Haute Pasture was fortunate recently to hear Joel Salatin speak to a small group of supporters of the local-food movement. Joel Salatin is the owner of Polyface Farms, an innovative farm specializing in organic, pasture-based meats and eggs. You may recognize the name Polyface, as it was a featured farm in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. Salatin is also a gifted speaker, and travels the country lecturing on topics ranging from technical cattle farming how-tos, to instruction for the lay person on how to be a farm-friendly consumer. On this night, he spoke to us about the importance of sourcing your food locally, and how commercial food production and uneducated consumers are heading down a dark road.
Most people in our society don’t know or care where their food comes from: similar to other modern comforts we take for granted, such as energy, water, and waste disposal, we don’t think about its origin or impact on the environment, we just use it. People don’t cook anymore; they just open a box and put it in the microwave. Numbers are skyrocketing of diseases stemming from diet: diabetes, especially childhood diabetes, heart disease, obesity.
As Salatin pointed out, eating is humans’ most intimate activity. Things you consume are integrated into your body, and directly affect your personal chemistry. How have people become so casual about the terrible things they’re introducing into their internal systems? Modern attitudes about eating reflect modern attitudes about many things: we want it bigger, we want it cheaper, and we want it now! It’s inconvenient to worry about the quality, origin, and nutritious value of your food, right? Advertising is all over the place to tell consumers it’s okay to buy the processed junk found in the grocery store or fast food restaurant. Sadly, the government sends the same message. The USDA (Salatin calls it the US-Duh) encourages farms to grow produce and animals faster, fatter, bigger, and cheaper. They give the impression that they’re looking out for consumers: they allow flu shots in schools, but they also allow soda machines in those same schools. By endorsing factory farms, they teach us that life is just a mechanical thing to be manipulated or dominated. The FDA (or as Salatin calls it–can you guess?–the F-Duh) is an accomplice. They are the food police that dictate that raw milk isn’t safe, but Twinkies and Coke are. President Obama’s Food Czar is a Monsanto man, and now (coincidentally?) we have a Food Modernization Act which does have positive provisions, but places new costly, onerous regulations on mid-sized farmers, when virtually zero outbreaks of tainted food stem from small- and mid-sized farms. The act emphasizes the value of food produced using sound science–why not emphasize nature instead?
If we all turned to community food systems, we could solve many of Americans’ health problems, while benefiting the communities themselves, along with livestock and the environment. We need to educate consumers on the interconnectedness of soil, food, and health. Salatin called it “field to fork” eating. Soil needs to be nurtured, as it hosts an unseen world of insects, arthropods, and bacteria. Animals who are raised in settings that mimic their natural habitats are the most happy, and impart the chemical advantages of that happiness to us through their meat, eggs, and milk. Communities gain from the revenue generated from production, processing, and retail sales of local food, and consumers can feel secure that they’re getting fresher, safer, more humanely-treated food because local food systems are more transparent than remote agricultural corporations. If a consumer can walk into a local farm, cannery, butchery, or abattoir, those businesses are forced to be transparent in their processes and accountable to customers.
Salatin gave several examples of ways food can be integrated into communities. Italy has gardens and Mexico tethers milk cows along highways, areas which America keeps mowed, wasting petroleum and biomass. A Belgian project gave chickens to families, and not only did the chickens provide the households with fresh eggs, but they helped with yard bug populations, and ate kitchen waste. Prisoners could be turned into farmers: America has twice the number of prisoners as farmers, so why not plant apple and pear trees along highways and let prisoners tend them?
People who are stuck in the rut of making unhealthy, irresponsible food choices may not want to hear Salatin’s message, but it’s an important one, and we, as citizens of Earth, are lucky that he has such a busy speaking schedule. If you’re reading this, then it’s not likely that you’re stuck in that rut, so congratulations, and please continue to support local agriculture!