Can we save the earth one stir-fry at a time? I was certainly dubious when I first saw the book, Cool Cuisine: Taking the Bite Out of Global Warming. Still, the lush cover photography of a verdant table setting and a bowl of farm-fresh eggs drew me in. As I flipped through the pages, I was a bit surprised to see they were packed with clean, colorful graphics and sidebars explaining everything from the atmospheric carbon cycle to the role of bees in agriculture and step-by-step instructions for successful composting. Each chapter concluded with a set of tasty-sounding recipes, and the copious endnotes had detailed references.
Was this a cookbook or a climate change guide? Or both? Intrigued, I started reading.
Food for a Healthy Planet
Laura Stec, a San Francisco Bay Area chef and the main authorial voice, opens with an explanation of what she calls “the global warming diet”: our modern dependence on mass-produced food from industrial farms that consume enormous amounts of fossil fuels and spew tons of waste. As a professional foodie, she is as dismayed by the environmental degradation as she is by the fact that what comes out at the end of that pipeline is “machine cuisine”—food that she says lacks freshness and flavor, with little connection to the sun and soil that produced it. Such food has no “vibe,” she writes. And she is determined to do something about it.
What follows is Stec’s own story of setting out to learn everything she could about the American food production enterprise. In a lively style, she describes encounters with dozens of scientists and armies of farmers in her quest to understand both the origins of machine cuisine and what makes good food good. Along the way, Stec met her co-author Eugene Cordero, a climate researcher at San Jose State University who co-wrote a global assessment of ozone for the United Nations in 2006 and is currently working on modeling projects for the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Cordero acted as the book’s overall science adviser and wrote most of the sidebars.
When I spoke with the authors, Cordero explained that he joined forces with Stec because his fellow climate scientists are well aware that worldwide food production could account for as much as 35 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. But the role of food in global warming hasn’t trickled down into popular discussions about solutions. Only in the past year has IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri started to say that people must reduce meat consumption for the good of the planet, Cordero noted, “and he’s the first famous climate scientist with any authority to be saying this, so I think it’s still a new concept, even for the climate science community.”
Other aspects of the book’s message are not so new, of course. The dysfunction of the modern food industry has been documented by journalist Michael Pollan and others. And the virtues of local and seasonal foods are also territory well trodden by chef-writers such as Alice Waters. But the way that Stec and Cordero combine their perspectives on food is entirely novel and highly effective. Together they connect the dots between overwhelmingly large-scale problems, such as nitrogen fertilizer runoff, and individual choices about what dishes we put on the dinner table every day.
One chapter, for example, called “Why All the Oil in My Soil?” explains how healthy soil is alive with microbes and nutrients, details the destructive effects of oil-based fertilizers, erosion and deforestation, and touts the merits of earthworms and shade-grown coffee and chocolate. Stec also explains how beans and legumes work with soil microbes to fix nitrogen, reducing the need for fertilizers, so by the time I reached the end of the chapter the recipes, including jalapeño rum beans and dark chocolate chili, not only sounded delicious, they made sense. “Of course, this is how we should be eating,” I thought, and I resolved to buy a slow cooker.