Ecogastronomy

I think it is worth giving thanks that we humans are heterotrophs. I can’t imagine life as a photoautotrophs (aka plant) dining on light spectra or as a chemoautotroph tucking into a heap of oxidized electrons. I was so thrilled by heterotrophy that I was, an eon ago, heading towards a career in food and wine, training and working in Canada and externing in Europe. A circuitous, lengthily and highly improbable journey lead to an academic career in population / community conservation ecology … though through it all I did my best to remain current in the culinary and oenological worlds.

The past two-plus decades of conservation research have not only been fascinating and rewarding in myriad ways but have also provided a unique perspective on food and wine – which after all are first and foremost the products of ecological interactions. By 2018 so many intriguing and timely questions had piled up in my mind that I decided to undertake a major pivot in my lab, moving from conservation-oriented marine and terrestrial work to one that explicitly addresses gastronomy as the physical manifestation of the reciprocal coevolutionary processes of cultures and their environmental contexts and as such is a direct conduit to some of the biggest challenges of our day. This “pivot” of focus serves to merge a life-long passion with skills and expertise built over a research career. The theme of this new direction I call “ecogastronomy”. Ecogastronomy is particularly well positioned to tackle some of the sharpest issues of the day; sustainability, health, cultural and biological diversity, food security and sovereignty among many others. The novelty of my (our) approach is the adoption of an unapologetically ecological orientation. While much has been and will continue to be written on these subjects, the vast majority have lost the thread that the foundational mechanisms underlying food and drink are ecological and in so doing turn their backs on an incredibly diverse and powerful set of tools to analyse and inform.

The “aha moment” moment that eventually precipitated the pivot to ecogastronomy came during a period of reflection on agriculture and it being inextricably linked to human agency for indeed modern food is a product of not just ecology but also substantial human endeavour. Further, those endeavours are shaped, constrained and facilitated by local cultural norms which themselves have been shaped by place-based evolution. It is this last point that I find most intriguing. Through the work of anthropologists Robert Boyd and Joseph Henrich among others, culture is now known to be just as susceptible to, and amended by, evolution as is the length of a femur or the shape of a bird’s beak. In other words, the boundaries delineating cultural diversity, and indeed cultural diversity itself arise and are maintained by the same fundamental processes governing biotic diversity. This has at least two exciting ramifications; first is that the same tools used to assess and understand biotic processes and evolution can be deployed to understand cultural diversity creation, maintenance, sustainability. Secondly this perspective provides the lens necessary to understand and describe terroir as a tripartite cultural-biotic-physical co-evolutionary process. Indeed, if biological and cultural contexts co-evolve in response to physical heterogeneity, then terroir is not only an inevitable consequence but is also dynamic, not a static snapshot in time. The upshot of all this is that quality, sustainability, diversity, security and sovereignty are all facilitated (and inhibited) by place-based coevolutionary processes that until recently appeared too disparate to address simultaneously, let alone coherently. We seek to change that…