Carnivorous Consumption Keys Planetary Health (Joel Salatin)

November 14, 2010

Carnivorous Consumption Keys Planetary Health, keynote speech by Joel Salatin, Saturday 11/13/10 at "The Politics of Food" Wise Traditions Convention, King of Prussia, PA

“Our culture generally embraces the wonder of animals' ecological symbiosis on nature programs, but does not understand the same principles when applied to domestic livestock on farms and ranches. The combination of poor farming practices and the Bambiizing of America have colluded to make human carnivores politically incorrect. But animals and humans can relate symbiotically to heal land, economies, and people.”

The following is a transcription and adaptation by me (Sarabeth Matilsky). Any mistakes are undoubtedly mine, although I made an effort to leave out any details or insert a (?) when I felt unsure about Joel Salatin's intended meaning.


We're selling an idea to our culture. It's so foreign to so many people, that it's good to step back and look in a realistic way at the fraternity of ideas and myths that stands in our way. It's a good idea, in a reasoned, mutually respectful way, to understand where “they” are coming from. It's hard for me to understand how these folks can dump toxic chemicals on the ground, and not wrestle with the moral question of encouraging the pigness of the pig, but still: I've come to appreciate that it's important to appreciate how They think.

Here are the number one misunderstandings we face:

1. “Your system can't feed the world! You want people to starve!”

Ultimately, if our system can't feed the world, how _can_ we take a moral stand?

In 1837, Justin von Liebig did vacuum tube isolations to determine what things are made of. His findings developed into the marketable product of synthetic fertilizers for the as-yet not invented industrial agriculture movement.

In 1900, you have to understand, there was a great panic because there was no more West. Australia and U.S. had run out of land for Europeans to exploit. “How will we feed the world?” people were wondering. “How will we maintain soil fertility??” Everyone was wrestling with these questions for thirty years or so.

Meanwhile, apart from this mechanical view of agriculture (we need to bend mother nature to our will in order to survive), another idea was developing: that food and farming and eating is a biological system, dynamic, and able to heal. Albert Howard, in 1943, presented his conclusion to the question of how we can best meet the challenge of growing enough food for hungry eaters: utilize modern, scientific, aerobic compost.

These two schools of thought, the mechanical and biological teams, were both doing their research. But in context, you have to understand: there's always a point during innovation, where it takes a while for the current infrastructure to metabolize information to reach the level of the innovation. (It's happening right now. Computers and the internet have been around for a while now, but great minds are still trying to figure out: how do we collect online sales tax when consumers are never even setting foot into the big box stores anymore?? The capabilities of the technology have outpaced the infrastructure for understanding it.) I call this the metabolic cultural capacity to absorb information.

So: back to the farm. It's 1943. At this time, you have to understand, farmers were working extremely hard, with absolutely no modern conveniences as we know them. No concrete, no plumbing, no rebar, no tractors, and in some cases (until 1965 in some counties!!) no electricity to run a lightbulb. And the thing is, the world was preoccupied. That little disturbance known as WWII funneled millions of dollars, and the best in the world, toward (among other pursuits) looking at other uses for NpNk, of which there was a lot being produced, for all those bombs. The pentagon essentially financed the metabolic infrastructure of knowledge toward what Justin Von Liebig was offering: the chemical approach to farming.

Now, many people might think that bombs are a lot more sexy than compost, although I might argue that a lot more sex is happening in a compost pile than in the bombs. But in any case, this is what happened: we ramped up to handle the factory industrial economy, and the urbanization of America was in full swing. People were fleeing the farms in droves (who wants all that backbreaking work with no modern conveniences?), yet more and more people wanted to eat.

And now, give any of those remaining Overworked Farmers a couple of choices for increasing their yields and maintaining soil fertility: use this bag of fertilizer with instructions for simple application; OR, spend lots of time each week to machete up some biomass with some neighbors, using pitchforks and hard labor.

Remember, this was an era where there just weren't many labor saving devices, and life was _hard_. Any farmer in his right mind took the bag of handy fertilizer. My point: there was no Manhattan project for compost.

Now we've got all these crazy, convenient ridiculous things. We can take indoor showers, we've got hoop houses, and electricity, and tractors, and we can turn a manure pile in no time flat. But it took _50 years_ for our side, without any government help, to create the infrastructure to capitalize on the leverage we've got to metabolize compost.

When people say, “But you can't feed the world!”, remember: there are 35 million acres of lawn in the U.S. There are another 36 million acres devoted to the pasture of recreational horses. Just this land is enough to feed the entire country, _without_ farms or ranches. We've got plenty of land. Attach chicken houses to every kitchen, and feed them your scraps. Get rid of all the parakeets in the suburbs, recycle the cage, and raise chickens to lay your eggs.

According to “American Wasteland,” America wastes 50% of the edible food that's currently being produced. Spoilage and long distance transportation account for all that.

There is plenty of food in the world.

2. “You want us to go back FARMING? To loin cloths, and high infant mortality, and cholera, and tuberculosis...?? Farms are so DIRTY!”

In newspapers in 1910, you could find a recurring theme: Cities in America are going to be consumed by a mountain of horse manure! Populations were urbanizing more quickly than the infrastructure could handle it. Remember, there were barely any sewers, or lights. This was back when people were taking one bath each winter. You couldn't see if the floor was dirty! The bed had to be taken outside to look for bed bugs!

Rapid urbanization was crowding people into cities, and farmers still didn't have any helpful technology coming from all this innovation. Farmers were beginning to industrialize/expand too, without enough understanding. “Innovations” were producing rampant crowding and disease, because the infrastructure couldn't metabolize these new dynamics.

But farms and cities are not what they once were. Now we've got hot water, fridges, lights, concrete, pipe, polyethylene, canvas... Now we can metabolize the kind of the problems we had in the cities, and on the farm, between about 1915-1940s.

A lot of our perceptions about food safety are still based on this two- to three-decade anomaly at the beginning of the twentieth century, when urbanization and crowding of people and animals occurred before industry completed the picture...

“Raw milk is bad!!” When you ask people about why they believe this, they'll bring up statistics and contamination risks from back in 1930. “You wanna take us back to neanderthals!” But we're not saying to go back in time without the improvements we've appreciated in the last hundred years. We want to go back to the wise traditions of a heritage approach, while utilizing all the tools we have now that will prevent the problems that occurred during the diaper phase of the industrial revolution.

3. Small is Less Safe, and Harder to Regulate.

There is an assumption by the food regulatory agencies that _safety_ is determined by counting the number of pounds of food going by each inspector, per day. I recently heard the head of a food safety inspection service speak. He was patting himself on the back, as he gave numbers to show how much more efficient his inspections could be, now that there were so few neighborhood abattoirs left. This way, with centralized processing that goes so quickly, inspectors can watch many more animals going by on the lines at any given time...

These people measure progress by how many pounds of product go by their noses. A friend of mine started up an abattoir recently. Fulfilled all the regulations and requirements and red tape, perfectly clean and healthy, and started processing a small number of animals. He was then told, “You're not fast enough! You need to close down.” But the Law doesn't say anything about speed! Thing is, there's a massive prejudice in the entire system, against small Anything. The inspectors don't like to stand there, wasting their time.

And this prejudice against Small discriminates against embryonic innovation. Innovation has to have the chance to start small. If things are always supposed to start big and fast, the embryo may be too big to be born.

4. “Food safety is all about the lethal dose.”

This is a standard of toxicology, used to determine the relative dangers of many substances, agricultural fertilizers included. This lethal dose is measured by the amount necessary to be fed to a rat before it drops dead.

Thing do you determine the relative danger level of a substance if the rat won't die when he eats it?? A friend of mine, trying to ship some kelp over the border, was detained and asked to present the lethal dose information. But how do you check off the lethal dose of this plant food? My friend tried it: he kept feeding the rats more, and more, and they got sleeker and healthier and happier...until finally he found that if he dropped the rat into a bucket and with some kelp and water, and drowned him, he could kill the rat and check off the lethal dose.

Here's the secret: the lethal dose often can't be measured quickly. A lot of stuff coming out of the industrial “food” system causes a long, slow death. But our food safety paradigm assumes that if you don't drop dead right now, it's “safe.” We measure safety as the absence of a toxic reaction. We worship at the alter of antiseptic standards. But food is full of bacteria, and living material. Food is a biological thing.

The USDA is just now, ponderously, beginning to endorse the hygiene hypothesis... Turns out, we _need_ dirt! And we need to be very aggressive about saying, Some bacteria is good for you! We _want_ to exercise the immune system! Every child should eat a pound of dirt before the age of five. Our food should not be sterile!

5. “Food gets safer, the farther you get from the farm.”

Recently, we were getting a shipment of meat ready to truck into the City to bring to Chipotle restaurants. What we do is, we kill the animals on Wednesday, and all the meat gets packed up and vacuum sealed in plastic, and then we take it back to the farm to refrigerated storage till the next day, when we deliver.

And Chipotle went nuts, because they didn't want the fresh, unfrozen meat going back to the farm before they received it. But the animals _lived_ here! The meat is sealed in plastic! But they didn't want the food going back to the dirt and grime of the farm...

This is because we have this idea, that the farther and farther away it gets, the cleaner it inherently is. Cities are cleaner than farms! This myth has been created by industrial farming.

There _are_ germs out there! Everywhere. But we need to talk about the pathogen _terrain_, and which kinds of microbes will proliferate. We still worship the germ theory. Rather than getting the corn syrup vending machines out of the schools, we vaccinate kids for H1N1.

We are told that Disease is caused by germs or genetics, and the terrain has nothing to do with it. But this creates a reductionist-science-based system. If we wanted to create a friendly pathogen farm, according to industrial scientific agricultural principles, what would we do? We'd take one single type of good bug, crowd a whole bunch of them together, eliminate their ability to exercise, put them to live on slats or wire or concrete, and feed them artificially fertilized junk food...hey wait! This does sound like modern American farming!

So, factories are much cleaner than farms?! I guess this is why it's a problem, that my chickens hang out with the red wing black birds...and will somehow bring pathogens back to the chicken houses of the science farms, and contaminate _everything._

Recently a called a neighbor to ask if I could buy a load of sawdust. He said (this is a guy who lives about two miles away), “Hey wait...your name sounds familiar...Hey, you're THAT farmer! I wouldn't bring you sawdust for anything, because you abuse your cows! I've heard you don't give them vaccinations or antibiotics, and you expose your pigs to the outdoors where they could get sick...”

Hey, hey, I was just asking for some sawdust!

But this is the perception. And people like this feel extremely good about their moral high road in protecting the world from ME, because they don't want the world to starve.

No society has ever had the privilege of spending so little time in producing and preserving and preparing food.

We also have to understand that we don't know anything about a person's integrity just because they've won an award, or because they've got alphabet soup behind their name. A government post doesn't automatically make them smart.

“Okay, okay, I get it that you're not a dirty farm. But what about the _other_ ones, the ones that are _really_ dirty?!” I'm not saying that small farms = clean farms. I've visited ones that are dirty, and I wouldn't eat anything produced there. Nothing about small makes you inherently clean. But these are the risks of life. Local makes things _transparent,_ so you can go check out whether they're dirty or not.

Michael Pollen, liberal democrat, and me, libertarian grass farmer. It's funny when we get together. Last time I saw him, he asked, “But without regulation, how do we know there are honest people making our food?”

I said, okay, say you've got a scale from one to ten in terms of governmental oversight. For our purposes, “1” is a McDonald's happy meal, and “10” is Aunt Matilda with her backyard chickens, serving up some picnic lunch. Does “1” meet government food production oversight? Most people say yes. Does “10”? Most people say no.

We are up against people assuming that all government agents are protecting us. Here's the “Reason for government”: to be a terror to evil, and an encourager of righteousness. That's it. What happens, though, when government agents are running agendas for corporate lackeys? There's nothing in receiving a government paycheck that makes someone honest, or able to make your decisions.

6. “People need to be protected from themselves.”

I hear this a lot. We NEED these food safety regulations, because otherwise people will consume something dangerous because they're not paying attention!

So, how do you stop ignorance? Take away their ability to make a bad choice, and then put the onus on them to make a good decision. Is that the way we want to do it? If we eliminate food choice responsibility, we get an ignorant consumer populace. What's the first thing that happens during a food recall? Industry says, “Our food conforms to all government standards.”

With federal protocol reaching even the tiniest local producer, there's no way to try new, local ideas. What if some town councilors were to say, “Our county is going to be a government intrusion-free zone” regarding food? Problem is, even if they pass such a rule, you'd be cut off from educational funding, you'd be unable to sell the products in the stores... all these things would be illegal. But what if we could try these prototypes for food production on a small scale. Can you imagine the reports?...Hospitals are empty! IQs are going up! We don't need subsidies anymore, because the farms are profitable! Unemployment is down!

This is a big issue right now.

7. There is rampant anthropomorphism in this culture.

The only connection most folks have to an animal, any animal, is to their pet. This means that there is a complete lack of understanding regarding farm animals.

Polyface was once turned in to the animal control officers, because the crowd in the paddock being moved over to the next pasture was too “crowded.” Too crowded! The person thought, “I wouldn't like to be crowded like that, so these animals must not like it.”

But this person didn't understand: Herbivores like to be in a group!

“But it's abusive to keep them contained by a fence!” You know what happens when the free range chickens get outside the fence? They clamor frantically at the outside of the fence, until we bring it back inside. The reason we can ship chicks for up to three days, is because chicks can handle this, because in nature, they have to be able to hang out under Mama chicken for up to three days, while the other chicks hatch.

“But _I_ wouldn't like to be confined!” Chickens aren't people! We put human anthropomorphism on our farm animals.

“But the electric fence might hurt them!” (This was from someone who believes in spanking.)

I love this one: “Haven't we really _developed_ and _evolved_ beyond eating animals?”

Not eating animals does not signal an evolution of heightened awareness. It's a disconnection. _Everything_ is eating and being eaten! Death is necessary for life. Decomposition precedes regeneration. This cycle has profound meaning on a spiritual level. When we eat chicken breast or salad greens, or a crunchy carrot, that death of a life, gives us life. We thank the sacrifice, the death of life, for our own, because that's the way life works.

8. “Cows cause global warming.”

There were 600 times (?) as many herbivores living in America a hundred years ago, compared to today. What a cow does is...she eats the herbage and digests by solar power micro fermentation. I call it mob-stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization. She restarts the biomass, regenerating the methane, depositing it the other way, putting it back into the ground. This is an earth healing system based on perennials not annuals, pasture instead of housing, local instead of global, holistic instead of compartmental.

9. “You are elitists! This kind of food is for rich folks.”

If everyone can't afford this, then no one should have it? (I'm _elitist_?? I want to eat the food that my grandmother ate!) Food should be cheap?? It's not fair otherwise??

Let me ask you this: Does anyone spend money on things that aren't necessary?? Not you, of course, I'm sure you don't, but _other_ people. Fast food, tobacco, designer jeans with holes already in the knees...are these necessary? Last I checked, we spend a lot on these.

How do we get the price of this food down?? I first want to point out that it costs less than a MacDonald's happy meal for one pound of our beef.

A. Buy raw and process yourself (eat potatoes, not chips).
B. It's worth more!
C. We charge a fair price, and don't externalize any of our costs. We're not sending 500,000 people to the hospital with diarrhea. If you take some of these costs into account, chicken would cost a lot more than $1.29.

10. “There is no fundamental right to food choice.”

I ask you: Who owns me? If I can't make choices to hurt, I can't make choices to help. A life with no risk, is no life at all. We can protect everyone with a zero tolerance?? It's ludicrous! Food safety is subjective! Cocoa puffs and mountain dew are perfectly fine...but the raw milk might kill you. What good is the right to own guns and assemble and speak and worship, if we don't have the right to feed ourselves and our 3 trillion bacteria with the kinds of food we want to eat, so that we'll have energy to shoot our guns and assemble and speak and worship?

11. “First they came for the moonshiners, and I did not speak out, because I was not a moonshiner...Then they came for the imbibers of raw milk, and there was no one left.”

All I can say is: They better get ready for a tsunami, because we're coming

12. “Farmers run cults.”

I promote the concept of Jeffersonian Intellectual Agrarian practices.

I recently went to Canada to give a talk, and on the way back through customs, the INS agent--big guy! You don't mess with them!--said, “What you do? Why were you here?”

I'm a farmer, I said, and I was coming back from this speaking engagement.

Well, this guy looked like I'd knocked him with a two-by-four. These guys are not, you understand, real jokesters. “Don't you be funny with me, man,” he said. “Now since when do _farmers_ go around making speeches??”

Did you ever hear of Thomas Jefferson? George Washington? It's time to put our best and brightest in charge of our food supply. You farmers, get on your duds, man! Read eclectically, go to speech class, join toastmasters. When we go to town and stand toe to toe, we have to be erudite and articulate our tsunami!

We need engaged and articulate farmers, thousands more of them. _This_ will be a tsunami!

These are the misconceptions I encounter every day, and if we're going to have a good food system, we're going to have to articulate our stance from a high moral road. Devolution to disconnectedness: we need to be up on that. We need to be involved in getting our kids involved in gardening. We've got children growing up doing nothing but exercising their thumbs all day with their video games, where in two seconds your dead car or dead guy gets replaced--good as new! And life isn't that way. Plants and animals don't just resurrect in a single season.

So: bring your kids into life with humility and awe instead of hubris. May all your carrots grow long and straight, and your vibrancy draw all your family into your fold, may your children grow with straight teeth and good arches...

Thank you, and goodnight.