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May 5, 2016

The Third Plate

by Anne Paddock

The Third Plate is one of those books that fall into the category of  “if I read only one book this year, I need to read this.” Written by Dan Barber, the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill, a restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, also a restaurant located within the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture (a four season farm and education center) in Pocantico Hills, New York, The Third Plate is one of the most comprehensive and interesting books linking chefs to suppliers to farmers and producers to seed breeders. Sounds dry? It isn’t. In fact, the book is a page turner. Think Anthony Boudain:Parts Unknown meets Michael Pollan for a four course meal after absorbing the Farmer’s Almanac and telling everyone else in the restaurant about all the magnificent places they’ve visited, the food they’ve tasted, and how that food was grown.

The_Third_PlatePublished in 2014, The Third Plate was written because “we eat in a way that undermines health and abuses natural resources (to say nothing of the economic and social implications)” and because “the conventional food system cannot be sustained.”  To be clear, the author – a man who admits to eating and liking red meat, pork, chicken, foie gras, fish, and dairy products – is not out to convert the reader to vegetarianism or veganism but instead to educate the consumer about agribusiness and how we need to stop thinking about yield and uniformity and instead think of flavor, community, and sustainability (if there is such a thing).

Dan Barber takes the reader on a a trip through agriculture and the food industry providing an education through four key components: Soil, Land, Sea, and Seed.  By understanding how each of these parts has evolved and their respective interdependent roles within the industry, we come to understand that it’s not enough to buy organic (as the author points out, organic fruit and vegetables can taste bland because the quality of the fruit is dependent upon the health of the soil and the seeds used). Those ruby-red organic raspberries from Mexico may look like they belong on a food magazine cover but one bland bite will have you leave you disappointed and asking “why don’t these raspberries taste like raspberries?”

We live in a country of mono agriculture where we grow one or two crops on thousands and thousands of acres. Drive through Iowa and see miles corn and soybean fields that go on forever, giving the observer the idea that we grow enormous amounts of food in an efficient manner. But do we? Almost all of these crops are grown to feed animals (so we can eat them), make ethanol (for fuel and grain feed for animals), or are converted to products like high fructose corn syrup.  When it takes up to thirteen pounds of grain and 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, we  come to understand the system we have is simply unsustainable.

As the author points out “We can’t eat feed corn…The enormous cobs line the stalks like loaded missiles, tasting nothing like the sweet stuff we chainsaw through in August.”  To grow this corn, we (well, really Monsanto) genetically modified the seeds so that we can pour Round-Up on the plants to kill pests and weeds without killing the plant. And, we do this year after year after year. Crop rotation (which enriches soil) isn’t being done; instead synthetic fertilizers are used to put nitrogen and other nutrients back into the soil because without these nutrients, we can’t grow food, but much of the food we grow is either inedible or lacking flavor. It’s the price we pay for trying to control Mother Nature and it’s not a good plan long-term because the taste and flavor of food is one of our greatest pleasures.

Given that only 5% of our cropland is devoted to fruits and vegetables for humans to eat, a clearer picture emerges. We need to change the way we are farming the land. But, it’s not enough to say “I want to grow food for humans, not cows.”  Barber readily acknowledges that growing food is not about just planting seeds, waiting for the crop to grow, and then harvesting the end product. There are so many moving parts that require constant adaptation.

As if the soil, nutrients, and seed are not enough, the farmer has to think of demand and the infrastructure to use the crop because it is indeed shortsighted to grow another crop without thinking through all the ramifications from seed to soil health to harvest to storage to transport to business to consumer. As Barber so eloquently writes: “Food is a process, a web of relationships, not an individual ingredient or commodity.”

Fixtures of agribusiness such as five-thousand-acre grain monocultures and bloated animal feedlots are no more the future of farming that eighteenth-century factories billowing black smoke are the future of manufacturing.

Change will not happen overnight. In fact, change will occur over decades. We have limited resources on this planet and with the inevitable population growth, we will be forced to use our resources more efficiently, which is a good thing. What are some of the actions you can take? Consume more fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds. Eat less meat, poultry, and dairy products. Eat seasonal food. Skip processed foods. Boycott fast foods. Focus on quality (“flavor”) over quantity. Cook or bake a meal. Think about nutrition. And, most of all, support your local farmer and farmer’s market.

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