What Sustainable Agriculture Puts on Your Plate

The goal of sustainable agriculture is simple: to produce high-quality food in a way that is environmentally responsible and fair to both farmers and consumers. Those who support this goal through farm-to-table eating do more than stock their pantries with the local, ethically produced equivalents of their normal weekly shopping list. Their efforts allow them to open their plates and palates to an increasingly diverse world of ingredients andrecipes.

Eat Everything

By buying directly from local farmers, home cooks and restaurants put their menus in the hands of the seasons and biological cycles of the soil. What makes sustainable food systems financially viable is consumers' willingness to be flexible in their produce options in order to partake in everything a farmer grows. Most farmers use a diverse selection of crops to sustainably manage their soil, and slow-food eaters are encouraged to sink a fork into all of them.

Plant families have different nutritional needs, so farmers change where they grow certain crops on a seasonal basis to avoid soil depletion. This process interrupts the life cycles of pests that prefer to attack particular plant families, allowing farmers can create pesticide-free food while simultaneously rebuilding their soil. Legumes, for example, take atmospheric nitrogen and store it in their roots. When the plant dies, the nitrogen is returned to the soil, which allows for the growth of nitrogen-consuming plants such as tomatoes. By rotating crops, a farmer can successfully grow beans and tomatoes for years using natural processes instead of chemical fertilizers. Farmers have realized many crop varieties nearly lost in the vacuum of industrial agriculture make for highly efficient and edible resources for soil regeneration.

Old Ingredients, New Ideas

In turn, the farm-to-table mindset has grown to include a movement of culinary restoration simply because of the varieties farmers grow. Crops such as the purple cape bean, which nearly disappeared during the Great Depression, are appearing on plates again because of the benefits they have in natural soil fertilization. Heirloom grains such as farro are making a comeback because of the way farmers use them to naturally mulch weeds and add nitrogen to soil. A wider variety of foods is elbowing its way into family pantries and restaurants and bringing long-forgotten recipes along with them.

Nose-to-Tail Eating

Animals, too, can play an important part in sustainable agriculture. They rotate with the crops and turn vegetation unfit for human consumption — such as clover, another nitrogen-absorbing legume that can be planted instead of beans — into meat, dairy, fiber and fertilizer. The demand for culinary creativity increases when popular, expensive cuts sell out, and farm-to-table eaters are left with offal, bones, shanks and other parts that are not usually sought-after. Suddenly, making your own soup stock or bone marrow spread is not out of the question, and the once-dreaded liver has become a welcome visitor in your favorite pasta sauce. Nose-to-tail eating opens new avenues in cooking while paying farmers for items that do not normally sell.

Supply and Demand

Sustainable agriculture has clear benefits for the land, but by demanding less from a globalized food system, there is the added benefit of demanding more from eaters. Slow-food consumers have become a resourceful group of culinary explorers because of sustainable land management techniques. Cooks create meals only with what is available, and meals become delicious lessons in history and innovation on a plate.

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