Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A conversation with Dr. Fred Kirschenmann

Our keynote speaker at the International Foodservice Sustainability Symposium will be Dr. Fred Kirschenmann, a farmer by birth who went on to become one of the world’s leading experts on sustainable agricultural methods. He serves as a distinguished fellow of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, and manages an organic-certified farm.

Christopher Koetke, executive director of the School of Culinary Arts at IFSS host Kendall College, recently spoke with Kirschenbaum about some of the issues he’ll be addressing.

Koetke: Chefs spend most of their time concerned about customers, operations, menus and those kinds of day-to-day things.  Unfortunately, there is little time to really get deeply inside the issues around sustainable food.  What I’m hearing from my fellow chefs is that there’s a lot of confusion out there. I’m hoping you can help us navigate the waters so when we’re talking about terms like organic, biodynamic, sustainable, and local, you can give us your thoughts and some context.

Kirschenmann: I will address that in a second, but I want to tell you a story.  I have the good fortune of being here with chef Dan Barber at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, NY, and he tells me there two schools of chefs now: One, those who buy products without paying much attention to taste or quality and then use all kinds of molecular techniques to transform that food into the kind of great tasting food they want to serve their customers; and two, chefs who establish unique relationships with the farmers who are producing the kind of quality food that has wonderful taste without artificial enhancements; Dan now likes to say that it’s really the farmers who are the chefs.

Chris:  When we talk about foodservice, it’s such an enormous market space. Although it’s often the high-end restaurants that garner all the press and if you look at the big players, it’s fast food, it’s fast casual. There’s a whole slice in the middle that doesn’t belong to either end and they’re saying, “I’ve got to make a profit at the end of the month.” If we can give them tools to understand the food they’re purchasing, that’s where I come in and I want to make sure we’re able do that.

Kirschenmann: I wanted to tell that story because it does play into the question of organic versus biodynamic versus local versus sustainable. There’s not a lot of peer-reviewed research around this yet but there is growing anecdotal evidence that when food is grown on biologically healthy soil, that is soil that has been managed to feed the soil’s biological community, it has a much better taste. The only way you can feed that community is by putting the waste, preferably in composted form, back into the soil. We’ve been experimenting with that here at Stone Barns. We’re working with farmers here looking at different types of soil management and compost – and now biochar – and how they affect the taste quality of the food. 

Chris:  Biochar?

Kirschenmann: The term biochar began appearing about 10 to15 years ago in soil science literature.  It was discovered in South America. Within a relatively depleted area, this incredibly rich piece of soil was found that went 10 to 15 feet deep and they couldn’t figure out how that could be possible in an area that was basically depleted of soil health.  As they checked back into the history, they found out that a community of indigenous people who lived in that area had burned wood for cooking but only to the point where it was a particular kind of charcoal, which they called terra prima, and they would put that back into the soil.  So we’re experimenting with it here and we’ve discovered that if you mix a small amount of biochar in with the compost, it improves the quality of the compost tremendously and that, in turn, improves the taste quality as well.

Chris: Can you talk a little bit about organics?

Kirschenmann: One way to look at organic food is that it meets the national standard.  I served on the National Organics Standards Board when we developed the rules for implementing the law.  Several of my colleagues and I wanted to make sure that organic production systems could only be certified if they also paid attention to soil health.  We drafted some language and the staff was interested in incorporating it into the standards.  However, when we ran it by the lawyers, they said we couldn’t do it because regulation relies on yes/no answers and there was no way to answer the complex soil quality issue in that manner.  So we ended up with a rule that says you can use any natural products that aren’t listed on the prohibited list, like arsenic, and all synthetics are prohibited except those on the allowed list. That means you can have a certified organic operation that simply uses natural inputs instead of synthetic inputs, yet doesn’t pay any more attention to the biological health of the soil than a conventional system.

Chris: So, as a chef, when I’m purchasing something that is organic, are you saying that I’m purchasing something that is certified by a standard, but it doesn’t mean that the farmer who produced it is necessarily being the best steward of the land?

Kirschenmann: That’s right and it also doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s sustainable. If you get your seaweed from Japan and your Chilean nitrate from South America, its associated energy costs go up and that’s probably not sustainable.

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