Did you read The Omnivore's Dilemma? If not, why not? If you didn’t, go read it now. I’ll wait.
Okay, great. Now that everyone reading this post has read Pollan, I think we can all agree that the bit about Joel Salatin — the Virginia farmer whose farm is “beyond organic” — is the best. Not only is Salatin pesticide-free; his cows wander the fields eating grass and leave poop behind, which yields fertilizer for future grass; the chickens follow behind the cows and peck at their poop. Salatin has created a closed ecological loop.
One bit of trouble is that farmers only produce what the market tells them to produce. If all the market wants is chicken breast, then chicken thighs and gizzards are going to go to waste. What to do?
Dan Barber’s answer in The Third Plate is that we need to widen our lens: sustainability has to include the farmer, the cook, the eater, the land … every part of the food system. If farmers will only produce what the market wants, then we need to change the market. And Barber, as a chef, knows that his people are vital to the shape of that market. We’re all about “farm to table” now, and we’re all about organic, and much of the impetus for these changes came from restaurant food movements — the nouvelle cuisines and Chez Panisses of the world. If we’re going to make the food system truly sustainable, chefs will probably be on the front lines, shaping what we eaters think the word “sustainable” means.
Barber travels around the world and meets a delightful cast of farmers who are trying to change how we think about sustainability. There’s Eduardo Sousa, who’s already famous (can’t remember where I read about him; maybe The New Yorker?) for producing foie gras without force-feeding his geese ("gavage"). There’s the farmer who shows Barber — and for my money, this is the most fascinating and disturbing part of The Third Plate — what the roots underneath modern industrial wheat and pre-industrial wheat look like. The modern roots are much shorter than the pre-industrial ones, meaning at least a few things: the roots are giving back less to the soil, they’re protecting less against the sort of soil devastation that led to the Dust Bowl, and they’re catching less rainwater than long, deep roots would. Since they catch less rainwater, they require more irrigation.
Modern wheat is inseparable from modern bread production. Since bread is now largely made at industrial scale, it requires huge quantities of flour. Whole-wheat flour turns rancid within a matter of hours after grinding, so industrial production requires some method of getting it shelf-stable. Hence: white flour.
All of this might be, at best, the sort of liberal more-sustainable-than-thou trolling that everyone knows and loves. But that’s where Barber turns this from Pollan++ into something that we can all appreciate: cuisine produced with an eye toward overall food-system sustainability just tastes better. Geese produced without gavage, who are allowed to forage for their own food, know where to look to get the nutrients they need, and those nutrients show up in what we taste. Cows allowed to wander on grassland seek out — in fact, have the anatomical equipment to seek out — very select grasses to get what they need at that exact moment. Wheat with deep roots can capture and yield up more minerals from the land. We can taste these subtleties; they taste better than fruits, vegetables, and meats that have been force-fed an industrially selected diet in order to rush them out the door as fast as possible.
One metaphor that makes this make intuitive sense to me is alcohol versus Sprite. A beautiful Scotch or bourbon tastes subtle and complex and transcendent in a way that a soft drink simply never will. In principle, industrial chemistry could build a drink that features the boundless flavor profile of a delightful spirit; but if nothing else, we can expect the constant push for higher profits to push Coca-Cola Brand Highland Scotch Whiskey ™ into something simple that’s reproducible at scale. Scotch is delicious for at least two reasons: first, that yeast produce countless chemicals that (I’m given to understand) we still haven’t entirely mapped out; and second, that there’s a patient human being tending to the process, tasting each small batch to confirm that it features all the notes expected from a good Islay malt. The patience, and the biology, just seem impossible to get at industrial scale. A world of industrial wheat is a world of Sprite rather than a world of Scotch.
Exactly because industrial wheat is built for industrial scale, it’s not clear that the world Barber envisions can supply the volume of food that our current industrial world does. There are plenty of counterarguments to this point. For one, the current system tries to shove more food into the same size mouths over time, with predictably rising obesity; a food system like Barber envisions wouldn’t require unsustainably rising output. The current system also turns a vast swath of the Gulf of Mexico into a dead zone every year as fertilizer empties out of the Mississippi River; Barber’s world wouldn’t borrow from tomorrow to pay off today. “Unsustainable” doesn’t mean anything hippie-dippie. It really means nothing more than Stein’s Law: If something can’t go on forever, it will stop. A sane food system would guarantee that our children have healthy, tasty food available to them.
Barber’s book is an attempt to understand what this means, literally from ground level. He meets the farmers, he meets the chefs, he foments arguments between them, and he eats their food. Anyone who read Michael Pollan and felt angry or inspired will need to pick up and devour The Third Plate.