Standing Toe to Toe with the Apologists for Industrial Farming
Tonight I am going to talk in a broad way about the politics of food and to examine the assumptions made by the apologists for industrial agriculture. I think it’s important when we come to the table and begin negotiations with the other side that we realize what a sales opportunity this represents. Those of us who support small-scale, pasture-based farming and a return to real food are selling an idea to our culture, an idea that is now so foreign to most people that it’s hard for us to conceive just how foreign it is.
Sometimes it’s good to step back and look in a realistic way at their assumptions and how they acquired them. I don’t like to use the word conspiracy; what’s happened to our agricultural and food systems is not a conspiracy but the logical result of a fraternity of ideas. These guys have all been to the same schools, and they all play on the same golf course. Or, as Jerry Brunetti says, they all licked the same golf balls that have rolled through the chemicalized turf.
It’s important for us to understand where they’re coming from in a mutually respectful way. I admit that from my perspective as a Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic, it’s actually hard for me to understand how these people can go down to the Presbyterian or the Lutheran church, sit in the pew and take the sacraments all the while dumping toxic chemicals on God’s earth. How can they sit there and not wrestle with the moral question of whether it matters that we encourage the pigness of the pig? The great questions of life, they don’t even wrestle with. How did this happen?
And so in my years of going to hearings and rubbing shoulders with people, including my own neighbors, who think I’m a bio terrorist, I’ve come to appreciate the essence of what they think.
I’ve made a list of twelve assumptions that we need to understand if we are going to appreciate how they think and if we are going to formulate an appropriate response—because it’s important for us in our daily life with friends, at the Little League game, at the elders’ meeting, at public gatherings, to be able to stand toe to toe and articulate our position in the politics of food.
ONE: YOUR SYSTEM CAN’T FEED THE WORLD
This is the number one assumption from the greater culture out there: your system can’t feed the world. If our system can’t feed the world, then we’re all just living in a pipe dream. How can we take a moral road advocating a system that can’t feed the world? People tell me that because I advocate a non-toxic agricultural system, I must want people to starve.
One day I sat down at a banquet in Washington state, and the guy next to me sits down and just looks at me and says: “Why do you want half a million Orientals to be blind?” Turns out he was a great advocate of genetically engineered “golden rice” to provide vitamin A to Asians, because otherwise they would go blind. Of course the reason lots of Asians are short of vitamin A is because they are using chemicals from the West that have nuked all the bokchoy and arugula and Chinese cabbage that were native around the rice paddies, along with the tilapia that ate the snails and along with the ducks that laid eggs and made meat and ate the algae. Truth be told, you have to eat ten pounds of golden rice in order to get the same amount of carotenes that you would get out of one serving of a vibrant green bokchoy or arugula.
So non-toxic, small-scale agriculture can’t feed the world? Let me paint a picture for you. In the early 1800s, a famous Austrian chemist named Justus von Liebig began doing vacuum tube isolations to find out what things are made of. In 1837 he introduced his findings to the world when he declared that everything in life—people, plants, animals, everything—is just a rearrangement of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous. N-P-K—that’s all we’re made of. That notion gradually developed into what we know today as chemical agriculture.
Now fast forward to about 1900 and we have a great panic in the world because Laura Ingalls Wilder finished going West, and there was no more West. Australia and the United States had both run out of virgin prairie for Europeans to exploit, and so there was a worldwide panic about how we are going to feed the world. With the Dust Bowl and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, everyone was asking how we were going to maintain soil fertility. This question absolutely occupied the world’s mind between the years of 1900 and 1930. This coincided with the height of the industrial revolution, so it was easy to embrace an industrial solution to the problem of declining soil fertility—just apply N-P-K fertilizer, that’s all we had to do.
In contrast to Justus von Liebig’s mechanical view of life, others proposed the radical idea that food, farming and biology are fundamentally non-mechanical systems. If the wheel bearing goes bad in your car, you can’t just leave the car parked on the side of the road, let it rest and come back ten years later to find that the bearings have healed. The difference with, and the beauty of, biological systems is that they are dynamic, they can heal, and aren’t we glad for that? A number of thinkers at the time, such as Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and John James Audubon, recognized a biological mystique embedded in the physical world. They noted that we differentiate between mechanisms and biology. And so we have these two radically different schools of thought, each pursuing a separate line of research.
Now it’s important to understand that with any innovation, it takes a while for the infrastructure, policy and knowledge that follows the innovation to metabolize so that it reaches the entire culture. For example, with the ecommerce boom, all the state governments are going into apoplectic seizures trying to figure out how to collect retail sales taxes when people don’t go to box stores and instead buy online and shelter their purchases from sales tax vendors. The innovation is in place, but it takes time for the metabolic cultural policy to catch up. Well, the same thing happened with these two very different proposals for solving the soil fertility problem.
One was chemical or mechanical, and one was biological. The biological effort was led by a British botanist named Sir Albert Howard. He had dedicated his life to studying the problem of soil fertility and in 1943 he announced his solution to the problem: aerobic composting.
Unfortunately, in 1943 the world was preoccupied with a little disturbance called World War II, and that disturbance funneled billions of dollars and the best and brightest of the world into the mechanistic path. It turns out that nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus—N-P-K—is what we need to make bombs. And so the Pentagon essentially financed the metabolic infrastructure knowledge to handle what Justus von Liebig proposed in 1837. Thus, the war effort financed to an unfair advantage the chemical approach to agriculture.
We need to understand that in 1943, when Sir Albert Howard brought composting to the world, we did not even have rural electrification in Augusta County, my county. Augusta County did not get rural electrification until 1957 and Georgia did not get rural electrification until 1965. Not only did most farms lack electricity in 1942, they did not have chippers. They did not even have tractors, they were still using mules in our county in the mid 1950s. There were no PTO-powered manure spreaders. Goodness, some farms were just starting to use metal instead of wooden pitchforks. The point is that when you’re composting, when you’re running fertility off real time solar biomass for decomposition, it involves a lot of materials handling, and materials handling was very difficult back then. Not only that, but I would suggest that it just goes with the masculine psyche to think that composting isn’t as cool as bombs. Bombs are way more sexy than compost.
Imagine you are a farmer in the 1950s, when we are ramping up industrial production again after the war. We needed to industrialize the farm because most of the workers had left the farm for jobs in the cities. And the starting gun goes off to solve the soil fertility issue. As a farmer, you can either buy a small amount of material in a bag very cheaply because it already has a production and distribution infrastructure, or you can find all your neighbors to go out with a pitchfork and try to machete up some biomass and tote manure around and spread it without a PTO-powered manure spreader—or a tractor or chipper or conveyer belt or any of those kinds of things that farmers have today. If you were a farmer in 1950, what would you do?
The point is, there was no Manhattan Project for compost. Had we had a Manhattan Project for compost, not only would we have fed the world, but we would have done it without making any three-legged salamanders, infertile frogs and a dead zone the size of Rhode Island in the Gulf of Mexico.
Today we have all sorts of high-tech infrastructure to leverage the scientific composting and pasture management that André Voisin, Sir Albert Howard, J. I. Rodale and other pioneers in the biological food movement brought to the table. We have solar-powered electric fences, electro-netting, front-end loaders, chippers, four-wheel drive tractors, PTO-manure spreaders, hoop structures, canvas coverings, band-saw mills and electro-magnetized sprays. We have all sorts of stuff to make composting and manure-spreading feasible, but it took over fifty years for our side without any government help to create the infrastructure to metabolize, leverage and capitalize on Sir Albert Howard’s 1943 gift to the world. And now that we have come to this point, we’re spinning circles around the other side.
Other points about feeding the world: remember, folks, the United States has thirty-five million acres of lawn. Let that sink in a little bit, thirty-five million acres of lawn. And we have thirty-six million acres for housing and feeding recreational horses, that’s seventy-one million acres, enough to feed the entire country without any farms or ranches. What do you mean, biological farming can’t feed the world? We’ve got plenty of land, plenty of ability to do just that.
What we need to do is attach chicken houses to every kitchen. Every kitchen should have an attached number of chickens to eat the kitchen scraps and keep them out of the landfill, and provide us with fresh eggs. If you can keep parakeets in your condominium, throw out the parakeets, they’re just nasty noise makers, and put in two chickens.
There’s a new book coming out called American Wasteland and it documents how America wastes 50 percent of all its human edible food. A lot of that waste happens through spoilage and long distance transportation. When the tomatoes come across fifteen hundred miles of jiggling, they get mushy unless you genetically breed them into cardboard so they don’t bruise. So spoilage from warehousing, storage and transport is a big source of waste. So don’t be shy about defending the fact that small-scale, local, pasture-based agriculture can feed the world.
TWO: YOU REJECT TECHNOLOGY
The next big political argument: You want us to go back to loin cloths, wash boards, hog cholera and tuberculosis, right? They absolutely think we’re just a bunch of Neanderthals, wanting to turn the clock back on technological evolution and everything modern. Here again, the scene is set for this attitude in the early 1900s. If you could go back and pick up all of the leading metropolitan newspapers in the land, you would find a recurring theme in every editorial page, from about 1908 to 1912, namely that cities in America were going to be consumed and implode under a mountain of horse manure because the country was urbanizing way faster than the infrastructure in cities could handle it. Remember we were still using gas lights in most places because electrification hadn’t arrived yet, we were just beginning to get plumbing, were just starting to clean up our water with sewage systems, we were just starting to replace the polluting horse with the car. The point is that the tip of innovation at that time was urbanization, yet we did not have refrigerators or sewers, and people were still taking one bath a winter. We did not have electric lights to see whether the floor was dirty, and you had to take the bed outside to look for bed bugs. We only washed utensils in surgeries between arm amputations.
It’s important to understand the context. Urbanization was crowding people into the cities and vacating the countryside before farmers had electric fences, canvas covers, concrete, pharmaceuticals, sanitizer soap, stainless steel, refrigeration or electrification. Farmers were beginning to industrialize their farms, people were beginning to crowd into the cities, and the combination of the two without the metabolic leveraging of these new technological innovations created rapid infectious diseases both in people and on farms due to the overcrowding and industrialization of each before the infrastructure was able to metabolize the new dynamics.
There’s a lag between innovation and metabolization—in business it’s called the “slinky effect.” Today we have a host of things that didn’t exist back then, which have enabled us to solve the kinds of problems that accompanied industrialization, starting in 1915 to about 1950. Unfortunately, a lot of the perceptions about food safety are still based on that two- to three-decade anomaly—crowding of people in the cities and crowding of animals on the farm—before industry gave us the rest and completed the picture.
When epidemiologists today tell us that raw milk is a bad thing, the first thing they’ll do is bring up 1940s data, all derived from that specific anomalous time period.
When our opponents say that we want to go back to the Neanderthal Age, they are assuming that we want to engage in biological farming without electricity, stainless steel and hot water. But this is not correct. What we want to do is to go back to the wise traditions of a heritagebased system along with all of the appropriate metabolic capacity to solve all the problems that occurred during the infantile stage, during the diaper phase of the industrial revolution.
NUMBER THREE: FOOD SAFETY INSPECTION SHOULD MEASURE PERFORMANCE
The assumption is that the food safety inspection service should measure performance in pounds of product per person hours of inspection. This concept might be new to you. The last time I testified at a congressional hearing was when Congressman Dennis Kucinich convened a meat safety hearing following that California operation where the downer cows were being picked up with a fork lift and taken into the abattoir. The first guy to testify in the hearing was the head of US Food, Safety, and Inspection Service. It actually shocked me to listen to him pat himself on the back and describe how much more efficient the department had become since there were no longer many neighborhood abattoirs and the inspectors could see so many more thousands of pounds of product per hour going past their noses. This was an unprecedented economy of scale, of productivity and efficiency, the likes of which we had never seen before! And it struck me—my goodness, why didn’t I think of this before—that these people measure performance in pounds of product going by their noses. That’s the industrial mindset.
This mindset really became apparent to me when a friend of mine started a little neighborhood abattoir. Now remember, the law says if you jump this hurdle, if you check all the boxes, and get the stamp of approval from USDA, then they will provide you an inspector for your abattoir. So he got all the stamps and cleared all the hurdles and then opened his door to start processing. They shut him down two weeks later because they said he was not fast enough. Now that’s not how the law reads. The law doesn’t say anything about speed.
So it’s hard for us to believe that in the mindset of the inspection service, they actually think they’ve arrived when they’re seeing a lot more things going by them, which means there is this massive prejudice in the entire system against anything small. A massive prejudice against us. They don’t like to stand there in a small plant, because they think they’re wasting their time. “Why should I waste my time?” I mean that’s a nice noble thing, isn’t it, to not want to waste time and the taxpayers’ money. And so they can feel very good about themselves because they’re against small plants, and they value their time and their co-workers’ time. That makes the inspector a very noble person.
The problem with this prejudice against smallness is that it discriminates against embryonic innovation. All innovation, the things that we are bringing to our culture, all have to start as a prototype. If they have to start big and fast, the embryo is too big to be birthed, and that’s the problem with non-scalable regulations.
NUMBER FOUR: FOOD SAFETY IS ALL ABOUT THE LETHAL DOSE
Lethal dose is the standard of toxicology, the standard in the industry. I’m reminded of Bill Wolf, who started importing Icelandic kelp into the US and selling it because of the high return he was getting. He branded it as a plant growth stimulant and, of course, to fill out a box on the paperwork for the EPA, he had to provide the lethal dose. Well, they were feeding these rats kelp and they just got healthier and slicker. So he’s scratching his head, “How do I check off the lethal dose box on this plant food?” So he finally got a five gallon bucket of water, put a little bit of his seaweed in there, dropped the rat in, drowned him, and put his check on the box. The problem is that when we go with the lethal dose idea, it often can’t be measured in any meaningful way.
What the industrial food system gives us is not a lethal dose but a long, slow death. As long as the food doesn’t make you drop dead right now, then it’s safe. And so our culture measures safety as the absence of a toxic reaction, and as a result we worship at the altar of sterility and antiseptic standards. This creates a food system that’s actually deadly for our three trillion-member internal community. Living food is full of bacteria. Cheese, sauerkraut, yeast, mold and living material: real food is biological.
Let me describe the results of a food safety research project of the USDA Agricultural Research Service at College Station, Texas. The hygiene hypothesis was first publicized in the early 1990s and has slowly gained currency among medical doctors, researchers and public health officials. This hypothesis states that the lack of exposure of children, as well as adults, to dirt, bacteria, and low levels of pathogens results in an immune system that does not function normally. The lack of antibodies to true pathogens has resulted in the dramatic increase in allergies and asthma in developed countries over the past twenty years. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology estimates that the number of people with some form of allergy has more than doubled over the last two decades. This trend has been largely attributed to the lack of true immunity. Because we are too sanitary, the human immune system becomes bored or over sensitized to any perceived threat and hyper-responds to non-threats like dust and pollen. We have run into the law of unintended consequences. We have never questioned whether the removal of all bacteria from all foods is actually beneficial to the consumer.
The crux of the hygiene hypothesis is that the immune system needs a low level of challenge stimulation to prevent immune system oversensitization. So we need to be very aggressive about saying that some bacteria are good for you, because bacteria exercise the immune system. Every child should eat a pound of dirt before he’s twelve. We should not be embarrassed to assert that our food should not be sterile. The only place we want sterile is in a surgery.
NUMBER FIVE: FOOD GETS SAFER THE FARTHER IT GETS REMOVED FROM THE FARM
“Farms are dirty.” We encountered this attitude when we started selling pork to Chipotle Mexican Grill, and their quality assurance people found out that we were going to take the pigs to the slaughterhouse, bring the meat back in vacuum baggies, put it in the refrigerator overnight, put it on the bus the next morning and send it to Chipotle. Their quality assurance people went nuts because “farms are dirty.” We couldn’t have that meat going back to our walk-in cooler because, you know, a farm is dirty. I guess they’ve never had a picnic on a farm. It’s as though the farther away that food gets from the farm, the cleaner it’ll get. If it’s dirty on the farm, so the thinking goes, the farther it gets away from the farm, the cleaner it gets. Cities are much cleaner than farms. This notion has been created by industrial farming.
We’ve all heard of Louis Pasteur and his germ theory. Well, we should all know about Claude Bernard, his French nemesis, who looked at Louis Pasteur and said: au contraire. Sure, there are germs out there, but when it comes to disease, what we should be looking at is the terrain. One of the greatest recants in history was Pasteur who, on his death bed, rose up on his elbow in a moment of awareness and was able to audibly say, “Bernard was right, it is all about the terrain,” and then he fell back and died.
But we still in this culture worship the germ theory. I know we do because if we didn’t we’d be far more concerned with getting the corn syrup vending machines out of our schools than giving our children a heavy metalized H1N1 flu vaccine. So entrenched is the germ theory in our culture that we go all out for eradication of diseases instead of assuming it is management’s fault.
The fundamental veterinary perspective today is that disease is caused by either germs or genetics. There’s nothing about the terrain in this science-based perspective. Let me ask you this: if we wanted to create a pathogen-friendly kind of farm, what would we do? Well, first thing we would do is go to just one species, eliminate all diversity, and then we would take those animals and crowd them together and eliminate fresh air and sunshine—make them breathe fecal particulate so they get nice lesions in their mucous membranes, allowing the fecal particulate to go right into their blood stream and poison their livers and kidneys. Of course, we would eliminate exercise, make sure they’re all couch potatoes. We’d put them on slabs of concrete and we’d feed them artificially fertilized junk food. What have I just described? Modern American farming, science-based farming.
The assumption is that factories are much cleaner than farms; that’s why I’m called a bio-terrorist in our community—because our pastured chickens are going to commingle with red-winged black birds who will take our diseases to the science-based environmentally controlled Tyson chicken houses and destroy the planet. We laugh, but trust me, my neighbors really believe that.
Last fall, I needed some sawdust so I called the sawmill where we’ve always gotten it before. The guy told me they didn’t have a truck anymore; they had subleased it to a guy up the road. So I called the guy, who said he’d be there about nine o’clock, no problem, with the truck loaded. Then he called back. He said, “You know, your name sounded familiar to me.” This guy lives just a few miles from us. “I found out you’re that guy. I wouldn’t bring you sawdust for anything, not for a million dollars. I wouldn’t bring it because you abuse your cows, you don’t vaccinate and medicate them, you abuse your chickens because you don’t give them hormones so they grow faster, you expose your pigs to the outdoors where they can get viruses.” The phone was melting in my hands. I didn’t ask him to come to a picnic with me or anything, I just wanted some sawdust. These people can feel extremely good about their moral high road in protecting the world from folks like me because, after all, they don’t want the world to starve.
So there’s a real societal prejudice against dirt. You know what, no other society has ever had the luxury of putting so little effort into acquiring, preserving, distributing and preparing food. This has led to completely aberrant thinking, namely, that a farm is a negative place to be.
NUMBER SIX: GOVERNMENT AGENTS ARE MORE TRUSTWORTHY THAN ANY BUSINESS PERSON
That’s definitely a cultural perception right now. We have our government schools to make sure everybody grows up worshipping government agents, so prejudice against business is a big deal. In fact, I would say this is even happening in the local food movement because many of our farmers are afraid to make a profit lest their businesses grow, and they’d be seen as evil business persons. We have seen the result in the decline of our imbedded businesses—the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker have been run out of town.
We have to understand that just because a person has alphabet soup behind his name and draws a government paycheck does not make him honest. The idea that college degrees make a government employee honest is ludicrous, just as ludicrous as the assumption that a divinity degree keeps a cleric from chasing his secretary.
Now, in all fairness, I’ve been to dirty farms. The first thing that comes up when you start impugning government agents is the fact that some farms are dirty. “Everybody is not as clean as you are,” they always say. I’ve visited some dirty farms, and I wouldn’t eat their stuff. There’s nothing about being small that necessarily makes you clean. But that’s the risk of life. And a local transparent food system creates integrity, just because it’s transparent.
So I concocted this idea of on a one-to-ten scale, one being a McDonald’s Happy Meal and ten being the meal that Aunt Matilda—with her backyard chickens, garden, root cellar, and pantry full of home-canned goodies—serves when she invites us over for Sunday lunch. Here’s the question: does the one need government oversight? Most people say yes. Does the ten? You’d be surprised how many people say yes, including Senator Jim Webb’s agricultural legislative aide. He says even the number ten needs oversight.
When Governor Tim Kane visited our farm, he came about a month before his term was up. I guess he thought it was safe then. Wonderful guy, he really got it. We got on the hay wagon and went around. Toward the end he said, “I want to ask you, how do you interface with agribusiness, with Monsanto and those people?” I said, “Governor, they don’t scare me at all because they don’t have guns and badges.” I said, “Governor, it’s your responsibility and the responsibility of every single other elected official to protect me from the agenda of those people.”
The New Testament, Romans 13, gives us the reason for government. The reason for government is twofold: number one, to be a terror to evil and number two, to be an encourager of righteousness. And when you see the movie Farmaggedon, or when you see the kind of cases that the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund takes on, you begin to realize that in many cases, our government has become a terror of righteousness and an encourager of evil. When government agents become the lackeys for evil corporate agendas, they abdicate their responsibility. And we need to be very clear about articulating this important fact: there’s nothing about a government paycheck that makes a man honest.
NUMBER SEVEN: CONSUMERS ARE IGNORANT AND NEED TO BE PROTECTED FROM THEMSELVES
“We can’t give you a choice; you might make a bad choice. People don’t know what’s correct or incorrect about food.” That’s their thinking. Let me ask you a question: how do you stimulate information, how do you stop ignorance? One of the best ways to encourage the curiosity to find information is to ensure the ability to make a bad choice and then to put responsibility on the person to find the answer. That’s how you stimulate informational curiosity. If we’re ever going to have an informed consumer, we have to allow responsibility for their food choice. If we eliminate food choice responsibility, then we’re always going to have an ignorant consuming populace. If someone makes all the choices for us, we quit learning about that topic because someone else has taken the responsibility. . . and if something turns out wrong, then it’s their fault.
The magazine Science News had a fascinating article, which said that with the penetration of the federal government into the state and local levels, there’s no way to prototype new political ideas. What if my county or your county or your city declared they were going to be a local-food-commerce, government-intrusion-free zone. So if you wanted to make pot pies in your kitchen and chicken broth from your backyard chickens and sell these at a farmers market, or you wanted to milk a cow in your yard and sell the milk to a neighbor, you’d be allowed to do all this. The problem is that if your city council or board of supervisors passed such a rule, your city or county would immediately be cut off from educational funding. You’d have your highway funds cut, the federal inspector at your local slaughter house would be terminated, and none of the farmers could sell their meat out of the area.
The point of this Science News article was, if we would allow political prototyping on a small scale, we could be extremely innovative in the political sector. Then to the people who say consumers are ignorant and have to be protected from themselves, we could point to this city or county and say, “Look, the hospital is empty, the IQ scores went up. We didn’t need a development transfer program to save farmlands because the farms are all profitable. Unemployment dropped to 3 percent because everybody is busy in this local food system, canning, preserving and pickling. Graphic artists have work, entrepreneurs are distributing and selling.” We all know the potential of freeing up local farm economies. We need to join together to advocate that kind of thing.
NUMBER EIGHT: RAMPANT ANTHROPOMORPHISM
That’s a big word—the kind you learn when you’re an English major, like me. Rampant anthromorphism, the attribution of human characteristics to animals or non-living things.
One reason we see so much of this today is because the only connection most people have to animals is with their pet cat or pet dog. There’s a complete lack understanding about animals on the farm. Recently Polyface was reported to animal control officers for animal abuse because a neighbor driving by saw our mob of cows standing there ready to move into their new pasture. They looked like a crowd, and since people don’t like crowds, she reasoned, these animals must be uncomfortable. So we had to go out and spend days with letters and visits and talking to officers and state veterinarians to get certified letters explaining that herbivores actually like to be in crowds.
Free range chicks. It’s abusive to control them with shelters, they want to run free, say our critics. But as soon as one gets out, all it does is spend the rest of the day running around the fence trying to get back in because it’s scared to death.
Shipping chicks should be outlawed, they say. “I wouldn’t like to be shipped three days in the mail. How would you like to be shipped three days in the mail?”
The reason chicks can be shipped three days in the mail is because when a hen lays a clutch of eggs, she doesn’t lay all those eggs at one time, she lays those ten eggs over ten days. And as she’s laying those eggs, she’s out eating and trying to build up body reserves for her incubation period. Since she’s off the nest, the first laid eggs get cool and that slows the embryo down enough so that by the time she lays her seventh or tenth egg and starts to actually set, the first egg is only about three days ahead of the tenth egg. And when it hatches three days before the last one, the chick sits quietly and waits until the last egg is hatched. If it hatched and took off running around, the mother hen would leave the nest at its most vulnerable time—when the eggs are almost ready to hatch and when they need warmth and the most careful environment possible— to go running after this wayward chick that’s running around. The other chicks wouldn’t hatch, or if they did hatch, they would die. And so the chicks don’t come out from under the hen until all the eggs have hatched. So chicks can take three days shipping, that’s a natural thing. They’re chicks, not people.
But see, we have this projected anthropomorphism on the animals. Electric fence, oh, it might hurt them. You’re talking to a guy who still believes in spanking. Castration. Oh my! Castration came along with domestication. What do you want to do, have all our animals fighting all the time?
My favorite is the insistence that we as humans have developed to the point where we don’t need to eat animals. Such a notion indicates not an evolution to a new state of cosmic Nirvana, heightened awareness and spirituality, but a devolution into a new state of ignorance and disconnectedness. The fact is, everything is eating and being eaten. If you don’t believe me, go lie naked in your flower bed for three days and see what gets eaten. You see, death is necessary for life. Decomposition precedes regeneration, and this cycle has profound meaning on the spiritual level. Without sacrifice there can be no life. And when your teeth chomp down on the chicken breast or the baby carrot or the salad greens, that mastication, that decomposition, that death, gives life to us. And so when we have our moment of silence, we thank the sacrifice, we thank the death of life to feed us and give us regenerative capacity.
NUMBER NINE: COWS CAUSE GLOBAL WARMING
A fact: there were almost three times as many pounds of herbivore in North America six hundred years ago than there are today. If herbivores cause global warming, we’d be very hot by now. What the herbivore does is eat the herbage that’s created by solar energy in real time and serves as a biomass growth re-starter. It’s the herbivore that restarts the biomass accumulation engine. Without the herbivore to eat it, herbage just desiccates. It gives off the same methane as it would inside the cow but without the redeeming capacity to restart and regenerate in moving the methane the other way into the ground. That’s why we practice the bio-mimicry of mob stocking on our farm; it’s the best way to get soil fertilization. This is an earth-healing system based on perennials instead of annuals, herbivores instead of omnivores.
If you really want to eat close to nature, eat grass-finished beef, and not so much chicken and pork. Pigs and chickens were always salvage animals, not the main driver of the biomass cycle. Herbivores represent portable instead of stationary infrastructure, multi-speciation instead of mono-speciation, biomass regeneration and decomposition instead of petroleum use, pasture-based instead of housing-based, local instead of global, in-sourced instead of out-sourced, holistic instead of compartmentalized.
NUMBER TEN: YOU ARE ELITISTS
“You are elitists, and I don’t like elitist,” say the critics. “If everyone can’t afford this food, then it’s not fair that anyone should have this food.” Ever hear that? I think it’s pretty amazing to call me an elitist for wanting to eat the food that my grandmother ate.
“But food should be cheap; if food isn’t cheap, then it’s not fair,” they say. Let me ask you something. Does anyone out there in the greater culture spend their money on things that are not necessary? I mean, think about the biggest food companies in the world, none of them is necessary: Taco Bell, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, tobacco, hundred dollar designer jeans with holes already in the knees. We spend a lot of money on things that are not necessary.
How do we get the price of this food down? The primary reason for the high price of our food is non-scalable regulations. If we could let people grow food and make food to sell without interferrence, this healthy food wouldn’t be expensive.
Of course, the best way to save money is to buy raw and process it yourself. Potatoes for ninety cents a pound instead of potato chips for ten dollars a pound. We’re a culture that has gadgetized and remodeled our kitchens so that we’re capable preparing food efficiently and expertly, yet we’ve never been so lost as to where the kitchen is. Today we’ve got bread makers, ice cream makers, slow cookers, time-bakers, all of this wonderful stuff that lets us prepare food in-house. We don’t have to buy DiGornio’s frozen pizza. Remember that one pound of Polyface grass-finished ground beef costs less than a McDonald’s Happy Meal. And I’ll back our nutrition up to that any time of day.
Second, healthy food is worth more, it’s more nutritious and better tasting.
Third, grass-based farmers charge a fair price, they’re not externalizing any of the cost. Actually, local pasture-based food is the cheapest food on the planet because it’s not sending anyone to the hospital with diarrhea—five hundred thousand cases of diarrhea caused by food-borne pathogens. What’s one case of diarrhea worth? I don’t know, but I’ll bet if you paid for it, out of your own pocket, it would have made chicken worth more than a dollar twenty a pound.
NUMBER ELEVEN: AMERICANS HAVE NO FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF FOOD CHOICE
This is the real kicker. Here’s the question folks: who owns me? If I can’t make choices that can hurt me, then I can’t make choices that can help me. A life without risk is no life at all. We can live a risk-free life in a bubble and a straight jacket. The idea that we can protect everyone with zero tolerance is ludicrous. Food safety, in fact, is subjective. It’s determined by people prejudiced against heritage-based food. You can feed your kids Twinkies, Coco Puffs and Mountain Dew but that raw milk, those compost-grown tomatoes and Aunt Matilda’s pickles might kill you. You can go hunting on a seventy-degree day and gut shoot a deer, drag it a mile through the squirrel dung, put it on the front of your Blazer and parade it around town in the heat of the afternoon sun, string it up in the tree in the backyard when you get home, let it hang for a week under a tree where the birds roost, and then skin it out, cut it up and feed it to your children. And that’s patriotic, that’s being a great American. . . but I can’t sell any home butchered pork to my neighbor.
Who owns me? What good is the freedom to own guns, worship, assemble and speak if we don’t have the freedom to choose how to feed our internal community of friendly bacteria—that’s a big community—to give us the energy to shoot, pray, assemble and preach.
With apologies to Martin Niemoller whose inscription adorns the US Holocaust Museum, let me give a WAPF rendition of that famous quotation. “First, they came for the moonshiners, and I did not speak out because I was not a moonshiner. Then they came for the drug dealers, and I did not speak out because I was not a drug dealer. Then they came for alternative health therapists, and I did not speak out because I was not an alternative health therapist. Then they came for me, an imbiber of raw milk, and there was no one left to speak for me.” Fortunately, there are more and more of us willing to speak out. These industrial ag folks had better get ready for a tsunami because we’re coming.
NUMBER TWELVE: FARMERS ARE DOLTS
Our cultural perception is that farmers are dolts. And that’s why I promote the idea of the Jeffersonian intellectual agrarian.
Just three weeks ago, I was coming back into the country after giving a talk at the University of British Columbia in Canada. When I showed the INS officer my passport he asked what I had been doing, and I told him I had given a speech at the UBC. Then he asked in a nonchalant way, “What do you do?”
“I’m a farmer,” I said. He pulled up smartly and gave me a dirty look. I thought he was going to lock me up.
“Don’t you be funny with me, man,” he said.
“But I am a farmer,” I said.
He put that passport down and he looked at me with the most sarcastic look. “Now since when do farmers go around making speeches?”
I felt like asking him whether he had ever heard of Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. The stereotypical redneck hillbilly D-student, they’re the only ones who can be in charge of our food supply. But we are going to have a much better food supply when we take our best and brightest and put them in charge of our food supply.
So you farmers, get prepared, man. Read eclectically, go to speech class, join Toastmasters. When we go to town and stand toe to toe with the people who believe the things that I have just laid out for you, we have to be erudite, we have to be articulate, and we have to have the self confidence to articulate our tsunami. We need engaged and articulate farmers, thousands more of them.
MAY YOUR CHILDREN LEARN GARDENING
These are the twelve most common attitudes that I encounter in my travels. If we’re going to have a good food system, we’ll need to articulate our arguments with confidence. We’ll need to show that anthropomorphism is a devolution to disconnectedness; we’ll need to defend the herbivorous biomass regeneration method of soil building. We’ll need to be involved, we’ll need to read Wise Traditions, we’ll need to go to conferences, and we’ll need to know our farmers.
And we’ll also need to get our kids involved in gardening, because it’s so valuable for children to play in the dirt, get some splinters and calluses, and get their immune systems encouraged. We’ve got children growing up today doing nothing but exercising their thumbs in front of that video screen. When your car crashes on that video game, you wait ten seconds and you get a new car. When your guy is attacking the bad guy and gets killed, you wait ten seconds and the game gives you a new guy.
Life isn’t that way. Kids need to realize that the world is bigger than just what they have in their fingertips with this fantasy play thing. They need to know that when frost or drought happens and the plant dies, you don’t wait ten seconds and get a new plant. When the rabbit dies because you didn’t feed it, it doesn’t just resurrect the next day. It’s real pain, it is real life and death, it’s not just gamesmanship.
Gardening and farming prepare our young people for life with humility and awe rather than hubris. We can bring that to them, that’s what we’re supposed to be about. That is the politics of food.
And now, may all your carrots grow long and straight, may your vibrancy draw your friends and family into your fold, may your kombucha taste really good, may your children glow with round faces and broad arches, may the wind be always at your back, the rain fall softly on your garden, your children rise up and call you blessed, and may we give our culture a political agenda that is righteous, sacred and true, leaving the world better than we found it.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2010.