What Should I Eat: Big Environmental Questions and Cutting Edge Cuisine

When you think about an exquisitely prepared multi-course meal served at the famed James Beard House in New York city, feedlot beef and supermarket tomatoes probably aren’t the first ingredients that come to mind. But that’s exactly what was on the menu at a recent dinner hosted by the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental organization based in Oakland, California.

The Breakthrough Institute argues that technology and environmentalism need not be at odds, and that the efficiency of industrial-scale agricultural systems and practices can benefit the environment. The menu featured foods like sustainably farmed fish, Bt corn and non-browning potatoes, an unconventional marriage of hi-tech and high end cuisine.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the big environmental questions of our food system and where my own diet fits in — how do I recognize the efficiency gains from “Big Ag” while also enjoying my neighborhood farmers market? Can I eat less meat and still enjoy that locally raised, quarter of a cow we share with friends? Can we talk about reducing meat consumption while recognizing the cattle ranchers and feedlot owners who do their job well? Can I buy organic produce while challenging the assumption that organic always means better?

The night started with a salty, crunchy, briny bite: potato chips topped with crème fraîche and farmed sturgeon caviar, highlighting how sustainable aquaculture can preserve dwindling wild stocks. Once seated, we were served corn chowder made with Bt corn. This type of corn, or should I say, this particular trait in corn, since most GM corn has been modified with a number of different traits, makes its own Bt toxin, a natural insecticide. Bt corn has reduced the need for separate insecticide applications, making it both an environmental and agricultural success story. 

My favorite dishes of the night were the farmed hamachi with smoked chicken jus (hello, smoked anything, yes) and the savory rice featuring rice farmed with precision farming methods that allow the farmer to apply pesticides with impeccable efficiency. Later, a course featuring feedlot beef was served rare and left mostly alone, which is really the only way to serve steak.

Funnily enough, while I felt like the “supermarket tomato” course was maybe not as good as the hamachi or the rice, I can remember the taste and the preparation more clearly than any of the other courses. I’m not one of those people who thinks storytelling is in everything, but, well, that course told a story.

Supermarket tomatoes are notoriously bland, the antithesis of everything a good tomato can be, which is sweet with a bit of acid, bursting with flavor. Peering at my plate, my expectations were very low, but I was also intrigued. Removing the skin from the tomato and crisping it was unexpected. It gave you a textural compensation for the tomato’s blandness. The tomato was topped with goat cheese and anchovy. I don’t know for sure that the anchovy was an intentional play on “fishy tomato,” but here I just want to believe in whimsy.

There’s a lot to learn from this tomato. It might be bland, but it’s also highly efficient: engineered to withstand the trip from field to fork, which means less wasted food, grown at a massive scale, which means better use of energy and other resources. Ultimately, this tomato gets at the point of the night — what do we learn when we challenge our assumptions about food? Can we move away from our own “sides” and comfort zones in search of real and meaningful dialogue?

I’m still grappling with those big environmental and food system questions, and hope to answer some of them this summer for SciMoms. This dinner was a delicious beginning to that contemplation.

Image from Twitter, credit: Grace Emery. Featured image credit: Fran Iyer.