When we talk about sustainable eating, many people assume that only means swapping meat and dairy products for plant-based alternatives. And while it’s true that plant-based products generally have much lower carbon and water footprints in comparison to animal-derived products, eating vegan isn’t the only way to incorporate sustainability into our meals.
That’s where “climate cuisine” comes in: It’s time for consumers to consider the climate local crops thrive in. To learn more about climate resiliency and growing local, sustainable crops, Brightly’s founder and CEO Laura Wittig speaks to Clarissa Wei, host of the Climate Cuisine podcast, in this week’s episode of Good Together.
Wei is a freelance journalist and video producer, and she’s currently working on her first-ever cookbook, Made in Taiwan. In her podcast, she “explores how sustainable crops are used in similar climate zones around the world”—and how local consumers can incorporate them into diets.
“I really just feel like the conversation on sustainable cuisine can be pushed even further and focused on our specific area in the world where we live,” Wei says. “Because so much of sustainability right now is these big blanket situations to cover up the problems that mass globalization and capitalism has generated. But we’re not thinking locally and based on where we are, and it’s just this presence that I wanted to bring to the conversation that inspired the podcast.”
Wei’s goal is to help listeners get a better understanding of how local behaviors impact the environment and the food we see on grocery store shelves. Here’s how she’s reimagining mindful and sustainable eating, one local crop at a time.
According to Wei, eating the crops that grow and thrive in our local climates is actually a traditional way of acquiring food. She says it’s important to recognize how Indigenous people have cultivated and harvested sustainable cuisine.
Take the pigeon pea, for example. Wei says the pigeon pea is actually an excellent nitrogen fixer—aka a natural fertilizer—and it’s been grown in India for centuries. However, Indigenous groups in Taiwan have been known to grow pigeon peas and legumes and use them as natural nitrogen fixers.
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“It wasn’t this hipster, new way—it was just very traditional here in Taiwan,” Wei says. “That was just so cool. And I think that’s been such a delight on my podcasting journeys. These ingredients are nothing new; cultures have been using them for so many years all over the world. It’s just [about] relearning about them, or shifting our perspective a little bit and taking inspiration from other cultures like that.”
That’s also one of the innovations in the ethical and sustainable lifestyle movement that excites Wei.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel—we’re just taking inspiration from the people who were here before,” she says. “Because I think so much of the conversation before was, ‘How can we change the entire food system and reinvent everything?’ And I think now people are digging back into the roots and being our Indigenous stewards. They were able to cultivate the land and not ruin it.”
In the Climate Cuisine trailer, Wei mentions that “global supply chains have made our diets homogenous.” And because of this, average consumers don’t always recognize the amount of energy and resources it takes to produce and ship the food on our plates.
She also says reimagining what sustainability means in terms of crops and foods can change grocery stores as we know them. How? By incorporating more of a variety of foods on the shelves.
“You go in a grocery store, and you only see one type of banana, or you just have one avocado,” she says. “And that banana is grown in a Latin American country and shipped over, and they’re grown in these monoculture systems where it’s devastating to the soil, and in fact, there’s actually a disease. It’s wiping out all the bananas now because of these giant monoculture systems.”
In other words, it’s still vital to consider the energy and resources that go into producing the items we see on grocery store shelves. Wei says she’s personally growing five different types of bananas on her home farm. And she predicts that prioritizing the crops that thrive in your local climate can increase diversity on the shelves, all while benefitting the environment.
“The reason why diversity is even a thing in the natural world is because if there’s a disease, it will just wipe out one strain, but then other varieties will thrive,” Wei says. “And the fact that we only see one type of banana or a couple of types of apples is really problematic. Because we have seen this in history already: When a disease breaks out, that strain will die. And then people will have to genetically engineer or pump in fertilizers to save that.”
In terms of Wei’s goal, she hopes to help audiences reimagine what sustainability means because the definition isn’t one size fits all. And she’s doing this by shedding light on the food that grows naturally in specific climates, so others can utilize that knowledge and create change.
“All I want to do is provide an inspiration on how to rethink what sustainability means,” she says. “Because I think it’s great we’re having this conversation. The people are finally aware that eating meat is not great in terms of the footprint, but there are other parts that one can do in shifting their diet that takes a closer step [toward] that sustainability goal.”
Your mindful and sustainable diet doesn’t have to be 100% vegan to be more sustainable. Instead, Wei stresses the importance of adopting food habits that are doable and work for your individual needs. She says she approaches sustainable eating with “baby steps,” and even she hasn’t completely cut out meat from her diet.
“I do think cutting out meat is one of the more direct and impactful things that one can change in their lifestyle to really make an impact,” Wei says. “But again, if you’re not willing to cut out meat, you can eat it once a week, and then try other things. And I think this, again, is just an ingredient or a tool you can throw in your toolbox to try to shift the diet a little bit.”
In other words, Wei hopes audiences will consider more locally-grown crops when it comes to cultivating diets. Adopting new behaviors isn’t easy, especially when our culture hasn’t considered this way of eating.
“I also just think it’s our culture of food or how we create recipes or cook dinner for ourselves,” she says. “We think of this aspirational dish that we have eaten before or our moms cook for us. And we’re like, ‘Okay, let’s gather all those ingredients and make it.’ Where really, it should be, ‘Let’s see what’s in season and build a meal around that ingredient.’”
It’s also important to remember that while climate cuisine is something to consider in terms of sustainable eating, it’s not something you have to embrace overnight. And Wittig mentions a good point: accessibility.
“It’s a question of creativity, it’s a question of time, money, access,” Wittig says. “There [are] so many things that go into it. But I think, from my perspective, I’m going to walk away with this conversation being more mindful about where my food is coming from and specifically thinking about the local aspect.”
After all, it’s important to start conversations—especially about behaviors that can have a positive impact on the environment. A conversation incites change, and that’s exactly what Wei is doing on Climate Cuisine.
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