Back at Maverick Farms, we often have lots of potatoes and kale. And so a go-to dish there—especially when we're feeding a crowd—is the classic Portuguese idea of combining those two staples into a simple soup called caldo verde. The authentic version includes the cured pork sausage known as chorizo. Pork, kale, and potatoes do indeed make a sublime combination, but at Maverick, we often go hippie and leave out the sausage.

Recently, when I found myself with a small bounty of kale, potatoes, and not much else, I knew what to do. I didn't have any stock made, but no matter. Stock—meat-based or vegetable—adds body and richness to soups. But real talk: good old water works fine in a pinch, especially, as in this case, you use a vegetable purée as the base.

Even so, I made this soup just as laid out below and I found it missing one more element—I had adjusted salt, pepper, and given it a lashing of vinegar, and it still wanted something. Then I remembered I had a handful of shishito peppers in the back of the fridge. Shishitos—and their very similar cousin, padrones—are smallish frying peppers famed in Spain because about one in every eight of them is fiery hot (the rest are mild but quite flavorful). In Spain, they sauté shishitos in plenty of olive oil and then lash them with coarse salt—creating an addictive and Russian Roulette-like tapa (I love getting the spicy one.) To garnish this dish, I fried the shishitos as I normally would, chopped them coarsely, and garnished my soup with them. They filled the flavor void.

Tom's Kitchen: Kale-Potato Soup with Fried-Shishito Garnish
Serves four generously

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped fine
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 carrot, chopped fine (optional)
2 pounds potatoes (I used Yellow Fins), chopped into bite-sized chunks
1 quart water
1 bunch of curly kale, chopped into bite-sized pieces
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Something acidic—such as fresh lemon juice or Sherry vinegar

In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, turn heat to medium add a generous glug of olive oil (enough to cover the bottom, plus a little more). Sauté the onion, stirring occasionally, until it's soft. Add the garlic, give it a few stirs, and add the carrots. Let the carrots sauté a few minutes, than add half of the potatoes and a good pinch of salt. Let the potatoes sauté for a minute, stirring to coat with oil, and then add half of the water. Turn the heat to high and bring the water to a boil. Cover, turn heat to low, and let simmer until the potatoes are soft.

If you have an immersion blender, now's the time to use it to reduce this chunky concoction to a smooth purée. You can also accomplish this by dumping the contents of the pan into a blender. Take great care and start the whirring on the lowest speed possible and cover it tightly—hot liquids in the blender can be volatile.

Return to the purée to the pot along with the kale, the rest of the water, and a pinch of salt. Give it a stir, turn heat to medium, and cover. Cook until the kale has begun to wilt—about five minutes. Now add the other half of the potatoes, turn heat to low, and cook, covered, until the kale and the second round of potatoes are both tender. Add plenty of black pepper, a splash of lemon juice or vinegar, and taste. Add more salt, pepper, or vinegar if needed. Serve garnished with chopped, fried shishitos (see below).

Things i like to see: shishito peppers sputtering in hot oil

Fried Shishito Peppers

A good handful of shishito peppers
Extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse sea salt

Put a cast-iron or other heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat, and add more than enough olive oil to cover the bottom. When the pan is hot—test by adding a drop of water to it; it should sizzle—and the peppers in a single layer. They should sizzle and sputter. When they have become browned and blistered on one side, carefully turn each one over with a tongs. Give them a vigorous sprinkle of sea salt at this stage. After the second side has browned, remove them onto a plate with a tongs, pausing for a second over the pan to let the oil drip from each one as you go. Consume half of the fried shishitos as soon as they've cooled enough to eat. For the other half, remove the stems and chop them coarsely.

Spinach harvested from a small farm (undisclosed location),

When President Obama signed into law an overhaul of the nation's food safety regime in early 2011, it was clear that the system needed a kick in the pants. Recent salmonella outbreaks involving a dizzying array of peanut products and a half billion eggs had revealed a dysfunctional, porous regulatory environment for the nation's increasingly concentrated food system.  

The law, known as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), was a pretty modest piece of work when it came to reining in massive operations that can sicken thousands nationwide with a single day's output. No surprise, since Big Food's main lobbying group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, notes on its web site that "GMA worked closely with legislators to craft the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act and will work closely with the FDA to develop rules and guidance to implement the provisions of this new law." (Food and Water Watch summarizes FSMA here; Elanor Starmer lists some of its limitations here.)

Even for many supporters of food safety reform, one persistent question has long been whether the new rules would steamroll small and midsize farms. Obviously, what would be a light burden for a multinational giant like, say, Kraft Foods, could be a crushing one for a farm that sells its produce at a farmers market. To allay fears of one-size-fits-all regulations—which swirled in sometimes-wildly paranoid forms during the FSMA debate—Congress exempted most operations with sales of less than $500,000 from most of its requirements. But the proof of is in the rule-making—the process by which federal agencies, in this case the Food and Drug Administration, translate Congressional legislation into enforceable law. Congress intended its exemption to save small farms from overly burdensome regulation, but the question remained: How would the FDA put it into action?

Finally, more than two years after Obama signed FSMA, the FDA's rule-making process appears to be nearing an end. And I'm disappointed to report that, according to decidedly nonparanoid, noncrazy observers, the proposed rules as currently written represent a significant and possibly devastating burden to small and midsize players.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), a highly respected lobbying and watchdog outfit, has come out with a list of "Top 10 Problems with the Food and Drug Administration’s Proposed Food Safety Regulations for Farmers and Local Food Businesses."

If you'll excuse the gimmick, here are four foods that could go missing if the FDA sticks to the current version of its food-safety rules.

1. The local, organic carrots in your kid's school lunch program. Many farm-to-school programs are facilitated by what the US Department of Agriculture calls food hubs—operations that gather produce from small farmers and sell it, usually to buyers like schools, restaurants, and retailers. The USDA actively promotes them as "strong and sound infrastructure support to producers across the country which will also help build a stronger regional food system." The USDA lists more then 100 active food hubs nationwide.

The new rules imperil food hubs in two ways. The first is through the farms that supply them. The new law's less-than-$500,000 exemption applies only to farms that sell more than half of their produce directly to consumers. But a growing number of small farms earn a significant amount of their income selling to third-party local enterprises like food hubs and food co-ops—and if revenue from those sources exceeds half of total revenue, these farms would lose their exemption and become subject to costly requirements. NSAC points to the FDA's own economic analysis (see page 27) showing that more than 30,000 "small" and "very small" farms would be subject to regulation. The cost of compliance for these farms, USDA shows, will be 4 percent to 6 percent of total gross sales—enough to knock out half or more of a small operation's profits, and turn an operation that's scraping by into one that fails.

Then there's the problem that the FDA's proposed rules have not settled upon a definition of "very small business." If such a definition isn't spelled out, NSAC warns, operations like food hubs could be "regulated well beyond their risk and with compliance costs too high for them to stay in business."

2. The kohlrabi in your farm-share box. You might be annoyed by the amount of kohlrabi (a grievously underrated vegetable) in your CSA, but probably don't want it to disappear altogether. But because the current proposal doesn’t narrowly define "manufacturing facilities," CSAs and other "direct farmer-to-consumer farms that do light processing activities or include produce from another farm in their boxes will be subject to inappropriate, excessive regulations designed for industrial food facilities," NSAC states.

3. The pickles peddled by your favorite hipster farmer. Small value-added operations—like artisanal pickle and salsa makers—are also endangered by these hazy definitions. Indeed, the proposed rules "treat pickles like a dangerous substance," NSAC reports. The FDA does not consider fermentation (pickling) or canning to to be "low-risk" activities, and thus operations that engage in them, no matter how small, will be subject to an onerous thing called the Preventative Control Rule—a set of requirements that make sense for a huge factory but not so much for the farm that produces your prized kimchi. The FDA claims such strictures are important because of the specter of botulism, which is indeed a deadly pathogen, but let's remember that food-borne botulism cases remain vanishingly rare, and its incidence has not risen despite the recent artisanal pickle revival.

4. The local, organic spinach you're hooked on. For me, perhaps the most galling aspect of the proposed FSMA rules involves compost and manure—the lifeblood of soil fertility on organic farms. Under the USDA's organic standards for crops that come into contact with the soil, like greens, farmers can apply raw manure to soil as long as it's at least four months prior to crop harvest. Most organic farmers I know apply manure in November and plant their first cash crops in April, harvesting some of them, like salad greens, soon after. That's a five-to-six-month gap. The FDA's new rules would push the limit for all farms to nine months, making the fertility programs that drive organic farming essentially illegal, and also directly contradicting the FSMA itself, which had stipulated that the new safety safety rules should not conflict with the National Organic Program, NSAC reports. In a recent national survey by the Organic Trade Association and the Washington State Department of Agriculture, 55 percent of respondents said the manure rule would prevent them from maintaining their current crop rotations and crop diversity, and another 45 percent said it would have a "moderate" effect on crop rotation and diversity.

The nation deserves a food safety regime that focuses on real threats while not imposing the same regulatory burden on, say, a CSA or a diversified vegetable farm as it does a giant peanut-paste factory. As Ariane Lotti, NSAC's assistant policy director, told me, "If the proposed regulations are finalized without changes, they will unjustifiably create barriers to sustainable and organic farming, chill the growth in local and regional food systems, and further consolidate farming into the hands of the few who can afford to comply with expensive requirements."

The FDA is accepting public comments on its proposed rules until November 15.

Obama's 5 Biggest Sellouts to the Meat Industry

When Barack Obama won the presidency in November 2008, taking on the meat industry surely ranked somewhere behind managing the financial crisis and wrangling two wars on his list of priorities.  

Still, he had explicitly promised to crack down on some of Big Meat's excesses. In his campaign literature targeted at rural voters, he deplored "anticompetitive behavior" and "market consolidation" by big meatpackers, and vowed to "strengthen anti-monopoly laws" and "make sure that farm programs are helping family farmers, as opposed to large, vertically integrated corporate agribusiness." He also insisted his administration would  "strictly monitor and regulate pollution" from factory-scale animal farms, backed by "fines for those who violate tough air and water quality standards."

Five years and another election later, "how's that hopey-changy thing working" (to quote Sarah Palin) when it comes to challenging the meat industry's power? The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production's landmark report, released months before the presidential election in 2008, provides a good framework for examining Obama's record. Led by a distinguished set of public-health, agriculture, and animal-welfare experts, the Pew Report delivered a blunt assessment of the health and environmental effects of factory meat production—and a set of policy recommendations for cleaning it up. And just last week, the Center for a Liveable Future at Johns Hopkins University (which worked with Pew on the original report) came out with an updated assessment of how things have gone over the past five years—a period that roughly coincides with Obama's presidency.

Unfortunately, Big Meat continues to enjoy a rather friendly regulatory environment nearly a half-decade into Obama's presidency, the report shows. Drawn (mostly) from CLF''s update, here are five ways the Obama Administration has kowtowed to the meat industry.
 

The GAO concluded that on factory farms, the EPA "does not have the information that it needs to effectively regulate these operations."

1. Factory farms don't have to register with the EPA. Remember the tough talk about how the administration would "strictly monitor and regulate pollution" from concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFOs)? Turns out, if you run one of these gargantuan operations—which accumulate vast cesspools of manure that regularly pollute water and air—you're under no obligation to inform the Environmental Protection Agency of your existence, which makes it hard to monitor and regulate your pollution. In a 2008 report, the Government Accountability Office concluded that, because of this information void, the EPA "does not have the information that it needs to effectively regulate these operations."

Under pressure from a lawsuit by environmental groups back in 2010, Obama's EPA proposed new rules that would have remedied the situation by requiring CAFOs to file basic information on their operations with the agency.  Then, in 2012, the EPA unceremoniously withdrew the proposed rules, CLF reports. So now we're back to where we were in 2008. Meanwhile, new peer-reviewed research has found that that the closer you live to a large hog operation, the likelier you are to be infected with a dangerous antibacterial-resistant pathogen called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or (MRSA).
 

2) Factory farms are exempt from the most important pollution laws. MRSA isn't the only threat faced by people who live near factory animal farms. As this 2011 paper by North Carolina researchers shows, the foul odors emitted by these operations likely cause a host of problems ranging from eye irritation to difficulty breathing. CAFOs concentrate animal waste and emit ammonia, particulate matter, hydrogen sulfide, and volatile organic compounds into the air.

In a craven move just before leaving office in early 2009, President George Bush exempted CAFOs from having to report hazardous air emissions under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund—an exemption that remains in place.

The Obama EPA has not taken back that gift to Big Meat. The holdup, as Tarah Heinzen, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, explained to me, is that the EPA says it doesn't have a reliable way to gauge CAFOs' air emissions (not surprising, given the dearth of data the agency has on CAFOs). The EPA's attempts to get the data necessary to regulate air emissions has been vexed—and the dysfunction dates to the Bush II administration. In an industry-funded collaboration beginning in 2005, the EPA conducted air-quality monitoring at 15 livestock confinements and 9 manure lagoons across the country. When the EPA finally released data from the study in 2011, 11 of those 15 operations exceeded exceeded federal reporting thresholds for ammonia emissions, according to an analysis of it by Environmental Integrity Project. But when the EPA finally released its own analysis of the data, its own Science Advisory Board (SAB) found the EPA's methodologies to be woefully inadequate—and essentially sent the agency back to the drawing board.

And so, under Obama, the EPA's effort to create a system for measuring exactly what enters the air from CAFOs—much less protecting communities from it—has stalled indefinitely, the report finds.
 

3) Big Meat has only gotten bigger, unchecked by antitrust action. Not long after taking office in 2009, President Obama announced a series of public hearings, bringing together farmers with antitrust officials from the Justice Department, to talk through anticompetitive practices in the meat industry. After years of nearly unchecked consolidation—big meat packers combining with and/or buying up smaller meat packers, concentrating market power—this seemed like a radical move. Meanwhile, the 2008 farm bill required USDA to come up with a set of policies, known collectively as the GIPSA rule, designed to level the playing field between livestock farmers and the big meatpackers, which dominate the industry with their contracts. The effort that began promisingly; "Small Farmers See Promise In Obama's Plans," a 2009 NPR report declared.

What has Obama's challenge to the industry's market power amounted five years into his presidency? "[N]ear-total collapse," CLF laments. The DOJ hearings resulted in a 24-page report and little else. The Obama USDA ended up watering down its initially strong GIPSA rule proposal—only to see it essentially gutted by Congress, CLF reports. Meanwhile, "consolidation in the meat industry has continued unabated worldwide," Pew finds.
 

CLF found evidence linking routine farm antibiotic use to human disease—everything from potentially deadly MRSA to urinary-tract infections.

4) CAFOs continue to generate antibiotic-resistant pathogens. There's no more depressing section of the CLF update than the one on the meat industry's reliance on routine antibiotic use. Back in 2008, the commission recommended that the federal government "phase out and then ban the nontherapeutic use of antimicrobials" in livestock production. The rational was simple: when you feed tightly confined animals daily doses for antibiotics, microbes quickly evolve resistance to those antibiotics. And some of those microbes—like salmonella and certain forms of E. coli—can cause severe damage to people.

Antibiotics should be reserved for cases when animals are actually sick, not used to stimulate their growth or to try to prevent them from getting sick, Pew concluded.

Five years later, CLF reports, evidence has accumulated linking routine farm antibiotic use to human disease—everything from potentially deadly MRSA to urinary-tract infections. This year, the Centers for Disease Control bluntly acknowledged the problem. The Obama Administration's response to the threat? Amid much fanfare in 2012, the Food and Drug Administration rolled out a voluntary approach—one that, even if the industry chooses to follow it, will likely be inadequate, because it contains a massive loophole, CLF reports (more details here). As a result, "meaningful change" to Big Meat's antibiotics fixation is "unlikely in the near future."
 

5) Obama's USDA is pushing to speed up poultry slaughterhouses, workers be damned. Working conditions in slaughterhouses are beyond the scope of the Pew Commission's original report, but no list of Obama's sellouts to Big Meat is complete without a mention of the US Department of Agriculture's proposed new plans for inspecting poultry line. They're essentially a privatizer's dream: Slash the number of USDA inspectors on the kill line, saving the government some money; hand much of the responsibility for inspection to the poultry packers themselves; allow them to substitute random testing and plenty of antimicrobial spray for the onerous task of inspecting every bird, which means the kill line can speed up, thus saving the industry loads of money.

All of which sounds great, unless you're a worker about to find that your already-hazardous job just got more dangerous; or you're a chicken eater, because, according to a Food and Water Watch analysis of USDA data on its pilot program for the new system, the new system lets some pretty foul stuff through.

Worker and food-safety advocates have pushed back hard against the new rules, but the USDA appears to be sticking to its guns. The department is in the process of finalizing the new plan, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

Author Seth Holmes, second from left (standing), preparing to sneak across the US/Mexico border with Triqui migrant farm workers.

For most anthropologists, "field work" means talking to and observing a particular group. But for Seth Holmes, a medical anthropologist at the University of California-Berkeley, it also literally means working in a field: toiling alongside farm workers from the Triqui indigenous group of Oaxaca, Mexico, in a vast Washington state berry patch. It also means visiting them in their tiny home village—and making the harrowing trek back to US farm fields through a militarized and increasingly perilous border.

Holmes recounts his year and a half among the people who harvest our food in his new book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies. It's a work of academic anthropology, but written vividly and without jargon. In its unvarnished view into what our easy culinary bounty means for the people burdened with generating it, Fresh Fruit/Broken Bodies has earned its place on a short shelf alongside works like Tracie McMillan's The American Way of Eating, Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland, and Frank Bardacke's Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers.

I recently caught up with Holmes via phone about the view from the depths of our food system.

Mother Jones: What sparked your interest in farm workers—and how did you gain access to the workers you cover in the book? 

Argentina's agricultural transformation over the past 20 years—from prime producer of grass-finished beef to one of the globe's genetically modified crop-producing powerhouses—is often hailed as a triumph of high-tech ag. Starting in the 1970s and accelerating recently, high crop prices and various government policies inspired ranchers in the fertile Pampas and Chaco regions to plow up pasture—releasing large amounts to carbon in the process—to plant soybeans, mainly for export markets. In the mid-1990s, when Monsanto rolled out its soybean seeds engineered to resist herbicide, Argentina's new crop farmers were early adapters (see chart to the right).

Sergio H. Lence, "The Agricultural Sector in Argentina: Major Trends and Recent Developmebts," 2010

Today, Argentina is the globe's third-largest soy producer—and nearly 100 percent of its soy crop is genetically altered. The trend has certainly benefited the GMO seed and agrichemical industry—as the below charts show, herbicide, pesticide, and fertilizer use has soared over the past 15 years.

But what about the people who live in the country's agricultural regions?  A recent article by Associated Press reporters Michael Warren and Natacha Pisarenko paints a grim picture of life in the farm belt in the age of industrial corn and soy:

Would GMO Labeling Jack Up Food Prices?

How much would it raise prices if manufacturers switched to non-GMO corn for corn flakes? Likely a fraction of a penny per serving.

The push to require labels for genetically modified food, which flared up in California before drowning under a flood of industry cash last year, is now underway in Washington state. Predictably, agrichemical and organic interests are pouring money into, respectively, defeating and supporting a ballot initiative called I-522, which would require foods containing GMO ingredients to bear labels. Just as predictably, the agribusiness interests are garnering much more money to kill the effort than their organic peers are in supporting it—outspending them $17.1 million to $4.6 million, the Spokane-Review reported.

Meanwhile, in a development that broke late Wednesday, the Washington state attorney general has filed a complaint alleging that the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group that donated $2 million to the effort to defeat California's labeling initiative, violated state campaign laws and "spent more than $7 million while shielding the identity of its contributors," according to its press release.

As in California, the effect on food prices is emerging as a point of contention. Opponents of labeling, pointing to a 2012 study prepared during the California fight by Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants, say that the new rules would cost consumers $350 to $400 annually per household. The Northbridge paper, though, was funded by the industry-dominated campaign to stop Prop 37, as the California initiative was known. Campaign records show that Northridge received a total of $97,371 in five payments during 2012. 

Why Home Economics Should Be Mandatory

I was a rotten high school student, a shirker and smart-ass of the first rank. I even found myself purged from a typing class for bad behavior—an event I regret to this precise moment, since touch-typing is obviously a convenient skill for someone in my profession. Afterward, I had to choose another "elective." Naturally, I seized upon home economics—in which, I hoped, I'd spend my time amusing girls with wisecracks and whipping up desserts from boxed mixes. If memory serves, that's exactly how it played out—especially the bit about the just-add-water confections. Mmmm, instant cake.

In other words, I retained just as much from my home ec class as I did from my failed stint as a student of the keyboard: which is to say, nothing. Yet Ruth Graham's recent Boston Globe essay "Bring back home ec! The case for a revival of the most retro class in school" strikes me as spot on. Graham isn't talking about the home ec of my wayward '80s youth, nor that of quaint stereotypes featuring "visions of future homemakers quietly whisking white sauce or stitching rickrack onto an apron."

Salmonella bacteria

Nothing like a big, multi-state salmonella outbreak to focus the mind of a federal government partially shut down by a political crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which gathers and analyzes data on such outbreaks and helps bring them under control, was effectively crippled in that capacity by the shutdown fiasco heading into this week, as Wired's Maryn McKenna reported.

But then on Monday, the US Department of Agriculture announced that 278 people across 18 states had been sickened by salmonella from eating chicken from a West Coast poultry processor called Foster Farms. And now the CDC's outbreak-tracking team has been called back into action, Barbara Reynolds, a spokesperson for CDC, told me. Because the center had been monitoring the outbreak before the furloughs and snapped back into action after the USDA's announcement Monday, the shutdown's effect on CDC's investigation had been "minimal," she said.

About 42 percent of the people infected have had to be hospitalized—about double the normal rate.

And now that CDC team is back up and running, it has released fresh information about the outbreak, and the news is disturbing. About 42 percent of the people infected have had to be hospitalized—about double the normal rate, Reynolds said, meaning that the salmonella strains in the chicken seem to be virulent. Worse, the strain is "resistant to several commonly prescribed antibiotics," CDC reports. And that means "an increased risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals." "Treatment failure," of course, is another way of saying death.

As for the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which inspects poultry plants and investigates them when an outbreak occurs, "the shutdown has not had an impact on this investigation," USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee told me. All the employees that inspect meat plants are considered essential and exempt from furloughs.

Dan Engeljohn, who directs the USDA's meat plant inspections, said that the agency began collecting samples from Foster Farms facilities on the suspicion that they were the source of the outbreak on September 9, a process that continued until September 27. By Monday, October 7, when the USDA made its announcement, the agency had finished its lab analyses and determined that the outbreak strain had emerged from three Foster Farms facilities.

When it issued the announcement Monday morning, it also gave Foster Farms 72 hours to deliver a plan to show how it planned to resolve the salmonella problem in the three plants, Engeljohn said. The USDA will then assesses whether the plan is sufficient; if not, the agency will pull its inspectors from the three plants and effectively shut down their operation, he added.

Foster Farms was responsible for another salmonella outbreak, this one peaking in 2012, that sickened 134 people in 13 states. Engeljohn said that outbreak stemmed from different plants—in Washington state and not in California—and involved a different strain of salmonella.

Curious about the antibiotic-resistant nature of the current strain—again, it's "resistant to several commonly prescribed antibiotics"—I checked Foster Farms' website to see if the company had a policy on the controversial practice of feeding drugs to livestock. I found this:

Foster Farms has always prioritized the care and well-being of its birds and does not use antibiotics for the purpose of growth promotion. Any antibiotics used by Foster Farms for treatment are approved by the USDA and FDA for use in poultry and are prescribed by and monitored under the supervision of a veterinarian. Foster Farms observes all regulated antibiotic withdrawal times prior to processing.

Interestingly, that policy jibes perfectly with the Food and Drug Administration's April 2012 "voluntary guidance" on antibiotics in meat animals, which urges producers to use antibiotics only to treat or prevent disease under the control of a veterinarian, and not to use them to make animals grow faster.

But as I argued at the time, by allowing the industry to use antibiotics to "prevent" disease, the guidance leaves a gaping loophole. As I wrote:

[H]ow can anyone distinguish giving animals small daily doses of antibiotics to prevent disease from giving them small daily doses to promote growth? The industry can simply claim it's using antibiotics preventively and go on about its business—continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continuing to menace public health by breeding resistance.

Marketing isn't about giving people what they want; it's about convincing people to want what you've got—that is, what you can buy cheap, spiff up, and sell at a profit. Take the chicken nugget, that staple of fast-food outlets and school lunches.

The implicit marketing pitch goes something like this: "You like fried chicken, right? How about some bite-sized fried chicken chunks, without the messy bones?" When most people think of eating chicken, they think of, say, biting into a drumstick. What they get when they do so is a mouthful of muscle—popularly known as meat.

What people are actually getting from chicken nuggets is a bit different, according to a new study by University of Mississippi medical researchers. (Abstract here; I have access to the full paper but can't upload it for copyright reasons.) They bought an order of chicken nuggets from two (unnamed) fast-food chains, plucked a nugget from each, broke them down, and analyzed them in a lab.

The future on display at Stone Barns: first-rate whole wheat bread from wheat varieties developed by plant breeders and bakers working together.

Ferran Adrià, who retired in 2011 as arguably the globe's most decorated chef since Auguste Escoffier, is mock-furious.

Looking chic and trim with his close-cropped graying hair and sporting a black jacket over a black T-shirt, he is regaling a crowd with his lilting Catalan-tinged Spanish. The intellectual father of the highly experimental, techno-centered cooking known as "molecular gastronomy," Adrià is renowned for the wild inventiveness of his cuisine at his now-closed temple El Bulli on Spain's Costa Brava—think "mango anchovy ravioli foam," or  chicken curry in which the curry is solid and the chicken is liquid. But now, with the help of a harried interpreter, he's confronting Washington State University wheat breeder Stephen Jones about the professor's apparent disdain for white flour.

Jones, you see, does something that few breeders have done in the past century or so: He develops wheat varieties specifically geared to be turned into top-quality, whole-grain bread—not 1970s-style bricks or the spongy logs of today's supermarkets, but the kind of stuff you'd find in an artisanal bakery.

Ferran Adrià, right, seen from back, confronts Washington State University wheat breeder Stephen Jones, center, over the question of white bread. Kirra Cheers

"What's wrong with a [white] baguette?" Adrià wants to know, his eyes playfully boring into those of Jones, who's looking slightly stunned. And then, making a dismissive gesture, Adrià asks: "Has anyone ever made a whole wheat croissant?"

It was a scene as surreal as one of Adrià's tapas: a radical European chef challenging a salt-of-the-earth, US land grant university professor over separating flour from bran and germ—and in a high-ceiling stone-walled room that once served as a cow barn for the Rockefeller family's country estate, no less.

I'm fairly confident when I say that last week at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture—a sprawling farm/restaurant nestled in a rural corner of Westchester County, New York, on land donated by the Rockefeller family—I witnessed the globe's first-ever meeting between a roster of renowned chefs and a set of utterly obscure, highly accomplished plant breeders, mostly from US land grant universities.

The meeting was the brainchild of the visionary US chef Dan Barber. In his revered Blue Hill restaurants (one in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, one at Stone Barns, site of the conference), Barber displays a culinary sensibility that's two parts Alice Waters (reverence for, even fetishization of, seasonal ingredients) and one part Adrià-like innovation.

Blue Hill's Dan Barber has seen the future, and it's all about farmers and breeders collaborating. Kirra Cheers

Both qualities were on display at the meeting, called "Seeds: The Future of Flavor," convened by Barber in his capacity as an advisory board member of the Basque Culinary Center, a culinary university launched in 2011 in San Sebastian, Spain, that is emerging as an emblem of Spain's emerging status as the center of the global culinary avant garde. Barber's fellow advisory board members read like a who's who of international culinary innovators, and several of them attended, including Adrià, his fellow Spaniard Joan Roca, France's Michel Bras, Mexico's Enrique Olvera, Peru's Gaston Acurio, and Brazil's Alex Atala. They were joined by a glittering group of US luminaries like New Yorkers Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park), Bill Telepan (Telepan), Peter Hoffman (Back Forty West), and Charleston, South Carolina's Sean Brock (Husk).

These attendees gave the meeting an electric glamor: a food-world version of what I imagine attending the Academy Awards is like. I almost involuntarily spit out my coffee when I realized the nice young British woman I was chatting with at my assigned table was none other than April Bloomfield, of the renowned New York City restaurants The Spotted Pig and The Breslin. If I had done so, I might have soiled the shirt of the unassuming fellow sitting across from me, who turned out to be David Kinch, chef/owner of Northern California's Manresa.

In his opening remarks, Barber pointed out that for a century or so, plant breeding has been mainly focused on a few large commodity crops: corn, wheat, soy, and a smattering of widely traded fruits and vegetables like tomatoes. Moreover, increasingly dominated by agrichemical-industry interests, breeding has been geared to generating high-yielding, easily portable crop varieties, ignoring considerations like flavor, nutrition, and adaptation to diverse regional ecosystems.

Meanwhile, Barber continued, the movement to transform the US food system along healthier, more ecologically robust, and tastier lines has viewed seeds through two lenses: (1) condemning giant, patent-bearing seed companies like Monsanto; and (2) preserving heirloom seed varieties that were developed before the World War II-era rise of industrial agriculture, and which have been rapidly dying out ever since.

Chefs and breeders have already developed a winter squash variety called "honeynut"—a smaller, more intensely flavored version of the widely grown butternut.

Preserving the fast-eroding agricultural biodiversity of the past is critical, but insufficient. "We need something between Monsanto and heirlooms," Barber declared. He imagines a revitalized seed-breeding sector that answers not just to huge agribusiness companies but also to evolving demands for better-tasting, healthier, and regionally grown food. "If we could talk to the people a hundred years ago who bred the heirloom tomato varieties we love," he said, "they'd wonder, 'Why all the effort to preserve these? Why not keep going, keep breeding new varieties?'"

Cornell plant breeder Michael Mazourek, who works directly with organic farmers in the Northeast to generate  new crop varieties that thrive without pesticides, asked what must have been a provocative question to a group of chefs known for their love of experimentation: "If you consider all the produce—all the vegetables and grains—available in your kitchen, what would you change if you could?"

For breeders, the answers don't need to be guided by the conventional demands for higher yields and suitability for long-haul travel. Mazourek and a growing number of breeders use a "completely non-GMO process" called marker-assisted selection. Using genomic tools, they identify the genes that trigger particular traits in a plant species and then select for them—greatly accelerating the process of creating desirable new seed lines. "We have this great potential to customize and refine taste, flavor, size, and functionality in the kitchen," he said.

Barber and the farmers at Stone Barns have already been availing themselves of Mazourek's services. Together, they've developed a winter squash variety called "honeynut," a smaller, more intensely flavored version of the widely grown butternut.

Frank Morton, who plays the rare role of farmer/seed breeder in Oregon's Willamette Valley, spoke of his work using low-tech methods—like crossing heirloom varieties of lettuce—to create entire new lines, selected for traits like vibrant pigmentation (which also means more nutrients), crunchy texture, and sweet or spicy flavor. Farmers have been doing the same thing for centuries, but in recent decades have come to rely on seed companies, not the painstaking process of selection and seed saving. Morton, whose seed operation is part of a broader market farm operation called Gathering Together Farm, is a kind of throwback to the days of farmer-breeders. He has created new lettuce (and other vegetable) varieties that shine both in the field and on the plate.

The idea of working directly with breeders seemed to send a shiver through the crowd. In a later conversation, Bloomfield said she hoped to find a breeder to develop a tomato variety for the New York region that could match the intense flavor of those grown in Northern California.

The Latin American contingent brought a different perspective. Chefs Atala of Brazil and Acurio of Peru spoke of the stunning variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains that still flourish in indigenous-populated regions of Latin America—and how that heritage is threatened by globalization and the severe economic pressures faced by smallholder farmers. Their remarks reminded me that here in the United States, where European settlers virtually wiped out indigenous populations, we have a relatively small seed heritage to preserve—and much of it has already been obliterated by the rise of industrial farming over the past half century. Hence Barber's focus on the imperative to generate new seed lines. In Latin America, there's much more left to defend.

Washington State's Jones wrapped things up by bringing the conversation back to new varieties—in this case, wheat. Here Barber introduced Jones with an anecdote. Several years ago, he said, Jones had established himself as one of the nation's leading conventional wheat breeders, creating varieties ideal for industrial-scale growing and processing, when he was called into a meeting with his dean and found himself face to face with several Monsanto executives who wanted to breed some of their genetic modifications into his wheat—a proposition that could have made Jones "lots of money," Barber said. Instead, Jones walked out and never looked back, turning his back on commodity wheat forever.

Gaston Acurio, left, speaks about the traditional seed varieties of indigenous Peruvians. Kirra Cheers

Jones explained that most modern wheat varieties are bred to be processed into white flour, with the highly nutritious bran and germ stripped away. To make what is known as "whole wheat bread," some (but not all) of that bran and germ is mixed back in. Making true whole wheat bread from those varieties, using flour from wheat grown without separating the component parts, would result in the hard, brick-like loaves that gave whole-grain bread its bad name in the '70s.

Jones showed a photo revealing that he may be history's first wheat breeder whose lab is outfitted with a professional baking kitchen, complete with big ovens, gleaming steel tables, and tubs of freshly ground flour. His lab crew includes a full-time baker whose job is to turn Jones' novel wheat varieties into bread. And then the baker, Jonathan McDowell, emerged, bearing samples of three loaves made from distinct wheat varieties bred specifically for whole wheat bread.

Each was delicious, sporting a crunchy, blistered crust and a light, airy middle, with varying levels of sweet, nutty, and just plain wheaty flavors. They were so good that this audience was largely consuming them without butter.

Even Adrià, during his spirited defense of white bread, conceded their excellence. And I reflected that bread itself—a chunk of hard crust encasing a cottony, puffy middle—is the original Ferran Adrià project. If it hadn't been invented thousands of years ago, would even he have dreamt of creating such a wondrous thing from a bunch of rock-hard, virtually flavorless little seeds?