Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Industrial vs. Local

The industrialized food system that sustains us all is clearly an abomination to anyone who has bothered to educate themselves and scrutinize it.  Most that I know have not and will not do so, because knowing what's behind that curtain will force changes they aren't willing to make.  Its only real proponents are those who are using it to line their pockets at our expense. It's only "cheap" when you ignore the fact that it damages not only our health but threatens our very existence.  The farmers I've met who are a part of it are rarely enthusiasts, but rather cogs in the machine that they cannot separate themselves from.  Most know little of the chemicals they use (often not even their names, in fact, as much spraying is outsourced), and I suspect that's in large part due to a desire *not* to know.  They know full well that such knowledge might force them to end their use in order to maintain a clear conscience, and thus lead to financial ruin.

So what about the small "local" farms that are the darlings of any local/sustainable foodie?  Show me one, and I'll point out some fundamental shortfalls, many of which I'm intimately familiar with.  Almost without exception, they're purchased and/or sustained with an inheritance, the proceeds from a previous well-paid career, or a spouse who kept their "regular" job and family health insurance. Many work to promote the sustainability image while making significant short-cuts, whether that's the liberal use of diesel fueled equipment, the use of chemically grown feed for their pastured livestock, or poorly compensated intern labor.  The well known Joel Salatin scores a hit on nearly all of these (inherited farm, chemically grown feed, lots of diesel fuel, and loads of interns).

Doubling your food budget by going organic and/or local doesn't really cut it, as these farms are not truly viable even at their seemingly inflated prices. The fact of the matter is that producing food responsibly makes it just as expensive as it was historically, when people typically spent 40-50% of their income on food rather than the current 10-15%.  Historically, farmers (of which most were and will again be) had significant advantages as well.  A lower population made for a greater relative resource base, with consequently lower land costs. A pre-industrialized atmosphere made for greater climate stability and better odds of a successful crop.  The inter-generational accumulation of farming knowledge was unbroken as well, though perhaps the internet will fill some of that gap for us while it's still around.

It probably goes without saying, but a return to spending 50% of our income on de-industrialized food means big changes are in store.  That nice big house will be traded in for something more like the size of a typical garage, or will become a multiple family residence, or -- even more likely -- abandoned in favor of a location with enough land to grow food.  Forget about the car (or paved roads to drive it on), washing machines, retirement, or most anything that has arrived on the scene in the last 150 years.  Forget about the MRI for that head injury, or drugs for dealing with depression.  There'll be no stairmaster or gym membership, and no need for either. There'll be no closet full of plastic clothes from China, cell phones, nor TVs for whiling away your days and fomenting a desire for consumer goods (you'll be too busy anyway).  It'll be no panacea, but many of the changes will undoubtedly be big improvements over the status quo, probably making it a wash overall.

Can we return there?  Should we?  Do you think we really have a choice?


Katzcradul said...

There are worse thing to be said about a fellow than that he inherited a farm and is continually striving to improve it. It remains to be seen if Salatin's operation is scalable, but I'd hate to poo-poo his efforts this early in the game. I think even he would agree that he's still trying to figure it all out...if that's even possible.

David Veale said...

Don't mean to pick on Salatin, (most of whose books I've read and whom I admire), but as such a prominent member of the local/sustainable foods movement, I felt he makes a good example of what still needs to be done. I would assume he is in fact turning a profit, though I suspect that would cease to be the case if he were to address the shortcomings.

Myeloman said...

We, as a society, didn't get to where we are overnight and much of the knowledge of how things were done before the internal combustion engine and the industrial revolution has been forgotten. That said we won't get back to a place of environmental friendly stewardship overnight. I commend Joel for the steps he has taken. Does he have more work to do? Sure, but we all do and he has cultivated a great presence and audience with which to spread the message. Point being, it has to start somewhere, and he's making a start. I grew up on a farm not far from where you are and I didn't know any better than the way my father and his cousins and uncle farmed. I know now that things like Roundup are not good at all for the environment and that cattle should be grazed on various grasses instead of being penned in a barn and fed corn. I don't farm now, but I do garden organically and we are adding laying hens to our urban farm (huh, I guess we do farm, just on an extremely micro level!). We'd love to cut our dependence on the local supermarkets but it's not practical, there aren't enough other like minded individuals to provide the variety of services and goods we need. So, we do what we can and try to teach others how to be better stewards of the land. Sadly most of them don't want to see the bad we as humans do, they just want to enjoy their gas guzzling cars and satellite tv...

David Veale said...

I certainly don't have a bone to pick with Salatin, but considering the fact that he is considered by so many to be the "gold standard" of sustainable farming (a term which is for the most part an oxymoron), I think we have a very long way to go yet -- and very little time to get there if we value our descendants' lives.

The population we've built up over the last century, imho, has placed such a human load on this planet that I don't think it could be sustained without the use of fossil fuels. Their continued use, however, will wipe us off the planet within this century. We've backed ourselves into a corner from which we no longer have good choices, but I like to think that we do have survivable options left.