Sarah Laskow has an article in the Atlantic about a chef-led plant breeding movement that setting its eyes on the next horizon: flavor. In the US, starting in the early seventies in Northern California, most famously at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse, farmers started composing their dishes through the act of choosing the best ingredients, partnering with local farmers that could deliver insanely fresh, well tended produce, meat and dairy. The farmers often agreed to grow little known or heirloom varieties that the chefs had found and requested. Then the farmers started finding groovy little crops and turning the chefs on to those ingredients. Now Blue Hill Farms chef and visionary Dan Barber thinks the time has come for chefs to reach past the farmer and go to a more primary source: plant breeders. The idea is for chefs to partner with plant breeders and tell them exactly want they want in a vegetable.
By the end of the day, the chefs were dreaming of the perfect chili peppers for a particular dish and new, improved East Coast tomatoes. Barber’s already helped develop a winter squash more to his liking.
Now, you will never get an argument from me against grace and beauty. Especially where food is concerned. I’ve worked as a chef at some decently fancy restaurants and I’ve worked on small farms. I’m all for beautiful food. Farming can be immensely satisfying work, mixing your labor with the sun and soil to produce beautiful food for people to eat. It’s similar to what’s wonderful about working as a chef. The great thing about being a chef is that you are an artisan craftsman, not an artist. You create something beautiful and then people eat it. And then you do the same thing over and over and over. And then you get paid for your work. It can be immensely satisfying, as I imagine that working as a plant breeder is.
Hard work. Iteration. Hard work. Repetition. Hard work. Grace. Beauty. Utility. Immensely satisfying. I wish more people had access to the opportunity to do that kind of work.
But in stories like this, that touch on the estuary between upscale dining and agriculture, I always tense up, waiting for “The Claim”. It has become nearly inevitable in this discussion that a claim will be made that “This is Important”. With a capital “I” Important. Thankfully, Laskow doesn’t go over the top, but it does get there.
In the past few years, though, there’s been a push from the sustainable agriculture community to revive them. Seed Matters is supporting young scientists who want to make their careers in organic plant breeding; the Open Source Seed Initiative released, this year, its first batch of seeds that are meant to live free of patents.
The fact that the term “sustainable agriculture” has become synonymous with small, local, mostly organic farming has become a huge obstacle to having a real conversation about what it’s going to take to move the needle in terms of making agriculture more sustainable in any meaningful way. And by meaningful, I mean by millions of tons of carbon sequestered, millions of tons of nitrogen not ending up in the Gulf of Mexico, millions of tons of soil not lost to erosion, millions of acres of wildlife habitat not lost to deforestation for soy production.
My friend Tamar Haspel just recently put the scale of local production into perspective:
Local’s market share is small. Very small. Under 2 percent small. And the farmers market share is just a fraction of that. Although farmers’ direct sales (through markets, farm stands and community-supported agriculture programs, or CSAs) tripled from 1992 to 2007, from $404 million to $1.2 billion, they leveled off afterward, growing to only $1.3 billion from 2007 to 2012 — despite a large increase in the number of farmers markets during that time, from 4,685 in 2008 … to 7,864 in 2012. That’s 0.3 percent of total agricultural sales. Expand “local” to include sales that go through channels to local restaurants and markets, and the figure is larger: $4.8 billion in 2007, the last year for which data is available, but still just over 1 percent of total farm sales.
The scale of what Barber is after here is a tiny fraction of the tiny fraction that local artisanal foods make up in the larger food system. A rounding error of a rounding error. It’s beautiful, worthwhile work, but please don’t try to insist that it is impactful in any meaningful way in terms of making the food system more sustainable. We just aren’t going to fix the planet with rounding errors.
It’s kind of like claiming that the great thing about skateboarding is that it is a renewable energy form of transportation. I’ve known line cooks who relied on their skateboards for transportation, but c’mon. The great thing about skateboarding is that in the hands of a master it can be sublime.
And here’s the thing. There is no need to take away from what Barber and these breeders are trying to do by putting the weight of the world on it. When you are creating beautiful things, sublime is plenty.