The parable of the hummingbird trying to put out a forest fire with his tiny beakful of water is emblematic of the challenges we face at a crossroads in the life of our planet and our food supply.

How do we wrestle with issues of food production, a swelling world population, an obesity epidemic, climate change, water scarcity, food-cost containment and antibiotic resistance? Though it seems absurd to suggest that the few drops of water a single, determined little creature can throw on a runaway conflagration will do anything, the bird doesn’t care.

That’s his home on fire and he’s doing his part to save it.

The hummingbird’s fierce determination to do the right thing symbolizes the Menus of Change initiative (MOC), a collaboration between The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that gathers leaders in public health, foodservice, policy and the environment to address issues critical to the food producers and eaters of the world.

The initiative’s third annual meeting brought researchers, public health experts, foodservice executives, chefs and other specialists to The CIA’s Hyde Park, New York, campus June 17-19 to do their part to dampen the flames searing today’s complicated food landscape.

These are the meeting’s key takeaways for health and fitness professionals, our clients (and everybody else for that matter).

A Plant-Forward Diet Is Good for Both People and Planet

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Walter Willett, MD, PhD

In his summary comments, Walter Willett, MD, PhD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition, and chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, noted that shifting from an animal-based diet (particularly one heavy in red-meat consumption) to a more plant-forward plan could address many, if not all, of the serious concerns discussed at this meeting. No surprise then, that Menus of Change leadership made this topic the centerpiece of this year’s event.

“Of course, that won’t solve all of the problems, but it is, like the hummingbird, doing our part. And it can be a pretty big part—it’s not just a few drops,” Willett said. “Clearly, in addressing these problems we need to look also at shifting our menus to a more plant-based diet, and look at every single step in the food chain.”

While sustainable eating is often described as farm to fork, Willett said we need a more well-rounded perspective. “The point is, it really has to be looking at this whole process not as a linear way of using resources or expending them in a linear way. That is not going to be sustainable. We really need to look at everything we do as part of a circular process that can be sustainable in the long run.”

As a practical (and delicious) example, CIA threw a “burger bash” reception where attendees sampled burger creations from chefs who either blended vegetables with meat to cut the animal protein—achieving a healthier and more planet-friendly outcome—or created burgers entirely out of vegetables. One example is this month’s Recipe for Health, a 100% vegetarian or vegan Indian Street “Burger” courtesy of Chef Jehangir Mehta, who spoke and demoed several recipes at the event.

We Cannot Ignore Drought and Water Scarcity

Arlin Wasserman, principal and founder of Changing Tastes and chair of the MOC Sustainable Business Leadership Council, kicked off a plenary session on risk related to climate change and water scarcity by saying that the only thing less predictable than the weather has been food costs for the foodservice industry—at least in recent years. It’s notable that rising costs get passed along to the consumer and can profoundly impact food-purchasing decisions, especially for those on fixed budgets.

The weather and food costs are intertwined, as each year’s harvest is shaped by the weather and the availability of water. Cases in point are the severe droughts unfolding this year in California and Brazil. It’s also connected to a historic lack of water along with a lack of clarity on how to prioritize limited resources of water that are available, or what the foodservice industry should—or even could—be doing.

The session explored how risks from climate change and water scarcity affect the foodservice industry today, along with strategies for managing the cost and supply of food, and protecting our water resources and businesses in the coming years.

Will Sarni, director of enterprise water strategy for Deloitte Consulting, delivered sobering projections:

  • In 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed or water-scarce areas.
  • By 2025, an estimated 45% of the global GDP will be generated in water-scarce/stressed areas of the world.

“If you live in the western U.S., you know this is real and you know it’s impacting businesses, the public sector and so on,” Sarni said. “There is an estimate that the drought is approximately a $3 billion hit to the state’s economy. That’s not good news—as California is the world’s seventh-largest economy, roughly, so $3 billion starts to become meaningful in the scheme of things. But this is not unique to California. California is essentially the canary in the mine highlighting some of the big issues that countries and regions are facing. We’re also seeing it in China and Brazil.”

We are also depleting our water assets. We are basically mining groundwater, Sarni explained, meaning we are extracting water faster than it can be recharged. In essence we’re taking it out of the bank, which offers no buffer for any of the shocks triggered by drought or climate change.

But “hope is not a strategy, so let’s stop pawing at the drought,” Sarni said. “Let’s deal with some of the structural issues that we’re facing in terms of how we manage water, price water and value water from both an economic and human perspective. The past is not a guide to the future. Things really have changed. We need to look at what the world will look like going forward.”

Sarni called for more pragmatic management of water resources and adopting the concept of analyzing “virtual water,” the water footprint of any product, food or otherwise, that requires water to manufacture it, import it or export it. It’s fundamental to know how much water it takes to grow something and then know where it goes, he said.

Antibiotic-Resistant “Superbugs” Are Getting Into our Food Supply

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Lance Price, PhD

Lance Price, PhD, a professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University and founder of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, spoke of how misuse of antibiotics in farmed animals affects public health. In short, because so many healthy animals are preemptively inoculated with antibiotics, new and robust strains of multidrug-resistant “superbugs” that cause infection in humans are proliferating.

This includes the more frequent and pernicious foodborne outbreaks of E. Coli as well as recent recognition of urinary tract infections with probable foodborne origins. Price and colleagues are calling for the elimination of such vaccination practices on healthy animals and are looking for clear, meaningful labels on antibiotic-free meat so consumers know exactly what they’re getting.

“Superbugs don’t just go away when the news cycle of outbreak ends,” Price said. “They proliferate and get stronger. The world between superbugs seems to be ‘Relax. Freak out. Relax. Freak out.’ Maybe we should be more in freak-out mode.”

An additional and disturbing piece to the antibiotic superbug puzzle was revealed by Thomas Harter, PhD, a groundwater hydrologist and the Robert N. Hagen Endowed Chair in Water Management and Policy at the University of California, Davis. Harter described new research pending publication wherein he and colleagues tested 200 domestic wells in California’s Central Valley for microbial contamination. It is estimated that this region, which accounts for less than 1% of the country’s farmland, grows 8% of the U.S. supply of fruits (by value) and vegetables , including 90% of the world’s almond supply.

Consider also that beef cattle ranching and farming accounts for 29% of land use in the Central Valley, according to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, which was released in late April 2014. Of the 200 wells tested beneath this farmland, Harter reported that he and his team found E. Coli in about 35 wells. Of those 35 positives, 33 were also positive for antibiotic resistance. “That’s astounding in terms of antibiotic-resistant genes in our drinking water,” Harter said. “That’s just sort of the tip of the iceberg.”

There Is Cause for Optimism

There is no doubt we have enormous challenges before us, agree the experts gathered at this conference. The issues in science we hear and read about daily cover the obesity epidemic, the rise of diabetes and also closely related to that, climate change, water scarcity and antibiotic resistance, to name a few. The list seems to grow longer with every news report. But there is cause to be hopeful.

According to the Menus of Change Annual Report, it’s clear that the diets of Americans are changing for the better. That’s incredibly encouraging, says Willett, who would be pleased to see it all happening much faster, but who will take what progress there is.

“One of the reasons I enjoy coming to this meeting and the other meetings that we have throughout the year with the foodservice industry is that their progress is really inspiring,” Willett said. “We see the problems and try to find ways of dealing with them, but at this meeting we get to hear from people on the front lines who are finding solutions and implementing those solutions on a day-to-day basis.

“This is complicated work, but the fact that statistics we’ve received show it’s happening is remarkable,” he said. “So, I’m amazed and encouraged by what’s happening. And I look forward to hearing about more accomplishments over the next year. A lot has been done, but do keep in mind that though our diet quality score has gone from 40 to 50, 110 is where we want to be. So, there indeed is still a lot more work to be done. But I am a lot more confident at this meeting than I am at other times of the year when I just mostly see the challenge side and not the solution side.”

Wondering how you can help? Fill your “beak” with a few drops from the MOC Annual Report and link to the MOC website for more information—then sprinkle a few drops on the fire by passing along your knowledge about these issues to clients and colleagues.

PHOTOGRAPHY: © Phil Mansfield/The Culinary Institute of America