Conscientious Cook: AMNH’s Global Kitchen – Watering Our Breadbasket

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

[This guest post comes to us from Adriana Velez of What I Made for Dinner. Welcome Adriana!]

Many of us have heeded the drumbeat leading us to local and seasonal foods. But lately all the noise has caused some confusion. Is organic always the best choice? Is local always better than shipped? Do rice and coffee take too much water to produce? What’s the big picture?

These questions were probed at a recent discussion, “Watering Our Breadbasket,” at the American Museum of Natural History (as part of the museum’s Global Kitchen series). The panelists were Frederick Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and President of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, and Peter Hoffman, chef and owner of New York’s Savoy and Back Forty and formerly the national chair of the Chefs Collaborative.

Hoffman told the story about New York City’s recent efforts to protect the city’s water sources….

…Almost a decade ago the Federal EPA told the City of New York it would have to install an new filtration system for its water. The city decided instead to invest in the Catskill, Delaware, and Croton Watersheds.

The Watershed Agricultural Council was established to protect these waterways, and the city invested in land as well as education for local farmers. As single-crop farms gave way to diversified crops, the Council also helped improve the economic viability of these farms and raised a campaign to encourage consumers to buy locally-grown and raised foods. The Council’s efforts not only saved New York City money and improved its water quality, it also changed the way upstate and downstate New Yorkers grow and buy their food.

If Hoffman’s focus is on consumers and farmers on a micro level, Kirschenmann’s focus is on systems at a macro level. Following World War II, America applied the classic industrial model of specialization, simplification, and concentration to its food production. The result is giant, monoculture farms that leech nutrients from the soil, soak up unsustainable amounts of water, pour toxins back into the soil and waterways, and require fossil fuels to distribute harvests.

The key to solving this dilemma is educating ourselves about how everything is connected. Our water and food issues are wrapped up in energy, soil, climate, consumption, and population issues. Kirschenmann wants everyone to get creative in solving these problems, creating new agricultural models, new technologies, and raising a new generation of farmers. He would like to see more coordinated regional food systems, small farms joining together to share transportation costs and branding themselves to get more market power (like Community Supported Agriculture). As for consumers, we need see our place in this network and play a more active role.

Hoffman treated us to some oyster chowder with Jerusalem artichokes concocted by Back Forty’s chef de cuisine Shanna Pacifico during the Q&A session. Several audience members volunteered resources where we can further educate ourselves about our role in the global breadbasket. “How can we research every bit of food we ever eat?” one audience member asked. “Nobody has enough time!” “Just keep engaging,” Kirschenmann said.

The Global Kitchen series features quarterly events tied to AMNH’s exhibitions, like the current Water exhibit.

The next planned event will be in conjunction with an exhibit on horses in May. See the museum’s website for further details.

Thank you Adriana!