You could feel that spring had come to the Berkshires after a long and gray winter. Wherever we went around Great Barrington, farmers and gardeners were hoeing the ground, planting seeds, adjusting water lines, patching up chicken coops, or moving livestock between pastures.
By noon on Saturday, many of us congregated at the Route 7 Grill near Great Barrington, to sample and discuss the foods and brews unique to the Berkshires, and ponder what they meant to our society as Earth Day of 2008 loomed before us. We sipped hard cider made from heirloom Baldwin Apples, nibbled at freshly-picked spring greens, passed around Berkshire Blue cheese, and savored barbecue sandwiches from brisket smoked not fifty yards from where we were sitting.
As the warm sun poured down upon us and the first daffodils broke broke out into flower in the pasture beyond us, I drifted off into a reverie about folks were eating when the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970.
I remember that day because I had taken a “leave of absence” from my freshman year in college to work as a cartoonist and cub reporter at Earth Day headquarters in Washington, D.C. Like many times before and since, I was essentially playing hookie from my normal responsibilities to engage with others in promoting a somewhat novel way of looking at the world around us: we wished to have all human inhabitants on this little planet understand how their actions and consumption patterns affected the entire biosphere in which we lived. But while we worked fourteen hour days writing newsletters and press releases in a little office on DuPont Circle, we were oblivious to the fact that our own eating patterns might be contributing to the planet’s problem.
The staff of hard-core activists would hardly look up from their desks went someone came around to “order out” for some fast food. Most likely, it came from the Roy Rogers grill across the street or the twenty-four hour cafe a floor below us, one that was filled with policemen, hooker and pimps drinking bad coffee and eyeing one another all hours of the day or night. I remember that one day, I finally tired of the constant smell of grease, and went for a walk in attempt to find a health food store. Given the little pocket change I had at the time, all I could purchase was a bag of Basmati rice from India, a jar of orange honey from Florida, and some almonds from California. I lived off that combination for another week, leaving my desk only to nap on the mail bags in the postal room at the end of the hall.
Among the news events we covered at that time, food, farming or fishing were not much a part of our concern for a healthy environment. We wrote about the lead in paint, the pesticides on lawns, the sulfurous fumes rising from smoke stacks. We behaved as though our food came from another planet. The only connection we saw between food and planetary health was through Francis Moore Lappe’s little book, Diet for a Small Planet, which made it difficult for us to imagine how anyone in the future could eat meat, given how much grain and beans our burgeoning population would need to feed itself.
We knew that species were already disappearing from the face of the earth, but imagined eagles and rhinos and pandas, not the diverse species which still blessed our tables at that time: swordfish and sea turtles and white abalones and Jerusalem artichokes. No one used the term biodiversity at the time of the first Earth Day, and certainly no seventeen-year old like me could have then fathomed that the loss of food biodiversity would emerge as a concern among those worried about food security.
But in the months approaching that first Earth Day in 1970, scientists were suddenly realizing the risks of monoculture and of having too few crop varieties in the field, as the Southern Corn Blight raged through the rural communities of the South and Midwest.
Today, we are facing unprecedented rises in commodity food prices, largely because of the fossil fuel embedded in nearly every bite we take. The price of corn in the U.S. has doubled since 2005. The same amount of food relief the U.S. government annually offers the poor of the world currently costs $500 million more than it did a year ago, independent of how many additional people are currently going hungry. And at the same time, we are realizing that one of the most resilent buffers against food insecurity and outright famine —-food biodiversity—-is also in peril.
For this Earth Day, the Renewing America’s Food Traditions alliance released a list of some 1104 food species, varieties, and stocks that are threatened, endangered or already extinct, that are no longer on any North American table. This food biodiversity—of heirloom fruits and seeds as well as fish, game and heritage livestock breeds—-has nourished our ancestors and predecessors on this continent for centuries. And yet, these foods have been put at risk by over thirty environmental and economic threats to our food system. No one cause accounts for all of the losses our food system has suffered, from the extinction of the Passenger pigeon to the epidemic which depleted American chestnuts, or the collecting which decimated the white abalone.
But if historic consumption and habitat degradation has threatened so many foods over such a short period of time, is it not possible for our society to reverse those trends as well, by shifting our eating and purchasing habits to favor those food species that can again become sustainably-harvested, and those producers who are investing in diversity and restore habitats on-farm and off? Chefs Collaborative’s work—from its sustainable seafood campaigns to the American Heritage Picnics it has sponsored—clearly demonstrates that chefs and consumers can enable what we call “eater-based conservation.”
Much of the Earth Day that I will have this year is not only more flavorful but more sustainable than what I sampled some thirty-eight years ago around DuPont Circle. Importantly, food, farming and fishing issues are more integrated into Earth Day celebrations than ever before. Are current heroes and inspirations are not just Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, Ralph Nader and Frankie Lappe, but Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Deborah Madison, Peter Hoffman, Rick Bayless and Joan Gussow as well.
The selection of what we eat is perhaps the most direct impact we have on the earth and its waters. Earth Day, in a sense, is the communion celebration by which we acknowledge that we can either heal or damage the earth, depending how we eat. Let us all answer the call to eater-based conservation by any means we can muster.