Sarah Elton is the author of Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet. Consumed highlights the challenges—and opportunities—of feeding a hungry planet. Food Tank spoke with Elton about the book and her thoughts on the food movement.
Food Tank (FT): How did you become interested in the food movement?
Sarah Elton (SE): I have been a journalist for a long time, and there is a story that I tell that got me writing about food. My daughter came home from a birthday party with a cookie that was shaped like a pig, and it looked like it could have been from a local bakery. But it was shrink-wrapped; I turned it over and it said “Made in China.” This set me off on a research investigation about where our food comes from. This was before a lot of the regulation, and people were very honest with me about how production had moved to China.
FT: Did your first book, Locavore, help to inspire Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet?
SE: When I was talking about Locavore and going around Canada people would whisper to me, “This idea sounds great, but don’t we need industrial farming to feed the planet?” I wanted to look at the data and the facts and find out if that’s true. Very quickly when you look into the myth of needing industrial agricultural you see that it is just that: a myth, a dominant food myth.
FT: You traveled around the world while researching Consumed. How did you decide where to travel for the book?
SE: I wanted to go to the places that were important for the future. And that’s what led me to India, because climate change is already threatening the country. I wanted to go to India to see how people were responding to these threats. And also they have experienced so much from the Green Revolution. I wanted to see how to replace the Green Revolution with sustainable agriculture.
And how can you talk about the future without China? In China I looked at rice and biodiversity. And rice is one of the world’s most important crops.
Next, I wanted to look at how can we have biodiversity and sustainable agriculture in the future? What needs to happen so everyone supports these goals? Where have people gone beyond that? I traveled to the Auvergne region of France. They have been down the path we are on now with industrial agriculture, and they are now decades ahead of us in terms of building a food culture where food consumers can choose to support farmers who are producing sustainably.
I found that you could find support for sustainable food in every corner. But it’s different and unique to each other in every place.
FT: There are innovative ideas all over the world to help feed the planet without destroying it. Did you find many of the ideas to be location or climate specific, or do you think many of the ideas can be adapted for regions all over the world?
SE: Each area has its own challenges in terms of socioeconomic situations and climate. However, good ideas can be shared and are being shared. CSA is an obvious model. CSAs are pretty common in the United States and Canada, but they are novel and new in other parts of the world. Within one year of the first CSA opening outside of Beijing, there were dozens open around the country. Ideas can get adapted.
FT: It’s easy to get bogged down with negative aspects of our industrial food system. What drove you to write about the success stories in the food movement?
SE: It is depressing. It’s overwhelming. The bad news can be so bad. The reason I chose to write about the good things is because I thought people needed to know that all these people around the world are working to fix our problems. And it’s hard to remember.
I was in a taxi with a professor in Beijing; she was working with a village to grow sustainable rice and setting them up so they didn’t have to send family members to work in factories to make a profit. She said to me, “But what have I done? It’s just one village.” On the one hand she’s right, it’s just one village. But if you connect that village to the people in France, the people in India, across the United States, Europe, the Middle East, there truly is this global social movement.
FT: If you had to give one piece of advice to eaters from around the world to help support an environmentally friendly food system, what would it be?
SE: The number one thing would be eat less meat. Beyond eating less meat, for someone who isn’t involved in the food movement, it is to become aware of what you’re eating. Buy items that you hope can support the kind of food system you want for the future. Connect with the people creating your food.
FT: It has been nearly a year since Consumed was published. Do you think the past year has moved us closer to a planet able to feed itself sustainably?
SE: The food movement is moving forward. There are challenges, but there are also victories. For example, this agricultural land in my town that was going to be turned into a quarry has been stopped. Small victories and big victories happen. But we need to move faster to protect our farmland and to support our farmers and protect them from going out of business.
There is a lot of work ahead, but we should celebrate the little victories.