A Menu for Curbing Climate Change Will Be Served at Key U.N. Conference

Former White House chef Sam Kass will create dishes intended to highlight how agriculture can both cause and help solve global warming.
Sam Kass. (Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/'The Washington Post' via Getty Images)
Oct 19, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

A city that loves politics nearly as much as it loves food, Paris is a place where a bistro dinner might feature both debate and an excellent steak frites. At the end of this year, however, what’s on the plate at one Parisian dinner will be central to the politicking and negotiation going on at the United Nation’s climate change summit. Some 25,000 delegates are meeting in Paris to hammer out the final details on a climate change treaty, and as Civil Eats reports, former White House chef Sam Kass is hoping to show them how food is tied up with greenhouse gas emissions—and how it can help reduce them.

Kass will serve a sequel to the lunch he and chef Dan Barber prepared at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City in September to highlight the issue of food waste. As he oversaw the preparation of dishes made from vegetable scraps, pickle butts, and spent brewer’s grain, Kass asked, according to The New Yorker, “Has there ever been a lunch with more riding on it?”

The answer is yes. While much of the focus of the New York lunch was food waste, the stakes will be higher in Paris, where leaders are meeting to determine how to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. The scientific consensus is that a great rise in temperature could result in dire changes in the climate. Unlike the U.N. goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent globally, which was announced at the General Assembly, this meeting will result in a binding climate change treaty among the 190 countries in the United Nations—and could potentially save the world from climate-related disasters of a catastrophic scale.

Just as Barber has helped to complicate the notion of what food waste is with his high-profile “Wasted” dinner series at his New York restaurant Blue Hill, the ideas that Kass is hoping to convey go beyond simplistic notions like veganism for all. Yes, raising beef and other livestock can do incredible damage to the environment—but the way we grow and harvest and eat grains, fruits, and vegetables presents climate-related issues too.

“If it were a nation, rotting food would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas. and it takes 28 percent of the planet’s agricultural land to produce,” Kass told Civil Eats, In the United States alone, 40 percent of the food we produce ends up in a landfill.

So instead of focusing on any one -ism of diet—veganism or vegetarianism or flexitarianism—Kass hopes to present a meal on two plates: one made with the kind of conventional ingredients that contribute to the 18 percent of global emissions that agriculture currently creates, and another featuring foods that hint at the possibility of a sustainable future of farming.

It’s an approach that could help the delegates—and their respective publics—look at the issues of climate and food not just in terms of what to eat or not eat but in terms of how a given ingredient was produced. With regard to meat, for example, many have argued that responsible pasture management can help cattle ranches sequester carbon in the soil, more than can be said for expansive monoculture planting of corn and soy, which can release stored carbon.

Whatever the agreement that comes out of the summit, Kass believes chefs can continue to expand the conversation around food and climate change—and create real changes in their own communities.

“If we can build a global network of chefs who are engaged and have an elevated voice because they’re on this kind of stage,” he told Civil Eats, “we can start to inform how these policies are developed country by country.”