[This is a special online version of the most recently published print copy of The Reader Magazine]
It's time to simply start eating better—right here, right now. Impractical? Not really. It’s actually the most realistic and effective approach to transforming a system that is slowly but surely killing us.
The unprecedented variety of bar-coded packages in today’s supermarket really does not mean that our generation enjoys better food options than our predecessors. These packages, by and large, having passed through the food inspection fraternity, the industrial food fraternity, and the lethargic cheap-food-purchasing consumer fraternity, represent an incredibly narrow choice.
Rather than representing newfound abundance, these packages winding their way to store shelves after spending a month in the belly of Chinese merchant marines are actually the meager offerings of a tyrannical food system. Try buying real milk—as in raw. See if you can find pot pies made with local produce and meat. How about good old unpasteurized apple cider? Fresh cheese? Unpasteurized almonds? All these staples that our great-grandparents relished and grew healthy on have been banished from today’s supermarkets.
They’ve been replaced by an array of pseudo-foods that did not exist a mere century ago. The food additives, preservatives, colorings, emulsifiers, corn syrups, and unpronounceable ingredients listed on the colorful packages bespeak a centralized control mindset that actually reduces the options available to fill Americans’ dinner plates. Whether by intentional design or benign ignorance, the result has been the same—the criminalization and/or demonization of heritage foods.
The mindset behind this radical transformation of American eating habits expresses itself in a couple of ways.
One is the completely absurd argument that without industrial food, the world would starve. “How can you feed the world?” is the most com- mon question people ask me when they tour our Farm." Actually, when you consider the fact that millions of people, including many vast cities, were fed and sustained using traditional farming methods until just a few decades ago, the answer is obvious.
America has traded seventy-five million buffalo, which required no tillage, petroleum, or chemicals, for a mere forty-two million head of cattle. Even with all the current chemical inputs, our production is a shadow of what it was 500 years ago. Clearly, if we returned to herbivorous principles five centuries old, we could double our meat supply. The potential for similar increases exists for other food items.
The second argument is about food safety. Lest you think the pressure to maintain the industrialized food system is all really about food safety, consider that all the natural-food items I listed above can be given away, and the donors are considered pillars of community benevolence. But as soon as money changes hands, all these wonderful choices become “hazardous substances,” guaranteed to send our neighbors to the hospital with food poisoning. Maybe it’s not human health but corporate profits that are really being protected.
In America I have the freedom to own guns, speak, and assemble. But what good are those freedoms if I can’t choose to eat what my body wants in order to have the energy to shoot, preach, and worship? The only reason the framers of the American Constitution and Bill of Rights did not guarantee freedom of food choice was that they couldn’t envision a day when neighbor-to-neighbor food commerce would be criminalized. . . when the bureaucratic-industrial food fraternity would subsidize corn syrup and create a nation of diabetes sufferers, but deny my neighbor a pound of sausage from my Thanksgiving hog killin’.
People tend to have short memories. We all assume that whatever is must be normal. Industrial food is not normal. Nothing about it is normal. In the continuum of human history, what western civilization has done to its food in the last century represents a mere blip.
A reasonable person, looking at the lack of choice we now suffer, would ask for a Food Emancipation Proclamation. Food has been enslaved by so-called inspectors that deem the most local, indigenous, heritage-based, and traditional foods unsafe and make them illegal. It has been enslaved by a host-consuming agricultural parasite called “government farm subsidies.” It has been enslaved by corporate-subsidized research that declared for four decades that feeding dead cows to cows was sound science—until mad cows came to dinner.
On our Farm nestled in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, we have consciously opted out of the industrial production and marketing paradigms. Meat chickens move every day across the pasture, enjoying bugs, forage, and local grain (grown free of genetically modified organisms). Tyson-style, inhumane, fecal factory chicken houses have no place here.
Embrace Your Inner Pig
The magical land-healing process we use, with cattle using mob-stocking, herbivorous, solar conversion, lignified carbon sequestration fertilization, runs opposite the grain-based feedlot system practiced by mainline industrial cattle production. We move the cows every day from paddock to paddock, allowing the forage to regenerate completely through its growth curve, metabolizing solar energy into biomass.
Our pigs [enjoy] bedding in the hay feeding shed, where manure, carbon, and corn create a pig delight. We actually believe that honoring and respecting the “pigness” of the pig is the first step in an ethical, moral cultural code. By contrast, today’s industrial food system views pigs as merely inanimate piles of protoplasmic molecular structure to be manipulated with whatever cleverness the egocentric human mind can conceive. A society that views its plants and animals from that manipulative, egocentric mindset will soon come to view its citizens in the same way. How we respect and honor the least of these is how we respect and honor the greatest of these.
The industrial pig growers are even trying to find the stress gene so it can be taken out of the hog’s DNA. That way the pigs can be abused but won’t be stressed about it. Then they can be crammed in ever tighter quarters without cannibalizing and getting sick. In the name of all that’s decent, what kind of ethics encourages such notions?
In just the last couple of decades, Americans have learned a new lexicon of squiggly Latin words: camphylobacter, lysteria, E. coli, salmonella, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, avian influenza. Whence these strange words? Nature is speaking a protest, screaming to our generation: “Enough!” The assault on biological dignity has pushed nature to the limit. Begging for mercy, its pleas go largely unheeded on Wall Street, where Conquistadors subjugating weaker species think they can forever tyrannize without an eventual payback. But the rapist will pay— eventually. You and I must bring a nurturing mentality to the table to balance the industrial food mindset.
Here at our farm eggmobiles follow the cows through the grazing cycle. These portable laying hen trailers allow the birds to scratch through the cows’ dung and harvest newly uncovered crickets and grasshoppers, acting like a biological pasture sanitizer. This biomimicry stands in stark contrast to chickens housed beak by wattle in egg factories, never allowed to see sunshine or chase a grasshopper.
We have done all of this without money or encouragement from those who hold the reins of food power, government or private. We haven’t asked for grants. We haven’t asked for permission. In fact, to the shock and amazement of our urban friends, our farm is considered a Typhoid Mary by our industrial farm neighbors. Why? Because we don’t medicate, vaccinate, genetically adulterate, irradiate, or exudate like they do. They fear our methods because they’ve been conditioned by the powers that be to fear our methods.
The point of all this is that if anyone waits for credentialed industrial experts, whether government or nongovernment, to create ecologically, nutritionally, and emotionally friendly food, they might as well get ready for a long, long wait. For example, just imagine what a grass-finished herbivore paradigm would do to the financial and power structure of America.
Today, roughly seventy percent of all grains go through herbivores, which aren’t supposed to eat them and, in nature, never do. If the land devoted to that production were converted to perennial prairie polycultures under indigenous biomimicry management, it would topple the grain cartel and reduce petroleum usage, chemical usage, machinery manufacture, and bovine pharmaceuticals.
Think about it. That’s a lot of economic inertia resisting change. Now do you see why the Farm Bill that controls government input into our agricultural system never changes by more than about two percent every few years? Even so-called conservation measures usually end up serving the power brokers when all is said and done.
If things are going to change, it is up to you and me to make the change. But what is the most efficacious way to make the change? Is it through legislation? Is it by picketing the World Trade Organization talks? Is it by dumping cow manure on the parking lot at McDonald’s? Is it by demand- ing regulatory restraint over the aesthetically and aromatically repulsive industrial food system?
At the risk of being labeled simplistic, I suggest that the most efficacious way to change things is simply to declare our independence from the figurative kings in the industrial system. To make the point clear, here are the hallmarks of the industrial food system:
• Centralized production
• Genetic manipulation
• Confined animal feeding operations
• Things that end in “cide” (Latin for death)
• Ready-to-Eat food
• Long-distance transportation
• Externalized costs—economy, society, ecology
• Unpronounceable ingredients
• Fancy packaging
• High fructose corn syrup
Reviewing this list shows the magnitude and far-reaching power of the industrial food system. I contend that it will not move. Entrenched paradigms never move . . . until outside forces move them. And those forces always come from the bottom up. The people who sit on the throne tend to like things the way they are. They have no reason to change until they are forced to do so.
The most powerful force you and I can exert on the system is to opt out. Just declare that we will not participate. Resistance movements from the antislavery movement to women’s suffrage to sustainable agriculture always have and always will begin with opt-out resistance to the status quo. And seldom does an issue present itself with such a daily—in fact, thrice daily—opportunity to opt out.
Perhaps the best analogy in recent history is the home-school movement. In the late 1970s, as more families began opting out of institutional educational settings, credentialed educational experts warned us about the jails and mental asylums we’d have to build to handle the educationally and socially deprived children that home-schooling would produce. Many parents went to jail for violating school truancy laws. A quarter-century later, of course, the paranoid predictions are universally recognized as wrong. Not everyone opts for home-schooling, but the option must be available for those who want it. In the same way, an opt- out food movement will eventually show the Henny Penny food police just how wrong they are.
I think the opt-out strategy involves at least four basic ideas.
First, we must rediscover our kitchens. Never has a culture spent more to remodel and techno-glitz its kitchens, but at the same time been more lost as to where the kitchen is and what it’s for. As a culture, we don’t cook any more. Americans consume nearly a quarter of all their food in their cars, for crying out loud. Americans graze through the kitchen, popping precooked, heat-and-eat, bar-coded packages into the microwave for eating-on-the-run. That treatment doesn’t work with real food.
Real heritage food needs to be sliced, peeled, sautéed, marinated, puréed, and a host of other things that require true culinary skills. Back in the early 1980s when our farm began selling pastured poultry, nobody even asked for boneless, skinless breast. To be perfectly sexist, every mom knew how to cut up a chicken. That was generic cultural mom information. Today, half of the moms don’t know that a chicken even has bones.
I was delivering to one of our buying club drops a couple of months ago, and one of the ladies discreetly pulled me aside and asked: “How do you make a hamburger?” I thought I’d misunderstood, and asked her to repeat the question. I bent my ear down close to hear her sheepishly repeat the same question. I looked at her incredulously and asked: “Are you kidding?”
“My husband and I have been vegetarians. But now that we realize we can save the world by eating grass-based livestock, we’re eating meat, and he wants a hamburger. But I don’t know how to make it.” This was an upper-middle-income, college-educated, bright, intelligent woman.
The indigenous knowledge base surrounding food is largely gone. When “scratch” cooking means actually opening a can, and when church and family reunion potlucks include buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, you know our culture has suffered a culinary information implosion. Big time. Indeed, according to marketing surveys, roughly seventy percent of Americans have no idea what they are having for supper at 4:00 p.m. That’s scary.
Whatever happened to planning the week’s menus? We still do that at our house. In the summer, our farm interns and apprentices enjoy creating a potluck for everybody every Saturday evening. All week they connive to plan the meal. It develops throughout the week, morphs into what is available locally and seasonally, and always culminates in a fellowship feast.
As a culture, if all we did was rediscover our kitchens and quit buying prepared foods, it would fundamentally change the industrial food system. The reason I’m leading this discussion with that option is because too often the foodies and greenies seem to put the onus for change on the backs of farmers. But this is a team effort, and since farmers do not even merit Census Bureau recognition, non-farmers must ante up to the responsibility for the change. And both moms and dads need to reclaim the basic food preparation knowledge that was once the natural inheri- tance of every human being.
After rediscovering your kitchen, the next opt-out strategy is to purchase as directly as possible from your local farmer. If the money pouring into industrial food dried up tomorrow, that system would cease to exist. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Actually, it is. It doesn’t take any legislation, regulation, taxes, agencies, or programs. As the money flows to local producers, more producers will join them. The only reason the local food system is still minuscule is because few people patronize it.
Even organics have been largely co-opted by industrial systems. Go to a food co-op drop, and you’ll find that more than half the dollars are being spent for organic corn chips, treats, and snacks. From far away.
Just for fun, close your eyes and imagine walking down the aisle of your nearby Wal-Mart or Whole Foods. Make a note of each item as you walk by and think about what could be grown within one hundred miles of that venue. Can milk be produced within one hundred miles of you? Eggs? Tomatoes? Why not? Not everything can be grown locally, but the lion’s share of what you eat certainly can.
Plenty of venues exist for close exchange to happen. Farmers’ markets are a big and growing part of this movement. They provide a social atmosphere and a wide variety of fare.
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a shared-risk investment in which patrons invest in a portion of the farm’s products and receive a share every week during the season.
Food boutiques or niche retail facades are gradually filling a necessary role because most farmers’ markets are not open daily. The price markup may be more, but the convenience is real. These allow farmers to drop off products quickly and go back to farming or other errands.
Many people ask, “Where do I find local food, or a farmer?” My answer: “They are all around. If you will put as much time into sourcing your local food as many people put into picketing and political posturing, you will discover a whole world that Wall Street doesn’t know exists.” I am a firm believer in the Chinese proverb: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” This nonindustrial food system is just below the radar in every locality. If you seek, you will find.
After discovering your kitchen and finding your farmer, the third opt-out procedure is to eat seasonally. This includes “laying by” for the off season. Eating seasonally does not mean denying yourself tomatoes in January if you live in New Hampshire. It means procuring the mountains of late-season tomatoes thrown away each year and canning, freezing, or dehydrating them for winter use.
In our basement, hundreds of quarts of canned summer produce line the pantry shelves. Green beans, yellow squash, applesauce, pickled beets, pickles, relish, and a host of other delicacies await off-season menus. I realize this takes time, but it’s the way for all of us to share bioregional rhythms. To refuse to join this natural food ebb and flow is to deny connectedness. And this indifference to life around us creates a jaundiced view of our ecological nest and our responsibilities within it.
For the first time in human history, a person can move into a community, build a house out of outsourced material, heat it with outsourced energy, hook up to water from an unknown source, send waste out a pipe somewhere else, and eat food from an unknown source. In other words, in modern America we can live without any regard to the ecological life raft that undergirds us. Perhaps that is why many of us have become indifferent to nature’s cry.
The most unnatural characteristic of the industrial food system is the notion that the same food items should be available everywhere at once at all times. To have empty grocery shelves during inventory downtime is unthinkable in the supermarket world. When we refuse to participate in the nonseasonal game, it strikes a heavy blow to the infrastructure, pipeline, distribution system, and ecological assault that upholds industrial food.
PLANT A GARDEN
My final recommendation for declaring your food independence is to grow some of your own. I am constantly amazed at the creativity shown by urban-dwellers who physically embody their opt-out decision by growing something themselves. For some, it may be a community garden where neighbors work together to grow tomatoes, beans, and squash. For others, it may be three or four laying hens in an apartment. Shocking? Why? As a culture, we think nothing of having exotic tropical birds in city apartments. Why not use that space for something productive, like egg layers? Feed them kitchen scraps and gather fresh eggs every day.
Did someone mention something about ordinances? Forget them. Do it anyway. Defy. Don’t comply. People who think nothing of driving around Washington, D.C., at eighty miles an hour in a fifty-five speed limit zone often go apoplectic at the thought of defying a zoning- or building-code ordinance. The secret reality is that the government is out of money and can’t hire enough bureaucrats to check up on everybody anyway. So we all need to just begin opting out and it will be like five lanes of speeders on the beltway—who do you stop?
Have you ever wanted to have a cottage business producing that wonderful soup, pot pie, or baked item your grandmother used to make? Well, go ahead and make it, sell it to your neighbors and friends at church or garden club. Food safety laws? Forget them. People getting sick from food aren’t getting it from their neighbors; they are getting it from USDA-approved, industrially produced, irradiated, amalgamated, adulterated, reconstituted, extruded, pseudo-food laced with preservatives, dyes, and high fructose corn syrup.
If you live in a condominium complex, approach the landlord about taking over a patch for a garden. Plant edible landscaping. If all the campuses in Silicon Valley would plant edible varieties instead of high-maintenance ornamentals, their irrigation water would actually be put to ecological use instead of just feeding hedge clippers and lawn mower engines. Urban garden projects are taking over abandoned lots, and that is a good thing. We need to see more of that. Schools can produce their own food. Instead of hiring Chemlawn, how about running pastured poultry across the yard? Students can butcher the chickens and learn about the death-life-death-life cycle.
Clearly, so much can be done right here, right now, with what you and I have. The question is not, “What can I force someone else to do?” The question is, “What am I doing today to opt out of the industrial food system?” For some, it may be having one family sit-down, locally-sourced meal a week. That’s fine. We haven’t gotten where we’ve gotten overnight, and we certainly won’t extract ourselves from where we are overnight.
But we must stop feeling like victims and adopt a proactive stance. The power of many individual right actions will then compound to create a different culture. Our children deserve it. And the earthworms will love us—along with the rest of the planet.