Ethical Monks vs. Skyscraper Lettuce

Ethical Monks vs. Skyscraper Lettuce

In an increasingly homogenized food system, chartreuse stands out, both because it has three centuries of history and because it is bizarre. Compounded from a secret blend of hundreds of herbs, sugar, and alcohol, the liquor is sweet, pungent, bitter, and complex. Carthusian monks sworn to vows of silence produce it. Its story is interwoven with that of France and Europe more broadly. It is unique.

Vertical farms are exactly the opposite. By using sophisticated lighting systems, soilless growing mediums, mechanical harvesting, and precise environmental controls, they aim to produce vegetables that are more perfect and more perfectly consistent than would be possible with conventional farming, regardless of season or location. They aim to be an ahistorical, ubiquitous method of production, replicated across the globe.

But both chartreuse and vertical farming are in decline, though for very different reasons. In the case of vertical farms, investors are beginning to realize that leafy greens will never provide the same sort of returns as successful tech startups, and may never yield profits, period. The sudden chartreuse shortage, on the other hand, has roots in a deliberate decision. Unlike skyscraper lettuce, chartreuse is definitely profitable, but the monks who produce it have decided that considerations beyond the bottom line — considerations like the environmental impact of production and most of all avoiding distraction from monastic vows — require that they scale back in an effort to do “less but better and for longer.”

Neither of these is a tragedy. The monks’ decision to prioritize their commitments over profits is obviously admirable, and perhaps vertical farms crashing into reality will prevent or limit other food-tech bubbles. I know it is my hobby horse, but I can’t resist noting the similarities between vertical farms and lab grown meat. Both seek to use mechanization to revolutionize the production of commodity food items. Both operate with a silicon valley, disruptor ethos. Both rely on venture capital, and both make promises of massive returns. If I had to bet, I would guess that the same problems that have beset vertical farms will also impact lab grown meat companies as they attempt to scale up.

But all this does highlight a problem with the modern food system, or maybe just a sad fact about it. There’s lots of money for vertical farms or lab grown meat, because they come with a theory, however dubious, as to how they could become hugely profitable. Something like chartreuse, with it’s crazy flavor profile and impossible to duplicate recipe is a much harder sell, even if there’s an actual thirst for it.

And in the niche world of truly distinct foods chartreuse’s weirdness works in its favor. There is absolutely nothing else like it. With products that aren’t quite so clearly delineated, such as local grass fed beef rather than imported grass fed or even the feedlot beef, there’s even less of a case that venture capital should be rushing in with billions of dollars. By the logic of the current system there’s no reason to invest in small farms and small food producers, particularly when they might do something silly, like place other considerations above maximizing growth and profits.

This leaves me in a familiar place. I see no way the current economic structures will directly promote a more local food system. Change will have to come from farmers remaining committed to a bigger vision and people more broadly supporting it. The strange success of things like chartreuse at least give me hope that this is a real possibility.

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