Food sustainability, ethics and the future of farming will be the table talk of the town when Dan Barber and Simran Sethi arrive for Adelaide Writers’ Week and WOMADelaide this March.
Barber is a chef and the author of The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. Sethi is a journalist and advocate for environmentally responsible agriculture and social justice. Both are passionate about diversity in our diets – diversity from soil and seed all the way through the food chain. Both are concerned about where current agricultural and dining practices are leading.
For Barber, the problems facing our future selves are caused by a diet-directed agricultural system that is ultimately unsupportable. Barber spent his childhood – and later, his adult life - on a farm. He remembers vividly one summer when the fi elds were turned to the purpose of corn production – vast, rolling hills of corn stalks, uniform and stagnant as far as the eye could see. It is with this recollection that he begins The Third Plate, recounting the awe he felt in the presence of such scale. He contrasts this with the arrival, in adulthood, of a delivery of repatriated, rehabilitated native corn. This was, he writes, the “corniest” corn he had ever eaten. It was the corn that reconnected the product ‘polenta’ with its ingredient ‘corn’ - the incomparable flavour remains a firm memory in his mind. Throughout The Third Plate, Barber tells tale after tale of the same thing happening: wild food, ecologically supported food, nourished food, tasting and cooking better than any other ingredients he had worked with.
“The through-line of real consistency is that the farmers who are really in touch with the natural, local rhythms of the environment – and I don’t mean that in a touchy-feely way – and they really understand their local conditions, and they’re not applying a recipe of one-size-fi ts-all, they end up being much more responsive to the conditions and therefore produce better food,” Barber tells The Adelaide Review.
“I think that’s in and of itself a great definition of sustainability.”
The farmers who take their eyes off their distribution efficiencies and refocus on ecological effi ciencies produce the best food, says Barber. It was this misplaced focus that led to the wheat, soy and corn belts in the United States: seemingly endless tracts of monoculture farmland producing less vital, less flavourful produce year on year. Barber looks back 200 years and sees the prairie land suffocating under man-made farming ‘belts’ that simply didn’t exist before a shift in our attitude towards food production.
“I don’t think we should turn our back on wheat, just as I don’t think South America should turn its back on corn, but we need to figure out a way to grow it and grow it well into the future where it’s nutritious, and, I would argue, flavourful,” says Barber.
“It needs to become part of a mixed farming system so you’re not growing these grains, any grains, in concentration, in monoculture, because that ends up being a disaster for the crop, for the soil and for the environment.”
Simran Sethi agrees. “The story used to be that we needed to grow everything on monoculture farms for efficiency, to increase yields,” she says. “The new story is that we need to grow everything in a diversified agrisystem, so that the soil is supported and nourished and so that these polycultures can nourish each other and create more abundant systems.”
While his views on large-scale, monoculture agricultural operations are clear, Barber clarifies that he is neither “anti-technology nor anti-advancement”. However, he says, “we should look at technology and technological advancement in the context of improving ecology, not destroying it faster”.
“We shouldn’t be looking for these technological fixes before we figure out a biological fix,” he says. “The biological fix is really complex and really hard to understand; it’s really hard to make money off biological fixes, and that’s part of the problem.”
While Barber has no problem with people making profit from the food they produce, he is wary of the “rush to industrialise” if the only end game is a dollar value. Aside from, or in conjunction with, the economic lure of yield-directed farming, Sethi sees two fallacies driving problems in the way we see food production. The first is ‘we need more food’ and the second is ‘we need cheaper food’.
“I believe that this is not an issue of availability, but of access,” she says. “Just as people say ‘We need to grow more food, we need to grow more food’, another dominant narrative that really hurts poor people, that really hurts all of us, is this idea that we need our food to be cheaper so people with less income can eat it. But that food is crap. That food is some of the worst food that is created. That is the food that comes from animals that are in confined feed operations.
“That is the food that comes from seed that has been genetically engineered. That is the food that comes from large-scale monoculture farms. That is the food that has been heavily processed. And that is why we are now in a situation where more people in the world – and this includes developing countries – are dying from being overweight or obese, or from the related issues that come up in terms of their health, rather than from starvation, and that’s because they all lack micronutrients. They’re malnourished; they’re stuffed and starved, and I think that this is one of the greatest travesties.
“When we spend our time and energy saying `we need to find cheap food for people who don’t have a lot of money’, I think we need to be fighting for higher wages, for everybody, so no-one’s having to make a decision around feeding their child heavily processed, crap food because it’s all they can afford … Why has the chasm grown between rich and poor people? Why are we now creating divides around who has the luxury of eating well?”
For Sethi, the solutions come from consultation and conversation – meeting and eating with people who have polar opposite views. “There are behavioural economists who suggest that we all possess a finite pool of worry, so if you want me to worry about the polar bears on the melting ice-floes, you’re going to have to frame that story in the context of what I already care about, or you have to displace, pull out, one of the worries that’s already in my pool of worry so that I can have space to create or to care about what you want me to care about.
“That’s our biggest challenge,” she says, “to find meaning in all of this chaos and all of this sadness and to strive to find the intersection, because connection seems to be in rapid extinction or a perilous place right now. Figuring out ways to hate each other seems really, really easy, so the greater challenge here is to find ways to return to each other.”
By telling the stories of farmers, seed breeders, chefs and diners, Sethi and Barber are driving a diet-directed change in the way we see farming and the way we see food.
“It’s possible to imagine a cuisine,” says Barber, “where the intersection of agriculture and natural ecological functioning can come together and actually improve the environment.”
Dan Barber is appearing at Adelaide Writers’ Week and at the Adelaide Festival
The Third Plate: Dan Barber
Wednesday, March 4, 12pm
Food Pioneers: Dan Barber
Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden
Thursday, March 5, 12pm
Simran Sethi will speak as part of WOMADelaide’s Planet Talks program
Creating Hope: in conversation with Simran Sethi and Sylvia Earle
Monday, March 9, 5pm