Book Review: The Third Plate

Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food is full of stories of people who are trying to create a more sustainable food future, from eating smaller fish to growing local grains. We haven’t gotten to this book yet in book club but I read it anyway because I’m curious to see what foods other people consider to be the most sustainable.

TheThirdPlate_JKF

The stories are those of people who are working to create more sustainable versions of fois gras, Iberico ham, fish farms, wheat, veggies, and more. Considering how eating less meat is recognized in the intro as a necessity for sustainability, it amazed me how much time Barber spent describing how geese, pigs, and fish were being raised with minimal harm to the animals and with minimal or even positive impacts on the ecosystem. But I suppose if a foodie is eating less meat, the meat s/he does eat had better be damn good.

The book also discussed how wheat flour became white–less healthy but longer-lasting. How farmers are growing veg from heirloom seeds to help protect seed diversity in a world where many seeds are now owned by corporations and can’t be saved for replanting. How companion planting can create better plant health, improve the soil, and prevent the other dangers of monocropping.

The following quote was particularly interesting:

If you have a hankering, as I do, for the old days of our young republic, when farming was what farming should be–small, family-owned, well managed and manicured, a platonic paradigm of sustainable agriculture–think again. Today’s industrial food chain might denude landscapes and impoverish souls, but our forefothers did much of the same.

This is something I’ve read more about since. When Europeans discovered the Americas with so much fertile land that had been well-tended by the Native Americans, they felt no qualms about sapping the life from an area before moving on to another plot. (In the past week I’ve also read a bit about how Native Americans were used as slave labor before the Europeans realized they succumbed too easily to smallpox and other diseases and opted for African labor instead. I need to look into this a bit more, but what I’ve heard so far is really disturbing.)

On the seed front, although heirlooms are trendy right now, this book presents a counterpoint which is actually pretty compelling. Heirlooms are varieties that are as much as possible unchanged from older generations. But they’re usually not local to our area. And our environment has changed, too. So there’s something to be said for scientists who do the work to continually breed new varieties that grow well in different areas, that are resistant to diseases, that have been developed to make that variety economically viable to farmers as an alternative to the same old monoculture varieties. As long as the seeds are open-pollinated and not patented, it doesn’t seem so bad to me.

The problem, he said, is that farmers are often, like Klass, planting very old varieties with low yield–the problem with heirloom anything–or they’re planting conventional varieties with  no flavor. “Without a breeder to support the continual betterment of the plant, an alternative to conventional wheat will never establish itself.”

But the focus with farming is on improving the soil to create plants that are nutrient rich instead of fed artificial NPK fertilizer. This may mean growing perenials that grow deep and persistent roots to improve the soil. It may mean rotating crops, growing cover crops, and providing compost as the ideal soil amendment. Not building the soil could have devastating consequences, as he described from the wisdom of Dr. William Albrecht.

Of the diet-related diseases that have spiked in the past century, the obesity epidemic would seem to have been impossible to predict. And yet, in the 1930s, Albrecht came close. He knew that cows grazing from well-mineralized soils ate balanced diets. But when kept in a barn and fed a predetermined grain ration, they never stopped eating, overindulging in a vain attempt to make up with sheer volume for what they weren’t getting in their food. Albrect believed our bodies would likewise stuff themselves for the same reason. Starved of micronutrients, he said, we will keep eating in the hope of attaining them.

Although this book was really oriented towards foodies, I found most of the stories very compelling and informative. Personal changes this book has helped influence:

  • In the future if I’m craving seafood I may try eating smaller varieties of fish. (Although if I go to Luby’s I’ll probably swap out my usual fish for some broccoli.)
  • Not sure if this will happen, but I’m seriously considering growing some of my own grain next year. Not much but some.
  • Next year I’ll definitely also try out the Three Sisters planting of corn, beans, and squash.
  • On my next seed-shopping trips, I’ll look more at open-pollinated non-heirloom seeds (still staying away from the patented stuff) in addition to the heirloom options.
  • I’ll continue to cut down on eating out. (It’s rarely anything good for me).
  • I’ll regularly buy our whole wheat flour from the vendor at the farmers market. It’s way more expensive, but I have to support it to help make sure it stays available.
  • (But no, don’t expect to see any foie gras or Iberian ham on my plate.)

In conclusion, the best note to leave on is the wisdom shared throughout all of the stories, that “knowing about the natural world is a more enjoyable way to be in the world.”

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