I was not raised a foodie. Actually, it was quite the opposite. Growing up, vegetables came from a can, boiled until gray and paired with meat that was cooked to a complimentary color. Everything was quick, convenient, and sterile. Sauce was important—it was the flavor part. Ketchup was a key sauce. I didn’t mind, because as a hungry kid I focused on quantity and didn’t know what I was missing. I had not yet connected environmentalism, economics, and love for animals with the food I eat.
Fast forward to a dinner at White Dog Café in Philadelphia. The duck was as advertised, and maybe even better. The waitress had said to us, “You know how duck always has that sort of texture, a bit chewy? Well this duck is like nothing you have ever tasted.” Sure enough, this duck was a first for me. Immensely flavorful, no hint of a gamey taste, and with a texture that was more like a filet and almost buttery to cut. It was simply amazing. The reason? This duck came from a farm a few miles away, a small farm where the ducks are not only not in cages, they have free range with access to a pond where they swim, eat, and live, well, like ducks.
Here I was, eating duck for the first time instead of a variation on a duck product manufactured at the end of an efficient agribusiness system. The difference was as pronounced as the difference between those rubbery Whamo Super Ball®-like tomatoes and the heirloom tomatoes found at a summer farmer’s market.
This led me to look up the farm from which the White Dog Café bought their duck and, while surfing, I happened upon Blue Hill Restaurant. My wife and I had eaten at this NYC restaurant and remembered it as a great meal, which led me to Dan Barber (owner of Blue Hill) and what he had been thinking, doing, and living, and I was amazed. Here was a man after my own heart and soul.
Dan spoke at a TED conference and described his quest for flavor and sustainability. His example was his quest to find the perfect fish. The more you know, the more you care, the more complicated it is to eat well, eat ethically, and eat sustainably. But when you get real flavor, real food, it usually comes with the bonus of being better for the animal, good for the farmer, and far better for you from a health and incredible real taste standpoint.
It was the payoff of Dan’s talk at TED that brought me to the most amazing discovery of all. Dan walked the audience through the process of finding a sustainable fish that tastes great. This is not easy, as so many questions must be asked. How is the fish caught if wild? Did it come from the right place, and are the fisheries managed there? If farmed, how is it farmed? Does the farming harm native fish or the environment? Is chicken fed to farmed salmon? (Yes, it often is.) I have been on this search of finding healthy ethically produced food myself and it can be very frustrating. It drives many waiters, chefs, and grocery store personnel crazy when we ask real questions about our food, but asking these questions is worth it. Each time we ask, each time we buy real food, we are voting for something better.
Dan’s truly flavorful and sustainable fish came from a farm in Spain called Veta La Palma. This farm is like no farm I have ever seen. It is my dream mash-up of a wildlife sanctuary and farm. Here, wildlife, fish, grain, and beef are raised in what is called extensive farming, which is the opposite of intensive factory farming. It is productive (for both humans and wildlife), humane for the food animals it produces, and beautiful. The farm produces real, tasteful, and nutritious food.
The idea of this blew my mind. I am accustomed, unfortunately, to farms that smell horrible, treat animals like “things” in an existence that makes the Saw films look like ethical treatment, and plants just rows of biological production units in what was once soil but is now a chemical brew of fertilizer, pesticides, and fungicides, stretching for mile upon mile of biological desert. The idyllic farm of Normal Rockwell and the farm subsidy propaganda are no more. In place of this ideal are factories—industrial farms that are as noxious as any 1960s oil refinery. These industrial plants produce calories, but not food. They claim to “feed the world” while mining the life out of the land, economy, and people. It is no coincidence that we have reversed the costs of healthcare and food. What we once spent on food we are now spending on healthcare, with healthcare expenditures increasing geometrically.
So why don’t we have more farms like Veta La Palma, those on Blue Hill’s list of suppliers, or the one that raised the duck for White Dog Café? In addition to being fed factory food, we are being asked to swallow a cynical myth: Organic farming, or extensive farming, could never feed the world.
The proponents of the status quo industrial agriculture argue that if you indulge in taste, care about animal welfare, and believe in job creation, you are stealing from the mouths of those less fortunate, both here and abroad. It is this false, dismissive, condescending, and cynical myth that flips a human virtue—caring—into a trap of acceptance. It is “known” that organic farms are “less” productive and cannot “feed the world.” If you believe otherwise you are a granola cruncher living a 60’s mythology. Yet each year organic products find more shelf space, more consumer acceptance. And for the first time in 100 years the number of farms has increased in the U.S.
Let’s break down the argument against sustainable agriculture. First, no one should feed the world. The world should feed itself, and it should do so sustainably. It does no good to use factory farming to mine the productivity of the earth, destroy jobs, and concentrate wealth in one geography while encouraging destructive practices and unsustainable population growth in another.
Second, cheap food is not only not quality food; it is expensive if you account for its true costs. If we accounted for the health costs of eating non-food food (think Cheetoes), the loss of jobs factory farming inflicts and the destruction of air, water, and wildlife resources—cheap food is very expensive.
Third, organics and the like may not be as productive in terms of yield, but they are far more productive in units of nutrition per acre, job production, and decreased healthcare costs. What they mean when “they” say organic or extensive farming doesn’t economically scale is that a few companies cannot maximize and control the production, distribution, and processing of food. This concentration may create short-term economic gain for a few but does long term damage to the environment, our health, and our economy.
Fourth, the biggest knock on organic, slow food, is that it is labor intensive. Labor intensive means that people have jobs. One headline bemoaned the fact that it might take 30 million people to produce quality organic food for all in the U.S., stating this as if employment were a BAD thing. The production and distribution of quality food should be the one area of our economy that is a bastion of local production, local value creation, local prosperity, and local jobs. With unemployment at 9.8% and healthcare costs rising 30% every year, I argue that the one thing we cannot afford is to not have organic foods and that we should never, ever try to feed the world. As nice as it sounds to “feed the world,” it is an amazingly cynical and dangerous goal.