A long-time and well-known proponent of responsible business practices in the outdoor equipment and apparel industry, Patagonia is now applying its brand and expertise to promote positive changes in the food industry. Believing that “what we eat does more than just fill our stomachs and nourish our bodies; good food lifts our spirits and helps us understand the world a little better,” the company has created a new line of food products called Patagonia Provisions, starting with salmon and tsampa (a staple of Himalayan Sherpas).
Tell us why Patagonia decided to focus on food with Patagonia Provisions.
With Patagonia Provisions, our goals are the same as with everything we do: we aim to make the best products, cause no unnecessary harm, and, perhaps most importantly, inspire solutions to the environmental crisis.
Nowhere is the crisis more pressing than in the food industry. Today, modern technology, chemistry, and transportation combine to put more distance between people and their food than ever before. Salmon is indiscriminately harvested or farmed in open-water feedlots, putting wild salmon in peril. Our prairies are overgrazed, our livestock are filled with antibiotics, and our fossil aquifers are drained to water unsustainable crops. Chemicals reign supreme to maximize production, and the unknown impact of genetically modified organisms hovers over the entire industry. In short, our food chain is broken.
What is the story behind the inception of this new product line?
Patagonia Provisions is about finding solutions to repair the food chain. We have started, as we always do, by learning everything we can about the sourcing of each product. In some cases, we’ll adopt the best practices already in existence; in others, we’ll have to find new ways of doing things, which, as we might have guessed, frequently ends up being the old ways.
Patagonia places an emphasis on sourcing organic materials and ingredients. How much of the Patagonia Provisions line is organic and what is the rationale behind this decision?
All of our products are 100 percent organic. Organic meat and produce are better for you. Research consistently shows that organic fruits and vegetables have higher levels of antioxidants than the same produce grown conventionally. For example, a recent study in the scientific journal PLOS ONE showed that organic tomatoes have 50 percent more Vitamin C than conventional tomatoes. The findings in dairy products are just as striking - organic milk contains more beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids and a healthier ratio of Omega-6 fatty acids than the conventional version. And perhaps even more importantly, research published in the journals Food Control and Meat Science found that conventional meat contains more antibiotic-resistant bacteria than organic meat. Science proves what we already intuitively knew, which is that how we grow our food directly affects how good it is for us.
Organic meat and produce taste better, too. The lower levels of nitrogen and higher amounts of antioxidants found in organic fruits and vegetables create more intense flavors. The same factors contribute to longer shelf life, giving organic produce better flavor when it reaches your table. Free-range livestock carries a distinct flavor unique to the land where it was raised. It’s really no surprise that conventionally grown food, designed to maximize yield, often does so at the expense of flavor. The most compelling reason of all, though, goes back to that simple lesson we learned as kids: you are what you eat. And, given the choice, we’d rather be organic whole grains, filled with flavor, fiber, and complex carbohydrates; organic kale, rich in antioxidants and vitamins; local apricots bursting with natural sweetness. We’d like to be wild sockeye salmon; free-roaming grass- fed buffalo; long-rooted perennial wheat. This is what we want for ourselves and for our children. We are, after all, what we eat. Nothing more and nothing less.
What has been the biggest challenge for the program so far and how are you working to overcome it?
The most challenging aspect has been staying ahead of the sometimes relentless momentum that occurred after we launched Patagonia Provisions. We have so many great ideas and goals for what we want to do, and it’s sometimes hard to keep up! It’s been very exciting and we have had the opportunity to meet and work with some of the most amazing people who are passionate about the need for change in the food industry.
Why did you make the decision to start with salmon and tsampa and what products do you hope to branch out to next?
The immense runs of wild salmon that once filled nearly every watershed from Alaska to Southern California are nearly gone, decimated by 150 years’ worth of industry, resource extraction, dam building, and agriculture. More recently, hatchery production, suburban sprawl, toxic runoff from cars, and even lawn chemicals have contributed to the burden on our remaining salmon populations.
Modern industrial salmon harvesting creates its own set of problems. On the high seas, salmon from hundreds of watersheds mix and mingle along their migration routes. Commercial fisheries in the open ocean lack the ability to know where the fish they catch originated. While sustainable populations may be targeted, the actual harvest can - and often does - include fish from endangered stocks.
Gillnet fisheries in large rivers kill a majority of the fish they encounter because they are unable to discriminate between robust populations and those struggling to survive. For example, in rivers where abundant sockeye and pink salmon are targeted for harvest, unacceptable numbers of imperiled coho, Chinook, and steelhead often perish as by-catch.
On our coastlines, open-water net-pen salmon farms pollute the water with chemicals, waste, and parasites, exacting a terrible toll on wild fish migrating nearby. Fish produced in these feedlots require dye-enhanced food to color their gray flesh and frequently contain antibiotics, concentrated PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls], and other chemicals.
Thankfully, there are bright spots in the salmon world. Thriving runs of wild salmon still exist in certain watersheds, and a return to selective fishing techniques allows for responsible harvesting of abundant target species. Strange as it may sound, we believe harvesting and eating wild salmon in the right numbers and from the right places can actually help save them.
We source our salmon only from these select fisheries. We’re also working to use more of each fish we harvest. For example, we’re working on a salmon jerky recipe made from the delicious (but difficult-to-remove) flesh found along the fish’s backbone. We’re also researching ways to create healthy pet treats out of salmon scraps that are normally discarded during processing.
On a larger scale, our entry into the fish business allows us to support and publicize conservation projects that directly impact wild salmon. We’re currently part of efforts to stop the Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay and the Enbridge Pipeline in British Columbia. We provided support for the Elwha Dam removal and continue to push for further dam busting on the Snake, Klamath, and other rivers. We also support dozens of organizations working to save habitats, shut down hatcheries, and change commercial fisheries.
Our first step in the food business started with salmon, where we hope to find solutions to the crisis that’s occurring across the Pacific coast. After careful, hands-on vetting, we’re using salmon harvested only from abundant, sustainable fisheries. Then, working with some of our favorite chefs, we’ve developed the kinds of delicious, wholesome - and responsible - foods we like to eat on the trail and share with friends at home.
More than 35 years ago, in the mountains of Nepal, [Patagonia founder] Yvon Chouinard’s Sherpa friends introduced him to tsampa. Chouinard soon discovered what the people of the Himalayas have known for centuries: this simple roasted-grain staple provides ideal fuel for high- altitude performance. In the years since, we’ve adjusted the recipe by westernizing the flavors a bit to create a delicious, convenient soup mix that retains the amazing properties of the original tsampa. Made with organic, roasted whole grains and vegetables, Tsampa Soup is good, simple food we enjoy everywhere from high-altitude base camps to sea level dinners at home.
What is your grand vision for the future of the program?
In the coming months and years, we’ll offer a growing selection of foods that address environmental issues and continue to encourage support of local food producers. We’ll keep working with our favorite chefs to create the kind of healthy, nutritious food we like to eat on the trail or water and share with friends at home. If we do our job, our success can help establish a model for a new kind of food chain, one where we, as the Zen master might say, “turn around and take a step forward.”