So here’s a love story about two fish. The first fish I fell in love with for all the wrong reasons. It was a beautiful fish, the texture was really flavorful, it was very meaty, and even better – as if a fish needed to be better – it was raised in the supposed highest standards of sustainability. This company claimed it was the first sustainable agriculture company in North America. I was in a relationship with this fish for many years. And one day I got a phone call from the head of PR for the company; he asked me to cook a lunch for a group of top food editors and writers and prepare a meal based on this fish and speak about the company’s sustainability. Great, I thought, what better way to speak about the plight of the oceans, the state of fisheries around the world than through this prism of responsible, sustainable agriculture?
So the day before lunch I called the PR guy, let’s call him “Don”. Don, I said, to get the facts straight: you guys are famous for fishing, farm fishing in the deep sea. He said: That’s right. We’re basically a world unto ourselves. We’re so far out to sea, the waste gets distributed, not concentrated. Then I asked about the feed to harvest ratio. 2.5 to 1, he said, the best in the business! I think 4 to 1 was the average at the time. Okay, so, I said, 2.5 what – what are you feeding? Sustainable proteins, he said. Great, I said, and hung up the phone. And then that night I had a thought: what the hell is a sustainable protein?
So the next morning, just before this lunch, I called Don I said “Don, what’s an example of a sustainable protein?” He said he wasn’t sure, he’d get back to me and he got me on the line with several people in the company and no one could give me a straight answer. Until finally, very late in the morning, I got on the phone with the head biologist for the company. Let’s call him “Don” too. Don, I said, what are examples of your sustainable protein? He mentioned algae, with some wild fish, and then he added “chicken pellets”. Chicken pellets, I said? Yes, chicken scraps. Dried, processed into feed for the fish. I said chicken scraps? And he said, yes, chicken skin, feathers, bone meal, leftover chicken thighs. And I said Don, what percentage of your feed is chicken? I guessed 2 percent, 3 percent? About 30 percent, he said. Don, I asked… what is sustainable about feeding chicken to fish? Well, it’s the overproduction of chicken in the country, he said, there’s way too much chicken, so we’ve developed a way to utilize the scrap. And he paused and he said, you know, so it doesn’t get thrown away. So that was Don’s definition of sustainability.
Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to fall out of love with this fish – not because of the Dons’ ineptitude or the questionable sustainability of this farm. I took the fish off the menu right after that conversation because, swear to god, the fish tasted like chicken.
The second story is a different kind of love story. This love story is the romantic kind. The kind where the more I got to know about a fish, the more I loved the fish. I ate it first at a restaurant in Spain it was bright, almost shimmering white filet, amazing texture, amazing flavor, and even more amazingly, the chef had overcooked it. He had butchered it by about twenty minutes. But it had so much fat, so much structure, so much integrity, that even when a chef was messing it up they couldn’t mess it up.
The fish came from a farm in the southwest corner of Spain, at the tip of the Guadalquivir River. Until 1980, the land was in the hands of the Argentinians. They raised their cattle on what was essentially wetlands, and they did it by draining the land. They built this series of canals, and they siphoned water out into the river. But they couldn’t make it work, not economically, and definitely not ecologically; in drying the grass to raise the cattle they’d killed off 95% of the bird population. Which was a lot of birds.
So in 1982, a Spanish conglomerate with an environmental conscience purchased the land. What did they do? They reversed the direction of water flow in the canal. They literally flipped the switch. So instead of using the channels to pump water out, they pulled water in. And in the process they reversed the ecological destruction, turning the place into an 8000 acre fish farm for sea bass, eels, shrimp and so on and so forth. The farm is incredible, the water flows in to these canals and when it comes out the other side it dumps into the Mediterranean. It dumps out cleaner water. The system is so healthy it literally purifies the water. So it is a fish farm, but it’s also this kind of water treatment plant. And there is no feed, zero feed. The fish eat what they would be eating in the ocean. The system keeps itself healthy, the plant biomass, the plankton, the zooplankton, it’s totally self renewing. There’s no feed.
Have you ever heard of a farm that doesn’t feed its animals? I haven’t. And come to think of it, I started to think, is this really a fish farm? That thought became more prevalent in the afternoon as I was driving on the property with the farm’s biologist. Let’s call him Miguel. His name is actually Miguel. Miguel, I said, for a place that’s so incredibly natural, so in concert with nature, what criteria do you use to measure the success of your farm? At which point, as if a film director motioned for a hidden set change, we rounded this corner and pulled up to the most amazing sight, one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen. And that was thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of pink flamingos. A literal pink carpet out on the water. That, he said, that’s success. Look at their bellies, pink! They’re feast pink!
Feast pink? I was confused. Aren’t they feasting on your fish? YES, he said, proudly. We lose 20% of our fish eggs and baby fish to the birds that are here. But Miguel, isn’t a thriving bird population the LAST thing you want on a fish farm? And here’s what he said, he said: we farm extensively, not intensively. It’s an ecological network, the flamingoes eat shrimp, the shrimp eat the phytoplankton and so forth, so the pinker the belly, the better the feeding.
Okay, so let’s review. You and me, let’s review. You’re going to farm land that doesn’t feed its animals, and measures its success by the health of its predators. It is as much a bird sanctuary as it is a farm. 600,000 birds, 250 different species, and it’s become the most important private haven for bird life in all of Europe. Oh, and those flamingoes, they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. They brood in a town 150 miles away. 150 miles away, they have the right soil to build their nests. The flamingoes fly to this farm every morning, and at night they fly back. They follow the yellow line of highway six.
And when I asked Miguel why they commuted, I was imagining like a March of the Penguins kind of thing, the Flight of the Flamingoes? I said Miguel, do they make the flight for the children? And he looked at me like I had just quoted a Whitney Houston song. He said no, they fly here because the food’s better!
So here’s something I do know and I bet all of us in this room know. We are on the verge of an ecological credit crisis, and it’s going to make this economic credit crisis a walk in the park. Swine flu, pistachios, tainted pistachios, and toxic zones, these are just sort of sprinklings on the way to becoming much larger and more profound. Our ability to feed ourselves and do it deliciously and sustainably is becoming limited, not by tractors and combines, but by fertile land. Not by pumps, but by fresh water. Not by chainsaws, but by forests. And not by boats and nets, but by fish in the sea. And the reason, to simplify this just a bit, is the breaking apart of farming and communities.
We have our farms, and we have our communities. And that’s the most significant and the most detrimental agricultural development of the last fifty years. Megafarms, feed lots, monocultures, chemical methods, food pathologically settled, all of it, or none of it, would have been developed without the of farms and communities, at least not with the strength that they’ve developed, without the dislocation of farms and communities.
What Miguel does in farming with the birds is analogous I think to farming in the community. You don’t just farm intensively pretending that you’re this world unto yourself. You let the surroundings, the ecological community, define the way you farm. Miguel’s community is based on this kind of network, a network which – the farm’s owners by the way make actually money not despite the conservation efforts but because of it. And the network capitalizes on the healthy relationship between land and water and fish and birds and people and includes each of them in the process, it’s why what they do is so important. And it’s why what’s happening here, today, is so important.
This conference is a network, it’s a group of people who see that we aren’t healthy because our farms aren’t healthy, and that the end of the food chain is connected to the beginning of the food chain, and without sustained community, there is no such thing as sustainability. THAT is the culture of agriculture. And the more we remember it and the more we advocate for it the more delicious our food will be, and that’s an idea we can all fall in love with.