Thursday, May 29, 2014

"The Third Plate"

Recently I read an excerpt -- "What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong"-- from The Third Plate by Dan Barber. I found this New York Times piece so compelling that I immediately bought the Kindle edition of the just-published book. Barber challenges commonly held assumptions about organic, sustainable, and alternative agriculture. He suggests that recent changes to the way people eat are superficial and not likely to last in an effective way.

"In celebrating the All-Stars of the farmers’ market — asparagus, heirloom tomatoes, emmer wheat — farm-to-table advocates are often guilty of ignoring a whole class of humbler crops that are required to produce the most delicious food," he writes. Because of this waste, he says, a few changed attitudes can't rescue the deeply flawed system of mainly big farms in America today. While many writers have made this point before, the problems that he points out seem unusual and very insightful.

"Feeding Time" from the Blue Hill Farm website
Barber, who is chef and co-owner of the well-known and highly admired Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurants in New York, emphasizes the role of the chef in creating demand for foods and in inspiring food trends. He asks: can chefs inspire people to eat local foods and thus "reshape landscapes and drive lasting change?" His answer: "More than a decade into the movement, the promise has fallen short. For all its successes, farm-to-table has not, in any fundamental way, reworked the economic and political forces that dictate how our food is grown and raised."

Why? Crop rotation -- traditionally growing legumes and other restorative plants on the land where wheat is grown instead of using chemical fertilizer -- is a fundamental part of growing organic wheat, but it's much less productive of wheat than large-scale farming. Chefs and home cooks want organic wheat, but they don't want the other products of crop rotations, especially not at high organic prices. This means organic farming of wheat isn't becoming very sustainable -- not enough payback to farmers. Surpluses of alternate crops are wasted or turned into less-profitable animal feed.

There are a number of other parts to this argument, but the bottom line is that chefs and the home cooks they influence have not accepted the implications or the long-term needs of organic agriculture: they still shop and cook as if they were buying from Big Agriculture. He has a lot to say about wheat and how it fits into both Big Agriculture and smaller sustainable practices in past, present, and future American farming. In the book he also points out how the meat-raising industry has adapted to modern times: "A farm raising only chickens would have been as unique and unlikely a hundred years ago as a multispecies animal farm like Stone Barns is today," he writes. And he gives a brief history of how chicken became such a commodity: mass-produced and harmful to the land, to the workers, and even to the chickens. (p. 146)

The Third Plate presents parallel descriptions of problems with growing wheat, with raising livestock, and with deep-sea fishing and fish farming. He believes that chefs create unsustainable demand by featuring not only boutique-raised wheat but also by featuring the best cuts of meat -- "the seven-ounce slab of protein on your dinner plate" -- and the meatiest and most tender fish species in preference to smaller uglier by-catch. Just as chefs and home cooks reject the non-wheat crops in crop rotation they also leave less attractive beef parts to be tossed in the garbage. Industrial fishing boats waste a high proportion of edible fish that are brought up in their huge destructive nets, keeping only what sells best. Poultry processors consign non-white chicken parts to be made into cheap exports. Much food that could be eaten by humans ends up feeding pets or other livestock, or is simply trashed. All kinds of ill effects and bad incentives are inherent in the situation, especially considering that fish supplies in the ocean are nearly wiped out.

Barber also goes into detail about the higher quality and better taste of foods from smaller-scale farms, and how tastiness has been lost as food production became large-scale and cheaper. He describes a number of kitchen experiments that he and his coworkers have done to make less popular foods into something truly delicious, including developing recipes for offal and baking methods for whole-grain bread and brioche.

Throughout the book, Barber highlights the need to use all the products of crop rotation, animal raising, or fishing, and attempts to show how this might be done. "Our job," he writes, "isn't just to support the farmer; it's really to support the land that supports the farmer. That's a larger distinction than it sounds like. Even the most sustainably minded farmers grow crops and raise meats in proportion to what we demand. And what we demand generally throws off the balance of what the land can reasonably provide." (p. 181)

From the Times excerpt: "Perhaps the problem with the farm-to-table movement is implicit in its name. Imagining the food chain as a field on one end and a plate of food at the other is not only reductive, it also puts us in the position of end users. It’s a passive system — a grocery-aisle mentality — when really, as cooks and eaters, we need to engage in the nuts and bolts of true agricultural sustainability. Flavor can be our guide to reshaping our diets, and our landscapes, from the ground up."

Unfortunately I didn't find the book to be as compelling, on the whole, as the excerpt. It has too many long-winded anecdotes about farmers and fishermen, especially several such encounters in Spain where Barber seems not-quite-able to explain how the examples apply to the American situation. He gives far more detail about these practitioners of very particularized small-scale agriculture than I find necessary to convince his readers about his central points. (Though I did like the portrayals of some of the experimental seed makers in the last chapter about seed development.) Even worse are his also-long accounts of interactions with famous fellow chefs and with food writers. I felt that these amounted to a kind of snobbish name-dropping. He's a chef, and he defends his view that chefs lead American consumers in many of their food choices. I'm not fully convinced.

Much in the book, as in the excerpt, is very thought provoking, but it's very tedious to read through all the vast material about Spanish farms and restaurants, famous chefs, and aqua-culture that become his object-lessons. This makes me sad because my normal response to such portraits is to be enthusiastic. I enjoyed much of the book, but also found it hard to get through all of it.

Update:  Why I'm not convinced despite finding the book compelling: "Can Chefs Change the World?"


Jeanie said...

The concept sounds interesting but I think a bit too dense for me. But there is some food for thought about the crop rotation and what's "in" and "out." From where I sit as a home cook and eater, what's in is always in till I'm tired of it and what's out is always out until someone shows me a way to prepare it that brings new energy or flavor to something I didn't like. I've been working on a post about this... someday it will get up!

Mae Travels said...

Hi Jeanie,
I don't know if you read my second post on "The Third Plate." I think the author of the book has thought about organic agriculture as he knows it, and wishes he could help make it work better... if people were only more open-minded towards new foods, he suspects, that task would be easier. But I don't think he's at all in touch with people like you and me who cook rather simply and want a combination of efficiency (of both time & money to some extent), good taste (including what's familiar and what's new), and healthfulness (a part that he scarcely mentions). So I guess he's only in touch with that New York crowd. After writing, I read a Wall St. Journal review: the reviewer tried the restaurant and thought $94 was a bit steep for the less-popular foods she was served. You see what I mean.