If ‘you are what you eat,’ then I want to eat sustainably. But how?
Several years ago, my teenage daughter dropped what felt like a little grenade at the dinner table. She had been doing some research and had come to a decision: she wanted to go not just vegetarian, but vegan. It was better for the earth, she said, and for her health.
I wasn’t so sure—and not just because I foresaw difficult dinner prep in my future. If we wanted to eat sustainably, should meat be off the table? All meat, or just beef? Wasn’t chicken kind of OK? If I veered to soy meat alternatives, how did those square with concerns about land use, water waste, pesticides, and growing cycles? Was dairy really a problem? And if it was, what was the best alternative? Almond milk? Oat milk? What even was oat milk?
We all get lots of mixed messages from the mainstream media (to say nothing of social media) about what’s healthy for both body and planet. But the good news is that I’m not alone in trying to figure it out. Rather than stand in the grocery aisles and scratch my head, I decided that if I really wanted to know how to eat sustainably, I should ask the experts. And as luck would have it, I could follow one of the main tenets of sustainability: keep it local. I spoke to four UMass researchers—all approaching the same question from different directions.
John Gerber, professor of sustainable food and farming, has watched the trajectories of environmentalism and agriculture converge on a shared goal, which is essentially sticking it to the Man. “The idea of sustainability was generated by farmers who were struggling to compete with an industrial food system designed to exploit people and drive prices down,” Gerber explains. As someone who grew up in a world filled with margarine and Tang, I can attest that the industrial food system worked very effectively. “The farming community said, ‘We need to get more sustainable and grow food in ways that are environmentally and socially sound.’ And the farmers did it,” says Gerber.
But not overnight. The sustainable food and farming major was created just before Gerber came on board at UMass’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture 20 years ago. “There were 5 students,” he recalls. “Today, there are 200 students in the major,” with Sarah Berquist ’11, ’15MS at the helm as program coordinator (pictured above). About half of those students are on campus and the other half are online—but they are still on the ground, so to speak. This program attracts a particular kind of student: one who has a love of the land, doesn’t necessarily feel most at home in the classroom, and is interested in bucking the system.
When you buy a locally raised beef product that’s grown on grass, in your region, you’re contributing to your own personal health, the health of that community, and the health of the planet.—John Gerber
“In the early 2000s, there was a real change in the world, an antiestablishment kind of thing,” Gerber says. “There were people who probably wouldn’t have been in college at all if not for this major.” Sustainable food and farming offered a new path of action for a generation of future farmers. “It helps them protest the inequities of the food system,” Gerber points out. “But there are also folks who want to work outdoors and do something tangible that they can share with others.” Gerber could be describing idealistic kids of any generation. “At another time these students might have been in the software industry,” he laughs. “But right now, many of these folks are creating new ways of growing and marketing food, and making sure people have access to good food.”
Fake It Till You Make It
But what qualifies as good food? Is it tasty? Nutritious? Responsibly sourced? Distinguished Professor David Julian McClements in the Department of Food Science has a slightly different vantage point. “We eat processed food because it’s convenient and inexpensive,” he says. “My argument is, let’s make processed food healthy for you. Affordable, convenient, nutritious, and sustainable.”
McClements is not referring to the Cheez Whiz and Cool Whip of my childhood—he’s talking about products like the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger. “They’re highly processed foods, but they aim to make the food supply more sustainable, healthier, and more ethical by not having animals treated badly,” McClements says. An Impossible Burger may well be more sustainable than an actual beef patty, but that’s also kind of a low bar, right? “I think it’s an empirical question: Are they better for the planet? Comparing them with meat products, they come out ahead in lots of measures—less greenhouse gas, less land use, less water use.”
But McClements is also interested in other highly sustainable protein sources: bugs. “I have a box of Mexican spice worm snacks on my wall right now,” he points out. Thanks to the miracle of food science, bug-based products can easily be disguised as just another crunchy, salty snack. “Do you want a snack that causes heart disease and obesity, or one that’s full of protein and minerals? It’s possible that instead of picking up a bag of potato chips you’ll pick up spiced maggots or larvae or crickets.” Pause. “They might have to come up with other words for these.”
Two billion people in the world already eat insect food. In the West, we’re just not used to it. There’s a yuck factor for lots of people, but that was the same with lobster two hundred years ago. If you’ll eat lobster, why not a bug?—David Julian McClements
It’s hard to imagine digging into a bag of spiced maggots, I have to say. But if we really want our food supply to be sustainable, we’re going to have to think more broadly about what we consider food. “Two billion people in the world already eat insect food. In the West, we’re just not used to it,” he says. “There’s a yuck factor for lots of people, but that was the same with lobster two hundred years ago. If you’ll eat lobster, why not a bug?”
If you still can’t see yourself eating a grasshopper, don’t worry. “If foods don’t look and taste good, no matter how healthy they are for you or the environment, you won’t eat it,” McClements says. So maybe instead of eating crickets, we’ll buy cricket flour, or eat energy bars that are fueled by crickets? “Exactly,” McClements says. “In the Netherlands you can get bug burgers. They’ve got huge bug factories there with around seven billion insects in one factory—the same as the number of people on the planet! A lot of them are used for animal feed, but some of them are used in human foods too. It’s a great way of turning a waste product into something valuable.”
Hold up. Why are we even talking about bug burgers? It’s because the old-fashioned beef burger has become notorious for being one of the least sustainable food choices we can make. But both McClements and Gerber pointed out to me that things aren’t quite that simple. A factory-farmed burger is undeniably bad from an environmental standpoint. “So much land use, lots of pollution,” McClements says. Gerber agrees that industrially raised meat is “a disaster,” but points out that a locally raised, grass-fed beef burger can actually be a beneficial part of the food chain. “When you buy a locally raised beef product that’s grown on grass, in your region, you’re contributing to your own personal health, the health of that community, and the health of the planet,” Gerber maintains. “You have to have animals in a sustainable system to cycle the nutrients.” It’s not all about what we eat—it’s also about where the food we eat comes from.
I’ll Drink to That
Of course, sustainable eating isn’t just about eating. It’s about everything we put in our mouths—and I’ll be the first to admit that for me, that includes the occasional glass of wine. Which brings us to Elsa Petit, a lecturer in viticulture and plants, who focuses on diseases of grapevines and how viticultural practices can influence disease-causing evolution—and disease-resistant evolution as well. It was one thing for Petit to study grapes in her native France. But when she first landed in Western Massachusetts. . . “I was thinking, OK, what can I do with grapes here?” she admits. “Then I saw grapes everywhere in the wild!” New England grapes are actually hardier and more resilient than many others because the weather demands it. The rest of the world depends on American grapes too. More than a century ago, an American root insect—a pest—infected vineyards across Europe, devastating grape crops. Farmers responded by importing the rootstocks from American grapes and grafting them onto European varieties. “American grapes were resistant to the pest because they evolved along with it,” Petit explains. “So now the tops of European grape plants are native to Europe, but the bottoms are all American.”
In that past success, Petit sees an elegant answer to eating local in a truly sustainable way. When a species has adapted to a particular region, it’s resistant to disease. “So I started looking at microryza—fungi that help support grapevines at the root level—but how would I know which are best for American rootstocks? Here in the center of New England is the perfect place to look at all those natural wild grapes to find the good microbes for vines all over the world.” Petit’s research, in other words, isn’t only about roots of grapes; it’s about getting at the roots of resilient agriculture. “We have many American hybrids. It would be much more sustainable to eat local grapes because you don’t have to ship them—and they’d be more interesting for your palate!” Spoken like a true French native.
All the local, sustainable, disease-resistant grapes in the world won’t mean much, however, if they go bad before anyone can eat them. One of the major considerations in food sustainability is waste, and one of the most exciting inventions to combat food waste just came from UMass last fall, and here’s the kicker: that great idea came from someone about my daughter’s age.
Harsha Prakki ’22 saw firsthand the effects of poor food storage practices when she lived in India as a middle schooler and suffered foodborne illness herself. Food spoilage creates two problems—either consumers throw away good food too early, contributing to massive food waste, or they eat it too late and get ill. “When I came back to America for high school, I drew on these experiences in order to find a solution,” Prakki says. She developed Qualtags, which are chemically activated stickers that work with both time and temperature to ascertain whether produce is safe to eat. “They look a little like the stickers on bananas,” she says. “The chemical inside changes color over time depending on the temperature changes.”
Prakki has gotten a lot of positive feedback, to put it mildly. Last fall she made it to the regionals to compete for the prestigious Hult Prize, which awards a $1 million grand prize to the project with the most innovative approach to solving tough social problems. Qualtags definitely fit that bill. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, food waste creates 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions per year—and that doesn’t even touch on all the land use, water, and pesticides that went into creating the food that spoiled. There’s not much point in dithering over locally grown, ethically sourced food if it ends up in the trash. And perhaps it makes perfect sense that Prakki invented this game-changing technology while still in her teens. Who has more at stake in combating climate change than the youngest members of society?
Which brings me back to the dinner table at my house. The teen who announced her veganism several years ago is now at college herself. Beyond paying for her meal plan, my involvement in her dietary choices is slim to none. But the other night her younger sister, as if on cue, announced that she wants to go vegetarian and zero waste, and could I please start buying oat milk instead of cow milk?
This time, I’m ready.
Local farmers deliver
When grocery shopping became a challenge during the coronavirus pandemic, local UMass alumni stepped in to fill the gap with fresh fruit, milk, produce, and more. Sunderland Farm Collaborative delivers food to the local area and includes Apex Orchards (Becca Drew ’13, wholesale manager), Mapleline Farm (Chad Dizek ’01, farm manager; Richard West ’91, herd manager; John Kokoski ’69, business manager), Queen's Greens (Matt Biskup ’95, co-owner), and Riverland Farm (Meghan Arquin ’99, co-owner).
The collaborative offers no-contact delivery of fresh local fruit, milk, greens, and other produce straight to their customers’ doors. Some of the same farms also participate in Mass Food Delivery, which serves the entire state. “I am so impressed by how quickly the local farmers responded to the pandemic by offering a home delivery service to our community,” says Hannah Jacobson-Hardy ’10, owner of Sweet Birch Herbals and Full Moon Ghee, one of the participating purveyors. “Within days of the farmers’ market cancellations being announced, Julia Coffey of Mycoterra Farm invited me to participate in the Mass Food Delivery program and I did not hesitate. It has allowed my company to reach more people in a time of much need,” she says.