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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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TEDx Manhattan Shines Light on Sustainable Ag Issues from Seed Saving to Food Waste

February 21, 2013 |

Last weekend’s sustainable agriculture themed TEDx Manhattan was entitled “Changing the Way We Eat”.  A TEDx is an independent version of the incredibly popular TED Talks each of which is a day long series of brief presentations on “ideas worth spreading” around a specific topic.  The New York version is one of the more popular ones, with the 200 person strong live audience supplemented by a further 3,000 people at viewing parties around the country.

The subject of the day’s talks ranged from White House pastry chef Bill Yosses on “the hedonistic culture of healthy eating” to a brief excerpt from the upcoming movie, “Food Chains”, which looks at the conditions endured by farm laborers. For sustainable agriculture enthusiasts, there were three standouts from the 16 presentations:

Peter Lehner of NRDC on Food Waste

National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Executive Director, Peter Lehner, started thinking about food waste during a climbing trip when he had to carry a 30 day supply of food on a climbing trip. “When you are carrying 30 days’ worth of food on your back, every ounce is precious,” explains Lehner.  It was the beginning of a trail that led to a groundbreaking report issued last August, which finally quantified food waste in the US.  The results were sufficiently startling to garner the report a great deal of media attention; the average American family loses $2,000 in food waste each year, and 40% of the country’s food is never eaten.  The situation is just as dire further up the food chain, with 30% of crops left unharvested and a fifth of fish thrown away before it ever reaches the dock.  “It’s like air conditioning empty buildings,” Lehner says.

Helpfully, Lehner also suggests a number of practical solutions, for instance, on a sustainable coffee farm in Costa Rica, he managed to sell the 5% of beans that were considered “imperfect” to a local market for roasting. A further example is Mayor Bloomberg’s newly announced composting pilot on Staten Island. Lehner sees a pivotal role for government in addressing the increasingly prominent food waste issue. He points out that tighter regulations were one of the spurs of a revolution in energy efficiency, from LED lights to hybrid cars, and concluded by suggesting that more robust policy would be an interesting part of the solution.

Simran Sethi on Seeds

Last year, Simran Sethi left a tenured position at the University of Kansas to work on a book on seeds; “they’re the beginning and end of everything, and the beginning all over again,” she explains. Her concern is that seed varieties are disappearing. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) says that 75% of crop varieties have disappeared since 1900. “While we’re talking about slow food and fast food….. the very foundations of food are disappearing,” she notes.

We now only cultivate about 50 crop varieties, which leaves us more vulnerable to disease and droughts, and concomitant price increases. This is compounded by three companies now owning over 90% of corn, soybean and cotton seed varieties.

Sethi is an optimist and argues that “these are changes that we come back from.” She advocates more seed banks on farms or in the wild, especially what she describes as “peasant grade seeds”, and encourages consumers to purchase heirloom varieties where they find them at farmers’ markets. “Farmers will grow what we buy,” she argues.

Tama Matsuoka Wong of Meadows and More on Weeds As Food

A former corporate attorney, Tama Matsuoka Wong became interested in gardening when her daughter developed allergies, a motivation that drew no fewer than three of the day’s speakers to the food supply world. Her early attempts at gardening in her New Jersey back yard came to naught when weeds overtook the crops, but Wong reached for the internet, rather than for herbicides. She discovered that many of the weeds she found in her overgrown garden were not only edible, but were common parts of diets in other areas of the world. Visiting relatives from Asia, it was pointed out to her that knotweed is used as a medicinal herb, for example.

Through her business, Meadows and More, Wong now works with chefs looking to develop dishes incorporating nutrient and flavor dense weeds, such as, chickweed and dandelion.  “There are 6,000 edible wild plants, but the modern diet comprises only around 25 vegetables,” Wong points out. Her work is not only enriching the diets of adventurous Manhattanites, it’s also sustainable in that weeds grow like, well, weeds in their natural environment and consequently require no fertilizer, nor water, nor herbicides.  “We need to change the way that we think about what is food and what is a weed,” she concludes.

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