Can Organic Farming Make Perfect Fish?

Jan 9, 2015
Originally published on March 23, 2018 11:17 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode In Search Of

About Dan Barber's TED Talk

Chef Dan Barber tackles a dilemma facing many chefs today: how to keep fish on the menu. He chronicles his search for a fish that would please both diners and environmentalists.

About Dan Barber

Dan Barber is the chef at New York's Blue Hill restaurant and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Barber wants us to understand where the food on our plates comes from, and the unseen forces that drive what we eat. In 2009, he received the James Beard Award for America's Outstanding Chef, and was named one of the world's most influential people in Time magazine's annual "Time 100" list. He is the author of Third Plate: Field Notes On The Future.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


So what if you think you've found that thing - that thing that you've been searching for, and it ends up being too good to be true, and then it actually leads you to find something better? Well, that's sort of what happened to Dan Barber.

DAN BARBER: It was very fatty. And I got to say, I really loved it. And I told everyone about it.

RAZ: Dan's a chef in New York.

BARBER: I am the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

RAZ: And that fatty, delicious thing he found was a fish. It happened while he was searching the world for delicious and sustainable foods. He wrote about in his book, "The Third Plate." And that fish had temporarily changed his life, as Dan explained from the TED stage.


BARBER: It was a beautiful fish - flavorful, textured, meaty - a best-seller on the menu. Even better, it was farm-raised to the supposed highest standards of sustainability. So you can feel good about selling it. One day, the head of the company called and asked if I'd speak at an event about the farm's sustainability. Absolutely, I said. Here is a company trying to do it right. I wanted to support them. The day before the event, I called the head of PR for the company. Let's call him Don. Don, I said, just to get the facts straight, you guys are famous for farming so far out to sea you don't pollute? That's right, he said. We're so far out, the waste from our fish gets distributed, not concentrated. That feed conversion ratio? 2.5-to-1, he said - best in the business. 2.5 what? What are you feeding? Sustainable proteins, he said. Great, I said - got off the phone. And that night, I was lying in bed and I thought, what the hell is a sustainable protein?


BARBER: So the next day, just before the event, I called Don. I said, Don, what are some examples of sustainable proteins? He said he didn't know. He would ask around. Well, I got on the phone with the head biologist. Let's call him Don, too.


BARBER: Don, I said, what are some examples of sustainable proteins? Well, he mentioned some algae and some fish meals. And then, he said chicken pellets - feathers, skin, bone meal, scraps dried and processed into feed. I said, what percentage of your feed is chicken? Well, it's about 30 percent, he said. I said, Don, what's sustainable about feeding chicken to fish?


BARBER: There was a long pause on the line. And he said there's just too much chicken in the world.


BARBER: OK. I fell out of love with this fish.


BARBER: No, not because I'm some self-righteous, goody-two-shoes foodie. I actually am.


BARBER: No, I fell out of love with this fish because, I swear to God, after that conversation, the fish tasted like chicken.


RAZ: So you must have thought, like, my God, I've been totally deluding myself.

BARBER: Right. For a guy whose craft is based on what my tongue is telling me is real about what I'm tasting, that was upsetting. It's like I couldn't taste it. You know, and I'd been duped at my own game.

RAZ: So admittedly, that was a big blow for Dan. But it was okay because he kept searching for that delicious, sustainable fish. And one day, he finally found it.

BARBER: I tasted something that was so delicious. I was so greedy to get that for my own.

RAZ: And it happened at a restaurant.

BARBER: Yeah. I was at a - just a kind of random restaurant.

RAZ: In Spain.


RAZ: Where Dan ordered a piece of fish. It was a farm-raised fish. And it looked overcooked.

BARBER: Pretty bitterly.

RAZ: But when he cut into it...

BARBER: It wasn't dry.

RAZ: It wasn't a dry. And the taste - it was amazing. It totally blew him away.

BARBER: Well, it was the skin that got me first because I generally take the skin off the fish. But here was the skin that was as crackling as a piece of thin glass. I mean, it was incredible. And the flavor was just so crisp and sweet. It was really sweet and tasted of the sea. So I was wildly impressed right there. And then, by the time I had devoured this little six-ounce piece of fish, I just thought, this is something I've never had before.

RAZ: He had to know where it came from. So he decided he'd go look for it. And he went to a fish farm unlike any other he'd ever been to. It's called Veta La Palma, in the southwestern corner of Spain.

BARBER: What struck me first was just the enormity of it. It's tens of thousands of acres of what is essentially wetlands that are punctuated by these systematically connected canals. And as far as your eye can see in every direction, it's quite stunning.

RAZ: And that's where Dan met Miguel, a biologist.


BARBER: He's an amazing guy - like, three parts Charles Darwin and one part Crocodile Dundee.


BARBER: OK. There we are, slogging through the wetland, and I'm panting and sweating. I got mud up to my knees. And Miguel is calmly conducting a biology lecture. So I interrupt him. I said, Miguel, what makes your fish taste so good? He pointed at the algae. I know, dude - the algae, the phytoplankton, the relationships. It's amazing. But what are your fish eating? He goes on to tell me it's such a rich system that the fish are eating what they'd be eating in the wild - the plant biomass, the phytoplankton, the zoo plankton. It's what feeds the fish. The system is so healthy it's totally self-renewing. Ever heard of a farm that doesn't feed its animals? At that moment, we rounded the corner and saw the most amazing sight - thousands and thousands of pink flamingos. That's success, he said. Look at their bellies - pink. They're feasting. Miguel, aren't they feasting on your fish?


BARBER: Yes, he said. We lose 20 percent of our fish and fish eggs to birds. I said, Miguel, isn't a thriving bird population, like, the last thing you want on a fish farm?


BARBER: He shook his head. No, he said, this is an ecological network. Flamingos eat the shrimp. The shrimp eat the phytoplankton. So the pinker the belly, the better the system. And then I realized the water that flows through that farm comes in from the Guadalquivir River. It's a river that carries with it all the things that rivers tend to carry these days. And when it works its way through the system, the water is cleaner than when it entered, and not just for those fish but for you and me, as well. Because when that water leaves, it dumps out into the Atlantic. A drop in the ocean, I know. But I'll take it, and so should you. Because this love story is also instructive. You might say it's a recipe for the future of good food.

RAZ: Wow. So, I mean, you have found the holy grail for what you, like, what you just said, like, for the future of good food.

BARBER: Well, I've had sort of a late-inning revelation around that kind of question. I mean, I tend to - and in the writing of this book, what I set out to do was look at single ingredients and go back and research - well, what's the recipe that made them so delicious? So those were all holy grails in one way or another. I mean, the overriding search was for this incredible cuisine that I could create around these superlative products. But ultimately, I think that was shortsighted. I think the holy grail is to think about systems thinking. And have yet to find a delicious piece of fish, steak, carrot - that, if I discover that, I invariably discover great ecological decisions that are behind them. In other words, a great-tasting carrot doesn't come from denuded soils or bad landscapes or from a bad seed or from a thoughtless farmer. The continuity between great-tasting food and the responsible way with which we use our land is pretty absolute.

RAZ: Is being on the search - is that an inherent part of who you are?

BARBER: I'm pretty curious, I guess, for sure. But, I mean, there's a kind of part of human nature, I think, that evolved with a forced curiosity about food, in part because it could kill us. Or it could make us exceedingly healthy and therefore stronger and therefore have more children and what not. That's kind of a basic, sort of evolutionary look at a very complicated question. And we've forgotten it because we have been so removed from the nuts and bolts of farming and agriculture that we forget that one of the basic human needs isn't just food, it's a story and a connectedness to where the food is coming from.

RAZ: Dan Barber is a chef and restaurant owner. You can check out all of his talks at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.