"Our food, in the vision of the globalizers and the vision of the total economy, will come from wherever in the world it can be produced most cheaply, freeing American labor and land for higher uses. I frankly don’t know what higher use there is for labor and land than growing food" … Michael Pollan
by Michael Pollan
Much of my education and the hopes for transforming our food chain I owe to a Bioneer—Joel Salatin. When I was first writing about organic agriculture and the gradual industrialization of what had been organic agriculture, I spoke to Kenny, and he said you really need to talk to one of the most important critics of organic agriculture, Joel Salatin. I called him, first to get some salty quotes about Whole Foods and the Organic Empire as he calls it, and I’d heard about this wonderful pastured chicken and grass-fed beef he was raising. So I’d hoped he would send me a chicken or a steak.
Well, I got the salty quotes I was looking for. He went on about the clash of paradigms and the Western conquistador mentality that was ruining our food system—both organic and industrial—but when I asked him for a chicken he said, “Sorry I can’t do that.”
“What? You’re not set up for shipping? I could have the FedEx man come with the dry ice and the box and the whole thing.”
He said, “No, no, you don’t get it. I don’t believe it’s organic or sustainable to FedEx meat across the country. If you want to try my meat, you have to come down here to Virginia.” Which I promptly did. Thus began my education in one of the most interesting agricultures going on in this country. I won’t walk you through it. I just want to give you a little close-up vignette because something I saw on that farm was a real paradigm shift for me. I think it holds the kernel of a completely different way of looking at our relationship with nature.
Joel calls himself a grass farmer. If you ask him are you a rancher, or chicken farmer, an egg farmer, he’ll say, “I’m a grass farmer.” When I got to the farm he insisted before I met any of his animals that I get down on the ground and meet his grass. And he explained something very interesting as to what happened. He grows these six different animals in a very complex rotation. It’s kind of an animal rotation based on manures and grubs and all that kind of stuff. As soon as the grass is sheared by the ruminant, the grass plant does something that all gardeners understand. It strives to restore its root/shoot ratio. It strives to balance the root mass with the leaf mass that it’s lost. So it promptly sheds as much root as grass, that has been eaten by the cow.
That’s a very interesting process. Essentially it’s killing off its roots. What happens to those roots? Mycelium goes to work along with the bacteria and protozoa and they break down those roots. That is precisely how soil is made. We build soil from the bottom up. And that is how the prairies were made, in a reciprocal relationship between the bison and the grass and all the wilderness of life that takes place in the earth’s stomach—the soil.
Joel adds to this kind of pulsing of the pasture, the element of bringing in the chickens to add nitrogen to it and within six weeks the grass is back and you can run it again. And the key thing to know here is that at the end of the year he has taken off an immense amount of animal protein from his farm. 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broilers, 1200 turkeys, 1000 rabbits, 35,000 dozen eggs from 100 acres. If anyone asks can organic feed the world, take him to this farm. There is no question that sustainable agriculture can feed the world when it is done right.
The really important thing to remember is that at the end of that year when all that food has come off this land, there is more soil, not less. There is more biodiversity, not less. There is more fertility, not less.
Now, why is that significant? It’s significant because most of us carry in our heads a model of our relationship to nature that is zero sum. That is, for us to get what we want from nature—whether it’s oil, energy, whether it’s food, whether it’s entertainment—nature is diminished. We assume this to be true. We see examples of it all around. What a well managed pasture shows is that it is not necessarily the case. There is a non-zero sum way for us to engage with the natural world. And for me that is one of the most hopeful things I’ve observed in 25 years about writing about the human relationship with nature.
I don’t have time to go through my whole Paris Hilton adventure. I worked on the farm as a farm hand for a week and it was a brutally difficult week. I want to go right to some of the lessons that came out of this.
In challenging the zero sum idea, it’s not just about our relationship to nature. It is also challenging our zero sum attitude toward economics. I want to move to economics and politics and put forth the proposition that some of the most important politics going on in this country today are being transacted at farmer’s markets.
There is a direct line from the kind of healthy soils underneath Joel Salatin’s farm and other farms like his too, as Albert Howard reminded us a long time ago—a link from those healthy soils to healthy plants to healthy animals to healthy eaters and healthy economies.
I think local food is one of the most important political movements going on. It’s much bigger than food. It is the most important protest against what Wendell Berry has called, “the rise of the total economy.” The total economy is the globalized world in which everything is a commodity. Everything is produced wherever it can be produced most cheaply, which is to say most destructively, of people and resources, and moved to wherever it can be sold most dearly. This is zero sum food economy. It means more cheap food for us, less for the soil, less for the workers and much less for the animals.
Make no mistake: under this regime—and this is the regime of free trade and food that we’re hearing is so important—food is about to go the way of clothing, of consumer electronics.
Our food, in the vision of the globalizers and the vision of the total economy, will come from wherever in the world it can be produced most cheaply, freeing American labor and land for higher uses. I frankly don’t know what higher use there is for labor and land than growing food. But in the view of the economist, people like Steven Blank at UC Davis, American’s farming is like Ph.D.’s doing child’s play. This is the technocratic vision.
Now make no mistake: organic food is on the same path today, as organic food has gotten industrialized. We found a product such as Stonyfield Organic Yogurt made from organic milk powder from New Zealand, strawberries from China, apple purée from Turkey, blueberries from Canada. We are in the age of organic feedlots, organic factory farms. These are words that were never meant to be attached to one another.
Local food economies are our best hope for checking the drift toward the total global economy. And food is where these economies begin. A revolt is underway across this country. A revolt of the small producers and consumers and some of the most important politics today, as I said, are happening at the farmer’s market.
Now we’re told all this is very sentimental to go back to a local food economy, even reactionary. And surely there are reasons for buying local that might strike the unsentimental as a little softheaded. We like the idea of keeping farmers and their wisdom in our communities. We like eating food in season picked at the peak of its taste and nutritional value. You find no processed food, no high fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market. We like the idea of keeping land near us in production for food rather than houses and strip malls, defending the landscapes we love.
We like what happens socially at the farmer’s market, which is quickly emerging as the new public square in this country. If you compare what happens in the aisles at the grocery store with the farmer’s market, think about what a world of difference that is. At the farmer’s market country meets city. Children are introduced to where their food comes from. They learn often for the first time that a carrot is not a glossy orange bullet that comes in a plastic bag, but is actually a root. How amazing!
People politic. They have petitions. They schmooze. It’s just an incredibly vibrant space. We like how the farmer’s market or CSA lets us reconnect through these plants, animals and their farmers to the natural world. We’ve always looked to food for that connection. Food will always give us that connection. Even the Twinkie has its origins in the natural world. It’s only obscure to us.
I’m fully prepared to defend local food on those so-called sentimental grounds. But I would point out here that all those benefits suggest this is a non zero sum economic relationship, or social relationship. There is a lot more is going on in that marketplace than the exchange of money for food.
But let me move briefly on to other ground. Let me move on to their ground. Let me suggest that it is the globalizers of food that are the real sentimentalists who are, as Wendell Barry says, “acting on a faith without any justification,” very much like the Soviet Communists, the last great destroyers of global food economies. They tell us we need to sacrifice things we like here and now—landscapes, relationships, local enterprises—for a promise of future prosperity, that we must break a few eggs to make an omelet.
What could be more unrealistic, more soft headed than to propose we should destroy things we have and love in the present for the uncertain prospect of some future benefit? Let me remind you that the Soviet Union was founded precisely on the issue of food. Let’s stick with the eggs. Let’s not make this omelet. Let me suggest that there’s nothing more hardheaded or realistic than building and defending local food economies. Indeed, to do so is a matter not of sentiment, but of critical importance to national security and public health. Let me quickly run through a couple of reasons.
Energy. The total economy depends on cheap energy, not to mention peace and no threat from terrorism, in order to move these goods from point of cheapest production to point of highest purchase. We will not reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy or confront the issue of climate change without dealing with this industrial food system. This food system is consuming 17% of our fossil fuel. That’s to grow the food with fossil fuel fertilizers, to use diesel on the farm, to use diesel to move the food and to process the food. You know the statistics. We’re moving all the food 1500 miles on average. By the way, supermarket organic food is moved even further today. You could buy local tulips in Seattle at Whole Foods. But in fact, they’ve been shipped down to a regional warehouse in California and then sent back to Seattle. This is the rationalization of our distribution system. There are people in Denmark eating American sugar cookies. And there are people in America eating Danish sugar cookies. As economist Herman Daly said, it would be much more efficient for them to swap recipes.
So energy is one reason to buy local. Sovereignty is another. Do we really want to go down the path we have gone down with our energy with food? Do we really want to find ourselves in a position where all our grain is coming from South America, our produce from Mexico? The projections right now are that in the state of California at the end of this century there will be no more food production in the Central Valley. It will be houses and highways wall to wall, mountain to mountain. Do we want to go down that path? Do we want to give away our food independence?
National security. Our government knows better than we the eaters the risk of a highly centralized food system. Tommy Thompson, when he left the Department of Homeland Security, in his last press conference, said something very interesting. He said, “I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.” When all your hamburgers are being ground in the same factory. When all your salad is being washed in the same sink it is a very precarious way to eat.
This highly centralized food system is very vulnerable to contamination—both deliberate and accidental. And that brings me to the public health justification of local food. We just had a horrifying illustration of the dangers of centralized food. Two hundred Americans were seriously sickened and three Americans were killed by eating bad spinach. What does that have to do with local food? There are two senses in which that product was the result of our industrial system. First, that bug E. coli 0157:H7 is a mutation of industrial feedlot agriculture. That’s where that bug begins. You do not have that in grass-fed cattle. Second, that bug was able to be spread far and wide because you’re taking spinach, from many, many farms and you’re washing it literally in a single sink in San Juan Bautista, California, and then you’re sending it all over the country. This is not to say you couldn’t get sick from eating spinach at your farmer’s market. But if you did, nobody would hear about it because it wouldn’t be a national story. It would be contained in the food chain. You’d know who was responsible.
The response to this threat though, is going to be exactly wrong. Instead of seizing on this and the terrorist threat as a reason to decentralize our food supply—which it would be if there was any true concern for homeland security, exactly what the government would be endeavoring to do right now—we are bringing in more regulation and more technology. Progressive senators are proposing that we begin to regulate farms the way we regulate meat plants. You know what that will mean. That will put small farms out of business. So you see what happens as industrial agriculture fails and sickens us. The solutions promote more industrialization of agriculture. And that’s what we need to resist. We need to move in the other direction. They want to irradiate the food supply to keep us safe. I say we put our faith not in technology or regulation but in relationships, relationships with small farms.
It’s very interesting that at my farmer’s market spinach was doing just fine during this outbreak. People sense these things. They sense that buying food from someone they know, someone they trust, is okay. There may be some risk, but it’s a manageable risk. And that is one of the reasons I think that farmers markets and CSAs are the fastest growing sector of the food system. The number of farmers markets has doubled twice in the last decade. The size of this new rising market result is unmeasurable. It’s an underground economy. No one is paying taxes. In a way it’s much like the last days of Soviet agriculture. Fifty percent of the food supply was coming off small gardens, small underground markets. People simply went around the big system.
I want to talk about your vote. It’s true, when the government won’t protect our land, our communities, our food supply, our economy, we have to do it ourselves. We have to step out of the four ordained paths in the system. We have to act as consumer-citizens. We need a sense of what it means to be a consumer that is broader than the usual, that perceives being a consumer as a co-creator, a builder of food chains. We can build a local food economy. We are building a local food economy simply by getting out of the supermarket, by growing our own food, by joining the CSA and by shopping at farmers markets. All of this is important. We are voting with our forks and it is a very important vote.
We also need to vote with our votes because not all the changes we need can be driven by consumers. Some of them will have to come from government. Some of them will have to come from the change that only citizens can bring about.
I want to say a word about the most boring topic in American politics but possibly the most important, that is the farm bill. Understanding the farm bill is the hardest intellectual work I did in the course of writing The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It really makes my head hurt. But it is the rules of the system, of the game that we all eat by. It is the reason we are in this fast food nation, because the farm bill decides that we’re going to grow cheap corn and soybeans, which are not foods but which are raw materials for industrial food. The farm bill determines how hard it will be for a local meat processor to survive. The farm bill determines whether local or national foods will predominate.
None of us work on this issue. We leave it to the senator of Nebraska to negotiate with the senator from Iowa. We treat it as a parochial piece of legislation. The odds are, your legislators, your senators and representatives are trading their votes on this bill for other things they want. Why can they do that? Why can they get away with that? Because they’re not hearing from you that you care. This bill setting these rules is so critical to the future. We need to move away from feedlot agriculture toward local animal agriculture. That won’t happen without changes in the farm bill. We need to move from subsidizing cheap grain to helping people produce real food locally. The rules need to be rewritten. And it’s happening next year.
So I leave you with this totally unglamorous message: Let your senators and representatives know you’re paying attention and you care. Let them know that you understand that the farm bill is really a food bill. It is our fight. Unless we take it to them, they’re going to do the same thing again and we’re going to have more corn, and more soybeans, more Smithfields, more Cargills and fewer farmers markets. So please follow this fight and help to wage it.
This article is a transcript from a Bioneers presentation