Restoration Dinner Plate. (And antique fisheries.)

The Washington Post reported in 2006 that the world’s fish stock could be depleted as of 2048 if fishing patterns, environmental changes and pollution kept steady. As early as 2003, National Geographic rang the alarm on dwindling big fish stocks including tuna, swordfish, cod and halibut—the kind of fish the wealthy of the world still demand. Just this year, the Europe Union’s Maritime and Fisheries Commission reported that Europe’s fish stocks have dwindled to a meager 10% of what they were following World War II, and announced plans to revive its fishing policies. But, will supply-side policies be enough to curtail the worldwide damage when the demand is ever increasing?

This fall, the tides swept a rare catch onto the shores of Duke University’s campus, Barton Seaver, a 5-star chef and currently a National Geographic Fellow. However, in his role as National Geographic Fellow, Seaver aptly promotes a new angle on sustainability, and uses the dinner plate to focus our hearts, minds and stomachs on the guiding principle of restoration. Below, Seaver answers a few key questions to clarify his expectations of policy makers, industrial suppliers and consumers in achieving a system of restoration.

Seaver’s sought after culinary talent, affable personality and carefully crafted critique have attracted celebrity status, winning him Esquire Magazine Chef of the Year in 2009. Seaver’s 2011 book tour showcases his 294-page tribute to seafood, Of Cod and Country, featuring deliciously sustainable seafood recipes and ingredient centerfolds, in seasonal themes. Seaver applies his wisdom on the intimate relationship between the health of the world’s fish stock and the bounty on our dinner plates.

For his Duke audience, Seaver recounted live the stories he penned in Of Cod and Country, describing poignant memories of childhood in a DC suburb, indulging in the culinary escapades of his parents cooking, and forays into ethnic cuisines common in their diverse immigrant community. He meandered into reveries of soft-shell crab chasing in boyhood along the coasts of Maine. He confessed that thrills of a fresh catch and escapades into scintillating spices drove him into the culinary profession (leapfrogging detours of a traditional undergraduate education). Auspiciously, Seaver landed himself in northern Africa, on an “accidental trip” as he describes it, into the hinterlands of Morocco where he fished among subsistence fishermen in a remote coastal town for over six months. Once there, he come to understand just how inextricably human culture is tied to the fruit of the sea.

Seaver envisions more than sustainability. He criticizes the word for its lack of vision, void of a relatable or inspiring benefit. Indeed sustainability could be characterized as a status quo phenomenon—let’s hold on to what we have as long as it sustains us—rather than one that pushes us toward change.

Seaver offers the term “restoration”, a return to the bounty and beauty of nature and it’s capacity to provide for all people and generations to come. The idea isn’t new to environmentalists, but it might do some good in describing what sustainability activists hope to win. “Restore” our bountiful oceans, restore our clean water resources to their natural pre-pollution state, restore our glacial ice, restore our fish stocks!

And with restoration, clearly there’s a catch. The world’s population is nearly 8 billion now, and rising rapidly to 9 billion at mid-century, yet the capacity of our oceans to provide for the world is dwindling at seemingly the same pace. Pure restoration alone deals with the integrity of our natural supply chain, but not our ever-expanding demand.

On this point, Seaver presses for more radical change. Seaver advocates that consumers not only embrace restoration of natural supplies, but also reduce our demand. For instance, Americans would be healthier and contribute less to the world’s greenhouse gas problem if we consumed less meat, stuck to local foods, and restoring nutritional integrity through crop biodiversity.

Seaver also believes in the power of large companies to rapidly shift major resources toward the mission of restoration, with some caveats. This journal writer posed a few probing questions to Seaver in a recent email exchange to clarify his thoughts on the role of suppliers in achieving a restorative balance in this nation’s food chain:

1. Given that food policies reinforce the direction our food production system takes, what do you think must change about government’s approach in order to achieve a “restorative” balance between health, wealth and nature?

The policy makers need to recognize that through food we seek to nourish with much more than calories and therefore shouldn’t be reduced to mechanized monocultures recognized for the tonnage they produce. Through food we seek a host of different values ranging from community interaction, a diverse and variety of flavors and nutrients, as well as food security through biodiversity and low input seasonal crop rotations. In our current system, our agricultural policies have put profit before health– the health of both our soil and of our diet. While I believe that modern agriculture has created great advances many of which have enabled our society to achieve great growth, we need to vigorously research the values of the systems that we have moved away from and begin to create a hybrid agricultural policy that encourages the coexistence of industrial farming at its best with small scale diversified regional farms that serve their immediate communities.

2. Your great love seems to be seafood. Yet, in your talk, you mentioned nothing about the very controversial genetically modified fish that will soon be entering the market. What’s your take? Would you serve it on your menu?

NO. The issue surrounding the need for GMO salmon is due to a demand that outstrips the supply of sustainable wild products. Given that there are a myriad of options that are considerably underutilized, I can’t see or support the value in changing the fundamental nature of nature itself in order to solve a problem that is inherently one of human behavior and associated demand. GMO salmon is a capitalist answer to many of the environmental concerns that have been raised about farmed salmon industry. Given that we have the technology and know-how, and the money needed to implement sustainable technologies within the existing framework of farmed salmon operations, I don’t think that it is wise that we seek to solve this problem not by using logic and a shift in consumption, but by altering the fundamental laws which govern this product.

3. About your perspective on “Big Agra”. You mentioned that the companies with the big bucks make big waves of change, while we small-timers can only make ripples. How do you grapple with the dilemmas of monoculture crops that are at the heart of farming “economies of scale”, but at the root of health and environmental deterioration? Who do you see as bright stars among the big players?

I believe that there is a slowing advancing notion that our farmland can be put to better use through seasonal crop rotation, even in large scale agriculture. There are many complimentary plants that can grow amongst each other such as the famed ‘Three Sisters’ of Native American agricultural knowledge which combined beans, corn and squash in order to naturally create a no input system that had high yield. There are other such crops that can be planted in off seasons that help to fix nutrients into the soil while also preventing erosion and adding value to the bottom line of farmers. The interest in implementing these age-old practices will be driven by economic growth as it is a better use of existing resources.

4. What would be your pitch to a Monsanto exec that feels they are doing the best for the world by delivering cheap, mass crops, albeit with little regard to small farmers and their livelihoods–much like the small fisherman you venerated in your presentation?

My response would be that success in feeding the human beings across the globe cannot be measured by a single company’s standards. People from different areas rely on food and the biodiversity of crops around which their cultures have evolved to provide for needs that are much more subtle and less empirical than a simple measure of calories per dollar.

When we homogenize food, we homogenize humanity and the attendants’ rights, rituals, traditions, cultures and personal health of a wide and complex diaspora of the human family.

Seaver describes wealth as a factor of conscience and community. That is, our real wealth is dependent on restoring ties to each other and to nature through the selective choice of dinner dishes, for instance. Seaver echoes the Italian derived, American adapted Slow Food Movement, and its thematic offshoots such as the Slow Money movement. These philosophies recognize that our cultures and well-being are products of systems of nature, and not above them. They demonstrate that wealth needn’t be defined by gourmet food or finances, but by our ability to strengthen community relationships and restore a balance to nature through the acts of eating and spending.

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About C. Sala Hewitt

C. Sala Hewitt
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One Response to Restoration Dinner Plate. (And antique fisheries.)

  1. asif says:

    hmmm…. flesh is a deep thing. what is it that distinguishes plant life from animal life. reading your piece really drove the point home for me. i just made some catfish fillets and felt horrible after eating it, and i don’t mean physically sick. i usually eat fish and all, but i’ve been reading more about factory farming as it affects marine life as well. what the hell is going on? what the hell r we doing to Mama?

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