What is the role of a chef in the Anthropocene?
Chefs are important community leaders that can help individuals adapt to climate change. They can help us to reduce the environmental foodprint of our diets.
If you asked me what a chef’s role in the Anthropocene is at varying points in my career, I would either have had to look up Anthropocene to learn we live in an age where earth systems are driven by humans. Or, I would have shrugged my shoulders and may have even shied away. Sometimes it is just easier to take a break from the physical toils of event management and catering.
Now, it is essential to help inform the general public about the connections between our food system, our individual health, and climate change. It may be difficult to believe or comprehend how this is even possible. However, there is strong evidence demonstrating these links exist.
For this effort to be successful, there are many ways to contribute. I believe there are three important tactics to employ.
How Chefs Can Be Climate Change Leaders:
- Be bold. Demonstrate how whole, plant-based foods can be an enjoyable component in our daily lives. Lead by example.
- Share our knowledge and experience. Help individuals to maximize their enjoyment of plant-based foods and minimize their food waste.
- Show compassion. Give support to those wanting to make lifestyle changes.
Chefs Can Lead Through The Foods We Make
The food system is a complex, global, and an interconnected web of environmental, social, and economic factors. Everything from our individual diets to local farms to agribusiness to governmental policy (and more) help to create it. An individual wanting to make an informed choice will likely find navigating a plethora of competing messages and information challenging if not formidable.
Chefs can be the conduit that helps to translate policy into community and individual action through the recipes we create and our ability to make memorable experiences through food.
What we know to be true.
Earlier this year, a commission released its findings connecting climate change to what we eat in a global, systematic fashion. No stone was left unturned as the authors demonstrate that we are all going to have to make significant changes to our diets in order to meet the thresholds set in the Paris accords.
Our own health is at stake too. Not only do Western diets contribute to climate change and environmental degradation, our heavily animal-based traditions are also causes to many of the issues that plague our health care system.
For example, consumption of meat is associated with a higher contribution to greenhouse gas production. In addition, meat consumption correlates with the prevalence of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, Type II diabetes, and obesity. On the other hand, increased consumption of fruits and vegetables can lead to improved health, lower rates of mortality, and be less negatively impactful on the planet.
What do the experts say?
Yes, eating better does have its benefits, but there is more nuance to it than just Meatless Mondays as a solution (despite it being just one way of becoming more plant-based!).
In order to accommodate a diverse and growing global population, there is a proposed reference diet that allows for a range of choices from entirely plant-based to some consumption of animal based proteins. The reference diet is probably most comparable to the more widely known “Mediterranean Diet” in that it largely consists of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and some animal-based foods. It also can be applied across most cultures and their respective cuisines.
However, most will agree that the recommended weekly allowance of 3.5 ounces of red meat or 1-2 ounces of poultry is a stark change from what most Americans are accustomed.
Chefs will need to present food in creative ways that make consuming legumes, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables as appealing. Chefs will also have to provide more choices (and more than one) to their customers. What we create should respect the environment and the individuals that are making lifestyle changes.
Chefs can be climate change leaders by teaching their communities about climate change, the foods we eat, and how to prevent waste.
It is not enough to just prepare food and feed people. We have to help our communities develop their own knowledge and skills at home. And we have to help prevent food waste.
An interesting aspect of a global shift (or even just an American shift) to plant-based diets is the risk that improved diets may result in greater food waste at the consumer level.
The reason for this is simple.
- Plant-based foods are less calorically dense than animal-based foods.
- As our diets shift, we will consume more plant-based foods to account for the caloric difference.
- If our current habits at home do not change with our diets, we will end up wasting more food despite our best efforts to improve.
When food is thrown-out unconsumed, think of all the inputs such as land, water, fertilizers, and energy used to produce that food item. If food is produced and unconsumed, those inputs (and their potential to pollute) still occur. And now that food is decomposing in a landfill somewhere. While it decomposes, it releases methane gas worsening our current changing climate situation.
Therefore, our foodprint is the sum of all the parts to what we eat and throw away.
Chefs must prevent waste out of business necessity. Dealing in perishable commodities teaches chefs to be constantly thinking of ways squeeze the last dollar from unused ingredients. For most individuals at home, they may purchase foods with the best intentions of preparing a recipe they saw online, but nevertheless end up consuming other, more convenient foods. Or they may not even know what to do with left-overs resulting in food waste.
By sharing our knowledge and appreciation for diverse cuisines, chefs have an opportunity to inform their communities and teach them new, lasting, lifestyle skills.
Making change is personal.
It is generally inconvenient to choose changing one’s diet and food traditions to combat climate change. Most will not make this important association; they may even be fearful of this kind of change.
In our culture, meat and masculinity are closely associated, and revered to the extent that we create clever cognitive tricks to justify our choices. At the same time, we are more likely to make change or even be more open minded to making one if there are other individuals (especially family) to help.
While chefs help lead their communities towards change, we must do it in ways that are supportive and encouraging. Our success will not come from telling people what to do or what changes they should make.
It will come from providing a menu of appealing and flavorful options because change like this will be different for everyone. For some, it could be about learning new skills that help them to really prepare food in their homes for the first time. While others will want to pay respect to family or cultural traditions and explore how to develop familiar flavors with new ingredients.
It is imperative that we act, but equally imperative that we do it in ways that casts the widest net and empowers individual choice for change. Chefs are uniquely positioned to lead in this regard by sharing our experiences and knowledge that makes lasting lifestyle change both enduring and palatable.
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