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Can These 11 Famous Chefs Save the World Through Food?

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Laurie Woolever

By James O'Hare

There are 20 million people in the world facing famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen. In developed nations, too, people go hungry. Venezuela, for instance, is enduring food insecurity on a national level as a result of economic crisis and political corruption. In the U.S., the land of supposed excess, 12.7 percent of households were food insecure in 2015, meaning they didn't know where their next meal would come from.


As world governments pursue policies to secure food sources and humanitarian organizations work on the ground to deliver aid, there's one group of people who may have the expertise to solve problems in the global food system.

Chefs are the most qualified people on the planet to talk about food, not only in terms of flavors, but in the chemistry behind the ingredients they use. In their constant quest for better ingredients, they spur farming best practices to enhance nutritional value, increase efficiency, and get healthy foods to people in the areas of the world most affected by hunger. Many are also working to reduce food waste and improve sustainability, which helps everyone by protecting the environment.

These are 11 chefs saving the world with food:

1. Massimo Bottura

Massimo Bottura is a food waste reducing rock star. In cooperation with Pope Francis, he turned an abandoned theater in a Milan suburb into Refettorio, a soup kitchen that has turned more than 15 tons of excess food into meals for the homeless, working poor and refugees.

In true Global Citizen fashion, he then started a foundation, Food for Soul, to expand the concept to cities around the world, like Rio de Janeiro and London. He's currently in the process of bringing two Refettorios to the U.S., the Guardian reported.

2. Dan Barber

Dan Barber, who has been praised as a, "philosopher chef," is one of the leading voices for increased sustainability in restaurants.

Essentially, Barber wants restaurants to increase efficiency and cut down on food waste (not to mention improve taste) by growing their own ingredients, a movement called "farm-to-table."

Barber walks the walk—his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in Westchester County, New York, does exactly that. What is more, Barber has transformed his other restaurant in Greenwich Village—also called Blue Hill—into a pop-up called WastED, serving dishes prepared with ingredients that would normally be destined for dumpster, like bruised and misshapen vegetables and stale bread. In January, he exported the concept to London.

Barber's influence is felt beyond the kitchen. He's written extensively about the importance of local farming and improving the farm-to-table movement in the New York Times, The Nation, Gourmet and Food & Wine. His book, The Third Plate, calls for an overhaul of our entire approach to meals, down to the proportions of meat and vegetables that typically compose a plate (spoiler: dishes should feature more vegetables).

Barber has done two TedTalks and was named to the Presidential Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition by Barack Obama.

3. Hervé This

Hervé This isn't technically a chef, but his work could legitimately end world hunger.

This is a chemist who invented molecular gastronomy (studying the science behind cooking) in 1988. Now he's developing what he calls note-by-note (NbN) cooking—creating dishes with foods that have been deconstructed into basic compounds.

The chemical components of a food like texture and flavor can literally be separated and stored in vials. But it's more than just mad food science. This says that because foods are composed mostly of water, they spoil while being transported over long distances, unless they're refrigerated (which is expensive and detrimental to the environment). Deconstructed foods, broken down into foams and gels, can be transported and rebuilt, so to speak, bringing nutritious meals to communities around the world.

Last December, he published a book detailing how NbN cooking is more nutritious, energy efficient and environmentally sustainable.

"I work for the public," he told the New York Times. "NbN is a new art for chefs and art is important. But are we going to feed humankind—or just make something for foodies?"

4. Sam Kass

Sam Kass advocates for healthier, climate smart food. He was the first Senior White House Food Policy Advisor while serving as Barack Obama's chef and was the executive director of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! Campaign, aimed at improving childhood health.

Kass helped the Obamas plant the first vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt's victory garden. Like its predecessor, the Obama garden brought the issues of health and food sustainability to the national stage and inspired people to start home gardens of their own.

In 2012, Kass helped found the American Chef Corps, which promotes diplomacy through culinary initiatives. He's also the founder of Trove, a strategy firm, and a partner in Acre, a venture capital fund, that work to improve health and sustainability in the global food system.

5 and 6. Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson

Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson don't want people to sacrifice their health for a convenient and affordable meal. Which is why they founded Locol, a fast food chain that serves quick, healthy meals for just a couple of bucks. Furthermore, they prioritize locating their restaurants in underserved areas, also known as food deserts, that don't have many restaurant options other than corner stores and fast food.

On a grander scale, Locol seeks to restore integrity to fast food by emphasizing "food" over the corporate bottom-line.

"We believe chefs should feed America, not suits," the website says.

7. April Bloomfield

April Bloomfield's name is synonymous with nose-to-tail cooking. As the name implies, that means using the whole animal. The Birmingham, UK native is featured holding a whole pig on the cover of her book, A Girl and Her Pig.

Because nothing goes to waste, recipes often call for adventurous eaters.

"I love anything crispy so, you know, it's very natural for me to have crispy pigs ears," Bloomfield told NPR.

But not everyone is so optimistic. One of the greatest challenges of nose-to-tail cooking and improving efficiency in kitchens is making parts of an animal that people wouldn't normally eat taste good—which is precisely what Bloomfield is doing.

8. Joan Roca

Joan Roca, of El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, has been listed as one of the top-ten chefs on the planet. But he's also an all-world activist.

Roca joined a legion of chefs who partnered with Oceana, an international ocean conservation organization, to curb overfishing and protect the millions of people who rely on fish as a dietary staple. Fittingly, the effort's slogan is, "Save the ocean. Feed the world."

"We have to protect the small fishermen in their little boats, these guys that are fishing every day," Roca explained, at an Oceana event. "Everybody cares about their own health, so we should also care about the ocean. It is our biggest pantry."

9. Thomasina Miers

Thomasina Miers won the television show Masterchef in 2005. Ever since, she's opened more than 20 restaurants in her native UK and is expanding to the U.S., but her celebrity hasn't come at the expense of social consciousness. Sustainability is a cornerstone of her Mexican street food-inspired restaurants.

An ardent campaigner for reducing food waste, Miers has advocated for, "the Pig Idea," recycling surplus food into pig feed (pigs' digestive systems allow them to eat just about anything).

Miers doesn't just want to find creative uses for food waste, she wants to reduce the amount of food that's wasted in the first place.

"As a business we always believed in buying sustainably-caught fish, so as not to add of the decimation of certain fish stocks, and we have always tried to put lots of vegetarian choices on the menu so that people had wonderful non-meat alternatives," Miers told Forbes. "The food industry is the largest, and most energy intensive industry out there—so we have the power to make positive change."

10. Bruno Loubet

Bruno Loubet's London restaurant Grain Store was named the London Restaurant of the Year by the Sustainable Restaurant Awards in 2014. It was no fluke. Loubet's forward-thinking eatery combines almost every sustainable food practice that the other chefs on this list have worked so hard to promote.

Foremost, he emphasizes vegetables.

"Although many dishes have a meat or fish element, vegetables are given equal billing, if not the starring role," the restaurant's website says.

Loubet has even removed meat from seasonal menus in the past. In addition to the nutritional and environmental benefits of reducing meat consumption, Grain Store is a shining example of ethical cooking.

The meat the restaurant uses is free-range and the fish is sustainably sourced. Grain Store also uses herbs and edible flowers that come from a community garden next door, the Independent reported.

The drive for sustainability isn't limited to food. Even the furniture at Grain Store is reclaimed.

11. Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain doesn't want to be called an activist (too bad, Anthony).

Bourdain is best-known as a television host who uses food in an educational capacity to study world cultures. But the trained chef has moved to the silver screen, producing, narrating and starring in a documentary called Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, which premiered at the 2017 Tribeca film festival.

The documentary divulges how 40 percent of the food humans produce gets thrown out, the environmental ramifications of this waste and how people can intervene. It features many of the aforementioned chefs on this list (Bottura and Barber, plus Danny Bowien and Mario Batali), but it's Bourdain's participation that is the most impactful, however reluctant it was.

"I've never liked being accused of having a social conscience or being an activist, so this documentary is not something I instinctively would have become involved in," Bourdain narrates in the film's introduction. "But food waste is something that I've always had to be conscious of as a professional. I've also spent the last 15 to 17 years traveling the world and seeing where all that wasted food we generate in the West could go to feed people."

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In 1997, Charles Moore was sailing a catamaran from Hawaii to California when he and his crew got stuck in windless waters in the North Pacific Ocean. As they motored along, searching for a breeze to fill their sails, Moore noticed that the ocean was speckled with "odd bits and flakes," as he describes it in his book, Plastic Ocean. It was plastic: drinking bottles, fishing nets, and countless pieces of broken-down objects.

"It wasn't an eureka moment … I didn't come across a mountain of trash," Moore told Mongabay. "But there was this feeling of unease that this material had got [as] far from human civilization as it possibly could."

Captain Charles Moore looking at a piece of floating plastic in the ocean. Algalita Marine Research and Education

Moore, credited as the person who discovered what's now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, returned to the same spot two years later on a citizen science mission. When he and his crew collected water samples, they found that, along with larger "macroplastics," the seawater was swirling with tiny plastic particles: microplastics, which are defined as anything smaller than 5 millimeters but bigger than 1 micron, which is 1/1000th of a millimeter. Microplastics can form when larger pieces of plastics break down into small particles, or when tiny, microscopic fibers detach from polyester clothing or synthetic fishing gear. Other microplastics are deliberately manufactured, such as the tiny plastic beads in exfoliating cleaners.

"That's when we really had the eureka moment," Moore said. "When we pulled in that first trawl, which was outside of what we thought was going to be the center [of the gyre], and found it was full of plastic. Then we realized, 'Wow, this is a serious situation.'"

Captain Charles Moore holding up a jar of plastic-filled seawater from a research expedition in 2009. Algalita Marine Research and Education

Since Moore's discovery of the plastic-swirling gyres, there's been a growing amount of research to try and understand the scale of the plastic pollution issue, including several studies from 2020. This new research shows that there's actually a larger quantity of plastic in the ocean than previously thought, and that the plastic even enters the atmosphere and blows back onto land with the sea breeze. Recent studies also indicate that plastic is infiltrating our bodies through food and drinking water. The upshot is that plastic is ubiquitous in the ocean, air, food supply, and even in our own bodies. The new picture that is emerging, scientists say, is of a biosphere permeated with plastic particles right down to the very tissues of humans and other living things, with consequences both known and unknown for the lifeforms on our planet.

How Much Is Really in the Ocean?

In the past 70 years, virgin plastic production has increased 200-fold, and has grown at a rate of 4% each year since 2000, according to a 2017 study in Science Advances. Only a small portion of plastics are recycled, and about a third of all plastic waste ends up in nature, another study suggests.

While new research indicates that plastic is leaking into every part of the natural world, the ocean has long been a focal point of the plastic pollution issue. But how much is actually in the sea?

Moore says it's "virtually impossible" to get an accurate estimate because of the ongoing production of plastic, and the tendency for plastic to break down into microplastics.

"This count is constantly increasing, and it's increasing at a very rapid rate," he said. "It's a moving target."

One commonly cited study, for which Moore acted as a co-author, estimated that there are more than 5.25 trillion plastic pieces floating in the ocean, weighing more than 250,000 tons, based on water samples and visual surveys conducted on 24 expeditions in five subtropical gyres. But even at the time of publication in 2014, Moore said he knew "that was an underestimate."

A more recent study published this year, led by researchers at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, indicates that there's a lot more microplastic in the ocean than we previously thought. When taking samples from the ocean, most researchers use nets with a mesh size of 333 microns, which is small enough to catch microplastics, but big enough to avoid clogging. But the team from Plymouth Marine Laboratory used much finer 100-micron nets to sample the surface waters in the Gulf of Mexico and the English Channel.

"Our nets clogged too, so we used shorter trawls and a specialized technique for removing all the plankton — microscopic plants and biota — from the sample to reveal the microplastics," Matthew Cole, a marine ecologist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and author of the study, told Mongabay in an email. "This process is quite time-consuming, so it'd be challenging for all samples collected to be treated this way."

The research team at Plymouth Marine Laboratory collecting water samples. Matthew Cole

The researchers found there were 2.5 to 10 times more microplastics in their samples compared to samples that used 333-micron nets.

"If this relationship held true throughout the global ocean, we can multiply existing global microplastic concentrations ascertained using 333-micron nets, to predict that globally there are 125 trillion plastics floating in the ocean," Cole said. "However, we know these plastics keep on degrading, and these smaller plastics would be missed by our smaller 100 micron net — so the true number will be far greater."

Another team of researchers delved down to the seafloor in the Tyrrhenian Sea in the Mediterranean to take sediment samples. They found that microplastic accumulated at depths of 600 to 900 meters (about 2,000 to 3,000 feet), and that certain spots in the ocean, termed "microplastic hotspots," could hold up to 1.9 million pieces per square meter — the highest level ever to be recorded on the seafloor. The results of this study were published in Science in June 2020.

"We were shocked by the sheer number of [microplastics]," Ian Kane, the study's lead author, told Mongabay in May. "1.9 million is enormous. Previous studies have documented much smaller numbers, and … just talked about plastic fragments, but it's fibers that are really the more insidious of the microplastics. These are the things that are more readily consumed and absorbed into organisms' flesh."

A water sample containing plastic. Algalita Marine Research and Education

While these studies shine light on the fact that there's definitely more plastic in the ocean than we think, it still doesn't complete the picture, says Steve Allen, a microplastic expert and doctoral candidate at the University of Strathclyde in the U.K. Large quantities of microplastics still appear to be "missing" from the ocean, he said. For instance, one study suggested that 99.8% of oceanic plastic sinks below the ocean surface layer, making it difficult to detect, but Allen says this doesn't fully explain what's happening to all of the plastic that enters the ocean.

"We're finding some of it," Allen told Mongabay. "But we're … trying to explain where the rest of it went."

Allen and his wife, fellow scientist Deonie Allen, also from the University of Strathclyde, have been working to find their answer, or at least part of it, in an unlikely place: up in the sky.

‘Microplastics Are in Our Air’

As the ocean churns and breaks waves, air is trapped in tiny bubbles. When those bubbles break at the sea's surface, water rushes to fill the void, and this causes tiny, micro-sized particles, like flecks of sea salt or bacteria, to burst into the atmosphere. A new study, published in PLOS ONE, suggests that microplastics are entering the air in the same way.

"[Bubbles] act a little bit like velcro," Deonie Allen told Mongabay. "Rather than the bubble going through the plastic soup and coming to the surface and not bringing any of the plastics with it, it actually collects [the plastic] and hangs on to it as it comes up. And when it bursts, the energy from the creation of the jet to fill the hole that's left in the sea … is what gives it the force to eject the plastic up into the atmosphere."

A lot of previous research on plastic pollution in the ocean has assumed that plastic remains in the seawater and sediment, or gets washed ashore. But this study takes a pioneering step to suggest that ocean plastic is entering the atmosphere through the sea breeze.

"This was just the next logical step to see whether what we're putting into the ocean was actually going to stay there, or whether it would come back," Steve Allen said.

A device used to collect air and mist samples to test for microplastics. Steve Allen

To obtain the necessary data for this study, the research team collected air and sea spray samples on the French Atlantic coast, both onshore and offshore. They found that there was a high potential for ocean microplastics to be released into the air, and suggested that each year, 136,000 tons of microplastics were blowing ashore across the world, although Steve Allen said this number was "extremely conservative."

This study specifically looked at microplastics, but the much smaller nanoplastics are likely going into air by the same means, according to the Allens. But detecting nanoplastics in the water or air can be challenging.

While this is the first study to look at the ocean as a source of atmospheric plastics, other research has examined the capacity of land-based plastics to leach into the air. One study, authored by the Allens and other researchers, found that microplastics were present in the air in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, even though the testing site was at least 90 kilometers (56 miles) from any land-based source of plastic, such as a landfill. This suggests that the wind can carry microplastics over long distances.

"We know that microplastics are in our air everywhere, from the looks of it," Deonie Allen said.

More research needs to be done to understand the implications of atmospheric microplastics on human health, but according to the Allens, it can't be good for us.

A "cloud catcher" used to collect data for research on microplastics in the atmosphere. Steve Allen

"Microplastics are really good at picking up the contaminants in the surrounding environment — phthalates, flame retardants, heavy metals," Deonie Allen said. "That will get released into the body, relatively effectively."

Enrique Ortiz, a Washington, D.C.-based ecologist and journalist who writes on the plastic pollution issue, says that this evidence should be a "wake up" call to humanity.

"The oceans are picking up the plastic that we throw in it, and that's what we're breathing," Ortiz told Mongabay "And that's the part that really … amazes me."

"But it's not just happening in coastal cities," he added. "No matter where you go, [even] in the middle of the Arctic … the human imprint is already there."

We're not just inhaling microplastics through the air we breathe — we're also getting it through the water we drink and the food we eat.

‘Our Life Is Plasticized’

Plastic waste isn't just leaking into the ocean; it's also polluting freshwater systems and even raining or snowing down from the sky after getting absorbed into the atmosphere, according to another study led by Steve and Deonie Allen. With microplastics being so ubiquitous, it should come as no surprise that they are also present in the food and water we drink.

Drinking water, including tap and bottled water, is the largest source of plastic in our diet, with the average person consuming about 1,769 tiny microplastic particles each week, according to a 2019 report supported by WWF. Other primary sources of microplastics include shellfish, beer and salt.

A new study published this year in Environmental Research found that microplastics were even present in common fruits and vegetables. Apples had one of the highest microplastic counts, with an average of 195,500 plastic particles per gram, while broccoli and carrots averaged more than 100,000 particles per gram.

"The possibility of plastics in our fruit and vegetables is extremely alarming," John Hocevar, ocean campaign director for Greenpeace USA, said in a statement. "This should prompt additional studies to assess how much plastic we are consuming through our produce each day and examine how it is impacting our health."

"Decades of plastic use have contaminated our air, water, and soil," Hocevar added. "Eating just a bite of an apple could now mean eating hundreds of thousands of bits of plastic at the same time."

Through normal water and food consumption, it's estimated that the average person consumes about 5 grams of plastic each week, equivalent to the size of a credit card, according to the WWF report.

"Plastic is everywhere," Thava Palanisami, a microplastics researcher at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and contributor to the WWF report, told Mongabay. "We live with plastic and our life is plasticized — that we know. But we don't know what it does to human health. That's the biggest question mark."

While it's not entirely clear how plastic affects human health, research suggests that the inhalation of fibrous microplastics can lead to respiratory tract inflammation. And another study, referenced in the WWF report, shows that fish and other marine animals with high concentrations of microplastics in their respiratory and digestive tracts have much higher mortality rates. Another study, published in 2020, indicates that plastic accumulates in the muscle tissue of fish.

"If you look at what happens, for example, in fish — it [plastic] stays in their muscles," Ortiz said. "It's scary. If you look at the numbers, you're eating something in the order of one kilo of plastic every three years. I wonder, in our lifetime … if a percentage of our weight will be plastic that is still in our muscles."

"The problem is serious," Palanisami said. "We've got to stop using unwanted plastic and manage plastic waste properly, and … work on new plastic alternates."

Stemming the Tide  

Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business at WWF, and leader of the organization's packaging and material science program, says the key to curbing the plastic pollution issue is making sure that plastic doesn't leak into nature in the first place.

"If you had a leaky faucet, would you bring out the mop first, or would you turn off the water?" Simon told Mongabay. "We're trying to stem that tide of plastic flowing into the ocean and into nature in general … but at the same time, trying to identify the different root causes of that leakage."

While Simon says there are various ways to try and stop plastic from entering the natural world, such as well-managed recycling and composting programs, she also said that large companies can play a critical role in helping to reduce plastic waste. WWF is currently spearheading a new program called ReSource, launched in 2019, that helps analyze companies' plastic footprints in order to work toward sustainable solutions. The program's website says 100 companies could prevent 50 million tons of plastic waste.

"We have three targets that we're looking at when we're partnering with companies," Simon said. "One, get rid of what you don't need. At the end of the day, we do need to reduce our demand for virgin nonrenewable plastic. Once you get rid of that, you think about the stuff that you do need — the things [for which] plastic is the right material choice. Where am I sourcing that from? Am I getting it from recycled content? Am I getting it from a sustainably-sourced bio base, or is it virgin non-renewable [plastic]? And then finally … how are you, as a company … making sure it comes back? Are you designing it in a way that it's technically recyclable into the places that it's ending up?"

Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore. Susan White / USFWS

While recycled plastic may seem like a satisfactory alternative to virgin plastic, a new study, published in July 2020, showed that children's toys made out of recycled plastic contained high levels of toxic chemicals, comparable to levels found in hazardous waste.

Moore, who has been studying plastic pollution since his discovery of the floating debris in the North Pacific Ocean, says he doesn't believe there's an easy fix to this issue, especially when it comes to the businesses that are producing large amounts of plastic.

"There's no change that corporations can make under the current system that will successfully combat plastic pollution," Moore said. "There is no technical fix to the plastic problem. It's not in the corporate portfolio to reduce sales of your products — the corporate portfolio is about increasing sales. The idea that [corporations] can be convinced to reduce their production and sale of the products that they make is a fantasy."

However, Moore says a solution could be found in "radical change," and that this moment of time, with the Black Lives Matter movement spreading across the world, could provide the opportunity for that change.

"Now is the time when a world historical revolution would be possible, when the people of the world could unite to change the system as a whole," Moore said.

"There won't be a techno fix and science won't develop … a new product that will get us out of the problem of plastic pollution," he said. "It will only come with the world as a whole agreeing to charter a new course towards a non-polluting future."

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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