Sunday 28 May 2017

Sustainable agriculture: eating the 'Third Plate'

Martin recently came across a fantastic interview about sustainable agriculture.  In it, chef Dan Barber talked about what he's come to call 'Third Plate' eating.  He thinks of what Americans have been eating since colonisation as the 'First Plate' - basically a large piece of meat with a few other things on the side.  More recently, he's seen the rise of the 'Second Plate' - the development, inspired by sustainability concerns, of swapping locally sourced and/or organic meats and vegetables for the conventionally grown ones.

Dan Barber was essentially serving 'Second Plate' food at his New York restaurant when a visit to the organic farm that grew his wheat radically changed his outlook.  He visited in the off-season and was startled to see the entire farm covered in unfamiliar crops: no wheat in sight.  What he was seeing were the cover crops, without which the land would be unable to produce wheat later in the year.  They were also mostly human-edible, but were all either sold for animal feed or ploughed under.  No one could be found to buy them as human food.

That eventually turned him into an ardent advocate for a much more sustainable 'Third Plate'.  On this new plate, instead of finding the same foods simply grown differently, you find food that is served in the kind of ratios you need to grow it in order to sustain productive land.  In his region, that means eating a lot of legumes and buckwheat in place of much of the more familiar meat and bread.  Listen to him expanding these ideas here.

It gelled with so much of what I've been thinking for so long!

So often I hear sustainable agriculture expressed in terms of organics.  I've never been convinced.  Overuse of fertiliser and pesticides is, indeed, harmful to the soil and the wider ecosystem; but I'm unconvinced that organics are generally any better.

Some organic farms are like the one Dan Barber described in the interview I mentioned earlier.  But much of the organic produce commercially available comes from industrial monocrop farms which pay little more respect to their local ecosystem than their conventional neighbours.  Much of the organic produce sold in Europe is grown in Egypt on land that was formerly desert - vastly disrupting its natural ecosystem by trucking in nutrients that do not belong there.  There are also plenty of organic almonds produced alongside conventional ones in California's Central Valley - an area with such extreme monocropping that no insects can be found for miles on end.

This 'Third Plate' idea sounded much more genuinely sustainable.

Martin and I want to live a lifestyle that is scalable: we want to live such that, were everyone else to live like us, there would still be enough of everything to go around.  It's part of how we try to heed Jesus' command to love our neighbours as ourselves.  We're a long way from that goal, but eating responsibly is a huge part of how we're trying to get there.  I've long favoured mixed-cropping over organics as a system much more likely to lead to long-term soil fertility, but I've yet to find a way to identify food grown this way.  I'd love to be able access food grown on a farm like this one!  So instead, we've focused our efforts on reducing our animal-protein consumption and, for the meal a week when we do cook meat, we often try to choose goatmeat.  Many of the goats butchered in New Zealand are semi-feral goats, kept on the margins of farm properties to increase land productivity by keeping down difficult weeds like blackberry and gorse.  We hope that, by helping keep the market for their meat alive, we're also encouraging a sustainable form of weed control.  In fact, learning about the roles animals can play in agricultural systems is part of why, although we don't eat much meat, we're neither vegetarian nor vegan.  Over-farming of animals is, of course, hugely destructive, but in many landscapes you can get more food per acre by including some animals in the mix, so we feel that a diet that is scalable needs to include them.

That's as far as our thinking had got, but Dan Barber takes these ideas further.  Explicitly thinking about the balance of foodstuffs a piece of land can produce, and choosing to eat them all (and to eat them in the ratios they grow) was a new idea to me.

It reminded me of some things I've been reading about 'agroecological systems': traditional farming systems that function as mini-ecosystems and have been able to be sustained for centuries.  One such system is Asian 'rice-duck agriculture' - raising ducks right in the rice paddies, where they eat the insects and weeds whilst fertilising the crop.  There are many other examples here.

It also made me think of the work of Bren Smith, an ex-cod fisherman from New England who's been trying to work out how to develop aquaculture in his region without poisoning the sea the way so many farms have poisoned the land.  He's developed what he refers to as 3D aquaculture, where the waste from each crop becomes nutrients for the next one further down the water column. He encourages people to 'eat like fish': feasting on protein-rich kelps and smaller fish rather than always going for the top predators.

In earlier centuries, our ancestors ate like this of necessity.  In recent times, those of us in wealthy, land-rich parts of the world have instead become accustomed to picking off the 'cream of the crop' and discarding the rest.  There is no way this kind of agriculture is globally scalable.  If we want all our global neighbours to be able to access the calories and nutrients they need to flourish, it looks like how we all eat will need to change.  We are keen to continue learning how to eat the 'Third Plate' ourselves and are excited such a prominent chef is giving himself to its promotion :-)


  1. It is an interesting approach, and would look so different depending on what sort of land you were thinking about being used. Round here down nearer the coast the land is good for horticulture, and predominantly fruit prodcution, for some fruit sheep could be used to graze under, but that would be limited unless you grew the fruit high enough to avoid them eating it.. Up here growing veges and fruits apart from apples and pears is harder, and the land suits grazing... much of the higher land in NZ would be similar.

    1. Hi Tim,

      You're right - the mix you'd end up with depends greatly on the kind of land you have - and the way higher/steeper land suits grazing is a big part of why I still eat animals.

      However, I suspect when you describe what the land around you is suitable for, you're descrbing what *currently* happens in a world where farmers have ready access to fundamentally unsustainable inputs. Dan Barker is thinking about what the land would actually *need* to grow if those farmers were reliant on renewable inputs (like a permaculture approach, for example), rather than mined ones.

      For example, you mention lots of fruit growing around you. I suspect those trees are fed with petroleum-derived nitrogen fertilisers and phosphates mined in North Africa. Many people have already come to see that that is inherently unsustainable - i.e. those inputs will run out at some point. Dan Barker is speaking to those people and saying 'that's well and good, but to grow those trees without synthetically-produced fertilisers, you need a bunch of companion crops. Seeing as many of them are human-edible, it's wasteful just to plough them under or feed them to pigs'.

      In my post I mentioned legumes being needed to make vegetables grow. Similar principles apply with fruit trees. A permaculture orchard doesn't generally have sheep grazing under the trees - it has a 'herbal ley'. That might consist of borage to attract bees, comfrey (which has deep roots) to bring minerals to the surface so the trees can use them, a particular kind of parsnip that breaks up the soil, yarrow, vetch etc. etc. The herbal ley plants are mostly edible vegetables/herbs - just ones we're unfamiliar with. So, Dan Barker would say, if you want to eat sustainably-grown apples, you'll also need to eat the borage, comfrey and strange parsnips that the apple trees needed alongside them, otherwise you're being wasteful.

      So, even though your area currently isn't used to produce such a variety of foods, if it was being farmed in such a way that mined nutrients were never used and most inputs the trees needed were produced locally, I'm sure that would change!


      --Heather :-)

  2. Sorry this second comment is because I did not notice the "notify me button earlier :( sorry!