Organic Food, in the Cloud?

Today Amazon announced a bid to buy Whole Foods Market for $13.7 billion. I couldn’t stop myself from writing a quick post about it. This would be a game-changer not only for an already-struggling Whole Foods, but also for the future of sustainable food consumption. I keep imagining crazy scenarios playing out if this deal comes to fruition: Amazon drones delivering local turnips from a nearby farm, ordering organic pita chips for delivery while watching an Amazon-original TV show on my Kindle, checking out at a cashier-free Whole Foods that charges my Prime account automatically. Who knows what could happen.

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I’m excited to see where this proposal goes, and I’m even more excited about what it means for sustainable food. It initially concerned me that this might increase the farm-to-table disconnect. If I could order a local, organic, grassfed steak with one click, would I really be engaging with the food I’m eating? Perhaps not in the way we currently think of the farm-to-table experience: counterculture, minimalist, connected to community yet off-the-grid, maybe a little archaic. Perhaps this signals a shift that we’re already seeing. Whole Foods is, after all, the definition of successful integration of organic food into the mainstream, industrial marketplace. The evidence is strong that people want to live, work, and play in the same spaces in our increasingly urbanized world. They also want to shop and eat in those same spaces. So whether that’s a digital space on Amazon.com or a real space in a brick-and-mortar Whole Foods, there are definitely big changes in store for the distribution, purchasing, and consumption of sustainable food. Whatever these changes are, hopefully they’re yummy. And sustainable.

Our new environmental movement

I stumbled upon this great TED Talk from five years ago by environmental journalist Simran Sethi. Check it out:

Simran Sethi’s engaging talk got me thinking about how we need a new environmental movement. This past year we’ve witnessed a lot of energy within the environmental movement. We saw a huge response to President Trump’s early actions in office, uproar over the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, and several massive rallies in the form of the March for Science and the return of the People’s Climate March. These are all good things that have raised awareness about the necessity of political and scientific response to climate change. But with these responses, the environmental movement can only go so far. Perhaps it’s time to restructure our environmental movement so that it delivers more substantial results going forward.

I see the new environmental movement as one that is optimistic and forward-thinking. It shouldn’t just be about reaction but about action. Here are the main characteristics that I hope define this new movement:

  • Optimistic – It’s time to leave behind the days of scientists rolling off statistics about polar bears and build a movement centered around solutions. Apocalyptic thinking is harmful to progress. Solutions are progress.
  • Innovative – We live in the great 21st-Century after all. Let’s mobilize as much technology, data, and creativity as possible in innovating solutions to achieve our sustainable future. Grassroots and grass-fed are awesome but we’ll need the power of technology and data to make a difference.
  • Nonpartisan – Politics are divisive. The government plays an important role in dealing with issues like climate change but relying on politicians to have an impact and reacting when they don’t gets us nowhere. We need solutions that bring together governments, nonprofits, businesses, and individuals, not despite partisan differences, but because of a diversity of ideas.
  • Inclusive – Beyond political differences, we need a movement where anyone can be an environmentalist. From hippie activists to business executives and from urban factory-workers to rural fourth-generation farmers, our new environmental movement needs as much strength as possible.
  • Values-driven – Perhaps most importantly, we can only achieve positive impact if we create value through this environmental movement. That means understanding why we value the environment and how to mobilize people who value it for different reasons.

This new environmental movement could confront the terrifyingly-complex issues that we face today, such as climate change. But it would do so not by focusing on the issues themselves, but on how we are going to solve them together. To conclude, I’ll try to bring it all back to the topic of this blog: sustainable food. Perhaps a focus on food is the perfect starting place for our new environmental movement. Food is universal and every single person needs it. Food brings us together, makes us happy, and gives us strength. Food also connects us to the planet. If we make the act of eating an environmental act, we allow anyone to be an environmentalist. And if we make feeding all humans a priority, we make the environmental movement a necessity.

Integrating sustainable options

Check out this interesting article published by Sustainable Brands. It got me thinking not only about how to encourage plant-based food consumption, but also about how sustainable choices in general can be encouraged.

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While there is no shortage of amazing innovation and progress happening in the world of sustainable food and agriculture, it’s important to consider consumer behavior as an integral part in driving change. As this article points out, there is often a good deal of subconscious decision-making that goes into considering sustainable food choices, whether it’s at the grocery store buying tomorrow’s breakfast or dining at a neighborhood restaurant. Providing sustainable options and alternatives (in this case vegetarian dishes) is the first phase of driving sustainability. And it’s an important one. But perhaps as equally important is the second phase: making those sustainable options become sustainable outcomes. Integrating sustainability into traditional sectors, industries, and community spaces means situating sustainable options next to conventional ones. It is important to point out that these options are better for the planet, but it’s also necessary to make sure they appear on par with the other options, as equally valid to choose from.

Beef and Beans

A recent article published in Anthropocene, an excellent sustainability-focused magazine, addresses the environmental benefits of replacing beef with beans. The article discusses a study which conducted a life cycle assessment (LCA) on both beef and beans, revealing that if the entire U.S. population consumed beans instead of beef over the next few years, we’d already have reached up to 75% of the emissions-reduction targets for 2020. That’s crazy!

I’m all for eating beans, and they happen to be one of my favorite foods: pintos, black beans, garbanzos, you name it. But I’m not sure all of America loves beans enough to commit to that kind of sustainability goal. The beef burger is, after all, the definition of fine American cuisine. Perhaps another solution lies in the increasingly popular Impossible Burger, a plant-based burger that quite possibly tastes, looks, and sizzles just like beef.

Now that we have a great-tasting burger alternative, why not everyone just hop on the vegetarian bandwagon and help save the planet? Sure, that’d be great! I hope to see high-quality meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger continue to pop up in restaurants and stores around the country, and I’m excited to learn about the innovation that gives rise to such products.

But for those of us who aren’t replacing beef with beans or other more sizzling alternatives, there’s companies like BovControl to help push sustainable food production forward. BovControl is a Brazilian startup in the business of Ag Tech, using data and technology to increase the efficiency of beef production. Their mission? To empower farmers and decrease world hunger. While their mission is not sustainability-specific, BovControl allows beef production to expand while making use of resources more efficiently and generating fewer emissions, which when scaled up could have a huge impact on climate change.holstein-cattle-2318436_1920

Climate change is a huge, multi-faceted issue, and animal agriculture is equally as complex. While it’s easy to think about the choice between beef burgers and bean tacos when deciding what to eat for dinner, it takes a lot more thought to consider all of the environmental, social, and economic factors at play. Here, I’ve tried to highlight three different approaches to reducing the environmental impact of beef consumption: advocating reduced beef intake, innovating plant-based meat alternatives, and driving more efficient beef production. Each of these approaches is completely valid, which demonstrates that a variety of innovative, sustainable solutions together will help us achieve food sustainability and security in the future.