Dan Barber of Blue Hill restaurant and author of The Third Plate talks about changing America's eating habits to create a more sustainable agriculture.
Where: New America NYC, 199 Lafayette St
When: July 16, 2014
Dan Barber, chef at Blue Hill and author of The Third Plate
Michael Specter, staff writer for the New Yorker
This was my first New America NYC event. In fact, I had never heard of the organization until a few weeks ago. New America states that it is “dedicated to big ideas and lively conversation.” The idea of ethical eating caught my attention because it’s such a complex issue that incorporates science, technology, industry, and politics into the most basic thing we need to survive.
The main speaker of the evening was Dan Barber, executive chef at Blue Hill and author of The Third Plate. This was, of course, a way to get people interested in Barber’s book, and while I have not read it – it is now on my list. Michael Specter, staff writer for the New Yorker, was the moderator for the evening. It was clear that these two have a long history and are familiar with each other’s views on food and eating.
It’s probably no surprise that America’s current system of agriculture, which relies on cheap chemicals, pesticides, and abundant free water is unsustainable. The question is – when will it fall apart? Barber pointed to the recent 2008 crisis as an example of just how fragile our current infrastructure is. As oil prices rose, large companies went bankrupt, unable to support the increasing cost of feed.
Ag in the Middle
Barber and Specter denounced the current “farm to table” movement as unsustainable. This “food movement”, which represents about 4% of our agriculture, focuses on high-fertility crops like zucchini, peas, tomatoes, and cucumbers that take away much of the soil’s fertility. To replace that fertility, farmers must either add large amounts of fertilizer or rotate in crops that add nitrogen to the soil, such as millet, clover legumes, and barley – which are often less desirable.
Barber recounted a story from his book about a farmer whose wheat he was using in his restaurant. When Barber went to visit farm, he noticed a surprising lack of wheat fields. The farmer explained that he had to rotate in other crops to make the soil fertile so that he could grow his money-making crops – corn, soybeans, and wheat. Farmers that practice crop rotation may not make a profit – and may actually take a loss – on these less desirable crops. Barber related how this exchange changed the way he approaches cooking – instead of focusing on one crop or one ingredient, how can cooks look to support the whole farm?
Barber argued that an ecologically sensible approach to agriculture could come from “middle agriculture.” These farmers are nimble enough to grow a diverse set of crops – as long as consumers create a demand for them – and large enough to provide the volume needed to feed the country.
Cuisine in America
Americans have a global reputation of being fat, wasteful, and gluttonous. Our supermarkets are full of tomatoes and raspberries in the winter, and our food choices rarely rely on what’s in season in our area. Barber argued that because America is a very fertile land with abundant water, we never had to develop a cuisine or define good cooking.
Barber suggested looking towards cultures with proper cuisines, which he defined as “patterns of eating that are intensely local” that developed as “negotiations with the land and figuring out how to make [food] delicious.” Because America has historically only known abundance, we never had to negotiate with nature. Like organic farmers in the US, regional farmers around the world rotate in nitrogen-rich crops like beans and legumes so that they can grow high-fertility crops like rice, corn, and wheat. Barber proposed that chefs can play a big role in redefining what it means to eat well and showing the benefits of eating in season.
There was also a very heated discussion on GMO foods. I won’t get into the details too much, but suffice it to say that Barber insisted that there is not one “magic bullet” that will solve our food crisis.