Written by Christiaan Morssink.

Reflections on the United Nations Sustainable Gastronomy Day, June 18

I grew up with the ritual of growing food in the backyard and on a small plot of land that my father, like so many others, “rented” from the railroad company. All in my extended family did that small-scale food gardening, often raising chickens as well, for eggs and meat. It was tax free, in-kind income so to speak. And it was a good way of learning to be respectful of food and of nature. However, I do not have a green thumb and my own “harvest” is never great. So, when I joined the community farm in Philadelphia, I got involved in building the shed, laying the water line to the land, installing the drip irrigation hoses, and building the washing station made from old cast iron tubs. And I took note about the climate and topographical differences between Philadelphia and Twente in The Netherlands. I have learned from that small-scale gardening then and now, how water and water management are indispensable for our food, in terms of quality and bounty. Indeed, as I see it, water should never be an afterthought, taken for granted, something that can be reduced to a marketable commodity.

June 18, 2020 was the fourth United Nations Sustainable Gastronomy Day. In 2016, The UN’s UNESCO and FAO collaborated to affirm the need to focus the world’s attention on the role that sustainable gastronomy can play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), by promoting agricultural development, food security, nutrition, sustainable food production and the conservation of biodiversity. Not soon thereafter the tagline “Food is the fabric of societies” could be found in articles and stories about Gastronomy Day.

I think this gastronomy day complements very well the other UN food related day, “World Food Day”, on October 16th, which focuses heavily on agricultural and fishery production and distribution. With gastronomy, we extend that to the art of making meals and drinks, and we attend to the use and misuse and abuse of food as well as the cultural infused tastes and norms around preparing and consuming that food.

The sustainability aspect is a most interesting addition to the old maximization concepts that drove agriculture up to today. Now we see the UN promoting “old” agriculture and fishery methods, but applying new technology and knowledge, and re-understanding agriculture as to be part of our restoring biodiversity. We need to do away with mono agriculture, and with mono-forestation. We also see a clear view of making and producing food that uses clean energy, is safely stored and marketed, and can be reached by any and all in society. After all, the food fabric of society should be whole, wholesome, and covering each and every one of us. It is especially relevant to have that fabric cover everyone, when we also address, as part of our gastronomy, food waste and the reluctance to think circular at all levels and across the whole supply chain. The FAO estimates that about 30% of our food production gets wasted from the moment of harvesting until it reaches the garbage cans (or hopefully, compost bins) in our homes. Indeed, sustainability can improve in a major way by just tackling that waste. 

I believe that food insecurity tears into that fabric of our societies. With one in six children in the US being food insecure, programs like WIC, school breakfasts and lunches, and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) are the scars of attempting to repair that fabric. Of course we need them right now, but food pantries and free food charity are just safety pins to hold it all together.

Unsustainable practices in the food supply chain are also tearing into that fabric. The packaging routines, the use of pesticides, the use of dirty energy in the production plants and storage facilities, as well as the cleaning processes in and around markets, kitchens, and transportation — they all are to be re-examined in light of sustainability, resiliency and climate change.

The food fabric is also a social fabric. Gastronomy is never experienced in isolation and is marked by a large amount of social interaction.  As such COVID 19 is tearing into the fabric in a major way. Social distancing is upsetting all kind of relationships, practices and “belonging.”

Yet, while many people speak and write on sustainability along the “gastronomy” chain, no mention is made about the role of water. In fact, water, and specifically water security, is a major component of management along that chain, from irrigation to cleaning, to cooking and flushing. Being water insecure will impact directly on our food systems. It behooves us to ask the question when talking about food insecurity: “Are you, are we, water secure?” And moreover, “Are you sure?”

Let’s learn and see if we are.

This diagram is the “vignet” of a course (free of charge) on Water Security, developed by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH).

Source: United Nations University for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH)

About the Author

University of Twente, Netherlands

Christiaan (with two a’s) volunteers as the president of the Global Water Alliance. A public health policy professional with Dutch roots and strong traveling habits, he has become a water worrier of sorts, not only because good water is needed everywhere for the public’s health but also to assure good quality local brews. And coffee, and tea, of course.