What do flamingos have to do with local and sustainable food production?

John Elkington describes how one restaurant is setting out to balance the ecological books by working with, rather than against, nature


A wetland aquaculture site in Spain measures its success on the pinkness of the bellies of the flamingos. Photograph: Alamy

Have you heard the one about the chef who fell in love with a fish? If not, check out Dan Barber’s TED talk. He tells the gripping story of his visits to a fish farm where 30% of the fish-feed was chicken waste, and to a vast wetland aquaculture site in Spain where a key indicator of success is the pinkness of the bellies of the flamingos — and the health of a range of avian predators that consume some 20 percent of the semi-farmed fish. The insight that Barber shares is that the best, tastiest fish comes from systems operated against an ecological balance sheet.

None of that was in my brain, however, while I watched in disbelief as a yellow cab with my bags inside streaked off from JFK airport towards New York, its passenger door swinging open, leaving me stranded. Amazingly, it took the driver 30 minutes to wake up to the fact that he didn’t have a passenger – and another 30 to get back.

Too often capitalism is like that, obsessing about quarterly returns or the next big thing and oblivious that the current value transaction won’t pan out how those in the driving seat imagine. My first thought had been a warm feeling that the cab was a hybrid, but it soon became clear that some pretty basic human traits were at work, among them tunnel vision, rendering the process way more painful than necessary.

Still, sometimes a bit of grief helps you better appreciate the joys of life. And that evening I enjoyed one of the most extraordinary meals I have ever had at a restaurant founded by Barber and his brother David in 2000. I was in New York for an advisory board meeting at Recyclebank, whose business involves using incentives to spur green actions and behavioural change. Joyously, the opening dinner was held in a dining room at the Blue Hill restaurant.

Walking to the restaurant (based in a former speakeasy) through Greenwich Village, I found myself in Washington Square Park, with its striking arch. Once at the restaurant, I asked what the arch commemorated: no-one knew. So I asked Wikipedia. The arch had replaced an earlier plaster and wood version built to honour the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration as president. But I also uncovered the fact that the land hereabouts had been known as theLand of the Blacks. The white colonists installed populations of black slaves as a human buffer between themselves and the embittered Native Americans, who they had drivern off. As I strolled through the park, I was also sublimely unaware that under my feet were the remains of some 20,000 people, many buried during yellow fever outbreaks.

This may all seem tangential from the topic of local and sustainable food production, but the issue of land ownership and tenure patterns is rarely far from the question of where the bottom line is drawn in today’s agricultural systems. (Nor, before you file your comments, was the irony of my flying in earlier in the day to sample local food lost on me.)

But then came the highly seasonal meal. As a pesco-vegetarian, there was a lot of meat I couldn’t touch, but the food I did eat was ravishing. The biggest treat, however, was finding that I had sat myself down next to David Barber – who, coincidentally, had used the word «serendipity» in his introduction to the Blue Hill story.

Knowing that the current president and his wife had their Spring 2009 «date night» at Blue Hill Farm’s New York restaurant, and that the first lady then took a few dozen other first ladies around the Stone Barns Centre for Food and Agriculture (30 miles north of New York City) the following year, I asked how the Barber boys had got started – and how they decided where to draw the line in their own business?

One key part of the story was weird: they removed a central element of consumer choice, the menu. If people could choose from a traditional menu, the brothers concluded, there was no way they could supply all the food from the Stone Barns farm. But the thing David said that stuck in my mind, partly because I’m currently going back to the whole question of where tomorrow’s bottom line will have to be drawn, was that the ultimate bottom line at Stone Barns is the soil’s health. The Stone Barns Centre is a not-for-profit working to change the way people farm and eat through education and the enjoyment of food.

So I grilled David on the future. «We are still trying to figure out how to calculate our performance,» he replied. «Economically speaking, with our $30m endowment, I am comfortable that the Stone Barns Centre will survive as a regional not-for-profit for a long time to come. So long as the work done on the campus remains compelling, Blue Hill, as a for-profit restaurant, should have a future as well.»

Still, he accepts, «that vision is a limited one, and we can be far more impactful than we are today. If we stay a regional destination, and can only afford to do what we are doing now, we may not look back on the return on the investment made as all that smart.

«Stone Barns Centre was recently awarded a federal grant of $750,000 to enhance our Young Farmers Program. We have over 250 participants a year who use us to further their efforts in the dirt.  This is the kind of work that we want to grow,» he explained, «but we’ll need funding beyond what we have now or what the restaurant will ever provide in terms of rent or food purchases. The not-for-profit’s operating budget is currently about $5m. Our executive director, Jill Isenbarger, wants that to grow to $20m or more by 2025. It would put Stone Barns on a path to resemble a Monterey Bay Aquarium for agriculture. A regional institution with national impact – and a seat at the political table. Our level of long-term impact should be a key gauge in the measurement of our bottom line performance.»

Blue Hill Farm and Stone Barns, he told me, «are using food to build a community. We want «culture» back in agriculture. Farming with nature, as opposed to trying to control her. We are disciples of Aldo Leopold, EF Schumacher and Janine Benyus

«I am also a fan of Jeremy Rifkin’s Empathetic Civilization. We are figuring out answers to tough questions over «family meals» with farmers, cooks, educators, administrators and other constituencies. The way forward is slow – and painfully inefficient by traditional measures. But each of us shares a belief that the long-term success of our cog in the wheel is dependent on the success of the others. And Mother Nature is at the head of the table.»

As I walked back to my hotel, past fast-food-truck-shrines to obesity, I mused that the Barber boys’ ultimate legacy must hang on their ability to help wean us all off menu-driven unsustainability, towards a world where a taste-for-flamingos-as-a-business-success-indicator becomes second nature to us all.

Source / Fuente: www.guardian.co.uk

Author / Autor: 

Date / Fecha: 08/02/12

Visit our Facebook / Visite nuestro Facebook:

Visit our YouTube channel / Visite nuestro canal de YouTube:



Deja una respuesta

Introduce tus datos o haz clic en un icono para iniciar sesión:

Logo de WordPress.com

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de WordPress.com. Salir /  Cambiar )

Imagen de Twitter

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Twitter. Salir /  Cambiar )

Foto de Facebook

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Facebook. Salir /  Cambiar )

Conectando a %s