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Chef turned sustainability advocate brings food to the table for National Geographic

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Aviators, mountain climbers, deep sea divers and jungle trekkers are getting some company at National Geographic from an explorer known more for his skill with a paring knife than a machete.

Officials at the Washington, D.C.-based society that since its 1888 founding has sponsored expeditions to the South Pole, the bottom of the ocean and the deepest jungle, say the selection of chef and seafood sustainability advocate Barton Seaver as a National Geographic fellow fits perfectly with the organization's pledge to inspire people to care about the planet.

"We're looking for all kinds of different people and messengers here to help sort of inspire people to care about the planet. That's our mission," said Miguel Jorge, National Geographic's ocean initiative project director, who was among those that selected Seaver as a fellow.

"Barton has a personal passion for helping people connect their meal to the broader world around them and where it came from and who helped generate that meal. How did nature play a role in that? How did fishing communities play a role in that? How do folks working in the seafood sector trying to make living play a role in that?"

Seaver is among an increasing number of chefs whose interest in food has grown from creating dishes for fine dining to considering the impact of our consumption, from the oceans to farm fields, feed lots and even on ourselves.

"The guiding hand of natural selection is firmly holding a fork," Seaver said in a recent interview.

In addition to fellows such as Seaver, National Geographic supports explorers from a variety of fields not often thought of as the society's territory. That includes mobile technology innovator Ken Banks, digital storyteller and zoologist Lucy Cooke, futurist Andrew Zolli and musician activist Feliciano dos Santos.

Seaver, 33, a Washington, D.C., native whose parents were adventurous cooks and shoppers, said his interest in food has always been more than purely sensual, serving also as a window into cultures across the world and as a vehicle to learn about nature. Now, he is using that same vehicle to spread what he has learned.

Alex Moen, who runs the society's explorer program, says fellows like Seaver help break down what has been a bit of a divide between the public and explorers.

"The whole point of this is to make them more accessible and more real for people to connect with them," Moen said. "Historically, there was a bit of a wall there, really. There was kind of this image of National Geographic sending people out, and you know, you'd find out about it in the magazine."

Seaver, author of "For Cod and Country," which he describes as a guide for environmentally minded cooks, said he has been spending his time as a fellow visiting fisheries, including salmon farming operations in Chile and Norway. Seaver also has produced a web series, "Cookwise," contributed to National Geographic's seafood guide and written for the society's blog.

Much of what he has learned can be distilled thus — we must control our appetites and have some vegetables along with that protein.

"We know how to sustainably farm shrimp. We know how to sustainably farm salmon. But none of our alchemy will ever create a sustainable all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet," Seaver said. "Even the most responsibly raised salmon isn't sustainable in a 16-ounce portion. And so, it's not just about creating sustainable products, it's also about using them sustainably."

Seaver says he has great hopes that once we "rationalize our expectations" of what we can take from the oceans, they will continue to provide for us.

Sheila Bowman, senior outreach manager of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, said that program often uses chefs to help teach consumers to make sustainable seafood purchases. The key is not to get the public to eat more or less seafood, but the right seafood, avoiding overfished species or those whose capture harms other species or the environment.

Chefs can help the public "try something different and, you know, put it in their mouth," Bowman said.

While many people are working to save small farms and farming communities, fishermen aren't always viewed in the same light, said Seaver, who says he would like that to change because responsibly harvested seafood is one of the most environmentally friendly, efficient and healthy food sources available.

"Ultimately, we're not trying to save the fish. We're really trying to save the fishery because what we are really trying to save is our access to those fish," Seaver said. "And, therefore, saving fishermen becomes as much of a goal as does restoring ecosystems."

"And so to me, it's about creating a dialogue in which a fisherman is seen as a vital and necessary part of our community and the role of the fisherman is protected as much as any fish so long as the responsible fishermen and the fish are seen as equal and complementary," Seaver said.

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