John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Dan Barber of New York's Blue Hill restaurant hammers on the blind spots of locally sourced eating.
Dan Barber is one of the nation's most widely respected slow-food advocates: His Blue Hill restaurants in New York serve a cornucopia of goodies from nearby farms like Cherry Lane, Herondale, and Mountain Sweet Berry.
So it was discombobulating when the chef lobbed this moldy potato during this week's CityLab summit in L.A.: The farm-to-table movement "does not really work."
How's that? Well, despite the rising popularity of locally sourced, small-grower ingredients, America lost nearly 100,000 farms in the last five years, according to the U.S. Census. And the mega-conglomerates that dominate the food industry are only growing more powerful, Barber said: "The top 1 percent of farms now account for almost half of the value of all farm sales."
Current farm-to-table philosophy is inadequate, the chef said, because it doesn't value the most basic component of delicious foods: crop rotation. Years back, he remembered going to a local planter named Klaus to buy a relict crop called emmet wheat, which Blue Hill bakes into an “incredibly nutty and aromatic and beautiful-tasting bread.“ What Barber didn't understand was that it was just one of many crops Klaus planted to insure his longterm soil health. He also seeded the ground with barley, spelt, corn, and other things to make it nutrient-rich, so that it could produce that “beautiful“ wheat.
Because Barber and other chefs weren't interested in these kinds of grains and legumes, they became bag feed for cows and pigs. And thus they also were folded into the less-efficient, more costly process of milk-and-meat production, slicing the farmer's earnings and contributing toward the warming of the planet.
“I was treating Klaus' farm like a grocery store, cherry-picking the ingredient I most wanted for my menu,“ Barber recalled. “Yes, it created a market for his local emmer wheat, so I called myself a farm-to-table chef. But I was doing nothing to support the entirety of the system.“
Barber has a few suggestions for how chefs and diners can support the whole system, the primary one being: Eat everything. If we redefine our diet to include more rotational crops, he said, we help ecology produce healthier and better-tasting foods. And stop puffing about how often you purchase dinner fixings from a small grower at the farmer's market—it's really the mid-level growers in America that need a boost.
“As people who love good food, we fetishize the small and the artisanal. But we haven't done enough to draw attention to these farms of the middle,“ he said. “They still represent in the United States 40 percent of the produce being harvested from our agriculture. And they are in a unique position to transfer from commodity agriculture—that is, corn and soybeans, essentially—to more diversified crop rotations.“
The Atlantic, the Aspen Institute, and Bloomberg Philanthropies are hosting "CityLab 2014: Urban Solutions to Global Challenges," in Los Angeles on September 29 & 30. Find CityLab.com's full coverage here.