15 10 2011

When I first heard of David Kennedy’s recent book, “21st Century Greens–Leaf Vegetables in Nutrition and Sustainable Agriculture,” my mind flashed back to the last time I had seen him, nearly twenty years ago, when he was a member of the Flat Rock Community near Murfreesboro and active in the Cumberland-Green Bioregional Council.  At one of our quarterly gatherings, David demonstrated how you could take edible leaves, juice them, and then curdle the juice to create a green, tofu-like substance, which he called “leaf protein concentrate.”  Interesting, certainly, but it seemed like a lot of work, and for what?  I filed the information and occasionally wondered what had ever happened to David and his fascination with this odd food.  Meanwhile, suburbia and entropy ate the Flat Rock Community, leaving no trace.

Then, a couple of months ago, a friend of mine told me that David had migrated up to Berea, Kentucky, where he is living in a largely Quaker intentional community, and put out a book on leaf protein concentrate. My friend, who had helped design the book, had been given a copy and wondered if I would be interested in reviewing it.  A whole book on the subject seemed a bit wonky to me, but I was curious, and, once I started reading the book, I was delighted–for 21st Century Greens ranges far beyond its “green tofu” core.  The book is very holistic–in order to explain the importance of his subject, David lays out the general theory and practice of nutrition (and malnutrition)  in simple, easy-to understand language, then lays out various methods of growing and preserving leafy green nutrition, weaving in the importance of sustainable farming practices along the way.  He also goes to great lengths to expand our conception of what constitutes edible greens.  In this respect, the book has already made a tangible difference in my life:  I have started eating sweet potato leaves.

I also discovered that, while I have been rooted here in America, beating my head against the brick wall of creating a serious cultural change in this country, David has been traveling around the world, mostly the third world, teaching and learning about the web of nutrition, culture, and agriculture.  Twenty-First Century Greens is not a theoretical tract.  It is based on wide-ranging, hands-in-the-dirt, wood-smoked experience.  Our bioregion’s homeboy has done good.

The answer my original question–“why make green tofu?” turns out to be that leaf protein concentrate can be dried or otherwise preserved to provide nutrition out of season, or to be transported to someplace where there are a lot of malnourished people and not a lot of leaves.  The concentrate is high in protein, iron, calcium and vitamins A and E, among other nutrients.  The other significant thing about eating leaves, fresh or concentrated,  is that, as David points out, leafy crops have a far higher per-acre yield than any fruit, bean, grain, tuber, or farm animal.

Because this book speaks for itself so well, I am going to share with you a couple of excerpts, interspersed with my comments.


A fascinating exception to the pattern of animal-based foods leading to heart disease and cancer was found in France.  Although the French diet was rich in meat, eggs, and cheese, and thus high in animal fats and cholesterol, they had much less heart disease and cancer than the Americans.  This “French Paradox” was thought to be linked to compounds called antioxidants in the vegetables, garlic, and red wine so popular in France.

Initially, scientists tried to isolate the active antioxidant ingredients that were responsible for reducing the risk of cancers.  They focused on beta-carotene, the pigment that gives carrots their orange color.  They were surprised when three studies showed that beta-carotene alone did not reduce cancer risk.  Gradually, they came to believe the benefit was coming from a wide variety of compounds working together in whole fruits and vegetables.

This was a powerful blow to the dominant view of both nutritional and medical science.  The prevailing approach in these fields had been reductionist.  First a protective mechanism in the human body would be studied, and the key active ingredient isolated.  Finally the results would be reduced to a powder that could be distributed as a dietary supplement.  It was a strategy that had proven effective (and profitable) with vitamin and mineral supplements as well as a slew of pharmaceuticals.

The findings from research into antioxidants simply suggested that we should eat a greater amount of different kinds of fruits and vegetables.  This was not a message that could be easily reduced to a product and was obviously not a message that enhanced the mystique of modern science or its spokesperson, the guy in a white lab coat. (pps. 6-8)

That excerpt comes from the chapter called “A perspective on our Food Supply,” and comes after a similar deconstruction of the conventional idea of “progress” in regard to “improved diet,” and before a section that brings together Rachel Carson, the ultimate failure of the insecticidal approach to farming, and the rise of antibiotic resistant staphylococcus.   I could just have easily have quoted either of those sub-chapters, because they all share the same understated, just-the facts, approach.  Without ranting, raving, or rhetoric,  David Kennedy’s writing completely demolishes the foundations of the dominator culture, all the while gently pointing to a better way, as in this quote:

Skeptics often portray organic agriculture as if it were a radical and unrealistic fantasy capable only of overpriced salad greens.  The reality is that our bodies evolved eating wild organic foods.  Humans have been successfully practicing agriculture for 10,000 years.  For 99% of that time we have used exclusively organic methods.  It is “conventional” petroleum based agriculture and biotechnology that are radical new techniques…..

….if we are able to create a sustainable food system, the human population will no doubt adjust to it.  We are faced with two daunting global food quandaries:  First, how do we quickly make a transition to a food system that minimizes damage to natural ecosystems without undue human suffering?  Secondly, how do we achieve a long lasting equilibrium between a sustainable food system and a relatively stable human population?

Simplistic free market capitalism and its handmaiden, reductionist science, may prove to be instruments too blunt for the creation of a durable and ethical food system.  Perpetual growth and total control are infantile illusions.  We need less powerful and more elegant solutions to our food problems.  An elegant technology is one with a high ratio of output to input and a minimum of unintended consequences.

This is where biology shines.  Spurred on by competition for limited energy, nutrients, water, and space, living beings  have developed an astonishing library of elegant designs  Those natural designs that prove themselves to be sustainable, usually demonstrate flexibility, adaptability, and creativity; traits that human food systems will also need to become more sustainable…..

….In the long run–and agriculture was never a sprint–weeds and insects are best managed with an integrated system that relies on careful observation and the least intrusive interventions that will get adequate results.  Fertility is best managed by maintaining vigorous soil ecology.  These strategies take more time to yield results and require more labor or, if you prefer, less unemployment.  Beyond bio-mimicry is the realm of eco-mimicry or designing whole systems that imitate the elegant self-supporting interplay of species in mature ecosystems.  This is the most promising direction to look for guidance in building a truly sustainable agriculture.  (pps. 107-108)

And a truly sustainable agriculture is only possible in the matrix of a truly sustainable culture–but the guidelines David Kennedy lays out in this section will create a sustainable culture, as well as sustainable agriculture.  There is no blueprint, and there is no need for a blueprint–like a plant, a sustainable society will construct itself appropriately.  On the surface, “21st Century Greens” is a book about gardening and nutrition, but its implications range far beyond the realm of food.  David has been gracious enough to give this book away in electronic form, but I hope you will be gracious to him and buy a hard copy of it.  As I said, I think this is one of the books of our “New Agricultural Testament” and it should be on every cook and gardener’s shelf–and I hope that those two categories include all of us.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “Peace Call”




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