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Food For Thought

SXSW Eco, Hub Of Environmental And Foodie Fervor

At the annual SXSW Eco, a conference in Austin, Texas, you'll find a lot of serious discussion of the rapid decline of the Earth's ecosystems.

But like the famed music, film and interactive parent festival, SXSW, this event is also about networking. That means parties. Lots of them. People shake off formalities easily here, and the young, casual, tech-oriented crowd takes full advantage of Austin's tantalizing buffet of food trucks, bars and music.

I sat down with Allison Aubrey and Dan Charles, who host our weekly Salt chat, to tell them more about SXSW Eco, where I was from Oct. 6-8. You can listen by clicking on the Soundcloud audio link above.

This is the seventh in a series of conversations on The Salt where members of NPR's food team chat with intriguing people in the food world.

Food was a dominant theme inside the convention center this year, with panels on farming, ag tech, bees and food waste. (I moderated that last one.)

One new subset of Austin's food start-up scene is the edible insect community, and they had their own panel, called Entomophagy 101. According to panelist Harman Singh Johar, the chief innovation officer at Aspire Food Group, Austin is home to the largest edible insect community in the U.S.

Why? Robert Nathan Allen, who heads up a bug-eating advocacy group called Little Herds, says the movement has had a lot of support from Austin chefs, schools and consumers. The demographics of Austin are especially favorable, he says, with so many health and environmentally conscious folks open to trying new products.

I brought back a Berry and Pistachio Hopper Bar, made with crickets, for my colleagues on NPR's food team. (It was a hit.) Hopper Foods, like several other start-ups, is using homegrown cricket flour in snack bars that taste more like nuts and fruit than anything buggy.

Later, I had a chance to get together with some of the young Austin edible insect enthusiasts at a dinner at Springdale Farm, a 5-acre urban farm just a few miles from the convention center. Little Herds' Allen was there, along with Johar, and Jack Ceadel and Marta Hudecova of Hopper Foods.

These millennials say their passion for sustainability led them straight to edible insects. (They all read the FAO's 2013 report on the untapped potential of this source of protein.) These critters, they argue, are just as nutritious and far more sustainable than meat because they require dramatically less food, water and land.

At SXSW Eco, I met many others who see business opportunities in solving environmental problems: clean tech engineers, organic chocolate entrepreneurs and sustainable aquaculture investors.

But some of the more traditional voices of the environmental community were also prominent — people like oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who spoke about the devastation of the seas. And polar scientists from the University of Texas at Austin Institute for Geophysics showed the latest data and maps showing changing ice flow and receding glaciers in Antarctica.

The conference had a heavy corporate presence as well. Several companies sponsored panels. I was contacted by public relations firms representing Boeing, Levi-Strauss and Honda who wanted to talk about these companies' latest initiatives, which they claim showcase their commitment to the environment. (Some have also called these initiatives examples of greenwashing.)

But the company that caused the most stir undoubtedly was Monsanto. On Monday, the moderator of a panel entitled "Farming to Feed 9 Billion" surprised the audience by disclosing that Monsanto had paid the travel expenses of all of the panelists, including three farmers from the U.S. and Canada.

That issue came to a head on Wednesday, when SXSW Eco staff claimed at a panel on GMOs that they hadn't been told Monsanto would sponsor the farming panel. According to Tom Philpott, the food and ag correspondent for Mother Jones, who was on the GMO panel, Monsanto's online-engagement specialist Janice Person then took the mic to explain that the company hadn't meant to mislead anyone and merely wanted to be part of the discussion. (She also discussed it in a blog post.)

That was about the apex of the drama at this environmental conference. But most of the attendees probably missed it. They were spread across the city, sipping bourbon and craft beer while talking tech and pondering Mother Earth's woes.

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