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Barton Seaver: The Personal Side of Sustainability

Barton Seaver throws the remains of the salmon he caught for dinner to the hawks

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Barton Seaver is a multiple-award-winning chef who, from 1997 until 2009, operated seven top-rated restaurants in Washington, DC. Sourcing nearly all his seafood and ingredients locally, he set a new bar for culinary sustainability long before it was a buzzword, and was recognized by several leading ocean conservation organizations.

But Seaver has not stopped there: Due to his deep knowledge and understanding of sustainability, he was offered an esteemed position in the Explorer Program of the National Geographic Society. He has since left the restaurant business behind to travel the world and profile ecological systems—specifically the interrelationships between humans and food systems.

And if that were not enough, Seaver is now also the Director of the Seafood Sustainability and Health Initiative run by the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“I would say my overall mission is to show people that sustainability is not an external cause, but rather it is born of the opportunities we have every day in every decision we make,” Seaver told Organic Connections. “Much like health, sustainability is not an all-or-nothing principle but rather the sum and balance of all of the decisions that we make. You can eat a hamburger—go right ahead; that’s fine. Just eat a little bit of broccoli maybe later in the week. Healthy diets are the sum of the things that we eat. A sustainable lifestyle is the sum of the impacts that we make and the rewards that we expect to glean from them.”

The Direct Implications

For Seaver, this viewpoint is anything but new. It actually began just after he had graduated with honors from the Culinary Institute of America and traveled to a village in Morocco, where he spent time with local fishermen. “When working as a fisherman over in Africa, I realized that these men that I was spending my days with were casting nets in hopes of catching dinner and not dollars,” Seaver recalled, “and that our interrelationship with nature was about us. Why do we fish? To produce food. Why do we eat food? To sustain ourselves. I began to understand that environmental conservation is actually a human issue. What exactly is it that we are trying to sustain? I think the answer is quite clearly that we are trying to sustain ourselves; we’re trying to recast the narrative of the human relationship with nature to be not one about scarcity or rarity, but rather a relationship with our natural world based on abundance and based on our ability to thrive within it.”

A Very Different Restaurant Model

When he opened his first restaurant in 1997, it struck Seaver how these relationships applied to what he was now doing. “I had spent my summers when I was a child on the shores of the Patuxent River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay,” he explained. “There I grew fluent in the bounty of those waters. By the time I became a chef I wanted to express something about myself, express something about my ideas of food; so I went back into my past. I said, ‘I want striped bass and bluefish, oysters, crabs—I want all this delicious seafood that I knew so well as a child.’

“And basically the answer I got in return was, ‘Sorry, we ate all those already. What else do you want?’ I realized that the relationships that I had with my guests and what I was serving them affected directly the ability of the people who showed up at my back door to make a living. I like to say the guiding hand of natural selection in our world is quite firmly holding a fork.

I began to see that, especially in fishing, we as consumers were really placing very irrational demands upon the economy. For example, we ask cod fishermen to wet their gear on our behalf. When those cod fishermen pull the net onto the boat, what comes up with it is cod, pollack, haddock, cusk, wolf, monk, skates, reds, dogs, flounders, soles, plaice, dabs—you name it—and yet only cod is king. Cod commands enough of a price that it is profitable. All of those other species that I mentioned are not worth anything to the fisherman; they come into that net at a loss of profit and of effort.

“Through my restaurants I started looking for ways to diversify the profit for fishermen. I had thirteen fishermen working directly for my restaurants, and so I developed a model that said, ‘I’ll buy what you catch.’ If they’re fishing on our behalf, I think we have a responsibility to buy what they bring back. I introduced my customers to brotula, rainbow runner, horse mackerel and flying fish; anything that came out of the ocean I figured out how to make it delicious.

“That actually came to be one of the calling cards of my restaurant. It became what we were known for. People were so excited about trying stuff that was new that they’d come in for dinner on Tuesday night and come back again on Thursday with their friends. It turned into a very desirable thing that people really wanted to participate in. Everybody won: the customer, the fishermen and I, all while taking a smaller bite out of the ocean.”

A Matter of Flavor

Like many other early sustainable culinary pioneers, Seaver was following flavor as part of his mission. “Alice Waters was obviously one of the progenitors of this whole ideology, and upon her shoulders many stand,” he said. “She started the Delicious Revolution: things were just better tasting. That’s frankly why I got into it, because I was buying better fish; if you asked the fishermen what they had, you were bound to get the best product. If you asked them for cod, they were going to say, ‘I’ll have to go to Iceland for that; I’ll be back.’ I began to be very proud of the institutions and the systems that I was supporting through my work.”

The Hidden Message in the Cookbooks

Seaver has published two cookbooks: For Cod and Country in 2011, and the just-released Where There’s Smoke: Simple, Sustainable, Delicious Grilling. Through these he is hoping to convey another side of sustainability—one for those who eat.

“You look through those books at the photos, and more often than not the photo is of a vegetable,” said Seaver. “Despite the fact that For Cod and Country is definitively a seafood book and Where There’s Smoke is about grilling, both of those books spend as much time, if not more, focused on the gatherer. Vegetables are what make foods truly seasonal. Vegetables are what make food colorful, textured, flavorful and celebratory. So quite slyly both of those books are really written in the lexicon of a plant-based diet. We’re never going to sustain ourselves, our wallets, the oceans or the land if we eat only sustainably produced seafood and beef.

“Just as there is sustainable production of goods, there also has to be sustainable use of products. This is where I think we’ve really failed to acknowledge and embrace our role as consumers. You buy a high-level certified humane grass-fed, pastured animal that lived the very best life it could on an integrated farm where it was part of a holistic system, and that’s great. But is it okay to take a 28-ounce T-bone home and grill it and eat it up all by yourself? You’re not sustaining yourself, and actually you’re actively causing yourself detriment. You’re evacuating all but 4 ounces of that protein, and by eating more of it than you need you’re exponentially multiplying your impact.

“Same thing with sustainable seafood: you can have a wonderfully produced product for all the right reasons, but you put it into an all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet and you fail in your ultimate human purpose of sustainability. So we should certainly focus on sustainability as an environmental factor, but also as a behavioral shift.”

Beyond the Restaurants

During his time as a chef, Seaver began to view food relationships philosophically—something which eventually took him beyond being a chef.

“There is a famous 1968 paper called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ by [ecologist] Garrett Hardin,” Seaver related. “The idea is very eloquently stated that man and woman, acting in rational self-interest, will ultimately bring about the ruin of our commonly shared resources. That’s largely how environmentalism is practiced. But that’s a ‘Bad human, bad!’ story; it’s a guilt trip; it’s a story of how we impact ecosystems.

“When I looked at how we are impacted by ecosystems, how those ideologies can be formed through the economies we create, how we can really begin to focus on the way our choices can bring about net-positive human impacts, I started calling that ‘The Communion of the Commons’—a much more hopeful, useful and human narrative.”

It was at that point Seaver recognized he had to make a crucial career shift. “A restaurant done right takes 120 percent of your time, passion, energy and effort,” he said. “I was aware that my passions were evolving past what a restaurant kitchen alone could provide. I would have been doing both the restaurants and myself a disservice had I continued to do them with my attentions divided.”

Plus there was an invitation he couldn’t refuse. “I also had the opportunity to go to work as an explorer for the National Geographic Society,” Seaver continued. “That’s hard to turn down. I realized that I was fluent in food systems and in human cultures around food.

I went out into the world to discover a fluency in the environmental systems, and through that began to understand how conservation, how smart use of resources, leads to the net-positive human impact; how smart utilization of resources leads to thriving people.”

Observations Made

In his time as a National Geographic Explorer, Seaver has made some profound observations. “The first thing I discovered—and I discover every time I leave my house—is that the world is far more complicated than anyone would guess,” he remarked. “That’s what makes it beautiful. What’s really astounding is there is no easy answer. There is no solution forward that cannot not take into full account the economy of being a human on this planet; furthermore a human with basic fundamental rights to clean, fresh water, food access, and the fundamental right to practice and continue his or her culture.

“With the globalization of food and food commodities being one of the driving forces behind a lot of what we consider to be unsustainable, I think all too often the solutions forget to account for the externalities created within the human communities that are a part of these environmental systems. Ultimately as much as economists are wrong to say that nature is not part of business economics, I consider it’s equally wrong to say that humans are not part of nature.

“So some of the real hope spots I see are in biomimicry, natural systems that act in concert with each other creating their own input and need cycles, so that they’re actually self-sustaining. There are technologies emerging—and not genetic modification technology. It’s not about altering nature but rather learning how to work with nature, because the greatest lessons we need to learn are staring us in the face.”

A Capital Example

Seaver provided an outstanding example of the use of technologies to bring these interrelationships into balance.

“There’s an absolutely fabulous project over in Switzerland called Tropenhaus Frutigen,” Seaver said. “It’s up there past Interlaken in one of those silly, gorgeous Alpine valleys that looks like it’s straight out of a Ricola ad. It was the site of one of the major engineering feats of the twentieth century. A tunnel was bored directly through a giant Alpine mountain to connect two cantons to promote intercanton trade and tourism. They ran into a big problem: right in the middle of the mountain they tapped into a geothermally heated spring, and out of each end of the tunnel was flowing roughly a hundred liters per second of about 65° [Celsius; 149° Fahrenheit] water.

“As you can imagine, the streams running down off an Alpine mountain are not a steamy 65°. They realized quite quickly through their environmental impact study that they were going to kill every bit of fauna and flora in the whole area. Thus on the one side they built a plant to remove heat from the water and to pass it into the ecosystem just at the right temperature. But on the other side was an innovative group of engineers that said, ‘We are in Switzerland and we have all this hot water. What are we going to do with it? Well, duh, we’re going to grow bananas!’

“So they built all these greenhouses and they’re growing bananas. They’re also growing Ceylon spices, nutmeg and papayas; and it’s incredible to walk in out of that cold, brisk, clean mountain air into this sultry, seductive deep, dank scent of a subtropical greenhouse. What an amazing experience!

“After that they had a few more gallons of hot water lying around. What did they decide to do with it? Well, of course they decided to grow caviar. They put the water into tanks on the outside to cool it and imported 60,000 head of Siberian sturgeon. The females get processed for further roe and some of the meat goes into smoked and pâté format. The water that they use for the sturgeon has now been sitting in outside ponds in the middle of the valley, decreasing its heat, so it’s at just the right temperature. A little UV filtration and all of a sudden this pristine crystal-clear water is now going back into the ecosystem with absolutely no negative impact.

“They took a problem and figured out how to make no negative impact. But additionally, what’s the positive impact? They’re now supplying one-third of the country’s need for bananas. With the sturgeon, they’re creating a huge windfall for the local economy.

“Then what’s the next step? Obviously you open a restaurant. They did that, then opened a café, and then opened a museum to demonstrate the benefits of hydro-geothermal heating. Now guess what? Remember this all started with the tunnel; now through that tunnel every year 200,000 German tourists flock to see these greenhouses. And through the conversion of hot to cold water they’re creating enough energy that they’re able to give it away to their neighbors. Moreover, they’ve turned the entire enterprise into eighty-five jobs.

“To me, that’s the perfect example of yes, humans have impact. Our choice is to decide what impacts are acceptable and then to balance them. If we can take an excess of hot water and turn it into eighty-five jobs, we’re allowing human beings to thrive. Isn’t that ultimately what we’re after?”

It’s Not Just the Environment—It’s Us

Overall, Seaver is trying to show the world at large that it’s not the environment we’re trying to save—it’s ourselves. “When we go into the world of conservation, we’re not trying to save the oceans; we’re not trying to save the ozone layer. We’re trying to save people; we’re trying to save dinner; we’re trying to save our reality on this planet.

“As much as sustainability is an accounting of ‘How many people do we have? How many resources do we have? Can we continue this?’ sustainability is equally about our expectations of what it takes to thrive in our modern world. It’s equally about our cultural preferences for the lifestyles that we want to lead. So sustainability of the environment is as much about finding a balance to human desires.

“If you ask yourself the question, ‘Can this world feed nine billion people?’ the answer is yes, absolutely it can. Can it feed the desires? No. Need is finite; it is a biology. Desire is infinite and it is a story of biography. What surprises me most in my travels is constantly being reminded that not only must we come up with efficient solutions to ecological models, but we must also rewrite the biography of the human condition to support a sustainable relationship with the nature that ultimately sustains us.”

Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH

Aaron Bernstein is the Interim Director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics.

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