Change We Can Stomach
By DAN BARBER
COOKING, like farming, for all its down-home community spirit, is essentially a solitary craft. But lately it’s feeling more like a lonely burden. Finding guilt-free food for our menus — food that’s clean, green and humane — is about as easy as securing a housing loan. And we’re suddenly paying more — 75 percent more in the last six years — to stock our pantries. Around the world, from Cairo to Port-au-Prince, increases in food prices have governments facing riots born of shortages and hunger. It’s enough to make you want to toss in the toque.
But here’s the good news: if you’re a chef, or an eater who cares about where your food comes from (and there are a lot of you out there), we can have a hand in making food for the future downright delicious.
Farming has the potential to go through the greatest upheaval since the Green Revolution, bringing harvests that are more healthful, sustainable and, yes, even more flavorful. The change is being pushed along by market forces that influence how our farmers farm.
Until now, food production has been controlled by Big Agriculture, with its macho fixation on “average tonnage” and “record harvests.” But there’s a cost to its breadbasket-to-the-world bragging rights. Like those big Industrial Age factories that once billowed black smoke, American agriculture is mired in a mind-set that relies on capital, chemistry and machines. Food production is dependent on oil, in the form of fertilizers and pesticides, in the distances produce travels from farm to plate and in the energy it takes to process it.
For decades, environmentalists and small farmers have claimed that this is several kinds of madness. But industrial agriculture has simply responded that if we’re feeding more people more cheaply using less land, how terrible can our food system be?
Now that argument no longer holds true. With the price of oil at more than $120 a barrel (up from less than $30 for most of the last 50 years), small and midsize nonpolluting farms, the ones growing the healthiest and best-tasting food, are gaining a competitive advantage. They aren’t as reliant on oil, because they use fewer large machines and less pesticide and fertilizer.
In fact, small farms are the most productive on earth. A four-acre farm in the United States nets, on average, $1,400 per acre; a 1,364-acre farm nets $39 an acre. Big farms have long compensated for the disequilibrium with sheer quantity. But their economies of scale come from mass distribution, and with diesel fuel costing more than $4 per gallon in many locations, it’s no longer efficient to transport food 1,500 miles from where it’s grown.
The high cost of oil alone will not be enough to reform American agriculture, however. As long as agricultural companies exploit the poor and extract labor from them at slave wages, and as long as they aren’t required to pay the price for the pollution they so brazenly produce, their system will stay afloat. If financially pinched Americans opt for the cheapest (and the least healthful) foods rather than cook their own, the food industry will continue to reach for the lowest common denominator.
But it is possible to nudge the revolution along — for instance, by changing how we measure the value of food. If we stop calculating the cost per quantity and begin considering the cost per nutrient value, the demand for higher-quality food would rise.
Organic fruits and vegetables contain 40 percent more nutrients than their chemical-fed counterparts. And animals raised on pasture provide us with meat and dairy products containing more beta carotene and at least three times as much C.L.A. (conjugated linoleic acid, shown in animal studies to reduce the risk of cancer) than those raised on grain.
Where good nutrition goes, flavor tends to follow. Chefs are the first to admit that an impossibly sweet, flavor-filled carrot has nothing to do with our work. It has to do with growing the right seed in healthy, nutrient-rich soil.
Increasingly we can see the wisdom of diversified farming operations, where there are built-in relationships among plants and animals. A dairy farm can provide manure for a neighboring potato farm, for example, which can in turn offer potato scraps as extra feed for the herd. When crops and livestock are judiciously mixed, agriculture wisely mimics nature.
To encourage small, diversified farms is not to make a nostalgic bid to revert to the agrarian ways of our ancestors. It is to look toward the future, leapfrogging past the age of heavy machinery and pollution, to farms that take advantage of the sun’s free energy and use the waste of one species as food for another.
Chefs can help move our food system into the future by continuing to demand the most flavorful food. Our support of the local food movement is an important example of this approach, but it’s not enough. As demand for fresh, local food rises, we cannot continue to rely entirely on farmers’ markets. Asking every farmer to plant, harvest, drive his pickup truck to a market and sell his goods there is like asking me to cook, take reservations, serve and wash the dishes.
We now need to support a system of well-coordinated regional farm networks, each suited to the food it can best grow. Farmers organized into marketing networks that can promote their common brands (like the Organic Valley Family of Farms in the Midwest) can ease the economic and ecological burden of food production and transportation. They can also distribute their products to new markets, including poor communities that have relied mainly on food from convenience stores.
Similar networks could also operate in the countries that are now experiencing food shortages. For years, the United States has flooded the world with food exports, displacing small farmers and disrupting domestic markets. As escalating food prices threaten an additional 100 million people with hunger, a new concept of humanitarian aid is required. Local farming efforts focused on conserving natural resources and biodiversity are essential to improving food security in developing countries, as a report just published by the International Assessment of Agriculture Science and Technology for Development has concluded. We must build on these tenets, providing financial and technical assistance to small farmers across the world.
But regional systems will work only if there is enough small-scale farming going on to make them viable. With a less energy-intensive food system in place, we will need more muscle power devoted to food production, and more people on the farm. (The need is especially urgent when you consider that the average age of today’s American farmer is over 55.) In order to move gracefully into a post-industrial agriculture economy, we also need to rethink how we educate the people who will grow our food. Land-grant universities and agricultural schools, dependent on financing from agribusiness, focus on maximum extraction from the land — take more, sell more, waste more.
Leave our agricultural future to chefs and anyone who takes food and cooking seriously. We never bought into the “bigger is better” mantra, not because it left us too dependent on oil, but because it never produced anything really good to eat. Truly great cooking — not faddish 1.5-pound rib-eye steaks with butter sauce, but food that has evolved from the world’s thriving peasant cuisines — is based on the correspondence of good farming to a healthy environment and good nutrition. It’s never been any other way, and we should be grateful. The future belongs to the gourmet.
Dan Barber is the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.