Pioneer in Sustainable Agriculture Shares his Vision of the Future of Food
By Dr. Mercola
I recently visited Joel Salatin at his Polyface farm in Virginia. He’s truly one of the pioneers in sustainable agriculture, and you can take a virtual tour through his various farm operations in the video above.
As a physician, it’s patently obvious to me—and I’m sure most of you viewing this--that the food we eat plays a major role in our health. As a society, we’ve strayed quite far from our dietary roots and become so disconnected from our food sources that our health is now in serious jeopardy.
About 90 percent of the money Americans spend on food is spent on processed foods1, and the health of the average American is a testament to the abject failure of such foods to support good health. Fortunately, more and more people are now beginning to recognize this, and are making efforts to get back to real food.
Two Models of Food Production
As Joel discusses in this interview, there are basically two different models of food production today, and there’s growing conflict between them. The first, and most prevalent, is the large-scale agricultural model that takes a very mechanistic view toward life, whereas the other—the local, sustainable farm model—has a biological and holistic view.
“As a culture, we view life as fundamentally mechanical; we’re asking “How do we grow the pig faster, fatter, bigger cheaper?” And that’s all that matters.
... Our side asks, “How do we make the pig happier, more piggy, and more expressive of its pigness?” We recognize the fundamental honor and sacredness of that life form or that being, if you will. That’s the fundamental difference,” Joel says.
“The amalgamation of farms has followed a mechanistic view. Machinery does run more efficiently when it runs 24/7. A bigger earthmover is more efficient than a smaller earthmover, because the bucket’s bigger and still only takes one operator to move more cubic yards of material. A mechanistic view does move a culture toward size, scale, and toward an inability to account for some of these unseen things.
But what’s happening now is E.coli, salmonella, mad cow disease, C. diff, and MRSA. I call that the biological Profit and Loss Statement that is starting to come to the fore and create awareness that, “Oh, maybe just growing it faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper isn’t all there is. Maybe there is more. Maybe it does matter if the earthworms are healthy. Maybe you can’t just replace earthworms with fossil fuel fertilizers.”
I think this is an excellent point. The widely adopted factory farm “bigger is better” food system has reached a point where the fundamental weaknesses of it are becoming readily apparent, and food borne disease and loss of nutrient content are just two of the most obvious side effects.
It’s a proven fact that factory farmed and processed foods are far more likely to cause illness than unadulterated, organically-grown foods. For example, one study by the British government found that 23 percent of farms with caged hens tested positive for salmonella, compared to just over 4 percent in organic flocks, and 6.5 percent in free-range flocks. Contamination occurred most often at farms that contained the most birds, typically 30,000 or more.
This connection should be obvious, but many are still under the mistaken belief that a factory operation equates to better hygiene and quality control, when the exact opposite is actually true. A pig rolling in mud on a small farm is far “cleaner” in terms of pathogenic bacteria than a factory-raised pig stuck in a tiny crate, covered in feces, being fed an unnatural diet of genetically modified grains and veterinary drugs.
How YOU Can Help Change the Food System, Every Single Day
“The food system that we have right now is the summation of decades of billions and billions of individually made decisions: to buy a Snickers bar and not this, or buy potato chips instead of potatoes and lard and make them yourself,” Joel says.
“What we have is a physical manifestation of all these billions and billions of decisions. Where we will be in 20 years will also be a physical manifestation of where we are. Each one of us needs to understand the power of one, the power of that single decision, day by day. “
Whereas our ancestors, going back just a generation or two, were actively participating in the growing and procurement of their food, many children today have no idea where the food comes from or how it’s grown. But many are now sensing this disconnection from the sources of their food as a disconnection from life itself, and it’s no wonder, because that’s essentially what it is.
As the sustainer of life, food surely deserves to be regarded with some measure of reverence. And it certainly deserves to place high on anyone’s list of priorities in life. Home cooked food is also tied to culture and family traditions—both of which are also threatening to slip away as home cooked meals are replaced with the ultra-processed contents of hermetically sealed bags and jars...
“As we know, artisanal anything must be small-scale. The difference between a pot made on a potter’s wheel as an individual craft, as an extension of a person’s soul if you will, compared to a pot made in a mass-produced factory—the difference is that this one has character, integrity, and often has nuances that this one over here won’t have.
And certainly the same thing is true in food,” Joel says.
“Ultimately, we, as individuals, need to appreciate that we have created the food system that we have. I don’t like this, “It’s because of them. It’s because of that. It’s because of this.” Ultimately, we have the food system that we have, because that’s what we want.”
The question is, what kind of food system do YOU want? If every American decided to not eat at a fast food restaurant tomorrow, the entire system would collapse overnight. It doesn’t take an act of Congress to change the food system. All that is required is for each and every person to change their shopping habits.
“That’s why our slogan is, “We’re healing the land one bite at a time.” We want people to understand that when you eat, that is a decision that affects the landscape our children will inherit,” Joel says. “You can make that decision independent of politics and everything else. You could make that decision three times a day. And there are thousands of farmers like us (many of them smaller than us) around the country and around the world,that are waiting to serve that clientele.”
Resources for Consumers
A website called Real Food University2 offers a fascinating analysis of where our food comes from, and reveals that despite what you hear on the news, every year we produce less and less of the food we really need. From massive industrial farming conglomerates to feedlot- and confined animal operations (CAFOs) to contaminated imports, Real Food University delivers the scoop on what you probably have on your plate right now.
Fortunately there are ways to get around these food disasters, and sourcing your foods from a local farmer is one of your best bets to ensure you’re getting something wholesome.
As Joel explains, every state has a sustainable agriculture organization or biological farming organization that is the nucleus of the farmers in that state. You can also find an ever increasing number of “eat local,” and “buy local” directories, in which local farms will be listed. The following organizations can also help you locate farm-fresh foods in your local area:
1. Local Harvest -- This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies. Alternative Farming Systems Information Center,Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
2. Farmers' Markets -- A national listing of farmers' markets.
3. Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals -- The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
4. Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) -- CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
5. FoodRoutes -- The FoodRoutes “Find Good Food” map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSA's, and markets near you.
Resources for Farmers
For farmers who want to learn more, I suggest reading some of the books Joel Salatin has authored, such as The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer.
“To me, that really describes the paradigm, the heart and soul, and it’s a fun book,” Joel says.
“But beyond that, certainly in the pasture-based livestock, the Stockman Grass Farmer magazine is the world leader, published out of Jackson, Mississippi. It is the world leader in the whole pasture-based how-to. It’s pasture-based by farmers for farmers. Another one would certainly be Acres U.S.A. magazine, which is broader. It brings the grains in. But Acres U.S.A. would be a good one... Certainly link up with the local Weston A. Price chapter... Get linked up with what I call the “tribe”—the tribe that’s thinking differently.”
For a list of such organizations, please see my Sustainable Agriculture page.
His own website, PolyFaceFarms.com, also offers a wealth of information and resources for farmers and consumers alike, including an online store that also offers the actual physical hardware to make everything from fences to chicken feeders. Again, I can’t encourage you strongly enough to take the necessary steps and do what it takes to take control of the food that you’re eating, because the resources are out there. They exist. It may take a little time and effort, but it’s well worth it.
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