Julian Cribb, author of the acclaimed “The Coming Famine” and a keynote speaker at next month’s International Foodservice Sustainability Symposium, has spied an unexpected hero in the world’s mounting food crisis. More Clark Kent that Superman, given more to culinary whites and toques than capes or masks, Cribb’s potential rescuer is the foodservice chef.
He explains why in this interview with Christopher Koetke, executive director of the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts, the host of the IFSS.
Koetke: It’s exciting to think that chefs may hold one of the keys to this dilemma because they set “food fashion.” Where do they start? What can we say to chefs about what they really need to do to help people understand the issues at hand?
Cribb: As I mentioned in the book, I’m a very humble domestic chef, but I was impressed when I visited the The World Vegetable Centre regional research facility in Arusha, Tanzania. Scientists there have collected seeds from the whole of Africa, including about 400 vegetables that have never appeared in any restaurant or supermarket; these vegetables were being eaten by local indigenous tribes and, indeed, sometimes even the next tribe didn’t know about them. And that’s just Africa. Think about how Christopher Columbus brought over the American potatoes, tomatoes and peppers to Europe and how that revolutionized the world diet. Now multiply that by Africa, Asia, and Australia. We have about 6,000 edible plants in Australia and only five of them are regularly consumed – macadamias, cumquats, bush tomatoes, bush pepper and lemon myrtle. We have not even begun to discover the richness of this world’s edible plant foods. We talk about eating more plant foods and it can be a marvelous and healthy culinary adventure.
Koetke: You say you’re not a professional chef but your comments are very much those of a professional chef because we are increasingly learning about the diversity within the plant world and it is great inspiration. I frequently travel to other countries like Brazil and I’ve tried a whole host of fruits and vegetables that I never knew existed. It’s fascinating and elicits the kind of creative inspiration that really gets the ideas flowing, whereas meat is essentially limiting.
Cribb: Well, meat isn’t all that limiting. I was recently invited to address a beef feedlot association’s annual conference and I gave them my usual message, which really worried them, and one guy asked, “What can we do?” The fact is that if the primary input, grain, is going to triple in price, then beef feed lotting isn’t going to work out. And I said to them, “Have you ever thought about diversifying into guinea pigs?” I mean there are livestock other than just cattle. Smaller livestock, like guinea pigs and rabbits can run in much smaller areas, can eat a more diversified diet – you can grow algae and feed it to them or you can use vegetable waste from supermarkets. The current formula is very limiting, but my point is that it doesn’t need to be. I believe that diversification is going to happen; we already see it with the Chinese who essentially eat anything that runs, swims or jumps. I think people will even begin farming certain types of insects as a good source of protein, just like we’re farming prawns, which are essentially insects of the sea.
Koetke: In Chapter 12 of your book you open up with a scenario set in 2085 in which students visit a museum to see how their ravaged world came to be; they see an object at the end of a long hallway that is the cause of the end of the world, the symbol of indulgence – a cookbook. I thought that was really interesting and would like you to comment on that really means.
Cribb: People think their own indulgences don’t matter, but when you multiply those personal indulgences by seven billion human beings, they have a very big impact. A cookbook looks innocent, but the wrong kinds of advice in a cookbook about what you eat can kill you and make agriculture unsustainable. We need to have cookbooks that help farmers and send market signals to grow fruits and vegetables in sustainable ways. Current cookbooks aren’t produced like that.
Koetke: You’ve pointed out a potential cookbook market segment that could be very interesting.
Cribb: Without being too preachy, I’d like the cookbook to gently educate the reader. Perhaps recipes could be labeled with a number of droplets signaling that the recipe is water-heavy or water-light, oil-heavy or oil-light so they understand their choices.
Koetke: That’s interesting because that kind of weighting is very much what the nutrition industry has done. It could be done much like nutritional content is done now. I think there’s an awful lot there to think about.
Cribb: Ordinary people in cities that don’t have contact with agriculture don’t understand these things. They don’t know how their food is produced and that most of our meat is produced by cruel, inhumane and toxic methods. They just see it as pink stuff in the supermarket that’s part of their diet. Chefs, cooks, and food designers can look further upstream in an attempt to understand it and help educate people, because as I said before, they set the food fashion.