TED Radio Hour: Cary Fowler And Ann Cooper: Can We Protect Food's Future And Improve School Lunch? How will the varieties of food grown today survive climate change? A vast global seed bank under a frozen mountain in Norway may have answers. Also, what's in kid's lunches? There's a revolution coming in the way kids eat at school: local, sustainable, seasonal and even educational food.
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Can We Protect Food's Future And Improve School Lunch?

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Can We Protect Food's Future And Improve School Lunch?

Can We Protect Food's Future And Improve School Lunch?

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This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart.

Each year, TED conferences bring together the world's most innovative doers and thinkers, who share some big ideas from the stage. On our program, we'll hear a number of their TED talks and then we'll talk to them. And today, we're talking about food.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have our 500-degree oven.

PAULA DEEN: I slice these real, real thin.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: One slice red onion.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Pickles, onions, mustard.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Brown it up, crisp it up.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Turn it over.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We'll let it cook, then we'll let it cool down.

MARTHA STEWART: And just set it aside.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Now we're going to add...

MARTHA STEWART: A half a cup of all-purpose flour.

JULIA CHILD: ...to the three eggs. And half...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: A teaspoon of salt.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Just going to mix that together.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: ...to go into the oven.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: OK, who's next?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: I raised these myself; picked them last night. And they're real good.

STEWART: Local farmers come to Washington, D.C.'s Eastern market every weekend to sell all sorts of colorful produce.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: We have York apples right here. I have a Fuji apple right there. Nittany, Golden Delicious, Cameo; and I have a yellow Asian pear.


STEWART: That probably sounds like enough choices to keep anyone happy. But for every variety of fruit and vegetable on sale here, there are several thousands more that are now extinct.

CARY FOWLER: My name is Cary Fowler, and I'm the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, based in Rome, Italy. The TED talk was about crop diversity, and about the importance of conserving that diversity as the foundation of agriculture - and the future of agriculture.

STEWART: Cary Fowler knows that crop diversity isn't exactly a hot-button topic. But to him, it's every bit as urgent as climate change or world hunger - and entirely connected. We'll talk with Cary in just a few minutes. But first, let's listen to some of his 2009 TED talk, where he warns about the crumbling base of agriculture.


FOWLER: We have about 200,000 different varieties of wheat, and we have about 2- to 400,000 different varieties of rice, but it's being lost. And I want to give you an example of that. It's a bit of a personal example, in fact. In the United States in the 1800s - that's where we have the best data - farmers and gardeners were growing 7,100 named varieties of apples. Imagine that: 7,100 apples with names.

Today, 6,800 of those are extinct - no longer to be seen again. I used to have a list of these extinct apples and when I would go out and give a presentation, I would pass the list out in the audience. I wouldn't tell them what it was, but it was in alphabetical order. And I would tell them to look for their names - their family names, their mother's maiden name.

And at the end of the speech I would ask, how many people have found a name? And I had never had fewer than two-thirds of an audience hold up their hand. And I said, you know what? These apples come from your ancestors, and your ancestors gave them the greatest honor they could give them. They gave them their name.

The bad news is, they're extinct. The good news is, a third of you didn't hold up your hand. Your apple's still out there. Find it. Make sure it doesn't join the list.

STEWART: Now Cary, the name of your TED talk is "One Seed at a Time: Protecting the Future of Food." And you make this case that preserving diversity of crops is important. But - want to be clear for the audience, that you're talking about a lot more serious considerations than just having choice and flavor or textures. What do you believe is the true reason we need diversity?

FOWLER: Well, absolutely, it's not just important; it's absolutely essential. If we don't have diversity in our agricultural crops, our backing up those agricultural crops, then the crops themselves, which are domesticated plants, don't have the ability to evolve, and to adapt to new conditions.

So, for example, most of us will go in the grocery store, pick up a loaf of bread; and the loaf of bread tastes pretty much the way it did many years ago. But I can promise you that it's being made with different varieties of wheat - and has to be made with different varieties of wheat because pest and diseases are always changing. They're getting better at attacking the wheat in the field.

And the climates are changing. So how do we make those different varieties that can keep up with all the environmental pressures?

STEWART: Cary, let's get back to your TED talk.


FOWLER: I get this question all the time: Why don't we just save the best one? And there are a couple of answers to that question. One thing is that the best - there is no such thing as a best one. Today's best variety is tomorrow's lunch, for an insect or pest or disease.

The other thing is, maybe a variety of wheat that's not economical right now has disease or pest resistance, or some quality that we're going to need for climate change, that the others don't. It's just necessary or interesting that it might have one good, unique trait and for that reason, we ought to be saving it. Why? As a raw material; as a trait that we can use in the future.

Think of diversity as giving us options. And options, of course, are exactly what we need in an era of climate change.

STEWART: When did it become clear that agrodiversity was being threatened?

FOWLER: It became clear first in the 1930s and early '40s, when scientists back in those days realized that we were using up these genetic resources, these heirloom old varieties of crops. And we were using them to create modern varieties. But the modern varieties themselves were sort of destroying the old varieties, so we were a sort of a snake eating its tail, if you will. We were engaged in a very unsustainable activity.

Unfortunately, of course that unsustainable activity happens to be agriculture, which is feeding us.

STEWART: So now you offer some good news, which is that scientists like yourself have been saving all different types of seeds in seed banks, which are basically like freezers. You found the perfect place for a global seed bank, which you described in your TED talk. Let's listen.


FOWLER: So a number of us got together and decided that, you know, enough is enough, and we need to do something about that. And we need to have a facility that can really offer protection for our biological diversity of - maybe not the most charismatic diversity, you don't look in the eyes of a carrot seed quite in the way that you do a panda bear, but it's very important diversity.

So we needed a really safe place. And we went quite far north to find it. To Svalbard, in fact. This is above mainland Norway. You can see Greenland there. It's at 78 degrees north. It's as far as you can fly on a regularly scheduled airplane.

We worked with the Norwegian government and with the Norgen(ph), the Norwegian Genetic Resources Program, to design this facility which is built in a mountain in Svalbard. The idea of Svalbard was that it's cold, so we get natural freezing temperatures, but it's remote. It's remote and accessible, so it's safe and we don't depend on mechanical refrigeration.

STEWART: There is a very funny genuine moment in your TED talk, when you discuss that being in the seed bank were some of the happiest times in your life.


FOWLER: Oh yeah, yeah...

STEWART: You have great joy.

FOWLER: ... absolutely.

STEWART: Why does being in the seed bank bring you that much joy?

FOWLER: For me, it's an emotionally powerful place. We faced a mass extinction in our agricultural system just in our lifetime, with so much diversity being lost forever, like the dinosaurs in a way. And this diversity is the foundation of food security forever and ever. But when I walk back in the seed vault, gosh, I see 750,000 unique varieties, 200,000 - well, 140,000 different varieties of rice, for example, that I'm pretty sure are not going to go extinct.

So all of those traits and characteristics that those varieties have, that I'm sure are going to be needed in the future to help us have a good agricultural system, adapted to climate change, they're not in danger.


FOWLER: I think it's interesting in that this facility, I think, is almost the only thing I can think of these days where countries - literally every country in the world, because we have seeds from every country in the world - all the countries of the world have gotten together to do something that's both long-term, sustainable and positive. I can't think of anything else that's happened in my lifetime that way.

STEWART: Cary, one of the things about you and your organization, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, that I think is really moving is how optimistic you are. Why are you so optimistic?

FOWLER: Well, I think we can achieve it. When I look at what we're doing, I realize, well gosh, you know, this diversity that we want to save has somehow made it all this way. From the origins of agriculture in the Neolithic days down to this year, this planting season. And all we have to do is conserve it for future generations, which we can do pretty easily. We have the technology; it's not to be invented. It's currently there.

And if we can manage to do that, it will actually serve as - it's a pre-requisite, actually, for solving a lot of these other problems.


FOWLER: I can't look you in the eyes and tell you that I have a solution for climate change, for the water crisis. Agriculture takes 70% of fresh water supplies on Earth. I can't look you in the eyes and tell you that there is such a solution for those things, or the energy crisis, or world hunger, or peace in conflict. I can't look you in the eyes and tell you that I have a simple solution for that.

But I can look you in the eyes and tell you that we can't solve any of those problems if we don't have crop diversity. Because I challenge you to think of a - of an effective, efficient, sustainable solution to climate change if we don't have crop diversity. Because quite literally, if we don't - if agriculture doesn't adapt to climate change, neither will we. And if crops don't adapt to climate change, neither will agriculture. Neither will we.

And my final thought is that we, of course, by conserving wheat, rice, potatoes and the other crops, we may quite simply end up saving ourselves. Thank you.

STEWART: You can read more about Cary's work and see pictures of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Go to ted.npr.org.


STEWART: In a typical day, in a typical lunchroom, there is some kid chowing down on pizza or chicken fingers, maybe some French fries. It's likely been re-heated after it was thawed out. Chef Ann Cooper wants to change that.


ANN COOPER: And what I came to understand is we needed to teach children the symbiotic relationship between a healthy planet, healthy food and healthy kids. And that, if we don't do that, the antithesis is we're really going to become extinct because we're feeding our children to death.

STEWART: Ann Cooper is currently director of nutritional services for the Boulder Valley School District in Boulder, Colorado, and she joins us now. Ann Cooper, welcome to the TED RADIO HOUR.

COOPER: Thank you for having me here.

STEWART: Once upon a time, you were just a regular old chef. What kind of chef were you?


COOPER: I don't know, I think I was a pretty good chef. I actually cooked all over this country, I cooked overseas, I was on cruise ships, I opened a restaurant in London. And then I just thought, what if I could take all of that and really give back? And maybe I just need to do something different. So, in 1999, I left the chef world to become a lunch lady.

STEWART: I hope you know when I said regular old chef, I meant that tongue-in-cheek.


COOPER: I know, I know.

STEWART: Now, you worked in the Berkeley School system and, you know, Berkeley has a reputation for being progressive and sort of crunchy. But you found that they weren't so progressive when it came to school lunches. Tell me what you found when you first started working with the system.

COOPER: Well, when I first went to Berkeley, I thought, oh, this is Alice Waters' home town, you know? She works for the School District, everything's going to be amazing. But when I got there, I looked at the food and almost everything was processed and packaged. And it was a cycle menu of chicken nuggets with Tater Tots and high fructose corn syrup and Pizza Pockets and corn dogs and Extremo Burritos and grilled cheese sandwiches.

And everything was pre-made and served in plastic, heated in plastic, came in plastic. And that's really what the food was when I got there.

STEWART: What was the explanation for why this service and the food was as it was at Berkeley?

COOPER: It's not what Berkeley did, or even what Boulder was doing before I came here. But it's what everyone's been doing. The National School Lunch Program started about 65 years ago. And when it started, it was lunch ladies and, seriously, mostly women, were cooking what I'm assuming was really just simple food, but they were cooking. There was no processed foods, no TV dinners, nothing about 65 years ago.

And then, 30 years into the program, those original lunch ladies and all their equipment needed to be retired, and so big business went to schools and said, oh, you don't need to replace your equipment, you don't need to replace your cooks. Here, we have chicken nuggets that just need to be warmed, or here, we have Tater Tots.

And so school districts all over the country were really starting to switch from having food that was cooked to these processed foods that were easy to serve and quote, unquote, "Safe and never touched by human hands." And it was really what was happening for more than a couple of decades until, in the last, you know, five years, 10 years, we've seen it start to slowly move back to cooking food again.

STEWART: When you first went into the school system to try to change the lunchroom menu, what was the one change you made that you think really changed people's attitudes?

COOPER: You know, I think that the biggest change right away, both in Berkeley and in Boulder, was putting in salad bars. When people could actually see fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, whole grains, healthy proteins, really see salad bars, see kids eating salads, I think that that was a wonderful first step in trying to make people understand that it shouldn't be about chicken nuggets and Tater Tots and chocolate milk.

STEWART: I know one of your most creative and controversial - to some - suggestion is to take the food program out of the hands of the U.S.T.A. and give it to the C.D.C., the Centers for Disease Control. Now, if you look up food on the C.D.C.'s website, it's mostly about an after-the-fact position, response to foodborne diseases, and it advocates food safety. Now, what do you think the C.D.C. could do that the U.S.D.A. isn't doing, in your opinion?

COOPER: Well, whether it would be C.D.C. or maybe H.H.S. - Health and Human Services - I just think we have to see school lunch as a health initiative. I mean, we're now seeing three-quarters of Americans overweight or obese. A third of kids, school-age kids, overweight or obese. And if we believe that everything that happens in a school is part of the educational experience, then we have to think that school lunch is training our kids and teaching and educating our kids to eat in a certain way.

So I just believe that, if school lunch was seen as part of health, that we would have better food.

STEWART: The work you do, does it cost as much, less or more than the current system in most schools in the United States?

COOPER: It costs more. The U.S.D.A. reimbursement rate for school lunch is $2.77 and it's costing us over $3 to put out a lunch. And I think that that's very typical in most schools. Most directors will tell you that, you know, there's not enough money in the system. We need more money in the system to feed kids better food.

That being said, I think if we did get more money, it should go directly to the cost of the food, to procuring fresh foods, fresh vegetables, whole grains, healthy protein, with a priority on local procurement.

STEWART: Marketing is so important. How do you make healthy lunches as attractive as a burger in a box with fries and maybe a toy?


COOPER: Well, I'm not sure how you go up against that kind of marketing, but one of the things we do is market to kids all the time. We do tastings, rainbow days, chef demos and iron chef competitions. We work with the kids all the time. If we want to change children's relationship to food, they have to be part of the process and so we do a lot of events with them.

And another thing that we really do is work with school gardens. Because if kids are part of the process, they start to understand what real food is.

STEWART: Ann Cooper, good luck with your good work.

COOPER: Thank you.

STEWART: Ann Cooper is director of nutritional services for the Boulder Valley School District in Boulder, Colorado. You can watch her 2007 talk on school nutrition. Go to ted.com.

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