Let’s start by discussing the problem of in-
dustrial food. What are the challenges, and
what do you think are the solutions?
KIMBAL MUSK: More than 50 years ago, we
created this marketing term: “We have to feed
the world.” We ended up taking our farmland
and using it for high-calorie, low-nutrition
food. We had massive oversupply. It fed high-calorie food especially into our poor. And so
we have rampant obesity and diabetes across
this country. Twenty-five million acres of land
today is used to grow corn ethanol, twice the
size of the Central Valley in California. It takes
1 gallon of oil to make 1 gallon of corn ethanol.
So it’s neutral at best for the environment, but
a total waste of land if you want real food to
DAN BARBER: Have you ever tried corn ethanol? It doesn’t taste very good. My problem,
though, is less with the agribusiness conglomerates that run the show Kimbal just described.
It’s the culture that feeds into that. It’s easy to
blame the corporate entity, the Wizard of Oz
controlling everything. Seven weeks ago, I
was in Fargo, North Dakota, with a farmer who
grows rotations of corn and soy, with some
wheat, on 24,000 acres. He said to me, “If you
want me to grow a diversity of crops, then tell
me who’s going to pick it up from my farm.
Which storage facility within 3,000 miles will
take buckwheat, rye, or barley—all these crops
that we talk about? Which distributors will take
it from there? Which marketplace can buy it?
Give me an answer to those questions, and I’ll
plant whatever you want.” It was quite simple
for me: Changing the culture [will require] a
new paradigm for agriculture.
What does that new paradigm look like?
KM: I’m a big believer in the young farmer—
both soil-based and indoor—but where I’ve
seen most growth is in indoor. We came across
technology where we can take a [shipping] container and turn it into an indoor farm. It’s the
equivalent of about 2 acres [of farmland], but
you can locate it in Downtown Brooklyn. We
received 1,100 applications to run these farms.
We’ve seen a lot of extraordinary enthusiasm if
you can bring the farm to the farmer.
DB: The future of produce from a container
doesn’t make me hungry. I see benefits [in]
recapitalizing our geographic and environmental strength.
KM: The technology for indoor farming is
changing so fast. It’s all based on lighting and
ergonomics. A year ago, we started working
with [urban farming incubator] Square Roots to
do about 50 pounds of baby kale in a container
a week. Today, if we upgrade to new technology,
we can do 300 pounds of kale in the same space.
Using light recipes—one of our farmers re-created the summer of Italy in 2009, which was
a famous season for basil. When did it rain?
What’s the humidity? He’s been successful in
creating a delicious basil that has sold well in
New York City. I personally still prefer [basil
grown in] soil in a perfect season, but indoors,
you can create the perfect season even on a
[rainy] day like today.
DB: But I don’t want to create the perfect season. What’s a perfect season? An imperfect
season for a tomato is the perfect season for
kale. That’s the beauty of an ecological system.
You’re growing kale in a half-acre container. We
can do the same thing, but we could also grow
a cover crop, and we can grow those tomatoes.
We could grow a series of grains to make bread
and porridge and probably run some cattle over
to graze, and have a whole cuisine on that half
acre, versus just producing the kale.
KM : You’re preaching to the choir.
D B: You just don’t want to invest in it.
KM: No, it’s not that. I’m leasing 208 acres in
downtown Memphis that used to be a chemical
cotton farm tended by prisoners. I’m converting
it into an organic, soil-based demonstration
farm. That community really needs it. There’s
tons of farmland around Memphis: 200,000
acres are available if the market is there. But
you have to create the market, and we’re trying
to do both. In New York City, you’ve got plenty of
market, but the land around it is too expensive.
DB: The problem I have is that [indoor farm-ing] ends up diffusing resources. The origin
of organic is “organism,” the whole gestalt. It’s
not taking the kale and putting it in a silo in a
container: That’s the opposite of organic in the
truest sense of why it was developed. What
scares me is that you’re so good at explaining
what you do, those precious resources flow to
you. There is plenty of good soil out there. We
just need to direct our attention to reinvigorating that culture of agriculture, which is so
important for the future of good food.
What do you think about the cuisine that’s
being developed from this kind of technol-
ogy and control?
DB: It’s not just cuisine but culture. The bumper crop that you get from a good year and the
mediocre crop that you get from bad weather
is where you get cuisine. Beer was created out
of barley that was not good enough to make
porridge or bread. You see examples of that
through every culture, every cuisine. In your
scenario, those imperfections don’t arise.
Chef Dan Barber, co-owner
of the Michelin-starred
restaurants Blue Hill and
Blue Hill at Stone Barns,
helped pioneer the farm-to-table movement and
continues to advocate for
sustainable food and agricultural policies. Tech veteran Kimbal Musk runs
the Kitchen, a restaurant
group, venture fund, and
philanthropic organization that develops teaching
gardens within municipal
school systems. They talk
to food editor and entrepreneur Dana Cowin about
their differing views for
and our health.