Uprooting the Norm

Feeding the Future photos 1
Scholars representing a range of fields (like David Barber '88, left, and Bun Lai, right) engaged conference participants as they reimagined what’s possible in the food industry and inspired them to lead change in their own communities and around the globe.

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. 

Students, faculty, staff and members of the community enjoyed the conference.

The Diet-Evolution Industrial Complex: Fact & Fantasy

For all their long and labor-intensive hours, sustainable agriculture practices and community farming carry with them a romantic, idealistic subtext, at least among the urban elite. And what’s more, they’re trendy. But fashionably healthy eating extends not just to what we consume, but to how, and that’s where the discussion turns to some of the high-profile diets that have gained exposure over the past few years. Consider the paleo diet, a regimen that favors foods of our Neolithic ancestors. In other words: no dairy and no processed foods. Raw foods are best. Or are they? 

Speaker Marlene Zuk, professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota and author of “Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and How We Live,” provided an explanation for why ancestral eating habits aren’t superlative. 

Her “paleofantasy” thesis explains that people talk about the past in a quaint, idealistic way. Indeed, epidemic health problems, like diabetes and obesity, are new in the context of human life, but they’re not necessarily the fault of switching from a hunting society to an agricultural society. After all, big historic events, like the Industrial Revolution, radically changed our diets and how we spend our time.

Zuk, a lively speaker with a sly sense of humor, was quick to point out that she did not write a book about the paleo diet, she wrote a book about evolution, as it’s only by looking at how humans evolved that we can understand the biological necessity for adapting our diets over the millennia.

“Living things are all made up of trade-offs and compromises. There’s an idea today that we’re out of touch with the environment, but evolution never produces a being that’s completely in harmony with the environment. It can’t. There are too many factors. But evolution marches on,” she said. Her truly subversive idea, however — the one that spawned a great deal of lunchtime chatter at the College conference — is the idea that evolution is not an endgame. 

“We understand evolution as something that proceeds in a straight line with one form replacing the less perfect form before it, as if we’re moving toward a goal,” she said. But there’s no goal. “Every form of life on the planet today is more adapted to its environment than before. People are not an improved version of our ancestors. Our genes are old, but our ancestors’ genes were old, too. Organisms are never in perfect harmony with their environment —  mismatches happen. We should be wary of paleofantasies.”

While some subscribe to lifestyles and values that are thought to be rooted in a Neolithic ideal, others have their gaze firmly set on the future. Andras Forgacs, co-founder and CEO of Brooklyn-based Modern Meadow, asks: what if we could make animal products without raising, slaughtering or transporting animals? For starters, it would radically reduce the environmental burden caused by raising livestock. It would also slash supply chain costs and risks. The technique for doing this involves neither voodoo nor 3-D printing. The trick is culturing animal cells. 

“Why raise an animal to make animal products if you can just use the cells themselves?” he questioned, describing how to make steak “chips” from cultured cells. “Fermenting and culturing techniques are thousands of years old. We’re developing ways to make products not just delicious, but scalable and affordable.” 

Freaky though it may sound, Forgacs put it into the context of the current overtaxed food system, noting that it takes 6.7 pounds of grain, 600 gallons of water, 13.4 pounds of greenhouse gas production and 75 square feet of grazing and growing land to produce a quarter-pound hamburger. Consider that Americans eat approximately 220 pounds of meat per year, and the figures become unfathomable. And as large countries develop, we can expect meat consumption worldwide to double over the next 30 years. That growth can’t be supported without finding another planet. All of a sudden, a bite of cultured cells sounds pretty appealing. 

The future is now

As questions of how to ameliorate issues of sustainable agriculture, food security and education become increasingly urgent, many students are anxious to know how to make a career out of taking action. Judging by the Jobs Forum, a panel moderated by Jeff Cole, associate dean of the faculty, the options are limitless, especially if you’re intrepid enough to carve your own niche, like Johanna Kolodny, daughter of Patricia Reinfeld Kolodny ’68, did at Baldor Foods, a massive distributor in New York City. Today she designs programs that connect fishermen, farmers and artisan producers with chefs. David Barber spoke about Stone Barns; Allison Hooper ’81 talked about starting Vermont Creamery a decade ago when “sustainable” was not part of the lingua franca; prolific writer and speaker Bun Lai, chef at Maya’s Sushi in New Haven, explained his pioneering approach to tackling abundant invasive species by using them in offbeat dishes; and John Turrenne chronicled his path from executive chef at Yale University to president of Sustainable Food Systems, a consulting group specializing in sustainability. 

Today’s Goodwin-Niering scholars are well-prepared to take on the challenge. 

“The goal of the Goodwin-Niering Center is to show that the environment isn’t just a science topic, it concerns all of us. You can come at it from any discipline or perspective and you’ll find something interesting and relevant,” said Jane Dawson, Karla Heurich Harrison ’28 Director of the Goodwin-Niering Center. “Yes, the system is broken. Now, let’s take that as a starting point and move forward. With the Jobs Forum, we wanted to appeal to students and show them opportunities where they can get in and change. There are a lot of people out there doing great things, and there are all sorts of opportunities to change things at the margins. Don’t expect to change the world when you dive in. Start by finding the area where you make a difference.” ν 

May 17, 2015