Ecological Eating

ACRES USA

ECOLOGICAL EATING

by Joel Salatin

As farmers, we enjoy conversations about soil, water, animal husbandry, horticulture and every other kind of production nuance. That’s as it should be. But all of this production is meaningless without someone to use it.

Obviously the industrial food system has a lot of users. Whether those users are lazy, ignorant, evil or just plain unconscious is anybody’s guess. But if we’re ever going to get ecological farming more widely practiced, we obviously need more ecological eaters.

How do we move ecological farming forward fastest? Is it by converting farmers, or converting people who buy our stuff? Certainly both need attention, but I’ll submit that we don’t put enough responsibility on customers. While we farmers shoulder the brunt of accusations regarding depleted soils, tasteless food, animal abuse, and pathogen-laden fare, by and large consumers escape with excuses.

Part of our marketing as ecological farmers, both corporately and individually, is to put some onus on our constituency to drive demand for a different farming paradigm. Farmers and the food system have always risen to market demand. Letting our customers off the hook as just victims of advertising is an excuse that doesn’t serve our soil well.

Those of us who understand the problems and the solutions need to articulate this responsibility on our advertising fliers, to our farm visitors, and in our collective voice. Factory farming exists because people buy factory farmed stuff. Hot Pockets exist because people buy them. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) exist because people buy them.

I’m tired of urban folks looking into a camera and saying they can’t find an alternative to the supermarket. I’m tired of fast food outfits saying they can’t find enough ecological food. I recently fielded a set of questions from a representative for four nearby universities who wanted to buy non-industrial food but said it could never be produced in enough quantity. Suddenly these big buyers have a caveat for their student agitators: “we can’t find enough.”

I have news for these folks: “If you really mean business, we’ll produce it. But you won’t come out of your fraternity and talk to us.” Thousands of ecological farmers are able and willing to double their production. Thousands more are waiting in the wings to join us. The weak link is market desire. For ecological farming to thrive, we need a cultural shift to ecological eating.

Here are some protocols for ecological eating that offer positive messaging to our customers and buyers as a whole. Rather than browbeating them for being naive, lazy, ignorant or whatever else we can rant about, let’s give our customers the language to join us as team players and then to become our recruitment force.

  1. SAFE.   This may seem like a no-brainer, but our side too often plays defense on this issue. Let’s take the offense. Let’s start with some soft questions–almost rhetorical for their simplicity.

Do you feel safer in a crowd or at home?

Do you trust your neighbor more than a foreigner? (This has nothing to do with xenophobia. It’s just a straight-up intuitive question, without malice or prejudice)

Do you trust what you know more than what you don’t know?

Do you trust friends more than bureaucrats?

I won’t belabor the questions, but you see the drift. Ultimately, safer food comes from smaller establishments that we know that are operated by neighbors and friends. That’s not some crazy leap of faith; it’s as reasonable as it is intuitive.

Sure, we can go into the empirical numbers, showing that pathogenic food by and large comes from the largest processors shipped the farthest operated by corporations in bed with regulatory bureaucracies. But as soon as we head down that path, the other side jumps on unfair statistics. Our side is too small for comparison. Our side is under-reported.

Ultimately, all arguments are won or lost at the heart level. Emotion always trumps science because our ears hear and eyes see only what our paradigm (emotions) allow us to see. Upton Sinclair is attributed with first noting that it’s awfully hard for a person to see something when his paycheck depends on believing something else.

The industrial food system and its lackeys in the USDA and FDA, along with medical and pharmaceutical orthodoxy, have demonized compost, home kitchens, raw milk, and pastured livestock long enough. To be sure, some of the most unsanitary production I’ve seen is on small farms purporting ecological and pasture-based protocols. But even those pale in actual food safety infractions compared to the track record of the industrial counterpart.

Anyone with a lick of wisdom exhorts parents to know where their children are and who they’re with. Would any mom send her 5-year-old to a sleepover with strangers? Is it too much to ask that same mom to exercise as much precaution over the food that her 5-year-old ingests?

Would anybody excuse a mom for not checking out the aforementioned sleepover host family because she “just didn’t have time?” Or “I just don’t know what I’m looking for.” Of course not. And yet people use these excuses all the time to justify patronizing the industrial food system. In any other area of life, we’d scream: “Why didn’t you check it out?” But with food, somehow, faith in the supermarket trumps all improprieties.

So far, we’ve only addressed pathogenicity in this food safety discussion. We haven’t even addressed nutritional deficiency, long-term chemical residue affects, or local economies. That’s another whole level of responsibility under the broad heading of safe, but no less important and no less potent. Rather than apologizing for compost and small-scale, localized systems, we need to be the side titled “safe” and push customers to tell us why friends, neighbors, homes, and pronounceable labels are less safe than industrial counterparts.

This is why we ecological farmers love Sally Fallon and the Weston A. Price Association. This is not an organization of farmers. It’s an organization of no-nonsense truth-seeking moms, for the most part, who dare to defend their families in the food arena. Probably no group has done more to promote an ecological farming agenda, and brought more unsolicited customers to good farmers, than WAPF. Thank you.

  1. SUITABLE. Ecological eaters realize that the production, and by extension, their menus, need to suit the environmental nest. This speaks to carrying capacity, waste streams, collateral damage, and externalized costs.

Recently I’ve been quite chagrined with all the predictions about ocean fisheries failing. Several years ago, I decided, as a matter of personal choice, to quit eating seafood unless I was near the ocean. Who needs salmon in Denver? Clam chowder in Kansas City? I’m naming these two because I dearly love both of them–anytime, anywhere.

But sometimes you just have to ask the question: “Does this fit here?” It’s a simple question with broad ramifications. So when I’m in New England, I eat cranberries whenever I can. But I don’t buy them at our local Kroger. They’re there, and available. They’re not even very expensive. Food writer guru Michael Pollan often says that most Americans eat thoughtlessly.

Just imagine if this kind of thinking entered the majority how it would change buying habits, food chains, distribution networks, and advertising. Lest

anyone call me a food tyrant, I have my own hypocrisies. My family knows I’m a banana-holic. I love citrus. But I have an excuse: for the first four years of my life, our family farmed in Venezuela, near the equator. We had papaya, pineapples, bananas, in the yard, all we wanted. Give me a break.

Festive food and indulgences are all part of a varied and cosmopolitan food culture. But what’s the staple in our diets? Two years ago while doing some seminars in Spain I stepped out of my upscale villa, paid for by my upscale hosts, for a breath of fresh air. To my utter astonishment, in walked an American tourist family carrying bags of McDonald’s under their arms. Really?

This suitability idea goes far beyond regional production capabilities. Does the food fit the ecology? In our region of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, we’re known as the turkey and chicken capital of the mid-Atlantic region. Not because we produce grain. Not because we have more people eating poultry.

It developed largely because of a poultry entrepreneur named Wampler who figured out how to grow turkeys in confinement houses. Today, our area imports train loads of grain to feed the poultry industry. Meanwhile, the grain production areas are deprived of the manure that would grow sustainable crops.

And all that manure is turning the valley into a septic tank. With our carst geology, commonly known as swiss cheese limestone (lots of caverns), all that excess manure pollutes groundwater and streams. So, dear eater, does the food on your plate fit the ecology in which it was grown, or is it an invasive system? An abusive system? A toxic system?

Does it suit, or fit, the landscape? Or is it an eyesore, nose sore wound on the ecology? Asking if it suits sets up a domino effect of accountability. When more people realize that what they see plopped on their plate ultimately creates what they see plopped on the landscape, they’ll start deciding more consciously who to patronize with their food dollars. That would be a good thing.

In your farm fliers, your interactions with customers, your interviews with the media, look folks in the eye and ask: “Does it suit?” That’s not an easy question to answer, but the struggle yields “aha!” moments that garner more loyalty to the road currently less traveled. And that can make all the difference.

  1. SEASONAL. Ecological eaters understand the seasons. Allan Nation, editor of Stockman Grass Farmer, tells the story about a New York Times food writer asking him for a lead to a New York farm where he could buy a fresh grass-finished steak.

“What day is it?” Allan asked.

“Feb. 20,” the journalist replied.

“What do you see outside your window?”

“Three feet of snow.”

“Any grass?”

“No.” Pregnant pause. “Oh, I never thought about that,” said the contrite journalist.

Eating ecologically means embracing seasonal ebbs and flows. This is why I have such an ongoing dislike of supermarkets. More than anything else, they have created the illusion of human independence. People routinely ask me how they can know that the beef, or pork, or chicken, or lettuce, or whatever in the supermarket is the real deal. I frustrate them to no end with my standard response: “Don’t buy at the supermarket.”

And as an aside, that means I’m not interested in getting my stuff in the supermarket. I was in a good-sized food coop the other day and the general manager confessed to me: “Kroger’s organic section is kicking our tails.” Some see this as progress; I don’t. I see it as a new level of ignorance, aimed squarely at my constituency.

Instead of buying bulk grass-finished beef when it’s available, or bushels of tomatoes in September, the supermarket organic section sucks away my constituency to buy imported Mexican tomatoes in January and New Zealand beef. With favored-nation status and maritime distribution concessions, it’s cheaper to ship a pound of beef from New Zealand than it is for me to put it on a truck and send it 20 miles in America.

What’s wrong with waiting for that first tomato in May? What’s wrong with waiting for the flush of egg laying that accompanies spring in the northern hemisphere? Buying in season, buying during the flush of production, stockpiling a domestic larder for off-season menus–this is the stuff of normal food flow. This kind of mentality adds huge market potential for ecological farmers.

Canning, fermenting, freezing, dehydrating, curing and other culinary practices all developed throughout human history to answer the seasonality reality. These practices are as relevant today as they’ve ever been and can fill in the gaps top create year-round abundance.

Here’s the bottom line: our ecological farmers are subject to seasonality. In fact, factory farms are the antithesis of seasonality. That’s easy to see. If we’re on the same team, dear eater, then you’ll join me in eating seasonally, riding my ebbs and flows from the field to the plate. That’s eating responsibly and thoughtfully. Anything else is both thoughtless and arrogant, and I’m sure no self-respecting eater wants to be thoughtless and arrogant.

  1. Simple.  Few things define the current debauchery of the American food system like the additive/stabilizing/processing industry. While factory farms certainly have their place in the anti-ecological category, the unpronounceable ingredient and laboratory-chemical manipulation system deserve equal billing.

Although I don’t advocate supermarket shopping in general, I do agree that Michael Pollan captures the essence of the simple concept when he suggests that if you’re going to shop there, stay on the outside aisles. That’s where the raw, unprocessed things are. If we take that advice one step further, we move clear outside the supermarket and buy directly from farmers food that is in its natural, unaltered state. That means chicken with bones in it. Apples with a skin. Potatoes with peels. Eggs with a shell. Milk with cream on top.

In his iconic book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser connected the dots between highly processed convenience food available at fast food restaurants and the high mono-cropped, wasteful, single-trait dependent farm system America has developed. The farming landscape did not develop in a vacuum. The market that changed the farmscape developed when simple food quit appearing in America’s kitchens.

From potato chips to breakfast cereals to frozen microwavable dinners, highly processed foods absolutely and inevitably changed the production-scape into an ecologically devastating system. Cookie-cutter genetics, lack of diversity, and chemical short-cut fertilization spread across the farmscape like a cancer.

The quickest and probably easiest way to change that is to bring whole, raw, unprocessed foods back into our kitchens. I confess that as direct market farmers, this creates a tension for us when customers happily pay $10 a quart for chicken stock that should be a natural outgrowth of domestic culinary arts. Must all of us local food providers be required to eventually install commercial kitchens so our vegetables, meat, and poultry can be delivered via heat-and-eat convenience?

I’ve decided that the most identifying characteristic of an ecological eater is leftovers. The entire food system is moving toward single-serving, ready-to-eat consumables so we can graze individually across our food landscape without ever having to dine communally or prepare from scratch. Goodness, many folks today think that scratch cooking means you have to open a can–we’ve parsed the nuances of convenience to that extent. Is this crazy?

In the final analysis, preparing, processing, packaging, and preserving must be returned to their rightful dominant place–the domestic kitchen. We simply can’t have a mass exodus from homecentricity and preserve any nuance of integrity within the food system. Eaters must embrace this responsibility, entering and leveraging our kitchens as a badge of honor, the most valuable and important part of our homes.

When food enters the home simply, it insures a participatory component on the part of eaters. It also insures that farmers receive the lion’s share of the food value. That in turn channels food dollars directly onto farms rather than into the coffers of industrial processors who exhibit dubious ethics. In this way, buying simply becomes not a burden, but a joy to the ecological eater.

  1. SYMBIOTIC. Food worth eating comes from farms that exhibit complex and intricate multi-speciated relationships. That’s the way nature works and good farming practice should mirror that kind of symbiosis and synergy.

Ecological eaters need to understand that their food, during its growing, living time, was not just an isolated thing, but highly integrated into a biological nest. The contrast between eggs coming from a sophisticated factory farm and those coming from a pastured operation, for example, is quite profound. The factory eggs are segregated from any kind of living environment. In addition, the feed and waste streams do not enhance the nest in which the factory farm sits.

Rather, the isolated single-species and single-product model reduces symbiotic gains in situ. On our farm, in contrast, the chickens follow the cows in a synergistic choreography. The cows poop, which attracts flies, which lay eggs, which hatch into larvae (maggots). The chickens come along a couple of days after the cattle vacate the paddock, scratch through the cow pies, spreading them over and into the soil for better fertility capture, all as a part of finding and eating the maggots. In addition, the chickens eat newly-exposed grasshoppers and crickets in the freshly-grazed pasture, turning all that nutrition into eggs.

The chicken manure falls directly onto the pastures, where it offers a different blend of fertility than would otherwise be available from an herbivore-only production model. And nobody has to haul the manure away. Ecological food comes from these kinds of intricate relationships, and eaters therefore need to patronize farms that exhibit these principles.

The question an ecological eater should ask is this: “How many beings, both plant and animal, did the parents of this food on my plate dance with during its life?” That’s not a silly question. It speaks to the heart, the essence, of eating ecologically.

  1. SEAMLESS. When you chart the route of the food on your plate to your house, what does that path look like? The more direct the better. I call this seamless eating, and it’s a fairly easy way to capture the mechanics of ecological eating.

Transportation, distribution, warehousing–these tell a tale of energy use, freshness, and ultimately genetic selection. For many years now, tomatoes have not been selected for nutritional superiority, taste, or culinary performance. They’ve been selected for the ability to ride in a jostling tractor trailer for a few thousand miles without turning into pulp. Indeed, their cardboard characteristics are quite obvious in both taste and texture. Yuck.

If energy costs escalate, the convoluted paths of food distribution will become obvious for what they are: energy intensive. The shorter the path between field and fork, the more direct it is, the easier to accomplish environmental accountability. That said, I’d be unfair to acknowledge that too often in today’s local food movement this direct path is still more energy costly than the indirect non-local path.

But this is primarily a symptom of economies of scale, not inherent inefficiencies. When Jolly Green Giant transports a tractor trailer load of green beans 2,000 miles, the energy cost per pound is actually less than on the bushel in the trunk of a car transported 30 miles to farmers’ market.   But that is simply a factor of scale.

If and when more people begin eating seamlessly, local, direct-sourced volumes will increase and enjoy the same kind of scale economies currently enjoyed by the industrial system. And with the advent of electronic aggregation, collaborative marketing, and urban drop points, the local food system is fast gaining ground on this weak link.

Localization offers a seamless option that insures not only accountability, but ultimate community-based food security. Historically, regions dependent on food imports have always been vulnerable to environmental, social, political, and integrity breaches. Bioregional food security carries ramifications beyond a warm fuzzy feel-good emotion. It’s survival. That’s kind of a good ecological idea.

These six principles, I submit, should be understood and endorsed by anyone purporting to be an ecological eater. Absent these, I’d call the person an imposter, a poser. Let’s be honest about the ethics and responsibilities of our movement and enjoin the eaters–not just the farmers–to appreciate the protocols of ecological eating. In doing so, we ultimately gain a more knowledgeable and loyal constituency. In church parlance, we gain a choir.

And if we’re ever going to see our movement capture the imaginations and hearts of more people, we need a bigger, louder, more passionate choir. Being honest about their need to show up for practice, to participate, and to understand their songs should not offend; it should encourage to better performance and better ministry. We desperately need more ecological eaters. Now go teach them.

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