Scale Matters

Rustic, hand-hewn farmhouse tables. Copper-bottomed pots and cloves of garlic hanging alongside expertly-dimmed lights. It’s a $32 entrée type of place in the chic part of town. Oh, and it’s billing itself as “farm-to-table.” Of course, it is.

As of 2017, US population was 325.7 million people. We simply don’t have the land, or the resources, to produce enough food from small, local farms to feed our population – but that is what visionaries like Alice Waters and Dan Barber propose.

Chef Alice Waters is one of the eminent proponents of the farm-to-table lifestyle, and her perspective emphasizes the fundamental troubles with eating only local, organic food: it is not scalable, and it is not cheap. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, serves only organic, sustainable, and local food, and, if you can get a reservation, its set four-course dinner will cost between $75 and $150 per person. These steep prices ensure that only a small fraction of the American population can enjoy a nutritious meal at Chez Panisse. Is feeding the elite what farm-to-table is about? Waters claims it is not – one of her main goals is to feed every child in America a free, organic, and locally grown lunch at school every day. Yet, the Alice Waters approach – shopping only at farmers markets, eating only organic, local produce – is not a scalable one, and has so far only adequately served those who can afford $32 entrees or $150 four-course dinners.

Dan Barber supports farm-to-table in a more nuanced way. The New York-based Chef criticizes the selective and non-seasonal use of local produce, stressing that farm-to-table as we know it doesn’t adequately protect small farms. He emphasizes eating holistically and purchasing a range of ingredients that bolster soil health, local farmers, and the planet in all regions, all year round.

The farm-to-table movement has encouraged consumers to be more cognizant of food quality and source – and that importance should not be underemphasized - but has not confronted scalability and has thus far not changed the exclusivity of eating nutritiously. Instead of sourcing all our food from local, organic farmers like Waters and Barber suggest, we should focus on sustainable solutions that will decrease the price and increase the accessibility of healthy produce. This is the mantra of scalable sustainability: the idea that we can make nutrition more inclusive through demanding the right products. That means growing low input-high output crops – foods like broccolette, sweet potato, seaweed, and nettle – that require little water, fertilizer, and space to grow in high yield. It comes down to doing large-scale farming better and revolutionizing how we feed over 300 million people. 

The feed conversion ratio of farmed tuna, according to Dan Barber’s TED Talk, is 15 to one. That means farmers feed 15 wild fish to every “sustainably” farmed tuna you eat. Immense amounts of energy, building materials, and water go into the mass production of chickens, making it a similarly inefficient practice even before one accounts for overuse of antibiotics and disposition of waste. Simply put, Americans are demanding foods that require huge fiscal and material inputs, and that have immensely negative environmental consequences.

Fixing this problem is simple. It really is. By changing our demand, we can transform how food is produced. Instead of choosing ingredients like spinach that require gallons of water to grow, nettle requires significantly less input and contains twice as much iron as spinach. Instead of Salmon, which at best has a feed conversion ratio of one to one, Mackerel is an abundant, fast-replenishing fish in the wild, whose harvest eliminates the need for environmentally damaging and expensive fish farming practices. By cooking with these more sustainable options, we can arouse the taste buds of consumers and redefine American food demand to make healthy eating a possibility for everyone. 

Team HF