Chef, and food-statesman, Dan Barber with some of the poultry that will supply his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Photograph: By Andrew Hetherington
As the local food movement sweeps across America—and into its school cafeterias, hospitals, and supermarkets—what locavore wisdom might be gleaned for poor and hungry communities in the developing world?
The answer came this past weekend at the World Economic Forum in Davos where Dan Barber, the chef-owner of the farm-to-table icon Blue Hill in New York City, played the outlier along side heads of state and agribusiness. (Blue Hill’s sister restaurant-cum-think tank Stone Barns is north of the city, where it nurtures community-based food production on the former estate of the Rockefeller family, which—interestingly—helped launch the Green Revolution four decades ago and remains engaged in international agricultural development today.)
In a series of talks, Barber, who The Guardian called a “a new breed of chef-intellectual,” suggested that the greatest potential for shoring up the global food system will not come from boosting food production or opening up international markets. Instead, it will come from knitting more diversity into all links of the global food chain.
This isn’t the first time high-profile food debates have called for a radical rethink. Last October, at the World Food Prize Conference in Des Moines, participants noted that despite decades of international efforts, the number of hungry people on the planet continues to swell. The global food system remains vulnerable to rising fuel costs and shrinking stores of food bio-diversity. In the latest twist, international investors are buying up land across Africa, mostly to supply export markets—in the short term, local farmers might benefit from a buyout; over the long term, they may be giving up their nation’s agricultural base.
So, Barber sang the praises of the Mountain Magic tomato, the result of a regional breeding effort that proved resistant to the blight that eliminated much of the Northeast’s homogenous crop this year. A world away, but sharing similar principles, farmers in Tanzania are engaged in their own regional breeding, working with researchers at the World Vegetable Center to improve—and market—a diversity of traditional vegetables, as my colleague Danielle Nierenberg recently chronicled. Young farmers working with Slow Food International in Uganda are learning about the importance of growing—and eating—indigenous African crops like leafy greens and tropical fruits, which can cope with erratic weather, emerging diseases and seasonal food shortages better than imported staples.
At a time when 30 to 50 percent of the world’s food supply goes bad or is otherwise wasted, Barber uses nose-to-tail cuisine to make use of every bit of the animal, not to mention fava bean leaves, turnip greens, and other neglected vegetable parts. Just as farmers in West Africa are using simple, sealable storage bags to ensure a greater share of cowpeas, an important, indigenous protein source, gets from field-to-plate.
Yes, the ingredients will vary but the advantages of building resilience into the system are the same the world around. The massive—and revolutionary—International Assessment for Agricultural Science and Technology for Development report concluded that organic techniques for improving soils can complement chemical fertilizers, while neglected crop varieties, like millet and sorghum, can help reduce malnutrition and improve livelihoods, particularly in areas where corn, rice and wheat haven’t thrived.
And the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Millions Fed book found that often getting more food onto hungry people’s plates depends on local, rather than farflung resources, like when farmers across the Sahel use stone contours, planting pits and other homegrown techniques to nurture drought-torn trees, rehabilitate millions of hectares of farmland and boost food production for about 3 million people. Back in the Hudson Valley, the livestock farmer at Stone Barns has restored woodlands, built up his soils, and kept his animals healthy through a dance of rotational grazing.
Of course, this is not an either or proposition. Global investment in agriculture—in the form of government collaborations or support from universities—can jumpstart all sorts of good on the ground. There’s no shortage of appropriate technology that can be shared across borders—from solar-powered drip irrigation to tissue culture that accelerates distribution of disease-free sweet potato and banana cuttings. And the same food-interested Americans who are flocking to farmers markets and pushing agribusiness away from feedlots, may soon emerge as a new lobbying ally in matters of international hunger. (American food aid policy is just as problematic as the dysfunctional Farm Bill.)
The New Yorker once called Barber’s restaurant “back to the land in a limosine.” But such a jab misses the potential for interplanetary solidarity. Barber’s success isn’t just built on kitchen talent. His restaurants thrive because they harness local food diversity, build up the regional farm economy, and rejuvenate the nearby landscape. Now what rural community wouldn’t want that?