The Third Plate and the Future of Impact Investing

Our food system is broken. While we have solved the problem of how to produce lots of calories for a low direct cost, this same food system has resulted in an obesity epidemic; it is why nearly 10% of the U.S. population has Type 2 diabetes; and, most recently, it likely is playing a role in the huge spike in colon cancer for people in their 30s and 40s.

What do we do about it?

I recently read Dan Barber’s The Third Plate. Dan is a famous chef, the co-owner of the acclaimed restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The book’s title is Dan’s answer to the question, “what will the typical American dinner plate look like in 35 years?”

In response, Dan sketched three plates to show the evolution he imagines: the first plate, from the 1960s, had a large, corn-fed steak with a small side of industrial farmed vegetables; the second, from today, had a farm-to-table organic grass-fed steak with a side of organic heirloom carrots; and the third, futuristic plate, had a “steak” made of carrots garnished with a sauce made from leftover beef trimmings.

Dan’s point, with this third plate, is that the current high-end, farm-to-table, farmers’ market approach to food is a luxurious niche that doesn’t address the core issues of the food system: while the foods themselves may be natural and healthy, they are, in Dan’s words, “often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow,” and, by definition, they work at the edges of the system as a whole.

(Cue: impact investing theme music)

The Third Plate is Dan’s exploration of a better solution, a deep dive into whether the carrot-made steak really was the future of food, and what it would take to get there. The book recounts his exploration of Soil, Land, Sea and Seed – the book’s four sections – and what the future of each of these food categories might be.

Like all good narratives, this one is told through people. Each of the book’s many protagonists – whether Klaas Martens, a farmer in upstate New York, Miguel Medialdea, a Spanish biologist, Steve Jones, a seed breeder at Washington State University, or many others – are all rebels of sorts who reach the unavoidable conclusion that whether you’re growing a stalk of wheat, raising an acorn-fed pig, or cultivating the world’s most delicious fish, the only way to produce truly outstanding food is to create food that is in harmony with a broader food system.

Take Miguel Medialdea, the Spanish biologist who raises a bass so delicious that the first one Dan Barber tastes, which, unfortunately, was overcooked, is described thus:

The fish was incredible. Even overcooked and tough – even D.O.A. (“dead on arrival”), as line cooks like to say when a fillet has seen too much heat – it made my mouth water. It was so richly flavored, you’d be forgiven for comparing it to a slowly cooked shoulder of lamb or a braised beef short rib. I’d never known bass could be so delicious.

How does Miguel Medialdea’s Venta de la Palma produce such a bass? It’s a complex system of interplay between salt and fresh water, an 80,000 acre fish farm which feels like a loosely managed system in which Miguel has set up the major pieces, nudges things here and there, and then lets the system do most of the work.

I won’t attempt to describe all of the inner workings of Venta de la Palma – Dan does it better. But I was struck by a moment in Dan’s conversation with Miguel at the end of another meal, in which Dan tries to uncover the secret of what could make a bass so delicious. Was it the scale of the property, which meant no overcrowding and, therefore, almost no disease or parasites? Was it the intricate canal system, which provides a natural filtration system against pollution?

To try to make sense of it all, Dan casually asks Miguel how long it takes for one of his bass to mature.

‘Thirty months,’ Miguel muttered, seemingly to no one in particular.

‘Thirty months!’ I said. ‘It takes two and a half years to raise…a bass?’

‘Yes, that’s the average, which is more than twice the aquaculture average.’

I asked how the company could make money.

‘So far there’s profit, enough to keep us working at an optimum, not a maximum.’

This was the kind of answer Miguel, and Klaas, and Steve Jones kept on giving: that one of the fundamental constraints that had to shift in order to operate a healthy food system is a move from maximum profit to optimum profit. They propose that the only way to create the world’s best food is by creating and maintain a system in balance, and each one of them concludes that such a system is not one that is optimized for extracting every last bit of value that they, personally, can squeeze out of it.

To illustrate the point, at another juncture in this conversation, Dan is shocked by the 30,000-strong flamingo population on the farm. Since these flamingos eat 20% of the farm’s fish and fish eggs, wasn’t their presence a bad thing?

Miguel shook his head slowly, with the same calm acceptance shown in the face of losing half of his goose eggs to hawks.

“‘We’re farming extensively, not intensively,’ he said. ‘This is the ecological network. The flamingos eat the shrimp, the shrimp eat the phytoplankton. So the pinker the bellies, the better the system.’ The quality of the relationships matters more than the quantity of the catch.”

If Miguel’s job is to optimize the overall health of the system, then key indicators of success are the data, like the pinkness of flamingos’ bellies, that tell you about systemic health. Profit may result from this system, but the system is not engineered primarily to create profit.

What a fantastical notion, that profit might be a result and not the goal.

The parallels to our economic system are, I hope, obvious. When I compare the dialogue within impact investing with the conversations happening in the food system, I’m struck by how much we, in impact investing, have so far failed to have a rich, nuanced conversation about where profits fit in the new system we say we aim to create. In my experience, all conversations about profits – or returns – in impact investing quickly devolve into discussion of the financial return a given investment or strategy produces, with both sides losing when they debate the “right” level of return without a broader conversation about whether this return is a result of or the ultimate purpose of the investment.

The much deeper conversation we need to have is around whether to be a successful impact investor, or to be a successful player in an ecosystem funded by impact investments, one needs to have the willingness and the capacity to optimize for the health of the system, and not just one of its outputs (profits, or returns). Meet any of the colorful characters in Dan’s book and you come across rebellious tinkerers who bristle at the status quo at every turn, because they’ve learned, through a life’s worth of experience, that the traditional food system is broken.

Do we have a similarly clear point of view about whether the mainstream capitalist system works or is broken? Do we believe, as we watch everyone from Bain Capital to TPG to the Ford Foundation commit billions of dollars to impact investing, that we can create the kind of deep change we know the world needs if we are unwilling to confront this question head on? Are social entrepreneurs and impact investors the equivalent of food revolutionaries who see that we have no choice but to upend the whole system, or are we hangers-on to the edges of mainstream capitalism, excited to build out our small terrariums without ever questioning the bigger ecosystem?

My belief is that our breakthroughs will only come once we start saying out loud that our ultimate goal is to build a global economic system that is extensive, not intensive. And then, once we recognize that such systems can be built, to ask ourselves what it would take to move that from niche to mainstream.

My belief is that to get from here to there, we need more folks who are willing to think like Miguel. These are people who can deconstruct and reconstruct a food system (or any other system) and, in so doing, can reprioritize the factors they’ve been told to optimize. These are people who are willing to walk the long, hard, stupid road from nowhere to somewhere. These are people who won’t stop tinkering and experimenting and learning and failing and doing it all over again…until, one day, they can consistently produce an output that is better than anything that’s come before it and that enriches the health of all the players in that system.

It’s OK for us to acknowledge that we don’t yet know the right indicators of systemic health, as long as we say that we’re willing to put ourselves on the line to create them.

We start by asking: what is our equivalent of the pinkness of flamingo bellies?

One thought on “The Third Plate and the Future of Impact Investing

  1. Thank you for posting this. It is time for us to reflect on the capitalist system (especially our drive for profit) that we have built over the past decades, to weigh its merits and destructions on the sustainability of the environment that we all depend on, be it economic, ecological, or environmental.

    It is certainly very interesting to see that this call for reflection could come from such a wide range of industrial backgrounds! :))

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