How Can a Chef Contribute to Sustainable Agriculture: Will I Learn this in Culinary School?

For the past several years, the terms "organic," "sustainable," "green," and a host of other nicely eco-friendly buzzwords have become major forces in how customers choose where and what to eat. On one hand, this is very good, as it has gotten the public more involved in the food-production chain and made them more aware of what goes into getting that food to their plate.

On the other hand, it's also made the food world trickier to navigate as a host of factors have to go into finding ingredients. As a chef, you'll have the ability to promote sustainability through your choices in the kitchen, and you need to start learning ways to work sustainably now. For those undertaking formal education, culinary schools have begun incorporating sustainability into their curricula.

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What Is Sustainable Agriculture?

Put simply, sustainable agriculture is agriculture done in a way that preserves the environment as much as possible while producing as much food as possible while maintaining nutritional quality as much as possible. It can involve farming organically, buying locally, growing and buying seasonal and native foods, reducing "food miles" and carbon output, eliminating invasive creatures and protecting water tables, and more.

You're right if you're thinking this sounds like a complicated subject. So many factors go into sustainability that it's nearly impossible to account for all of them; there's going to be give and take somewhere along the line. Being sustainable in your food choices means doing research and picking your battles.

What Does All of that Mean?

One of the problems that chefs can encounter when they try to promote sustainability is that the scale of food production needed to provide the sheer amount of food eaten daily often leads to what look like initially less sustainable options.

The food writer and critic Jay Rayner has made a point of showing that small, local family farms -- often held up as a perfect example of sustainable agriculture -- aren't always the best choice. For example, when comparing New Zealand lamb that was imported to the UK, and UK-raised lamb, Rayner found that the New Zealand lamb had a smaller carbon footprint (because it's not just miles traveled that goes into creating that footprint; the way the lambs are raised and what they're fed also counts, among other issues).

You see how counter-intuitive that can be, but that's what chefs face when figuring out sustainability. That doesn't mean that all localism in food is bad, of course; it just means you have to do more than look at the surface appearance to ensure everything meets your standards. As Stanford University reports, sometimes a small thing can become a big issue, such as a farm that appears to meet sustainability standards until you see that the trees along its border are invasive and threatening the water table.

What Can a Chef Do to Promote Sustainable Agriculture?

You can promote sustainable agriculture in two main ways. One is to start learning about all the factors now. Look at your local farms and what practices they use. Look at what foods are native to the area as these foods are often easier to grow with less water and less pesticide use. Look at what foods are popular and what the supply chain is like. Look at the practices at major corporate suppliers, such as chicken farms or in soybean fields. See how cost affects all these choices.

This research can take a while, which is why you need to start now. As you continue in your career, you can look at creating your own restaurant kitchen garden or seeing how portion sizes and food waste relate to each other. Look at the ingredients you use that seem to have unavoidably high carbon footprints and determine whether you really need to use them.

Watch out for greenwashing. This is the practice of making an operation seem green when it's not really. Some people want to capitalize on buzzwords and popular movements without doing their research.

The other thing you can do is take advantage of any sustainability information you can get in culinary school. Learn to budget well and gauge how much food you really need to have on hand to reduce food waste. Learn what to do with leftovers and become very good at storing food safely to make it last as long as possible. Learn how to evaluate suppliers without wasting too much time.

How Can a Chef Contribute to Sustainable Agriculture: Will I Learn this in Culinary School?

Are you interested in sustainable agriculture as a cook and want to learn more? If you want to earn an Associate of Applied Science in Culinary Arts, ECPI University's Culinary Institute of Virginia offers this degree program at an accelerated pace. For more information, connect with a helpful admissions counselor today.

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