You can’t really make sense of the world that way—it is too abstract.  Our ancestors started at some point to eat meat and later started to cook it, along with other things.  This proved to be a great idea at the time.  I love grilling meat, so I think it is still a great idea.  But you’ll notice that one of the anthropologists cited in the story is a vegetarian (that would be Richard Wrangham, author of the very interesting book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, 2009, Basic Books).  He understands the adaptive nature of meat eating and cooking in the past.  So what does his choice mean now?

You can’t really plan an evolutionary strategy.  You can only tell that what your ancestors did worked at the time.  If our choices are adaptive today, we will have descendants who can look back and appreciate those choices.  I guess that is why it is evolution, not revolution.

posted by David Beriss

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Filed under anthropology, evolution, food security, media, nutrition, sustainability

BP Gulf Spew and the Future of Seafood

New Orleans Jazz Fest Seafood

When you see the words “spew” and “seafood” in the same title, you can assume things are not good.

The enormous and ongoing oil spill/leak resulting from the destruction of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico has created a sense of imminent catastrophe in New Orleans and the region. The city has been flying high lately, cheered by the election of a new mayor, by the Saint’s Superbowl victory and by dozens of smaller success stories that all suggest we had turned a corner and started, maybe, to put the floods of 2005 behind us.  New Orleans was—and still is—in the process of becoming one of the great urban experiments of the 21st century.  It has become a model of how to turn a city around by focusing on the local, on making things human-scaled, all the while building on a very distinctive local culture.

That culture includes food and foodways in which seafood plays a central part.  It is on the menus of nearly every restaurant in the region, from fried seafood platters and raw oysters to the most elegant plates in white tablecloth restaurants, as Chef John Besh points out.  Seafood is a way of life along the Gulf coast, supporting generations of fishing families.  From roadside stands, to farmers markets, grocery stores, home kitchens and restaurants, everyone in this region eats seafood.  You can get affordable oysters, shrimp, crabs, crawfish and fin fish.  It is not frozen (one local restaurant’s advertising slogan is “Friends don’t let Friends eat Frozen Fish“) and it is not imported.  It is what people talk about too.  When I did jury duty last winter, we talked fishing and seafood in the jury room.  Women and men, black and white, we all shared our best places to fish, our recipes, our stories.

The BP disaster threatens to destroy that, maybe forever.  It is terrifying…and it was probably avoidable.  There have been plenty of warnings about how we set ourselves up for environmental disaster, some specifically about the oil industry, others more general, including work by anthropologists on oil and chemical spills, mining destruction, environmental justice and threats to our food supply that are too numerous to cite.  We have allowed industries to regulate themselves, claiming that enlightened self-interest would result in safety for workers and the public while freeing up the dynamic energy of the market.

At what point will we question this perspective?  How many lives are worth sacrificing—not just in West Virginia mines or Gulf of Mexico oil platforms, but in China, Angola, Nigeria, Russia, Mexico, Iraq or India?  The production of energy and food are both fraught with risk, of course, and it is futile to demand that we eliminate all danger from those processes.  But we do have to recognize the potential consequences of the choices we make.  We have to understand that decisions to “drill, baby, drill” can quickly result in the destruction of an entire industry and way of life.  And we have to recognize that it is possible to make different choices.  We can produce energy and food in ways that are both sustainable and affordable.  Maybe New Orleans will lead the way there too.  But I will save that for a future blog entry.  Meanwhile, Gulf coast seafood is still safe.  Show some solidarity with our fishers and go eat some!

Posted by David Beriss

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Filed under disaster, economics, media, sustainability

The Ten Most Inspiring People in Sustainable Food

I just finished reading this post, “Eat-onomics: the ten most inspiring people in sustainable food”, and its got me thinking of who would be on my list of inspiring people. I also started to wonder what the list would look like if it were focused on concepts. If I can sum it up briefly, the central themes of this list were urban agriculture; creating connections between eaters and the people who produce their food; farmers who have broken from the industrial mould; and visionaries who are outspokenly contesting the political and economic status quo when it comes to food in the Western world.

First of all, what happened to the developing world on this list? What about the countless individuals who are working to help people face problems of drought, food shortages after political upheaval and natural disasters (to name just a face cases)? Although America and Europe face some serious food issues, we also need to think about sustainable food systems with a worldview—in the end, I hate to say it, we are all connected by global trade and politics.

I will take my hat off to any individual who raises awareness about food, nutrition and health. However, we are wise to focus on issues and concepts. Understanding how the world’s food systems are both unique and interconnected will take us further than lauding Jamie Oliver and Michael Pollan.

Who or what would be on your list?

Posted by Rachel Black

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Filed under economics, media, nutrition