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Sustainable Isn’t Simple

Robin Pelc, fisheries research manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., summed up the problem of sustainable fisheries management this way: “Fish are hard to count. You can’t see them and they move.” It’s hard to count fish, and there’s some controversy over whose counting methods and catching methods are most up to date.

The complexity of seafood sustainability was the issue at hand at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Cooking for Solutions conference, held May 20-22. The event was presented by the Seafood Watch program, the little tri-fold card that lives in 36 million wallets and is an app on 600,000 smartphones. The card identifies seafood species as green (Yes!), yellow (Think twice!), or red (No way, no how). In 12 short years, Seafood Watch has become the ultimate eco-label: the gold standard for consumers and for policymakers concerned about the health and sustainability of seafood populations worldwide.

Originally, Seafood Watch was conceived as a crib card to help diners make responsible decisions about what to eat for dinner. The card caught fire with consumers. Seafood Watch leveraged the buying power of those 36 million card carriers, and now has significant influence on fishery producers, food service companies, and national and international seafood policymakers. Quite a coup for a local aquarium in a California resort town. When Seafood Watch speaks, sonic waves spread across the ocean. Little fishies all over the ocean flap their gills with joy or trepidation, based on whether they’ve been labeled as green or red.

Sustainability gets complicated

The star-studded annual conference featured two days of authoritative presentations by experts in fisheries, agriculture, academia, research and lobbying organizations, and policymakers, with journalists as moderators and panelists. Cooking for Solutions examined a broad range of sustainability issues: eco-labeling for all foods; the challenge of the land-sea connection; the 2012 Department of Agriculture budget presented by Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan; and the gray area between organic, and local and sustainable.

There was strong focus on seafood, but the conference was as much vibration space for all the current hot topics in responsible food. The panel called the “Hidden Cost of Cheap Foods” — led by William Neumann of The New York Times, with agricultural economist Thomas Dobbs from South Dakota State University, Susan Prolman of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Rebecca Spector of the Center for Food Safety and Loel Solomon from Kaiser Permanente — deconstructed “the perverse incentives” in our current food policy system. “We give big subsidies to the big players and erect hurdles for farmers that want to grow organic crops,” Prolman said. It was a surprise to many in the audience to learn that farmers who plant organic crops pay higher insurance fees than conventional farmers and find bank loans scarce.

Professor Dobbs from South Dakota, an expert on sustainable farming, puzzled publicly over the fact that “We spend four times more on ethanol than we do on all other agricultural payments.” He explained that 40 percent of our corn crop production is now devoted to ethanol.

Organic and local

On one morning of the conference, a breakfast for attendees was held in the surreally beautiful garden of Earthbound Farm. The conversation, led by the Atlantic’s Corby Kummer, between Myra Goodman, an organic farmer and co-founder of Earthbound Farm (and the provider of 48 percent of all U.S. sales in the “tender leaf” category), and Maria Rodale, chief executive officer of Rodale Inc., focused on whether the big divide in the food world is between “organic” and “local” and fair labor practices in the organic sector.

The breakfasting journalists puzzled over whether either of those topics had much to do with the fact that organic is still only four percent of U.S. food sales, and that sustainable and organic are not so very far apart. All were secretly relieved when Goodman, the organic guru, let slip that she buys conventional cherries in January for her son and likes Miracle Whip.

Alton Brown was the closer for the event. And after two full days of discussion about sustainability, Brown came closest to getting it right. “Sustainability is the capability to endure. That is the challenge for our species and for each of the species we depend on.”

Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and founder of She is a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, the food editor for Stuff Magazine and has contributed to Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, among others.

Photo: Maria Rodale, Corby Kummer and Myra Goodman at the Cooking for Solutions event.

Credit: Louisa Kasdon

Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and  the founder and CEO of Let's Talk About Food, an organization that engages the public around food issues in our world. Kasdon was the food editor for Stuff magazine and the contributing editor for food for the Boston Phoenix.  Winner of the MFK Fisher Award for Culinary Excellence, she has  written for Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor, among others.