One recent Monday, Amy Tornquist unlocked the doors of her Durham restaurant, Watts Grocery. She flipped on the lights, pulled four chairs off a tabletop, set out some pint glasses and primed the taps for today's event, a roundtable book discussion organized by the Indy.
On the chopping block was the peevishly titled Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly by James E. McWilliams, a professor of history and agrarian studies at Texas State University. Published by Little, Brown last month, the book aims to find a "reasonable compromise" between organic and conventional farming and explores more environmentally friendly methods of feeding the world, both now and in 2050, when it's expected that nearly 10 billion humans on the planet will be clamoring for a portion of daily bread.
Scott Marlow of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) in Pittsboro walked in carrying a sheaf of typed-up notes. Then Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farms in Orange County arrived holding one heirloom tomato, which he presented to Tornquist for slicing.
What some call hors d'oeuvres, Tornquist calls "snacks." Heavy on local ingredients, her snacks included "deviled ham deviled eggs," artichoke pickles "from a lady in Hamilton, N.C.," spiced pecans, homemade crackers, cheeses from Chapel Hill Creamery and Goat Lady Dairy and a tomato platter with vinaigrette.
We were promised pear sorbet at the end, a little reward to get us through. We needed the nourishment, too, because this afternoon, Tornquist, Marlow and Hitt (along with me as moderator) would be seeking solutions to world hunger, genetic modification, farm subsidies and overfishing, not to mention organic farming challenges and carbon footprints.
For this, we'd allotted two hours.
Alex Hitt: A lot of people want to have this romantic idea of what farming is. A clear example which really gets under my craw is: At the Carrboro Farmers' Market 20 years ago, their logo was a guy behind a mule pulling a plow. And I was like, "This will never be on a T-shirt again at the Carrboro Farmers' Market as long as I'm involved." And it's never shown up again.
Because that's not the way it is. Agriculture is—
Amy Tornquist: It's a business!
Alex Hitt: It's a business and it's modern.
Jane Hobson Snyder: How do you think that translates into food, Amy? You told me, when we first talked, about how some of your customers seem to have unrealistic expectations.
Amy Tornquist: I read on a blog last night about how someone was p.o.'ed that we used Niman Ranch pork tenderloin. And I was like, 'Really? 'Cause I'm actually giving you a gift. I'm using a higher-quality product that I'm not charging you for because I believe strongly that my entrees ought to be under $20, and there's no way that Niman can really be under $20, but I'm doing it anyway because I feel good about it.' And then [someone] slams me in a blog!
We want our neighborhood to be able to dine here. I don't want to be a fussy, froufy restaurant where only a small slice of people can eat ...
I had a conversation with our staff last week about how I think that the average customer doesn't know what a grass-fed New York strip tastes like, and wouldn't actually enjoy it if they had it, but that we have a responsibility to try and "special" that in, so that we begin to change the ideas of what our customers think that's supposed to taste like, and begin to transition ourselves—because, of course, corn-fed beef is the worst thing you can do for the environment. (But really, I'm just saying—it's pretty tasty.)
So, what's the balance? We've talked about bringing in grass-fed beef, but it can't be under 20 bucks. It's not possible.
Alex Hitt: Even from Baldwin?
Amy Tornquist: We'd be [sold] out by 6:20 because there'd only be six pieces! I feel guilty, but what do you want? I have people who live in Oxford and Roxboro and Raleigh, and there's a whole part of Durham that's not foodie-centric. They don't give a shit actually, and they want the best steak, and they're like, "Why is this tough and lean and tastes so bloody and meaty?" Well, that's because it's grass-fed ... I think customers want the entrée to be 19 bucks and they want it to be grass-fed, and that's not sustainable for me. It's just not.
Jane Hobson Snyder: Scott, what did you think of the book?
Scott Marlow: Local is not the end, it's the beginning. It's not the way out, it's the way in. It's a way for people to redefine how they engage with their food and discover it in a new way ... What McWilliams said he was doing was trying to find the balance [between organic and conventional farming], but what he did was careen wildly back and forth between the two.
Amy Tornquist: Because I think it's impossible to say, 'We should all be vegetarians.' [Laughter.] He doesn't offer a full-on solution, a realistic map. Sure, omit subsidies, but good luck with that! [At the word subsidies, all eyes turn to Marlow.]
Scott Marlow: OK. Do you want me to get into that conversation? [Takes a deep breath.]
If ever there was a bogeyman in this story, it is commodity programs and the commodity farmer. From Michael Pollan to McWilliams, commodity programs have been blamed for obesity and health problems and diabetes, and what's really frustrating to me is that folks don't understand what their function is ...
Frequently you hear people say, "Why is there a commodity program that pays for corn and soybeans and not for tomatoes?" Well, there's a reason: Corn and soybeans are not perishable. Tomatoes and vegetables are perishable, and that radically changes the market for those things.
A nonperishable commodity can be stored for long periods of time, which means that large corporations can store it and alternately flood and withhold the market to affect the price. Which means that farmers are at a huge disadvantage because they're all harvesting at the same time, which is also the point of the highest supply and the lowest price.
I was in a restaurant recently with a cotton/ peanut farmer, and we were joking around with the waitress about getting paid, and he said, 'Well, you know, I get paid once a year.'
The core of commodity programs is still an antitrust issue, which is how you keep farmers in business in a market where they have absolutely no control over that price and that are, frankly, heightened concentrated markets, really not open markets. Sure, farmers plant based on those programs. To attack commodity farmers because they are growing under the set of rules and regulations they've been given is really absurd. Issues of food access and all these things are way more complex than that.
Alex Hitt: In the food miles discussion, which is a nonstarter for me, the author doesn't, I think, grasp what sustainability is ... I don't think he understands that it involves the economic side, the environmental side, the social side ...
Amy Tornquist: He omitted all that part about, say—I buy tomatoes from Alex, he buys books from the Regulator [a locally owned Durham bookstore], Regulator people eat in my restaurant and all that sales tax goes to the state.
Alex Hitt: And the county ...
Amy Tornquist: And we know exactly how our food was grown and where it came from.
And how are you going to do that if you buy your tomatoes at the Wal-Mart?
Alex Hitt: It's a scale-appropriate marketing avenue for certain-sized farmers. What we're returning to, we're going to have urban-edge farmers who do what I do, and we're going to continue to raise grain in North Dakota because it makes sense. That's where McWilliams is right—his hub and spoke idea—because you can put grain in train cars and barges and float it down the Mississippi. But there's going to be increasingly a rebirth of urban-edge agriculture for the perishables. Milk and produce are going to come in from closer by than they used to.
Scott Marlow: There's a piece in the last chapter that talks about where we're going with local—it's the mid-scale farm, and frankly, he doesn't say it well enough.
Amy Tornquist: What is the mid-scale farm? Is Alex mid-scale?
Scott Marlow: No, Alex is a small—are you kidding me, it's four acres!
Amy Tornquist: Yeah, but you've been to the Carrboro Farmers' Market, he's like a big grower there. You look over at grandma and grandpa who've got three potatoes and a fig.
Scott Marlow: The way that we've described [mid-scale] is they're people who are too big to do the farmers' market and direct marketing, but smaller than able to really compete on a commodities scale. So that size is different depending on what you're talking about. For cotton or something, you're talking about a 600-, 700-acre farm; for tomatoes, you may be talking about an 80- or 100-acre farm. I like to define it in terms of market.
Farmers like Alex are an extraordinary farm incubator program that trains new farmers to take over. We're going to continue to grow the retail market for higher-value markets, like higher-value restaurants. It's artisanal, and the quality is there.
We've worked a good bit with folks who are trying to get local food into UNC and big institutions, [which] are a low-value market, and so what we're going to need to do is to figure out how with integrity to take what folks like Alex have pioneered and scale it up into mid-scale farms so they're going into larger markets.
Amy Tornquist: You know, my regular [national distributors] are trying to sell me on local: "We're about to get North Carolina [produce]." I'm like, "I'm sure you are—me too, but not from you!"
Jane Hobson Snyder: Do you use Sysco?
Amy Tornquist: We use U.S. Foods [and two smaller distributors]. You've still got to get sugar and lemons and shit.
Alex Hitt: We're not going to tell people, "You can't live in Phoenix." There's going to be stuff transported around, and transportation is a small part of the pie.
Scott Marlow: You get local what you can get local. We've had conversations with the vice president of Sysco for sustainability. The major distributors are getting into local in a big way ...
Organic has a set of very specific standards. You may agree with those standards, you may not, but organic is a consumer label that in the marketplace replaces that face-to-face. One of the challenges we have is [that] local is not defined; it depends on who you talk to. For some, it's within state boundaries, for some it's 400 miles. How do we nail that down and be sure that as this scales up [it] retains integrity?
Jane Hobson Snyder: I'm curious about stepping away from food miles for a second—and talking about feeding the world. So what do we think about genetic modification?
[Everyone starts talking at once. Marlow gets up to pour a new round of beers.]
Scott Marlow: You guys better get a word in because once I start ...
Amy Tornquist: OK, let me ... because I'm ignorant, OK? So I've talked to people at this organization I belong to, and they're like, "GMO, it's terrible, it's so terrible!"
I'm a businessperson, so I'm like, "Why is it terrible? Why?" I mean, I understand that the wind blows and their shit is in somebody else's shit and then everything's befouled. Is that bad? I don't know. I'm not a farmer. McWilliams makes an interesting point about using less herbicides and pesticides ...
Scott Marlow: A very interesting point ...
Amy Tornquist: It doesn't seem necessarily as terrible if you actually get to feed people in Africa who are really, really hungry. That's the part—is that the choice? GMOs or people starving? It seems easier to make the answer, 'Well sure, why the hell not?'
Alex Hitt: We don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are benefits to the technology if used appropriately and done appropriately; yes, it can give us some amazing things. It hasn't been done that way, and McWilliams' thought that we put it back into the public domain and that's how it will be controlled, yeah, that's sweet but ...
Scott Marlow: It's right up there with the whole vegetarian thing ...
Alex Hitt: It is an amazing technology, and what initially happened was, they tried to move it into the marketplace really fast and really sloppily, and didn't have the safeguards in the actual gene splicing ... and then they started finding out, it spread all kinds of places. And that's really the environmental bugaboo. Not that the technology is bad.
Jane Hobson Snyder: It's just like the first round of pharmaceutical trials?
Amy Tornquist: Or the first round of aquaculture.
Alex Hitt: And the other part is that—he is right in the book—it really ties to feeding animals. If we don't need all that corn and soybeans to feed animals, then we don't need so much genetically modified stuff, and maybe then [GMO can be applied to] cassava and bananas [in developing nations], but who's going to pay to do that?
Jane Hobson Snyder: Besides Bill Gates.
Scott Marlow: ... The way [McWilliams] talks about these things is a very reductionist way: Local food is about food miles. Feeding the world is about production per acre times number of acres. It's a reductionist approach that has brought us to this point. If we go back to the [post-World War II] Green Revolution, there were huge increases in production, which is true, but which came with huge costs: gross loss of genetic diversity.
That may sound like an aesthetic thing. It's not: Genetic diversity in crop species is the gift that God and nature have given us for our species to adapt. The loss of genetic diversity is not a light thing. It is literally the survival of our species ... Genetic engineering is uniformity to its extreme.
Jane Hobson Snyder: Isn't there a way to genetically diversify?
Scott Marlow: McWilliams says in here that we can do genetic engineering in a way that increases crop diversity. I've never seen it. No one's ever done it ... If there's a way, let me know.
Alex Hitt: Well, his argument was: We use less acres, then we have more diversity left in the wild ...
Scott Marlow: It's a different thing. Now, there are pieces in this book that I agree with, there's stuff where I say, OK, I can see your point; and there are several things in this book that I think he should be roasted for.
Jane Hobson Snyder: Count them out.
Scott Marlow: [Reads aloud a few quotes pulled from Just Food.] This is the dynamic that you get here: GMO is Science, and organic is What Your Dad Did. And that's absurd. Actually, what's happening in organic is deeper science. Genetic engineering is: We learned how to do this thing 20 years and now we're just doing it over and over again.
What McWilliams says is, "Well, in a lot of these studies, organic is only 80 percent of the conventional/ GMO yield, so it's not good." What I say is, "Holy crap!" You look at the research dollars that went into conventional ag over the last 50 years to develop [an] industrial agriculture that only gives us 20 percent more than what a few people on shoestrings were able put together and integrate? Which one do you want to bet on for the best future gains?
We have to produce enough food to feed our population ... We have to do it, in the view of climate change, in a way that doesn't bring us the damages that the Green Revolution brought us, and [organic] is the best option for doing this.
Alex Hitt: Yeah, we're going to send grain to Africa, but they have got to grow as much food as they can possibly can there, and the best way for them to do that is within their indigenous systems and soils, and they're not going to have access to the dwindling nutrient supplies and tractors ...
Some of organic is what your grandpa did. But some grandpas got it right and some didn't. It's a sustainable farming model. The advances and the research are done in the soil, not on the plant.
Jane Hobson Snyder: Would you ever do both: use GM seeds in organic-style farming?
Scott Marlow: [Non-GM] is part of the organic label.
Alex Hitt: When we were designing the organic label back in the '80s, before the federal label was there, they kept wanting to draw the line between synthetic and natural, and I kept wanting to draw the line between sustainable and not. Because I think there are [valid] synthetic tools ... it could be Roundup [herbicide], it could be the right GMO product that plugs into a sustainable organic soil management system that does awesome stuff and is not hazardous in any way.
Scott Marlow: [There's a concept] called the pesticide treadmill, which is, you have a single problem, so you do a single input to address that problem. It has an immediate change in the system. But what happens in a dynamic system is that system changes back, it adapts to it. Who that cycle is good for is the people providing the inputs, because there's always a new input.
Amy Tornquist: The herbicides, the pesticides, the fertilizer ...
Scott Marlow: [In organic,] the emphasis is on the system, it's on the soil, on preventing the need for them in the first place. If you have to come back and do it later, that's a rescue treatment.
Jane Hobson Snyder: Wellness versus medicine.
Scott Marlow: Exactly.
Alex Hitt: And, you know, there are organic producers who are not sustainable.
Amy Tornquist: Organic's not my thing, as a purchaser. I go for local, which includes a lot of organic ... It's the economic part, and the saving of things that are North Carolinian ...
Jane Hobson Snyder: Can we talk about fish for a minute? Amy, would you buy carp or tilapia or the other responsibly raised fish that McWilliams mentions?
Amy Tornquist: Tilapia? Not so much. I use a lot of farmed catfish. I use farmed trout.
Jane Hobson Snyder: Would you not use salmon and shrimp as much? [Just Food cites that as much as 85 to 90 percent of what commercial shrimpers and fishermen bring up is tossed back, injured or dead; this is known as by-catch.]
Amy Tornquist: My mother goes to Swan Quarter and picks up North Carolina shrimp every week, and I have conversations with them about by-catch, and what that means, and how we make choices. Flounder is a real choice for us. Grouper is a real choice for us. Farm-raised salmon we use—not as much as we could.
Alex Hitt: What about the farm-raised oysters and mussels that McWilliams talks about?
Amy Tornquist: I'm all for them. I have a hard time with the farmed shrimp because they're horrible right now. Find me a good one and I'm all over it.
We bring in a lot more triggerfish, which is in the yellow zone [on the Monterey Bay watch list], instead of grouper. Don't use tuna, use trigger. Don't use swordfish, use spot or little mackerel. So, we're trying.
I think after reading this book, my desire to keep a farmed fish on [the menu] will continue.
Scott Marlow: The interesting thing is, recently I was purposely trying to go buy catfish and couldn't find any ... We need to eat less meat, whether we eat more fish or not.
The stuff that's coming from Thailand, the really cheap bags of frozen shrimp that you get at the grocery store, there's some really nasty stuff that's being used. I don't buy farm-raised shrimp that's not from the U.S. But there's a whole group of people in Eastern North Carolina who are now doing freshwater prawn.
Amy Tornquist: Oooh, the guy! The freshwater prawn guy! They're wonderful. But he harvests them once a year, and he's like, "Here are your 12. See you next year!"
Scott Marlow: Because you have people like Amy who are out in front, dealing with folks who are creating new markets, that grows the initial product so it can become more available to more people.
Alex Hitt: I've looked at [raising] freshwater prawns. There's no processing house. It's the same thing we have with meat right now. Lot of local meat, [but] there's no processing.
Amy Tornquist: Oh, my God, it's like, "I can't get it because I can't get to Virginia." Can I have a pig? "Nope. Well, two weeks from Thursday, maybe I'll have one."
Scott Marlow: These are the growing pains of going from the farmers' market, where folks are selling direct retail into more regular markets, and you get into the issues of infrastructure, scheduling, coordinating.
Jane Hobson Snyder: So, winding up, what worked for you in this book?
Alex Hitt: I think he was on with the aquaculture, and how that's a more efficient protein to raise, and I think he was right that we need to reduce the amount of meat that we eat for a number of reasons, but partly because it takes a lot of corn and grain [to feed cattle], and that would free up ground growth for the other food we need to grow.
He is right about reduced tillage. Maybe a little Roundup is OK.
Amy Tornquist: I didn't like his solutions, but I liked him raising the questions.
Alex Hitt: Right.
Scott Marlow: How are we going to invest our public money and our public attention?
I know organic growers who are really incredibly creative and innovative, and I know conventional no-till growers who are creative and innovative, and they're the same kind of guys. [They] really get off on understanding the system and really maximizing the benefit of the soil and the earthworms. We should get these two [sides] together and find the organic no-till that does not require Monsanto.
Alex Hitt: Which is really what's happening.
Scott Marlow: That's where the exciting stuff is. Organic growers finding ways to reduce tillage and going into no-till, and no-till growers finding ways to reduce their pesticide input, so they're getting closer to organic.
What I thought this book was, was a really fascinating look into the thought process of one person who really wrestles with the big issues. And that's a good thing to see.
(Note: We never got to the pear sorbet. Guess this conversation isn't over quite yet.)