Chelsea Green’s Michael Metivier Interviews Author Darryl Benjamin

September 18, 2016

Farm to Table: The Essential Guide to Sustainable Food Systems for Students, Professionals, and Consumers

MM: “Farm to Table” is a concept and a descriptor that makes sense when you hear or read about it in context, but can actually be difficult to define by itself. What is the most succinct answer you know of to the question “What is ‘Farm to Table?’”

DB: If I see Farm to Table on a menu I’m going to expect fresh, nutritious, tasty food. How it arrives from the farm to your table involves a system — a collaboration between farmers, restaurant workers, purveyors, educators, and concerned citizens. The term implies a shorter chain in the food system, food grown locally or regionally, and, once harvested, goes directly to a chef, or perhaps one purveyor, before the customer consumes it. An eagle’s eye view of the term reveals the tectonic stresses in the struggle to achieve economic, political, social, and environmental sustainability, particularly at the corporate and governmental levels.

MM: A lot of the food system technologies and practices that we now know to be problematic—to health, to the environment, to the economy—were initially heralded as advances that would help humankind. What is an example of an old idea that seemed beneficial in theory, but has proven to have terrible consequences that now require correcting?

DB: When Henry Ford took advantage of the then-relatively new idea known as the assembly line, it revolutionized manufacturing. It did so by introducing efficiencies such as interchangeable parts, division of labor, and time savings that rocketed the bottom line — Model T’s sales – to astronomical heights. The problem is, you can’t apply assembly line thinking with such blanket authority to food production for the simple reason that living things — livestock and crops, for examples — are not the same as inanimate objects.  The Green Revolution was credited with saving a billion lives through such efficiencies, increasing yields to agricultural production never dreamed possible. But the consequences of producing “more” without the attendant necessity of “healthy” caused unintended problems of sickness, obesity, and lack of access that led to the establishment of the Fresh Food Movement, of which Farm to Table is a subset. The intent is to undo the damage of excessive pesticides, genetically modified foods, foods laden with fats, sugar, and salt by increasing the availability and accessibility of unprocessed, whole foods grown locally and harmoniously with nature. The assembly line paradigm is not how nature does business. That is not to say Farm to Table advocates want to turn the clock back. Instead, they embrace new ideas and technologies that supports these goals.

MM: What food system solutions being promoted/developed right now, may also turn out to create more problems than they solve?

DB: Nanofoods — or microscopic particles in food — are being promoted and developed with the same enthusiasm and abandon big agribusiness reserved for GMOs in the ’90s. Indeed, it seems history is repeating itself as scientific rigor is bypassed in favor of political exigencies. Inadequate peer-reviewed testing of long-term health effects of nano-sized metals and chemicals designed to enhance shelf-life, for example, or injected into packaging that can leach into food, are already in the food system. The tiny size of nanomaterials permits them to pass more easily through cell membranes and other biological barriers, allowing these particles to be easily taken up into organisms and potentially cause cellular dysfunction. Disturbingly, the policy appears to be “release into the food supply first, assess risks later.”

MM: Farm to Table is most often used in the context of a restaurant experience, but in your book you describe Farm to School, Farm to Hospital, and other sectors of the farm and food economy that are taking similar approaches to sourcing and marketing meals. Can you talk a bit of the relative importance of institutional dining in all its forms to the greater food system?

DB: In many ways, I see institutional dining as key to industrial food reform. Institutional food has gotten a bad rap — school food, hospital food, prison food – much of it because of highly processed food mandated by accountants who are trying to make ends meet on meager budgets. Farm to Table proposes solutions using local resources to cut costs while improving the quality of food, contributing to the economic growth of the community, encouraging food education (including students growing their own food in the “edible schoolyard”) and advocating for increased funding of institutional budgets.

MM: A lighter question—please tell us about a favorite memorable “farm-to” meal you’ve had: when, where, what, who, and why?

DB: On August 7 of this year I had the pleasure of attending the Vermont Fresh Network’s 20th Anniversary Forum Dinner. Imagine dozens of tents housing Vermont foods of astonishing variety by the shore of Lake Champlain on the rolling green hills of Shelburne Farm. There were hundreds of hungry, happy faces milling around sampling the cornucopia.  I started with tastings of Jasper Hill farm’s acclaimed Bayley Hazen Blue cheese and (several) smoked pork bánh mì sandwiches. Although there were many tempting beverages, such as Mad Fiver Bourbon and Shelburne Farms Duet Ice Wine, I didn’t think I would make it to the dinner entrées if I indulged. Speaking of dinner, an outstanding dish was presented by Michael’s on the Hill – chilled sweet corn soup with smoked Mountain Food Farm trout. I also greatly enjoyed New England Culinary Institute’s Willow Brook Farm tomato galette. A mouth-watering treat from Taverna Khione called Spetsofai (a Greek dish), smoked ShakeyGround Farm lamb sausage seasoned with orange zest and leeks, with a ShakeyGround Farm tomato, onion and pepper stew, finished me off. I could eat no more. I did something I rarely do:  skipped dessert. It was a deeply satisfying meal knowing how much care and attention went into every bite.

MM: What are some of your hopes for the U.S. (or global, if you prefer) food system in the near and long-term future, and what are some reasons for optimism?

DB: I feel encouraged when I see the public demand for GMO labelling. I am similarly heartened when I see or hear of Edible Schoolyard programs where young people are forging connections with the food they eat. Education is the heart of change; when I see consumers demanding real food I am hopeful their voices will be heard in D.C. and beyond. I am hopeful, too, that eventually we’ll come to our senses and separate corporate interests from political policy. The government’s responsibility to support and protect its citizens is at odds with corporate goals for short-term profits that fail to see citizens as people but instead sees them as consumers, or worse, commodities.

21 Things Everyone Can Do To Eliminate Engineered/Fabricated Food

  1. Avoid engineered/fabricated food. Consumer choices send a strong message —75% of all processed food contains GMOs; corn, soy, and canola oil are 80%-90% GMO. Avoiding these products keeps your family healthy. Purchase organic; get your Non-GMO shopping guide; look for the Non-GMO Food Project label.
  2. Help pass legislative or ballot initiatives by spreading the word, collecting signatures, and donating. We have the right to know what is in our food!
  3. Talk to others — whether they’re friends, family or strangers — help educate! Hand out educational materials about engineered/fabricated food or place them where others will see it. Pass out educational material to your neighbors.
  4. Spread the word by sharing links through email or social media to educate your friends and family. Organizations like The Institute for Responsible Technology, GMO Free California, GM Watch, Millions Against Monsanto, Organic Consumer Association, and the GMO Truth Alliance all publish regular updates on social media and have mailing lists as well.
  5. Send out or share others’ Twitter feeds that help educate the public and remind them of the importance of putting an end to engineered/fabricated food.
  6. Seek audiences for educational talks or webinars through groups you already belong to, such as religious organizations, parent-oriented events, health, school, college and gardening related organizations, where these types of educational events are often welcomed.
  7. Invite friends and family members to watch a non-GMO movie such as The World According to Monsanto, Scientists Under Attack or The Future of Food.
  8. Read and recommend books about GMOs, such as Seeds of Deception or Genetic Roulette.
  9. Most, if not all, organizations fighting against GMOs or for GMO labeling are non-profit organizations relying on donations from supporters. Donate to these organizations — they could not do the work that they do without our financial help.
  10. Contact the food manufacturers you buy from and ask them if they use engineered or fabricated ingredients. Let them know that you will no longer buy their products if they do.
  11. Contact your local health food store or co-op and ask them if you can hand out educational materials to their customers.
  12. Contact your local newspapers, magazines or any media with educational articles, letters or videos.
  13. Get a booth at a local event or Farmer’s Market and hand out educational material. Help educate your local healthcare professionals about the dangers of engineered/fabricated food and why they should recommend a diet that avoids these foods.
  14. Contact your government representatives, including the president, and let them know that you want to end engineered/fabricated food. Sample letters will be available on our website soon.
  15. Keep in touch with other sustainable food organizations for updates, such as the Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth or GM Watch.
  16. Volunteer to help at local events that promote sustainable food that is not genetically altered or artificially fabricated.
  17. Grow your own Non-Engineered Food.
  18. Petition your local schools to serve real food.
  19. Ask the grocery store chains to label all engineered/fabricated food and to stop selling engineered/fabricated food.
  20. Take Care of Yourself! Taking on a huge industry that is tied to our government can feel overwhelming. Make sure you spend time nurturing your body, mind and spirit.
  21. Get Involved and Get Active! Contact the organizations listed above and attend local events featuring real food alternatives to engineered/fabricated foods.


Nanofood Presentation from the International Food Studies Conference

Darryl and Sigrun recently attended the 5th International Food Studies Conference in Blacksburg, Virginia. During the conference, they conducted a workshop on Nanotechnology in Food Systems, which was very well received. Since there was so much interest and enthusiasm about this topic, we decided to make our presentation available to all attendees well as other interested parties.

Please contact us if you have any questions, or if you are interested in a workshop, seminar or presentation by the GMO Breakthrough Education Project.