Brian Halweil

Posted on 26 January 2012

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The editor of Edible East End and publisher of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn talks about how he became interested in agriculture, how mindsets are changing in how we produce and consume the food we eat and why the East End has long held onto agricultural and aquaculture traditions now made popular as sustainable food movement grows.

How did you first become interested in agriculture and our food system?

I was tracking climate change, population growth, freshwater scarcity, hunger, and other dismal trends for an environmental think tank. Agriculture was at the root of so many of these crises. So if you were concerned about the fate of the planet, not to mention your own health, food seemed the thing to focus on.

After taking a position at the environmental think tank World Watch Institute, researching and writing about factory farming, over fishing of our oceans and what you termed “the twin epidemics of obesity and hunger in the world” you found hope on the East End of Long Island. What did you discover?

The history of modern agriculture reads like a mass extinction event. Small farms gobbled by large ones. Crop varieties narrowed and lost. But to live and eat on the East End today is like watching that process unfold in reverse. Traditional farmers are willing to adapt and innovate, there’s a huge new crop of upstart food and drink makers and support for this local food and wine and more coming from bars, restaurants and IGA shoppers. There’s a new sheep farm in Southold, a handful of new breweries in Suffolk County, and just recently, a friend connected local food pantries with local farms. The pantries got fresh produce and the farms got a new customer.

Is that what you’re going to discuss in the “Happy Valley,” as the keynote speaker at the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture’s annual conference?

It’s the conference’s 20th anniversary, so I’m going to discuss how even though many of the ecological challenges remain today, I’m very hopeful for the coming years because every where you look you see governments, companies, communities and families turning to food as a solution to these problems. Growing food, farmers might help reduce climate change by locking up carbon in their soils faster than energy companies will shift away from oil and coal. And the best fix for our rising healthcare costs might be giving farmers and supermarkets incentives to sell more fruit and vegetables.

Do you see trends in sustainable food production, often found historically on the East End, spreading across the state and country, if not the world?

A lot of these ideas seem to have gone viral. They are growing without major government involvement or other support. I was part of a research effort last year to identify sustainable solutions to hunger in Africa. And all the most effective innovations — from reducing food waste, to investing in urban farming, to feeding kids in schools — were sprouting up in dozens of African countries. And those same innovations are happening in New York, on the East End, and around the country.

How valuable are the edible schoolyards we have seen pop up at virtually every major school on the South Fork?

With a childhood obesity epidemic, teaching our kids how to cook and garden may be some of the most important life skills they need. Even where the schoolyards are too small to raise more than a bit of food, they are still monumental in terms of getting kids to consider what they put in their mouths and where it comes from. They will grow up to be better eaters, better food shoppers and better food citizens.

Speaking of edible schoolyards and nutrition, in the last few weeks the scandal of the food world has of course been the revelation that southern chef Paula Deen, famous for dishes like the bacon, egg, donut burger, has type two Diabetes. What kind of an impact, do you think, chefs like Deen have had on American food culture?

The Food Network has turned some chefs into household names. But I think this story shows that we are beginning to face up to the fact that most of our nation’s health burden comes from what we eat. We have a former President who is openly promoting eating less meat to improve his health, and a current First Lady who is an ambassador for kitchen gardens that are sprouting on a scale we haven’t seen since the Victory Gardens of the 1940s.

You have traveled the world, and studied food production on virtually every continent it seems. How is sustainable food production ultimately tied to healthier economies?

Agriculture may not be the world’s most lucrative industry, but it is arguably the only industry we can’t do without. When the Greek economy collapsed recently, people left their jobs in the city to grow food with their grandparents in the country. Food and drink will always remain. And with more and more people making food and drink experiences a bigger part of their lives, agriculture is attracting more investment. That’s why the state is helping build the new food distribution and innovations hub in Riverhead, why New York City is starting to invest again in public food markets. Communities that raise or make a greater share of their food can keep their landscape green, put money in their neighbors pockets, and insulate themselves from food shocks elsewhere. Not to mention, enjoy fresher tastier food.

Speaking of, how was your oyster crop this year?

This was a good this season. They were extra plump and the flesh had a light-green tinge and a strong, briney flavor. We have to get to the hatchery for more spat. We also got four laying ducks, but they haven’t started laying. And we’re still cutting greens from our cold frames. I built them from about $30 worth of materials. They were the best investment I ever made.

The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Conference will be held February 1 through February 4 at the Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel in State College, Pennsylvania. For more information, visit http://www.pasafarming.org.

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