Dan Barber, a New York restaurateur and advocate for sustainability, spoke at the 2013 Ray & Mary Giles Symposium on Citizenship and Public Service in Chickasha, Oklahoma at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. He delivered his keynote address to a sparsely filled auditorium about the future of food. In his speech he made a call to action for every nerd, foodie, and nerdy foodies to promote consciousness about the way we develop food as a culture, business, and politic.
Mr. Barber opened by giving his background. He is the owner of Blue Hill restaurant in New York which mainly uses ingredients grown at his farm, Stone Barns. In his time at the restaurant he has won the James Beard Awards for Best Chef New York City in 2006 and Outstanding Chef 2009. Additionally he has served on the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition.
He talked about how at his farm they rotate crops, raise animals, compost waste from the restaurant, and even breed new kinds of plant variants. In a way, he creates a complete ecosystem that feeds itself and recycles everything it uses. On just five acres he supplies everything he needs to run Blue Hill.
Not only that but Blue Hill uses dramatically less fuel to produce and sustain itself than most modern farms. The secret isn’t anything dramatic however–combine modern technology with old world techniques.
For farmers he discussed the need to rotate crops for better soil. For politicians he encouraged freedom for small breeders from corporations. For breeders he advocated biodiversity. For chefs he said to buy local and cook with organic products. Through all of his rhetoric however was one theme that prevailed–be a hedon.
Unlike other organizations, religions, corporations, or movements, Dan Barber had one call to action–be selfish for good food. He commented that it is unlike any other call to action because it wasn’t about giving something up for the greater good. When food is better (tastes better, less environmental impact, grows easier, and is more nutritious) the human race wins. No one can horde good food for just themselves nor would likely want to.
The second half of his message was to adapt. He talked about how we praise the ‘heirloom’ tomato for its taste when we were kids. However those old genetic lines of tomato (and other plants) don’t always adapt to new conditions of our changing world. He advocated breeding new lines of plants that could survive changing weather patterns and disease strains rather hanging onto the old nostalgia of an inferior breed.
To illustrate his points Barber told two stories. In the first he went to a conference on agriculture where Bill Gates was speaking. In Gates’ speech he talked about how changing technology would save the world and that we could continue our farming practices of having single crops, no rotation, and continued heavy use of fossil fuels.
After the speech Barber ran into Gates and asked him what he would do when naturally occurring free resources ran out. Bill simply mentioned that technology had improved so much it didn’t matter. Dan wasn’t convinced however. He says that our resources are running out regardless of technology and that only by practicing better farming with wide genetic diversity will we ever solve the current problems we’re facing.
In his second story Barber talked about a rash of Late Blight, a fungal disease that wipes out tomatoes that are harvested later in the season. He said that a few years ago, the local New York agriculture college lost thousands of pounds of tomatoes to the infection overnight.
He went out with his chief farmer to inspect the damage. Field after field was completely destroyed. Heavy clumps of rotten fruit hung off the vines like cancer. Barber said it looked like the apocalypse.
Then he looked near by and found a single row of completely healthy tomatoes that were perfect red gems. He asked one of the professors of the college about that row. The man answered it was a new breed someone made by mating a tasty heirloom variety with a nasty tasting disease resistant variety. Dan said he was skeptical but tried a big bite from one just to see.
Barber exclaimed that it was likely the best tomato he had ever had in his life. He said it had the texture, flavor, and acidity of world class fruit. It wasn’t an old variety that had grown a million times before, it was a new breed. It also wasn’t anything really new however because it was made using old techniques.
This brought his message full circle. The fight for good food’s future isn’t about making something with the most advanced technology and it’s not about mass production. It is simply making something that tastes good in a conscientious way. That letting ourselves be selfish for good, safe, tasty food will change the culture of food and thus change the way our society treats food.
To summarize: Dan Barber believes that by being hedonistic for good food we will shape the market by adding more diversity and sustainability. He believes this change will happen naturally but to aid the transition we should work closer with local farmers and chefs to change how the food industry sells product to us. Lastly, by being hedonistic about good food we will change the food industry and be healthier for it.
So foodies unite! Let your voices be heard and let’s eat our way into a better tomorrow!