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Foodstuff: Hungry for Ideas

At the Aspen Ideas Festival, speakers consider food for our planet’s future

Juliet Litman, Lisa Dyson and Gregory Constantine discuss new technology that makes food out of thin air during “What to Eat in a Warming World” at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 27, 2022. Photo by Kaya Williams
Kaya Williams

Chew on this: There’s probably something in your cabinet or your refrigerator that isn’t 100% great for planet Earth.

Your red meat comes from cows, which produce methane emissions, and your vegan version of red meat might be wrapped in plastic. I’m willing to bet some of the produce in your fruit bowl didn’t grow in this valley, this state or any of the states right next to it; given our distance from the sea, I don’t think that seafood swam its way into your refrigerator.

Is it possible to source your dinner from within the Roaring Fork Valley, and pick up all those ingredients by bicycle? Sure. Are you going to do that every week? Maybe. If so, you’re probably more committed than I am.



I don’t write this with any accusatory fingers to point. Was it not two weeks ago that I was singing the high praises of wagyu and lobster? As I write this from bed, I can look to my right and see the popsicle wrappers piling up. I’m sipping from 10-hour-old coffee languishing on the table.

I recognize, too, that climate change isn’t something I can personally solve by not eating popsicles or denying myself a taste of an extraordinary dish that we were informed once won Japan’s “beef Olympics.” My choice to order a salad instead probably won’t put a dent in oil drilling; given the chance, I’m going to try the lobster-stuffed peppers.




We’ve all got one stab at this whole living thing here on Earth. So even, and especially if, our environment is rapidly changing, there are a few experiences (like a Spanish ham tasting or a sushi extravaganza) that we ought to allow ourselves the pleasure of enjoying.

But all this talk about a warming planet with more extreme weather has sparked an appetite (mine and many others) to think about the way shifting food systems and cultural forces might stand to help all of us eat a little greener.

Which is why I sat in a tent at Aspen Ideas Fest last week hungry for big ideas in a deep-dive seminar titled “What to Eat in a Warming World.”

It’s not the first time food and climate have come to the table at Ideas Fest: panels on broken food systems popped up in 2016, as well as 2022, and “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter World” came up in 2019. In a search of past Ideas sessions, the local food movement surfaces as a theme again and again, as does reducing food waste. Heck, the Aspen Institute even has a “Food and Society” program.

These talks are grappling with big, existential questions about what we eat and how it shapes the world around us. Heady stuff.

It’s also really cool stuff, especially when solutions are at the forefront of the conversation — solutions like making food out of thin air. There are at least two different companies doing that, and their CEOs were right up there on stage at the “What to Eat in a Warming World” seminar at Ideas Fest.

Lisa Dyson runs Air Protein, which takes elements from the air and turns them into sustainable protein. “Meat made from air” is right there on the website’s homepage. The way Dyson described the science, the process is kind of like making yogurt: Cultures munch up elements of the air and produce protein as a result of what the company’s website calls “air fermentation.”

Gregory Constantine runs Air Company — not at all affiliated with Dyson’s Air Protein — which uses carbon conversion technology to turn carbon dioxide into products like vodka, hand sanitizer and perfume.

There’s a lot of novelty in the concepts. But there’s also a message and a mission behind them, according to Constantine and Dyson, who conversed with The Ringer’s Juliet Litman during the first half of the “Warming World” seminar.

“If you walk into a restaurant and you can buy a product that’s made from carbon dioxide, that allows everyday folks to kind of really maybe get a touch point on what technology has the ability to do and how we can use technology to help better the planet and kind of continually move humanity forward,” Constantine said.

These concepts are picking up steam, too.

“The good thing that is happening is a shift in interest — interest from consumers, which leads to interest from brands and other companies out there, and so that’s what’s gonna cause these types of technologies, these types of companies, these innovations to become more popular,” Dyson said.

Going back to the roots of food is an option too, literally speaking. Chef Daniel Humm, of Eleven Madison Park fame, said in the second half of the seminar that his decision to shift to a plant-based menu at the acclaimed fine dining restaurant in New York has been “the opposite of being restrictive,” and that “working with vegetables has been so beautiful.”

Much of Humm’s conversation with MSNBC’s Jacob Soboroff focused on Humm’s evolution as a chef and his relationship with cooking, with a few sometimes-prickly points about the restaurant’s operations. (The pandemic has been a challenge; low staff pay has been the subject of recent critique; and the new plant-based menu wasn’t a hit with a New York Times restaurant critic.)

I was curious about Humm’s own relationship with meat, and how he evaluated that as he went plant-based at his restaurant. So, during an audience Q&A, I asked. He’s not a vegan by any means, but he’s getting a lot closer to a totally plant-based diet these days, he said.

Humm had said earlier in the conversation that his choice to go plant-based was in part to do with a matter of inspiration. Amid whirlwind success, “I had really lost the connection to (a) love food,” he told Soboroff; turning to vegetables helped him restore that connection, he said.

“It came from a really — a creative place,” he added later, in the A to my Q. “(It) became very political. It became much more about climate change. I experienced ingredients disappear in the 30 years since I’ve been cooking, so I wanted to respond to this.”

For Humm — and “for anyone who is paying attention to what’s happening in our food systems” — sticking with the old ways wasn’t an option anymore, he said.

“You don’t need to be an expert: you learn pretty quickly that things have to change, and we have to change with it,” Humm said. “And for me, I felt I had this creative platform — if this is where we’re going, we might as well make it as delicious and magical as possible.”

Kaya Williams is a reporter for The Aspen Times and The Snowmass Sun who sometimes eats things that aren’t good for her or for the planet, but who also eats lots of things that are. She hopes this column helps even the karmic scales. Email her at kwilliams@aspentimes.com.

A person gathers dozens of eggs from the hen house at the sustainable agriculture farm Rock Bottom Ranch in El Jebel on Feb. 18, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times archives)
Kelsey Brunner
Molly and Barclay Dodge display their fresh food made with ingredients from Sustainable Settings at their Bosq booth during the morning Grand Tasting at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen on June 18, 2022. Both the Bosq restaurant and Sustainable Settings farm prioritize food close to the source. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times archives)
Kelsey Brunne
Katie Hunter organizes vegetables for The Farm Collaborative’s Community Supported Agriculture box at the farm on June 29, 2021. The sustainable agriculture nonprofit grows a variety of foods onsite in Snowmass Village. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times archives)
Kelsey Brunne

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