The Future of Food


If your life's work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you're not thinking big enough.

- Wes Jackson, Founder of The Land Institute.

cowsMeat-lovers, you might want to sit down for this one.We, planet Earth, cannot sustain our current practices of protein production and consumption.This is a harsh reality.According to a report published by the Worldwatch Institute, animal agriculture is responsible for a colossal 51% + of global greenhouse gas emissions.Consider the following:

  • 16 pounds of vegetation must be fed to a cow to extract one pound of flesh.
  • 2,500 gallons of water are required to produce one pound of meat (vs. 25 gallons per pound of wheat).
  • The world's cattle consume a quantity of food equivalent to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people.

The list goes on.Among other catalysts (population growth, rising income, urbanization), we are - by and large - suffering from hyperbolic discounting.Otherwise known by behavioral economists as self-control bias, hyperbolic discounting is the human tendency to favor smaller nearsighted rewards over larger future gains. It is our tendency to focus on the short-term at the expense of considering long-term implications.third plateDAN BARBER & THE THIRD PLATE:Proclaimed by Times Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, chef Dan Barber has dedicated his life to revolutionizing the way we eat.Owner and chef of two outstanding restaurants in New York [Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY], Barber has received the most prestigious recognition for his talent in the kitchen, including Best Chef in New York City (2006) and Top Chef in America (2009).But his most influential work is his unyielding quest to alter the future of food.Subsequent to traveling the world for two decades to absorb the traditions and insights from chefs and farmers across the globe, Barber arrived at a succinct realization: we must change the way we think about food.At the heart of today's optimistic, farm-to-table food culture is a dark secret: the local food movement has failed to change how we eat. It has also offered a false promise for the future of food. - Dan Barber.In his recent novel, The Third Plate, Barber examines the last two centuries of American cuisine, using three different plates of food to define three stages of agriculture and consumption.Conventional dining long consisted of the "first plate", a giant slab of meat accompanied by a few vegetables. Then, as a result of the growing farm-to-table movement, the first plate was replaced by a "second plate" comprised of locally-sourced vegetables and free-range animals.It's better tasting, and better for the planet, but the second plate's architecture is identical to the first. It, too, is damaging - disrupting the ecological balances of the planet, causing soil depletion and nutrient loss - and in the end it isn't a sustainable way to farm or eat.Barber's solution is the third plate. An integrated system. The perfect confluence of good farming and good food."We weren't addressing the problem," Barber explains to The New York Times, "the larger problem, as I came to see it, was that farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow."Barber's proposal - innovative farming practices to replace traditional food systems - is a hard sell.It requires changing preferences.MEANWHILE, AROUND THE GLOBE...lab grown burgerExactly one and a half years ago, behind the walls of a laboratory at the Maastrict University in the Netherlands, scientist Mark Post architected the world's first test-tube burger. The five-year project was funded by Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin and the meat crafted from stem cells of cow muscle.And in 2013, for a mere $325,000, that burger could be yours.Quite the bargain.Here's how it works. Muscle stem cells are garnered through a cow biopsy and subsequently raised just like live cattle. The cells are fed sugar, amino acids, and minerals. The muscle is exercised, stretched between two anchors, because meat cultured in such a way has an innate tendency to contract and form into small pieces. The laboratory grown protein is then fused together into a hamburger, along with the typical burger accoutrements, such as salt, breadcrumbs, and egg powder. If you are now wondering whether the stem cell muscle is an unappealing gray color due to a lack of blood cells, the answer is yes.Nothing a little food dye can't fix.The concept is not novel. In 2008, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) offered a $1 million incentive to the first person able to develop commercially feasible meat in a laboratory. But Post stole the show when he declared his ability to produce a whole hamburger's worth.Although food tasters declared it "close to meat", and the price has drastically declined to just around $11 per burger, the concept remains as appealing as it's original color.THE FUTURE OF FOOD.Suffice to say, it seems reasonable to conclude the solution is not test-tube burgers.The simple truth - We are living in a food society grounded on expectations.An article in The Wall Street Journal hit the nail on the head: After reading Mr. Barber's compelling book, 'The Third Plate', I realize the problem may be with my conditioning: I associate value with top-of-the-food proteins like tuna and beef. But the truth is, it takes (16) pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef, and the Bluefin tuna is almost depleted. Ours is a food culture based on the expectation of immoderate consumption, and that's just not sustainable. Mr Barber's solution is no less than an overhaul of American cuisine, so that the value of an ingredient is based on flavor, not folly." - Eugenia Bone, WSJ.Attempting to alter long-lived profitable practices is an arduous task. Changing the mindset of those who benefit from said practices might just be even more onerous.Particularly for this industry.Sustainable agriculture is a business that operates on supply and demand - a business comprised of numerous different players such that a true altercation requires a recognition and desire for change on behalf of the farmer, the butcher, the restaurant owner, the chef, the media, and the consumer.A good friend once stated, "We basically need to turn bad farmers into big tobacco."Yet, easier said than done. The major impediment is that the hazards of tobacco are far more obvious than those of meat.And, thus, education is paramount.Barber has proposed a solution, but said solution will fail to truly migrate from idea-stage without essential action from the aforementioned vital players.The Third Plate is organized into four sections: soil, land, sea, and seed - a solution crafted for each.Soil: a description of how current farming practices have depleted the nutrients in our soil by killing microbes and how we can create healthy soil by feeding microbes. "How soil is managed, and how a farmer negotiates weeds and pests, is the single best predictor of how food will taste."Land: organic farming cultivates biodiversity, which results in a mutually advantageous relationship between animals and plants. Simply speaking, healthier land yields better tasting food.Seawe are fishing to extinction. Barber praises chefs who are preparing sardines and mackerel in attempts to steer consumers away from the more popular, endangered species. He praises wetlands ecosystems around the world that have been crafted to sustain a plethora of life forms and, in some cases, to simultaneously filter river water.Seed: a healthy environment is a reflection of the diversity of living organisms; the lack of diversity is, in fact, the very problem caused by cherry-picking "the second plate". Organisms are constantly adapting to each other, while others are pathogenic - as such, management becomes imperative.He (Dan Barber) tells a tale of despoliation, depletion, exhaustion, and, in some cases, extinction. Even his silver linings have a lot of cloud surrounding them. - The New York Times.The movement is somewhat cyclical, you see - the chef is at risk of going out of business if the consumer refuses the menu, yet the consumer is forced to cook at home if he/she will not eat what the chef is offering. Yet, it is more complicated. The chef cannot cook what the agriculture cannot provide and, consequently, the chef is reliant on the farmer. But the farmer will not produce what he cannot sell, and thus the farmer becomes reliant on the chef's demand.Frank Ribiere, director of Steak (r)evolution, featured at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, crafted a documentary as he embarked on a quest to locate the best steak in the world (Leon, Spain in case you were curious). Importantly, Ribiere shed light on a vital notion -  meat production & consumption practices are drastically varied around the world.The complexity deepens.We must support the land that supports the farmer. Yet, the farmer is not isolated from responsibility. As Barber asserts, even the best farming unravels with just a few shortsighted decisions.Dan Barber's steadfast quest to alter the future of food is merely the beginning. True change will require consumers, chefs, butchers, farmers, and restaurant owners alike to accept what the environment presents, rather than inflict demands.We must accept moderation.Overindulgence will prove death knell to the foods we know and love.We must transform the manner in which we view our plate.plateIn our ever-increasing populace, it is comfortable to suppose the decision of one cannot possibly impact a world of 7.3 billion.This attitude is catastrophic.