I’m getting through the meat of The Omnivore’s Dilemma (both literally and figuratively), and I have found myself particularly interested and moved by the section where Pollan interviews and lives with Joel Salatin and his family for a week. Salatin is a man I have heard speak quite passionately in the past about the topic of sustainable food production and bringing consumers together with their farmers, so they know where their food is coming from.
Joel Salatin, self-described libertarian, environmentalist and Christian lunatic, argues there is “no salvation to be had through legislation.” He argues that it is government subsidies and USDA requirements that make real food produced by local, small-scale farmers so expensive. He’s right. Small, organic farms must follow the same regulations as corporate organic farms (you know, like the ones that supply to Whole Foods)–which often means buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment that smaller scale farms really don’t need. In fact, Salatin has had his meat inspected by a lab before to test the bacteria load, it’s far smaller than that of any supermarket meat. These regulations explain why food from small farms is more expensive–their output is tiny by comparison to factory farms, but they’re still expected to buy the “necessary equipment” and pay for a USDA meat inspector.
On top of all this, Salatin and small farmers like him are not receiving government subsidies like large farms do, because they aren’t producing commodity crops.
Salatin essentially answers the questions I posed in my recent post about the small scale movement for better, “more real” fast food, which were: Do we try to fix what is broken, or start from scratch? Do we try to convince traditional fast food chains to clean up their acts or just hope they go out of business when they are not able to keep up with the consumer demand for healthier, safer, more sustainable food?
Salatin’s answer is to empower individuals with the right philosophy and information to opt out–that is, to stop supporting big agriculture and start supporting local farmers–collectively:
“…Make no mistake: it’s happening. The mainstream is splitting into smaller and smaller groups of like-minded people. It’s a little like Luther nailing his 95 theses up at Wittenberg. Back then it was the printing press that allowed the Protestants to break off and form their own communities; now it’s the Internet, splintering us into tribes that want to go their own way.
“…An alternative food system is rising up on the margins. One day, Frank Perdue and Don Tyson are going to wake up and find that their world has changed. It won’t happen over night, but it will happen, just as it did for those Catholic priests who came to church one Sunday morning only to find that, my goodness, there aren’t as many people in the pews today. Where in the world has everybody gone?”
So, how do we go from here? Well, if you are reading this right now, then I guess we’re already on our way. It takes conversations like this. It takes acting on the knowledge that we have. It takes getting mad enough about how screwed up everything is, and then opting for what is real, what is better for us. Salatin doesn’t even talk much about lobbying efforts and trying to change the government, although it’s clear that he believes much of the problems lie in the hands of the government. However, he sees the power of the individual as stronger, he believes individual choice is strong enough–what you choose to buy and eat makes a huge statement. Speaking of which, you can find all the restaurants Polyface supplies here on his Web site. OK, maybe I am looking at some of the menus online currently. Maybe my mouth is watering.
I guess this as good a time as any to also mention that this whole concept gets at quite an inner struggle I have been having ever since I began learning more about our broken food system and that is this fundamental question: is government the cause of all of the problems or can it be the solution? At my internship, more often than not, F&WW sides with the idea that more government regulation, oversight, ownership, and management is what will keep our food and water out of the hands of corporations who have little in mind about our health or safety and everything in mind about their bottom line. But they also do understand that the USDA is far from perfect. And their anti-corporate stance certainly does not translate to anti-small-farmer trying to make a profit in order to stay alive, just as Joel Salatin’s libertarian anti-government-regulation of small farm organic stance doesn’t make him an anarchist. But still, I struggle with this debate. What do you think?
Next up on my reading agenda is Jonathan Safran Foer’s, Eating Animals, which explores the atrocities of factory farming. But, on a personal note, while I haven’t eaten meat in over eight years, I truly believe in the possibility for animals to live a full and happy life and then go on to serve as an energy source for humans, as they do on Polyface Farm. And as a testament to how much I truly believe in what Salatin is doing, I think I’d actually go out on a limb here, and while the thought of this may actually make me feel slightly physically ill…I’d eat a steak from the Polyface farm. I might even eat a pork chop.