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Conservation and the foodie movement

For environmentalists, the enormous squares of tropical lands denuded for industrial farming represent the complete absence of nature and, not surprisingly, the antithesis of conservation. Yet while we know that agricultural production is the leading driver of tropical deforestation, we also know an expanding global population creates a greater and greater demand for food.

Is industrial agriculture the only way to meet this need? At a time when more and more people across the globe are thinking carefully about what they eat and where it comes from, might the growing “foodie” movement provide a solution? Is this movement relevant to conservation at a scale that matters or is it destined to be an elitist niche trend? If relevant, can it benefit people in the tropics who produce much of food that is now coveted by the “wealthy north”?

To answer that question it’s important to remember that deforestation is not the only environmental impact of industrial agriculture that occupies conservationists. Other pressing concerns include overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, soil loss, loss of pollination services, efficiency of resource use in food production, and waste in both food transport and consumption.

Yet, because alternative farming systems like organic production simply don’t match the volumes produced by conventional agriculture, most of the tropical conservation movement’s interaction with agriculture has focused on reducing deforestation. Despite its problems, industrial agriculture has represented the only way to support the growing global population and its food needs, so we have worked hard to make that system more sustainable.

In recent years, however, while the global commodity boom has spread into new parts of the tropics, a very different type of model of food production, distribution, and consumption has begun to take hold, with various offshoots that include locavorism, nose-to-tail eating, organic farming, and the search for more authentic foodways. This is more than a trend; it is a true movement, the foodie movement.

The Institute of Food Technology reported in 2011 that total sales of specialty foods in the country reached $75.1 billion. According to the USDA, there are 8,000 farmers markets in the U.S. And in her talk last year at Tedx Manhattan’s annual symposium, “Changing the Way We Eat,” Myra Goodman, the co-founder of Earthbound Farm, noted that annual organic food sales in the U.S. today hover around $30 billion.

Most conservationists I know don’t think about this movement or, if they do, they think it’s something fashionable people do in Brooklyn or San Francisco. To the extent we do think about it, we only see the negative consequences of trends like açai or quinoa and we fret about the appropriation of traditional foods by the global north.

Açai became a popular “superfood” in the 2000s that seemed to balance economic benefits, local livelihoods, and forest conservation. But there were serious negative consequences to the trend. Açai is traditionally harvested from palm trees growing wild in the Amazon’s flooded forests. Palm plantations soon replaced natural forests in many areas. A focus on export markets led to local scarcities. Where available, high prices made what was once a staple a luxury good.

Similarly, quinoa has gone from being considered a “lowly” indigenous food to a global superfood in just a few years. The U.N’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) designated 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. Bolivia’s president and Peru’s first lady were its ambassadors.

On the one hand, the export boom and associated price increase greatly benefit farmers in these countries. For instance, the Washington Post reported in 2013 that the quinoa harvest in Bolivia boosted farmer incomes from about $35 per family per month to about $220. On the other hand, quinoa has become an out-of-reach luxury good for many urban poor people, exacerbating food insecurity among already vulnerable populations.

The foodie movement has the potential to change that equation. In the Peruvian Amazon, a group of artists, musicians, and chefs participated in an “artistic inventory” of Bahuaja Sonene National Park organized by my colleague Alicia Kuroiwa, who recognized that chefs are major personalities in the gastronomic capital of Lima. One who created signature plates inspired by the park was Virgilio Martínez of Central, considered one of the world’s 50 best restaurants.

Or look at Restaurant Gustu in La Paz, Bolivia, which Food & Wine says might be the best new restaurant in the world. Gustu serves caiman sashimi, purchased from the caiman managers’ association of the Takana people, an Amazonian indigenous people. Gustu bought 76 kilos of caimian meat last year at $7/kilo. That’s a 300 percent price premium over what buyers in the local market offer.

Gustu is but one example, but it shows that the foodie movement is taking off at time when Latin America is emerging as an economic and political power and a major exporter of food commodities like soy and beef. It is also the most urbanized region of the world, with 80 percent of the population living in cities. A rising middle class has disposable income in a culture where socializing goes hand in hand with eating and drinking.

The commitment of industrial agriculture to end deforestation in response to climate concerns is a necessary but insufficient response to the challenge of the moment. The environmental movement has a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of new thinking on how we produce and consume food sustainably. Locavores already care about the greenhouse gas impact of long-distance food transport and nose to tail eaters already care about reducing waste.

Latin America’s growing wealth, expanding middle class, and urbanization mean that food trends that currently characterize the U.S. can gain critical mass in the region. If the foodie movement in the U.S. was once elitist, it has now gone mainstream. And since it is just getting started in Latin America, now is the time to ensure it incorporates the values of both natural and cultural sustainability.

As this movement takes root in a part of the world responsible for so much global food commodity production, Latin Americans may choose to reject the notion that industrial agriculture is the only possible solution to feeding the world’s billions. Instead, they could embrace food sovereignty and advocate for more sustainable systems of production in the farmlands of Lima’s and La Paz’s own backyards.

Dr. Julie Kunen is Executive Director for the Latin America and Caribbean Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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