Thursday, August 26, 2010

Oishii: Some Thoughts on Local, Sustainable Food

I'm a fan of Joel Salatin.  In a recent newsletter from his Polyface Farm he articulated the excerpt below.  If you have ever been skeptical about paying more for local, organic, sustainably grown food, perhaps this will change your mind:

"Can you really feed the world?"
"What about price? Am I really an elitist to buy your food?"

Those are by far and away the two most common questions we get asked. Right here, right now, let's address them briefly. We'll take the feeding the world one first, then move to price.

1. Nobody in the world goes hungry because there isn't enough food. Half the food that enters India seaports is eaten by sacred rats. That's not a food production problem. In Africa , tribal leaders and thugs won't let Red Cross trucks get to starving people. That's not a production problem. Food deserts in the U.S. (where supermarkets won't locate), are high crime areas that scare off potential businesses. That is not a production problem. Plenty of food is available; it's not being distributed for various and sundry reasons. All the food in the world won't solve these distribution problems.

2. Scientific ecological farming is only as old as scientific chemical farming. If you visit any living history farm circa 1900, you will not see a compost pile. That's because modern scientific composting was not widely used until Sir Albert Howard did his trials in India during the 1920s and 1930s, subsequently popularizing the nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, moisture, and microbial formulas in what many see as the beginning of the ecological farming movement. His AN AGRICULTURAL TESTAMENT was first printed in 1943.

Remember, worldwide soil depletion, desertification, and land degradation predates chemical and industrial agriculture by a long shot. The American answer to soil degradation was simply to move west. When Americans ran out of west, and began urbanizing during the industrial revolution, many people began studying soil restoration. Although Howard may have been the big dog in that effort, he was by no means alone.

After World War II, chemical fertilizers beat out the composters due to several unfair advantages:

a. Ammonium nitrate, super triple phosphate and other chemical fertilizer formulations were the same as ammunition and explosives formulations— well proven, well known science and easier to learn than composting.

b. Bombs had already paid for the chemical manufacturing infrastructure, so the true cost of these fertilizers never expressed itself on the price tag. The military industrial complex capitalized chemical farming.

c. Composting required biomass pulverizing and transport, which had not yet been perfected.

d. Advertising inertia favored the chemical companies, who ended the war with stashes of cash to leverage on a duplicitous public.

e. Bombs are sexy; compost isn't--although more sex happens in a compost pile than in an explosion. As the industrial revolution permeated the national psyche, American culture embraced factories, manufacturing, and store bought. Even breast feeding fell into disrepute for a couple of decades until the back-to-the- land mother earth revivals of the early 1970s. Free love eventually trumped bombs.

3. The infrastructure and scientific understanding developing around ecological agriculture paralleled the chemical approach in magnitude and time. Industrial food advocates consistently rail against Polyface that our practices are a return to hog cholera, poultry Newcastle's disease, brucellosis in cattle, and tuberculosis in humans, as if our farming represents the epitome of Luddite mentality.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The urbanization occurring in the 1920s and 1930s predated electrification, refrigeration, stainless steel, sewage systems, and basic sanitation knowledge and practice. Innovation never occurs simultaneously along all the ancillary edges of the change. It's a ragged edge. The point of the innovation always extends far beyond the support infrastructure; thought and hardware to fully metabolize the innovation. Related innovation takes awhile—like a slinky effect.

Farm labor migrated to cities by the hundreds of thousands during this urbanization, pushing farmers to embrace industrial practices before electrification, stainless steel, refrigeration, pharmaceuticals, nutrient cycling, building design and machinery developed to metabolize the new industrial farming conditions. This lag created mud lots and hog cholera epidemics around the nation. Ditto for dirty dairy. Ditto for poultry diseases. Routinely feeding antibiotics to farm animals in order to keep them alive in crowded mono-species conditions was still two decades away.

Meanwhile, in the quiet revolution occurring at Malabar Farm in Ohio (Louis Bromfield), the Rodale Research Center in Pennsylvania , Ed Faulkner's trials (Plowman's Folly), William Albrecht in Missouri and other giants of the ecological farming movement, the infrastructure and understanding to complement Howard's composting innovations were gaining ground. Efficient chippers to reduce biomass into decomposable and easy-to-handle pieces became widely available.

Hydraulics finally made their way onto farms in the early 1960s. By the 1970s, 4-wheel drive tractors were available, which made hydraulic front end loaders affordable and efficient even for a small farm.

Meanwhile, electric fence came of age in New Zealand during the early 1970s. What had been a cumbersome and undependable innovation became highly dependable, energy efficient, and incredibly portable. For the first time in human history, large scale commercial herds and flocks could be controlled efficiently to mimic the movement patterns of massive natural flocks and herds. Ration exchange capacity, magnetized foliar feeding, and a host of other earth-shattering developments occurred in this renegade world.

But the culture was fixated on irradiation, genetically modified organisms, DDT, Agent Orange, oxytetracyclene and the techno-glitzy innovations coming from the chemical-industrial paradigm. The Polyface paradigm was shunned like an ugly stepsister. You didn't read about it on the front page of the New York Times.

From 15-year UV-stabilized canvas covers, extruded steel tubing for hoophouses, meticulous planting and harvesting machinery to our own pigaerator compost innovations utilizing symbiosis and synergism, the innovation and high-tech natural solutions to food production were just as profound—and certainly less risky—than the highly publicized chemical-industrial discoveries. So when the industrial food advocates accuse Polyface of wanting to return to hog cholera, it's disingenuous in the extreme—nothing could be further from the truth. They assume that while the chemical-industrial system innovated, the ecologically- sensitive system remained static. That's ridiculous. Polyface is not Grandpa's farm. Anyone visiting Polyface will see, in just a few minutes, a dozen high tech innovations Grandpa could not even have imagined.

And the truth is that if the same time, energy, and creativity invested in chemical-industrial models had been leveraged on composting, chipping, and portable infrastructure, America would be producing far more food today than chemicalized mono-cultures, with more nutrient density, building soil instead of continuing to erode it, without a Rhode Island-sized dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and would not have poisoned eagles, frogs, and salamanders. That was a long sentence. Now catch your breath.

4. Western research does not measure whole systems. The naysayers from the United Nations and corporatized research institutions like land grant colleges measure only one component when they study indigenous, diversified food production systems. They only measure rice production; they don't measure rice plus ducks, plus duck eggs, plus tilapia, plus arugula and bok choy. The fact is that these highly choreographed symbiotic systems produce more food per acre, in aggregate, than the most heavily fertilized genetically modified rice because to produce that rice, the paddy is too toxic to support ducks, fish, and salad greens.

This kind of compartmentalized, agenda driven research permeates countless official findings and government reports. This junk science finds a home every day in the media and the minds of duplicitous people.

5. Contrary to popular thought, Polyface pastured systems do not take one iota more land than Tyson factory chicken houses—or any other Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) for that matter. The alleged land efficiency of a CAFO is a charade. What do you think those animals eat? They eat grain. And where do you think the grain is grown? Somewhere. Maybe not there, but somewhere. The point is that those CAFOs are not stand-alone entities. Imagine, extending out from each one, acres and acres, even square miles, of subsidized annual grain production.

At Polyface, the omnivores that do eat grain substitute a portion of it with perennial salad bars, so if anything, our production model requires less land than CAFOs when all is said and done. And beyond that, perennials thrive on land that would not be suitable for tillage. This difference opens up countless more acreage to the food production pool. The bottom line is that empirically, Polyface produces more food per acre than industrial-chemical systems, and is in fact the most efficacious way to feed the world. You can sleep peacefully, knowing that you really are part of the solution.

Now let's talk about price, and specifically why Polyface food costs more than industrial-chemical supermarket counterparts.

1. Polyface receives no subsidies. Period. No handouts, no drought assistance, no crop insurance, no direct payments, no grants, no nothing. Polyface will not encourage your taxes to rise.

2. Our food is worth more. Is anyone angry that a BMW costs more than a Camry? Why do we assume we should have BMW food at Camry prices? People who think everyone should drive a BMW at Camry prices is living in la-la land.

3. All the costs are figured in. Supermarket prices are notoriously externalized. The cost of stinky air, antibiotic-resistan t super bugs, pollution de-tox, Type II diabetes, obesity, subsidies, cheap fuel, and horrendous working conditions are not paid for at the cash register. At Polyface, the food is honestly priced. When all the externalized costs are figured in, ours is the cheapest food in the world.

4. People should pay more for food. Why do people need $100 designer jeans with holes already in the knees? Who needs Starbucks? Who needs Disney? Who needs soda, tobacco, frozen pizza and McDonald's? Candy? Flat screen TVs? iPods? The point is, plenty of money exists for everyone to eat like kings. It might mean doing without some items, but most of us could do without stupid things if we gain health and treasure. That seems like a legitimate tradeoff.

5. Buying unprocessed changes the picture. Processed food is not cheap. You can buy 10 pounds of potatoes for the cost of one bag of potato chips. You can buy a whole pound of Polyface grass-finished ground beef for the cost of a Happy Meal. When you buy unprocessed food and discover the joy of domestic culinary arts, you can afford top of the line everything compared to eating processed junk. Rules of thumb: if the label contains anything you can't pronounce, the cost just shot through the roof. If you can't make it in your kitchen, you just subcontracted something expensive and mysterious. Everything you buy should rot. If it doesn't, it's not food. And if it was not available before 1900, it's foreign to your internal 3 trillion member digestive bacterial community. Hot dogs were introduced at the 1890 World's Fair, so eat up.

6. Unscalable government regulations account of many of the higher costs in local foods. The food police are heaping on more burdensome regulations that increase overheads for small processing facilities. When a small abattoir receives the same paperwork from the food police each week as a mega-facility, the costs to read, fill out, and process that paperwork are the same whether the plant does 5,000 pounds a week or 100,000 pounds. Food safety regulations always discriminate against small producers and create prejudicial pricing in the marketplace.

Every time you ask for more government regulations to police the food industry, Polyface prices rise twice as much as industry prices. The Food Safety and Inspection Service has overhauled regulations three times since its inception in 1908: 1947, 1967, and 2000. Within 18 months of each of those events, the U.S. lost half of its neighborhood processing facilities. Regulations always, always, always, hurt the little guys more than the big guys. For more information, read Everything I Want to do is Illegal, by Joel Salatin. Ha!

If Americans had food freedom of choice, entrepreneurial cottage-based and community-sized food businesses would run Wal-Mart right out of business. Supermarkets have only existed for 60 years. If our culture would return to the food freedom enjoyed 60 years ago, supermarkets would soon be obsolete due to the aggregating power of the internet. If that could happen, prices would plummet as efficiencies and economies of scale permeated local food businesses. In many ways, these high prices are arbitrary and capricious, created by the food police.

Many people balk at this, asking: "Isn't it really the mega-corporations that push this? You're not really saying government is to blame, are you?" Businesses don't scare Polyface at all. They don't build jails, send people with guns and handcuffs, or run courtrooms. When former Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine visited Polyface for a private tour in the fall of 2009, he asked about our interaction with Tyson and Cargill.

Here is how we answered him: "Governor, they don't scare us a bit. They can't do anything to us. But what they do is wine and dine you, fill your head with bogus pseudo-science and prejudice, and then send you out to marginalize, demonize, and criminalize agricultural and food choice. It is your responsibility, and the responsibility of every elected official, to protect those who travel the road less taken from being annihilated by the lords of the status quo. A society is known by tyranny or freedom based on how it protects the alternative thinkers. And the more fragile, precarious, and unstable a culture, the less tolerant it is toward those who think differently. "

Volume and price. There it is. We want you articulate, educated, and ready to stand self-confidently, defending the right and reason of patronizing Polyface food. Now go take over the world.

(If you haven't already, read The Omnivore's Dilemma and watch Food, Inc!)


Kumi said...

Nagai ne~. Yomu no ga, iya ni nacchau yo. Shashin mo irete kureru to yomiyasui no ni...

MamaM said...

I don't understand this post...

Esther said...

I like this. I wish there were more farms like this around so that we could buy our food there. Do you know how to find out where other farms like this are?