Blue Hill’s Dan Barber: The farm-to-table movement has failed

Yahoo Finance

Award-winning chef and food pioneer Dan Barber has bad news for farm-to-table disciples: their efforts to disrupt Big Food are not working. The farm-to-table philosophy, which advocates locally grown food cultivated by nearby farmers, has gone mainstream and produced “locavores” throughout America. Yet its influence continues to be limited Barber argues in his new book "The Third Plate."

"Farm-to-table -- the way it stands now -- is not going to change or fundamentally shift how we eat," he tells Yahoo Finance during an interview at his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

Barber comes to this “sobering” conclusion 10 years after he first started researching the book. He found that agribusinesses and other corporate food suppliers have gotten bigger, not smaller. He cites data that shows medium-sized farms are rapidly disappearing (100,000 over the last five years) and the percentage of land devoted to commodity crops such as corn, soy and wheat are increasing.

“How do we make sense of this odd duality: a food revolution on one hand, an entrenched status quo on the other?” Barber asks New York Times readers in his May 17 New York Times column.

Barber’s answer is to eat food that nourishes both the soil and the soul. The third plate in the title of his book is a metaphor for how Barber foresees the future of farming, dining and the farm-to-table movement. This future would end the practice of “cherry-picking the things we most want to eat” and center on the whole farm, including the crops and parts of the animal that are often ignored or cast away. Since Barber owns the family-run farm Blue Hill in Massachusetts, he has a stake in whether the soil-and-soul approach succeeds.

“The way we’re eating undermines our health and abuses natural resources,” Barber argues in his book. “The conventional food system cannot be sustained. Food cannot be reduced to single ingredients…it requires a web of relationships.”

Barber’s vision replaces favorite food staples such as pasta and white rice with “lowly” or underutilized crops such as millet, barley, rye and buckwheat. Farmers plant these grains and cover crops like mustard and clover to restore nutrients in the soil after a growing season. They’re also important to small farmers because these crops reduce pests and diseases for future healthy harvests – a system that relies on meticulous rotation and one that emphasizes a connection to the land as opposed to dependency on pesticides and chemicals. If individuals consume more of these “low-hanging fruits” then the world would have “truly sustainable food,” explains Barber.

Barber says humanity’s expectations that the Earth will always abundantly produce what we want to eat are dumbfounding.  “We cannot demand that luxury with 6 billion people,” he adds. “My philosophy of eating is really a response to what the land tells us to grow.”

Barber also dismisses the notion that eating more vegetables solves some of the world’s food crises. Tomatoes are delicious but they “require a tremendous amount of fertility from the soil. If you compare what it takes to become a tomato versus a mature buckwheat, it’s the difference between a Hummer and a Prius,” he says.

Will the government play a role in this new reality?

“The marketplace will drive this,” he says adamantly. “If we have diversity [in our diets] we can very much compete with the industrial food chain. Change the culture first, then create the demand.”

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