Crab cakes with corn risotto and pickled watermelon, Credit: Julie Kunen.

By Julie Kunen
November 9, 2016

In the dog days of the summer, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen cooking. August where I live (Washington, DC) is nirvana at the farmers market. Melons, tomatoes, corn, peaches, and squashes are all at their peak. For dinner one Saturday, I made corn risotto with tomatoes and basil, plus a batch of watermelon pickles, and for dessert tres leches cake.

A typical foodie meal these days, you might say, unimpressed. And the world is already awash in recipe blogs, columns devoted to the latest food trend (is cauliflower the new kale?), twitter feeds cluing us into celebrity appearances at the next hot restaurant, and money shots of people’s breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.

So, beyond self-congratulations, and my personal desire — shared by thousands, apparently — to share my Instagram photos of these yummy dishes with the world, why am I writing about my meal? And why should you care, since I’m not famous?

Because I have a point to make. Which is that I think we can eat our way to environmental conservation. And you can help, one meal at a time.

I work in conservation, wildlife conservation. I love animals, and have all my life. My earliest memory in life is of me at the age of 3 riding in the family station wagon with our brand new golden retriever puppy, Candy, sitting in my lap. At the age of 14, I was a summer helper in the Camel Barn at the Bronx Zoo, and was renowned among my peers for being the first to volunteer to groom the camel, thus also becoming the first among my peers to be spit upon by said camel.

This experience did not deter me, and my career has ended up taking me from the crocodile-filled swamps of Cuba to the penguin-dense beaches of Patagonia.

In my free time, I do what more and more people seem to be doing. I cook, I garden, I go to the farmers market, I pick pounds of fruit at the local pick-ur-own farm. I check out new restaurants. I read the Washington Post Food section and Saveur magazine (reading about food while eating being one of life’s great pleasures). I plan trips to food destinations like Vermont (goat milk caramel that is to die for) and Barcelona. I tour wineries and ciderworks and attend farm dinners.

Lately, in the midst of what I think might be a mid-life crisis, I went through that exercise that many a self-help column (I’m looking at you, More Magazine) suggests you do — figure out ways to bring your personal passions and your professional life closer together for a more fulfilling career. So I sat down with a blank page open on the laptop and as clear and non-judgmental a mind as I could muster, and I brainstormed.

And luckily for me, it wasn’t that hard to see the answer. I love food, I love animals, and I think that we all need to stop screwing up the environment, as if we’ve got an extra one to turn to when things go sideways. And I realized that these are actually all the same passions. I’m a foodie and a conservationist, and if all the foodies in the world recognized that they too are conservationists, we’d make more of a difference than any other well-meaning attempt to save the planet.

What do I mean, and how can eating help save the planet? Let’s go back to that meal I cooked last weekend.

Weekly bounty from the author’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) share. Credit: Julie Kunen.

Corn risotto with tomatoes and basil. Corn and tomatoes at their absolute ripest, grown on a local farm and picked up as part of my CSA (community-supported agriculture) share. CSAs, in which customers pay farmers before the harvest season for a share of what they grow and therefore partake both in the risk and the reward of farming, are a big component of the locavore branch of the foodie movement.

Locavores try to eat foods that come from within a 100 mile radius of where they live (sometimes referred to as a “foodshed”) and have been a big factor in the proliferation of farmers markets in the U.S. The USDA reports that there are now over 8,000 farmers markets in the US, with annual sales of more than $1 billion.

Why buy a tomato from the local farmers market? Because it tastes absolutely delicious. But why else to do it? Because buying it locally avoids all the greenhouse gasses that are emitted when the tomato is transported from California to wherever you are. And buying it locally puts money in the pocket of your local farmer. Who then can keep farming instead of selling off her or his land to a developer to build a subdivision that then gets named something like Fox Run for the foxes that used to run there when there were woods surrounding that farm. Your tomato purchase from a local farmer just saved habitat for the wildlife that coexist with farms.

Basil, grown organically in my own backyard garden — why not just buy it in the little plastic package at the store? First of all, the unnecessary packaging — and the petroleum that went into that plastic package. I grew the basil organically, which means I didn’t use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides that would run off in the rain and into the sewer in my street, which eventually makes its way into the Chesapeake Bay, because that’s the watershed that I live in. And I love to eat Maryland blue crabs when they come into season, and I’d really prefer them not to be full of chemicals.

But organic food is expensive and I’m not perfect. I just refused to buy a package of organic edamame at Whole Foods, because it was about $4.99 for 10 ounces — about twice the regular price. And I tried not to think about the fact that the regular price came with a side dose of pesticides.

Now, some will say that organic production can’t match conventional production in terms of output, so how are we going to feed the 9.6 billion people that will occupy this planet by 2050? And it’s true that organic farming yields at best about 75 percent of what conventional farming produces. But it’s also true that growing rates of obesity and associated problems of diabetes and heart disease represent a health crisis that will require a reduction in global consumption to address.

And organic farms not only don’t use chemical inputs and thus don’t contribute to water and soil pollution, but they also provide habitat for birds, other pollinators (like bees) and other animals (farms’ natural vegetation saved from clear-cutting provides greenspaces that, as part of a larger landscape, provide habitat corridors for animals). That also matters to conservationists like me. And simple math tells us that the more people demand that organic produce be the only kind of produce, the more will be grown and the cheaper it will be.

Basil, chard, and kale growing in the author’s garden. Credit: Julie Kunen.

A few years ago, there were $30 billion worth of annual sales of organic food in the US, from less than 1 percent of the country’s farmland — so there is plenty of room for growth. So ask for it — be part of the movement that demands that we grow our food without poisoning the environment. Delicious and good for the planet — win for foodies, and win for conservationists.

Now, to the watermelon pickle. Unless you are southern (I’m not, although my husband is) you probably thought, what the heck is a watermelon pickle? Well, it’s the rind of the melon pickled, in this case (thank you, David Chang) in a mixture of rice vinegar, sugar, salt, star anise and ginger. And it turned out delicious, but again — I have a larger point to make. I’m using the watermelon pickle as a vegetarian example of nose-to-tail eating.

I don’t eat meat, which is probably the biggest dietary contribution you can make to the planet’s environment — cattle production is the leading source of methane emissions, a powerful greenhouse gas, and one of the largest drivers of tropical deforestation. Eating less meat and ensuring that you only eat meat that comes from animals that haven’t eaten a diet of whatever was planted in place of a perfectly good forest, would be a powerful contribution to conservation.

You may have heard of the nose-to-tail phenomenon — the notion of eating as many parts of an animal (or less commonly, a vegetable) as possible. So not just chicken breasts, but chicken necks. And not just pork belly, but pigs feet. Which explains the inexplicable popularity of offal. Nose-to-tail eating, including in its vegetarian form, is both trendy and a great way to reduce food waste, just as I did by repurposing the watermelon rind, which would otherwise have been discarded (or composted, another great way to go).

Food waste is an enormous problem, a topic trending in social media now. The well-known chef Dan Barber hosted a hugely popular series of dinners not long ago called wastED, at which he served all parts of foods that normally get discarded (carrot-top pesto, as one example). Foodtank has reported that we waste about one-third of the food we produce, while almost a billion people go hungry. So food waste is a huge food issue, but it’s also a conservation issue for two primary reasons.

First, food waste ends up in landfills where it contributes to climate change through emission of greenhouse gases. Second, wasted food just means more land is put in food production instead of staying in its natural state. And since food production uses water, soil, fossil fuels and labor to grow and transport the food, wasting food also wastes these resources. By choosing a nose-to-tail approach, or just by throwing out less food, you are promoting conservation.

Finally (finally!) we come to dessert. Tres leches cake is a traditional Latin American dessert. There’s actually nothing particularly environmentally special about it. It’s a sponge cake soaked in 3 kinds of milk. Probably I could have come up with a better example, but this is in fact what I baked that weekend. And was a) delicious; and b) evocative of place. It’s an example of what Slow Food calls “the search for more authentic foodways.”

Now, I’m not Latina so I don’t know how authentic it is (for me) but I do know that the same curiosity about the foods of other places is part of what drives people to the artisanal taco food truck or the underground ramen shop (the other part being the yumminess of it all). It’s part of what brought me to Barcelona not long ago.

For a conservationist, respect for traditional foodways holds out the hope of not losing the genetic diversity of our crops, of not losing the unique cuisines that define cultures and places around the world, and of maintaining traditional agricultural, ranching, and fishing practices — all of which tend to be much more environmentally friendly than industrial farming, ranching or fishing. So try ordering the wild-caught Gulf shrimp instead of the farmed Chilean seabass. Buy farro instead of ordinary pasta.

Be a proud foodie. Snap those pictures of your food, post them proudly to Instagram, and check out the buzzy new restaurant (likely to be a farm-to-table one). Order the weird food, take pride in your pickling and canning skills, but recognize also that you are being conservationists. And we need all of you, because you are much more influential than we are. And if you can try to be just a little bit more deliberate about it — ask where that fish comes from, choose the locally grown option, order the more sustainable plate — you’ll make a tremendous difference in the world. And it will taste delicious.

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Dr. Julie Kunen is Vice President for the Americas at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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