Soil or No Soil? Differing Views on Growing Food Raise Interesting Value Questions

As part of a global food communications firm, thousands of foodies at Ketchum are experiencing and enjoying learning about all aspects of food and food production. You can imagine that no two opinions are alike and that’s what makes our world so exciting. Following are my personal observations as I read Dan Barber’s new book; some takeaways that resonate with me. Read on, and I welcome your point of view and observations as well.

I love discussing different viewpoints on food production and thinking about how personal values come into play when deciding what we want to eat. I’ve been reading Dan Barber’s book, The Third Plate (The Penguin Press, NY, 2014), in which he spends the first section setting forth his strong belief that the most flavorful food comes from a healthy and balanced ecosystem and that “When we taste something truly delicious, something that is persistent, it most likely originated from well-mineralized, biologically rich soils.”

An example from The Third Plate of an agricultural ecosystem in ideal balance: Pigs from which the world-prized iberico hams are made, graze freely in Spain’s dehesa region. Source: Extremadura.blogspot.com)

An example from The Third Plate of an agricultural ecosystem in ideal balance: Pigs from which the world-prized iberico hams are made, graze freely in Spain’s dehesa region. Source: Extremadura.blogspot.com

Barber examines the ‘language of the soil’ and interviews those who have mastered the art of understanding what a field or patch of land is telling us. And, basically, it is this: “see what you are looking at” when viewing an environment, and to do so requires a deeper understanding of chemistry and soil health. Barber quotes Klaas Albrecht, longtime chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri who urges, “Feed the soil and let the soil feed the plants.”

Source: gastropod.com

Source: gastropod.com

I particularly appreciated Barber’s reference and homage to one of my lifelong heroes, Aldo Leopold, and his environmental classic, A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, NY, 1948). In my opinion*, Leopold’s work should be read by everyone who eats. I wholeheartedly agree with Barber that Leopold’s essay on The Land Ethic, featured on pages 201-226 of my dog-eared copy of the Almanac, is required reading.

“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.”  Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac. Photo source: brownsafe.com

“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac. Photo source: brownsafe.com

But, just as I was reviewing my beloved old book, I read an equally compelling story featured in the July 28th Washington Post about the world’s largest indoor farm that grows its ecologically friendly food in the absence of soil, hydroponically. The environment of this farm couldn’t possibly be more antithetical to Leopold’s vision of a healthy ecosystem. How could he have foreseen farmers donning clothes resembling hazmat suits raising crops indoors, in vertically stacked rows, utilizing GE LED lighting rather than the sun?

Mirai Lettuce Farm, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. Photo source: The Washington Post, July 28, 2014.

Mirai Lettuce Farm, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. Photo source: The Washington Post, July 28, 2014.

At first glance, this futuristic agricultural system looks cold, surreal and almost creepy. Yet, there are many ecologically positive aspects to this type of farming. The 25,000 square foot Mirai Lettuce Farm, in Eastern Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture, is located inside an old Sony factory. High tech food has replaced high tech electronics in the recycled and retrofitted factory that could have gone to seed otherwise. There’s elegance in this renaissance and, importantly, a drastic reduction in water use – 99%, in fact – and reduced food waste as compared to conventional production methods.

This operation is unapologetically a ‘factory farm’ that turns out 10,000 coreless heads of lettuce a day. Photo source: foodanddrinkbuzz.com.

This operation is unapologetically a ‘factory farm’ that turns out 10,000 coreless heads of lettuce a day. Photo source: foodanddrinkbuzz.com.

Shigeharu Shimamura, a botanist and the company president explains, “The process for growing Mirai lettuce produces leaf type, and not head type, so 95 percent of the portion is edible and can be used conveniently at restaurants for salads and sandwiches. In terms of quality, since Mirai leaf lettuce is fresh and soft, they are praised by children and the elderly as easy to eat.” Shimamura also points out that the technology used to produce his plants creates “a variation of romaine lettuce that contains eight to 10 times more beta-carotene and two times the vitamin C, Calcium and Magnesium” (The Washington Post, July 28, 2014). It’s pretty hard to argue with this approach when the global population will surpass the 10 billion mark by 2050.

The good news, as I see it, is that brilliant minds around the world are coming up with different and important solutions to the world’s food needs. I, for one, have made the commitment to open my mind to alternate ideas and to appreciate the vibrant and passionate discussion taking place about how to feed the world and respect our planet at the same time. Let’s keep talking!

I’d love to hear your thoughts about interesting solutions you’ve discovered for meeting competing demands in this arena.

*This, and all, @ppetite posts reflect only the opinion of the author and in no way reflects the collective point of view of Ketchum.

Comments

  1. says

    Anyone who is a cigar smoker will tell you that soil is in fact the most important ingredient that differentiates a cigar. Since the embargo, growers have taken Cuban seed to grow “Cuban” tobacco leaves in other parts of the world. However, even if they started out the same, the Cuban leaf cigars are totally different in taste, strength and other factors from their Cuban grown counterparts. It’s truly amazing how flavor is all so interconnected with every little element involved in creating it.

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