Q&A with Chef Dan Barber: Can organic farming feed the world?

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At TED2010, Chef Dan Barber drew a standing ovation with his unlikely love story about fish: sustainably farmed, outrageously delicious fish, which offers a model for the future of food production. A key figure in the farm-to-table movement, Dan occupies an unusual space as chef-scholar: His op/eds appear regularly in The New York Times and elsewhere; and he prepares genius menus nightly at his two Blue Hill Restaurants — one in New York City and one at the Stone Barns farm in Pocantico Hills, NY. We caught up with Dan in New York to better understand the meaty issues he raised in his talk.

In your talk, you made it clear that you hate the question, “How are you going to feed the world?” But you sure answered it convincingly. So — at the risk of alienating you — can local, organic farming feed the world?

Here’s what I know: Conventional agriculture has never succeeded in feeding the world, and it’s never produced anything good to eat. For the future, we need to look toward alternatives. Does that mean a world full of local and organic farms? Yes, those ideas will certainly become more important as we move forward—they’ve been proven to work (just look at the recent International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, the most comprehensive study to date on the future of agriculture), and they’re critical to conserving the planet’s natural resources. But I also think we need to radically reconsider what agriculture looks like—perhaps it involves models like Veta La Palma, or agroforestry, or perennial wheat polycultures, like the ones being developed at The Land Institute. These are systems that demonstrate natural resilience and ecological stability, which are essential for facing the challenges ahead.

Your TEDtalk presents itself as a really gentle tale, but it’s actually a pretty radical proposition for rethinking food production. Talk to me about where you think agriculture has gone wrong.

When you say that agriculture has gone wrong, it sounds like you’re advocating for a system that’s 200 years old. I couldn’t be further from that; I love technology. But I do think we’re heading for a vastly different food experience, in our lifetimes. I think the conventional food system — which is based on lots of cheap energy, lots of cheap labor, lots of available water, lots of soil erosion — is going to be a dead man walking 20 years from now. And that’s because the things it relies upon are not going to be available.

If you look at the carrying capacity of agricultural areas throughout the world, their ecological habitats are changing. So I think we’re looking at — in our lifetime — great collapses of food services. We need the humbleness and clarity to see that our food, while benefitting from technological advances, has benefitted even more from free ecological resources: Cheap energy, lots of water everywhere, and a stable climate. But studies have shown these are eroding. And if you take these away — if you don’t have those in abundance — you’re not only going to NOT feed the world, you’re not going to be able to eat the way we do now. We’re going to be forced into a new system. The question is: Is that going to be a traumatic transition, or are we going to start preparing for it now?

The typical and very loud argument against organic farming is that it can’t scale, that the yields aren’t high enough. How do you respond to that?

Yield is a tricky topic, especially if you have an agenda. I know this from our own farming: You can look at yield a lot of different ways. When a study says that conventional farms produce more per acre than organic farms, they’re talking about yield, not total output.

Yield is generally defined by economists as yield for a particular crop. When you farm in a monoculture, that’s easy to measure. But when you farm organically, you grow several different crops. So your yield per individual crop is lower, but your total output of caloric foods is higher.

Read more after the jump — including the single most important thing you can do to improve your food supply >>And then there’s the transaction cost of getting from the farm to the marketplace: THAT’S the expensive part; that’s the problem for organic farmers. It’s much more expensive to distribute products from diverse farms. Monocultured farms are much easier — one variety, one pick up, one drop off to Walmart, etc.

So you argue that acre-for-acre, over time, the yield on an organic farm surpasses that of conventional farms.

Yes. The TOTAL CALORIC yield on an organic farm far surpasses a conventional farm. That’s on every credible study out there. That’s not even an issue.

Let’s talk about grain. Because if you’re talking about feeding the world, it’s really about grain. Now, if you’re an organic corn farmer, by definition, you can’t grow corn every year. You have to get nitrogen back in the soil. So you’ll grow corn, and then you’ll grow a legume, and so you’ll fix the nitrogen and improve the soil structure. Now, if you’re a conventional farmer, you’re growing just corn and nothing else but corn. So you might look at this system and say the conventional farmer got more corn. But what that doesn’t show is that the organic farmer also got soybeans, switchgrass, vetch, alfalfa …

So an organic farm will absolutely yield less corn, but that doesn’t mean you’re yielding less food. It just means you’re producing less corn.

And presumably this is a healthier system, right? If you have greater diversity of crops, you have a greater diversity of food that the population is eating.

That’s a really important point. Because the reason the conventional corn farmer is doing what he’s doing is because of our diets. It isn’t just the agribusiness corporations pulling levers behind the curtain, it’s also the decisions we’re making as individuals. If we diversify our diets — if we eat less processed food, or switch to animals raised on grass instead of corn — it supports a healthier system.

So that’s why I think it’s important to get people to realize they have a very powerful set of decisions to make when they eat. And those decisions have a huge effect on how the world works. That’s very powerful! I mean: How many issues raised at TED can one get up from their seat and say: “Today I’m going to do something about that.” With food, you can vote for the kinds of food you want three times a day.

Let’s talk about those decisions we’re making. You’re obviously extremely diligent in researching just how sustainable a particular fish is…

I know. It’s annoying…

It’s not annoying. It’s just time-consuming. So for the rest of us who aren’t experts — but who want to eat responsibly and healthfully — what are a few things we can do that will actually make a difference?

Buying at a farmers market is the biggest difference you can make overnight. People complain that cities don’t have fresh, sustainable food, but it’s just not true. In New York, San Francisco, LA — everywhere, there’s an explosion of farmers markets. So the number one thing to do is to shop at these markets, because generally you’re dealing with farmers who are local and small-scale. And if they’re small-scale, they’re generally diverse. They’re generally trying to figure out how to produce the best food with the least input cost – in terms of ecological resources. And that’s a very exciting system to support.

The second thing you could do is grow your own food. It sounds crazy, but it’s not. If you’re across the street here, in New York, you could grow herbs in your windowsill. If you’re in the suburbs, you can plant in your back lawn. It’s not about providing 100% of your food; it’s about doing something that connects you to a natural system, and gets you closer to the food you’re eating.

Another thing is to talk to the manager at your local supermarket. They’re very responsive in trying to procure the kinds of fruits and vegetables that you want. And there are also political outlets, in terms of who you vote for. It’s like what Gandhi said, “Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it’s important that you do it.”

It’s interesting: 10 years ago you wouldn’t have had me at TED, and we wouldn’t have been sitting here talking about this. There’s been a huge change in consciousness.

Along those lines: At TED we think a lot about how ideas spread. You’ve been involved with this particular idea on many fronts — through your restaurant, your farm, your op/eds… What are the key ways that the idea of the local food movement has spread?

It’s all about the flavor. Because when you taste really fresh, delicious food — food that’s been grown the right way — you become greedy for more. And then you are by definition being an environmentalist, because that’s the food that’s the most ecologically responsible, and by definition you’re a nutritionist — because that’s the food that’s the most nutrient-dense. And you’re being a community activitist, because you’re engaged in the kind of community system you want to support. So a lot of important things flow from good food. But at the end of the day, it’s about food that tastes good. This idea has spread through hedonism.

Why does conventionally raised food taste so bland?

Well, there are a couple of reasons. The main reason is that it’s bred for yield. If you’re breeding a tomato — or a carrot, or a sheep to produce lamb — you can choose from a lot of characteristics. The characteristic of choice for the last 40 years has been yield. The second characteristic is: How long can it travel? How long can it last on a supermarket shelf or in your refrigerator? When you’re breeding for those characteristics, well, those are the characterisitics you’re going to get. It has almost nothing to do with farming, actually. It’s all about breeding.

The second issue is that conventionally raised produce takes a long time to get to you, so the flavor diminishes. And they’re picking fruits and vegetables when they’re not ripe. In a small local system, they’re generally picking it the day before they go to market.

Another factor is that conventional farming relies on chemical additions to the soil. These boost yield, but do nothing to boost flavor. You get flavor from flavinoids, and you get flavinoids from biologically diverse soil — this means there are nutrients in the soil that are feeding the plant, as it’s being grown, and you’re tasting that.

With animals, too, conventional systems aim for the greatest yield. So we’re raising animals in the cheapest possible way, and that includes feeding them really cheaply. When you’re feeding corn to a pig that normally thrives on a diverse diet, or to a sheep that’s naturally an herbivore, you’re going to get flavors that are really dumbed down.

Like the salmon in your talk: The one that tasted like the chicken it had been fed.

Right. That’s a good example. You get a salmon, but you don’t get a salmon with good flavor.

What are some of the new technologies or new techniques being used on modern organic farms — at Stone Barns for example — that excite you?

Stone Barns is not a Shaker village, and we’re not Luddite in our methods or practices. While we support organic farming, we do so in a thoroughly modern context, employing the most innovative, up to date, and efficient technologies to move food forward. One example is the refractometer—a small, handheld device that measures Brix, the sugar content of a fruit or vegetable. Traditionally it was used to help winemakers determine when to harvest their grapes. But it also provides a tool for testing the nutritional value—and, from my perspective—the flavor of a simple carrot. By testing with the refractometer, farmers can make sure their vegetables have an adequately high sugar content before they harvest, and, if not, have a chance to correct the error. Likewise, I know grass-fed beef purveyors who are using ultrasound machines to perfect the consistency of their product. They ultrasound the animal between the 12th and 13th rib to check for marbling— if it’s not sufficient, the farmer can change the animal’s diet or ultimately decide to switch to a different breed entirely.

Genetically modified foods are often invoked as a necessary ingredient for feeding the world. I suspect you’re generally opposed to the practice. Are there cases where it makes sense? Golden rice, for example?

I’m not radically opposed to the science of genetic modification, but so far there’s been no evidence of significant progress, in part because it’s embedded within the same tired agribusiness thinking. Yes, there is a way to use biotechnology, but the research needs to be conducted independently (not for profits and patents), and understood as one tool in a toolkit, rather than a silver bullet. Autar Mattoo, a scientist who works for the USDA, exemplifies that. Autar argues for what he calls a “bio-sustainability” solution—marrying genetic engineering with sustainable principles. His research has shown a synergism between transgenic tomatoes and organic cover crop. It’s brilliant stuff.

Do you find yourself over time delving deeper into the chemical nature of the food you’re working with?

I do, I’m so regretful that I wasn’t a better biology student. If I had it do over again, I’d spend more time on that. Because at the end of the day, it IS about the biology.

You were an English and Poli Sci major at Tufts. Did your family worry you were throwing your education away when you decided to become a chef?

When I told my Dad I was going to be a chef, he said, “Son, I love books. But I don’t read for a living.”

But he was also very supportive in the end. You know, it was also a different decision back then. Chefs weren’t rock stars. There was no Food Network.

In your earlier talk on TED.com, you make a controversial case for foie gras. I hear you also raise and serve a veal that even non-veal eaters (like me) can stomach. Is there any food that’s black-and-white? Anything you absolutely won’t cook with?

Tomatoes in February.

Do you have any guilty pleasures, food-wise?

People always ask me this. I should come up with one! But the thing is, I feel guilty about everything. I’m an upper East Side Jew. What don’t I feel guilty about?