Changing minds, changing habits, changing the world
If there’s a theme that ran through the two-day event, it’s one that Barber embodies to the fullest: subversion. As he proved with his garbage gourmet, change requires upending widely accepted systems — and that goes for systems of belief as well as operational systems. Beliefs ossified over centuries aren’t easily shaken, but permanent and essential change will happen only if we, as a population, cast off the status quo and shake up institutional protocol. It’s an attitude that playwright George Bernard Shaw captured best when he said: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
Barber’s crusade for change, which has garnered lots of attention in mainstream media, runs deeper than the popular Manhattan restaurant he owns with his brother David, a Connecticut College alumnus and trustee. The brothers also own Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a property in New York’s Westchester County that encompasses a working farm, an educational center and a high-end restaurant. Most of the food at the Manhattan venue is sourced from the farm. Stone Barns, which proudly blurs the line between a for-profit business and a nonprofit with a distinct mission, has become a destination, and not just for its on-premises award-winning restaurant. It features an education center offering lectures, activities and classes for children, as well as apprentice programs and training for young farmers. It also hosts various festivals.
“We focus on educational programs and work with the community to change the way America eats and farms,” explained Jill Isenbarger, the center’s executive director, during a presentation at the symposium. “Each of the various elements — teachers and educators, farmers, chefs, college engineering students — endorses the others. On different days, different pieces are in the middle. We’re a microcosm of what a larger regional food system looks like. Hopefully.”
From the ground, up
Farming, of course, is the foundation of food systems everywhere. In a perfect world, everyone would eat local, organically grown, sustainable produce and grass-fed beef, according to the Barbers. But for now, giant conventional farms are a source of food for the majority of the population. And while there’s a great deal of interest and activity around issues of pesticides and genetically modified organisms when it comes to agribusiness, there is a massive environmental threat that doesn’t get the same amount of attention in the media and around our dinner tables: soil erosion. A consequence of natural vegetation being transformed into agriculture, soil erosion disrupts ecosystems and degrades nutrients and salinity of the soil, leading to deterioration of fertile land.
“Conventional farming is simply not sustainable with regard to soil loss. It takes a lifetime to notice, but the introduction of the plow fundamentally altered the balance between soil production and soil erosion, dramatically increasing soil erosion,” said Feeding the Future speaker David Montgomery, a professor of Geomorphology in the Department of Earth and Space at the University of Washington and author of “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.”
Globally, there’s been five feet of erosion between 1911 and 1961, and there’s nowhere in the world where dirt is generated at that pace. The average erosion rate for the last 500 million years is one inch per 1400 years; today, the average rate of soil erosion is 1 inch every 60 years. The current average rate of soil production is one inch per 500 years.
“Global erosion rates have increased by more than an order of magnitude due to human activity. Agriculture soil loss doesn’t happen because humanity farms, but arises from how we farm — using the plow. Therein lies the potential solution,” explained Montgomery, a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, who noted that there are programs already in place in parts of Europe that use urban organic waste to build fertile soil, demonstrating that the damage is reversible. “We can work our soil to support itself. Alternative practices need to become conventional practices.”
But what we in the United States consider “alternative practices” are actually conventional in other parts of the world. Ironically, as with so many other topics dealing with food, what we’ve come to consider “progressive” stems from common ancient practices.
“[We need a] food system where science is our servant, not our master. Soil nutrients are restored by alternating crops. The more fertility in soil, the less we need to spend on fertilizer out of the bag,” said speaker Danielle Nierenberg, president and founder of New Orleans-based Food Tank, a nonprofit that highlights environmentally, socially and economically sustainable ways to alleviate hunger, malnutrition and poverty and spur systemic changes in food systems. “Farmers all over the world incorporate cover crops, like clover, to regenerate, save money and prevent pests and disease by breaking up crop cycles.”
It’s in our best interest to keep a global perspective and learn from farmers in Brazil, for example, who have designed thoughtful ecosystems, and in Kenya, where they devised an inspiring low-cost system for harvesting rainwater. But when you broaden the view beyond the local perspective, issues that we may be blind to in America — often political issues — come into focus.
Nierenberg’s work in the realms of food security and sustainable agriculture, for instance, bring matters of gender inequality in developing nations into stark relief. Women make up 43 percent of the global agricultural workforce (and an even higher figure in Sub-Saharan Africa), yet they’re often denied access to education and financial services.
“They’re caretakers of tradition; they’re actively preserving biodiversity, combating drought and preventing erosion. The men are focused on cash and commodity crops while women are cooking, cleaning, taking care of elders. Their work as food producers is continually ignored. As goes the state of women, so goes the state of the world,” Nierenberg declared. “If women farmers had the same access to resources, it could lift 150 million people to food security. Men are in the business of selling and buying — they’re paid for their labor. Women aren’t paid for their labor.”
Much of what forms the foundation of Food Tank’s mission can be traced to community building, the focal point of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and Food Community, founded and helmed by another Feeding the Future speaker, the charismatic Malik Yakini. Spearheading a high-impact agricultural project, he’s working to appropriate the acres of land that are being abandoned as Detroit’s population dwindles. His efforts have been so successful that he’s establishing an agreement with the city of Detroit to license the group to operate a farm in a public park. The Network, which organizes lectures and gets children active in gardening, impacts people’s understanding of nutrition, cooking and food prep, exercise, and food justice.