Food with a conscience

November 11, 2009 § 1 Comment

Why I think this SOLE stuff (or something related to it) matters
Virtually every summer my family drives out to Eastern Oregon and spends the weekend in the cabin my great-grandfather build in 1914.   We enjoy the same plants, the same deer, the same trout that my grandmother loved when she was a little girl – the land she loved all her life and the land where her ashes now rest.  I grew up hearing stories about my Great-grandfather and the land he handed over to the BLM for antelope preservation and the dairy farm my grandfather lost – the tears he shed when he had to sell his “girls”,  I planted lots of little trees, and spent enjoyable time hunting and fishing while being taught (as I believe the children in most hunting families are) the importance of conserving healthy habit for the ducks and deer we hunt and eat.  My children’s brains are packed with happy memories, the stories of their family and the practical instruction of being good stewards of the land and the creatures we share it with.

I have also lived long enough to be somewhat alarmed by the nature of suburban sprawl, to see McMansions devour farmland and orchards chopped down for strip malls.   While I am not against “progress” I often wonder if we have the slightest idea what we are progressing towards and if the destination will worth the trip.   I want to see local, small dairymen who love their cows and have names for each of them thrive.  Spending most of my childhood on a cattle ranch gave me a halfway decent insight into the dignity of people in “fly-over country”.  I honestly grew up thinking that all beef cattle were grass fed till they were shipped off to the local packing plant which was owned and staffed by folks the rancher knew.    So my life experience whirls together in my brain with my somewhat pastoral, idealistic world view and I come out with this ideal of a place where farmers are like craftsmen growing food that local people eat, enjoy and most of all trust because they know and trust the families that grow and produce it.  My ideal is a world where Tolkin would smile because gardeners are important people, a place where the job title “farmer” is one held in high esteem.

So what is SOLE: Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethical – that is the acronym, but what do those things actually mean?  Sustainable farming and production methods so that our children and grandchildren are given a verdant and fertile world, organics grown without pesticides, herbicides or hormones that protect the environment, local foods that help sustain your local community and limit shipping costs and ethical business practices which promote a living wage, the dignity of food producers and ethical treatment of livestock.  My sense is that like me, most people have their own interpretation of this.   Just as no one is the absolute authority no one is really completely wrong, but there is a sort of “orthodoxy” of SOLE that nests with the “Green” movement and shares much of their strengths and all of their short comings.

The Strengths of SOLE

Let’s hit the letters one at a time.

Sustainable: one of the things that impressed me most in The Omnivore’s Dilemma was the farm of  Joel Salatan.  Being a fellow Christian-Libertarian-Environmentalist-Capitalist-Lunatic nearly everything he says seems to resonate with me.  The solution to much of our problems isn’t in regulations, government control, more restriction or requirements, the solutions are honestly to be found in more people being able to be “Joel Salatans” and that means dumping government control of our food and that also means doing away with the well-meaning, busy body, disconnected elites in the green movement who tsk tsk about the poor food choices Americans make without addressing the basic problems in reverting to a more sustainable agrarian culture.  If you wouldn’t encourage your son or daughter to be a farmer you are part of the problem.

Sustainable farming and ranching are “doable” in fact from what I have researched it would be possible for sustainable agriculture to feed a world, but not THIS world.  The suburban world that we live in, a compartmentalized world bounded by an artificial divide between work and home life driven by the ever increasing need for more,  new and (arguably) better material possessions and personal achievements and “status” can not survive on the family farm/sustainable farm model.  Not because of how many of us there are, but because of  the disconnect there is between the production of the essentials for life and the lives most of us lead.   Family farms, community dairies, local bakers and butchers could feed the world — but only a world where there were a LOT more farmers, diary men, bakers and butchers.  Because there is a mathematically certainty.  Just as cost is decreased by an increase in scale — sustainability in agriculture is decreased by an increase in scale as well.  As a rule the bigger the agricultural enterprise (in terms of production) the less sustainable it will be.   Basically you can have a lot of cheep food of questionable value at a low price or you have to produce food in smaller quantities at higher cost.  The smaller quantity model  would necessitate an increase in the number of food producers, but that would also mean more producers requiring less from the system as they could support much of their own food needs.  Which goes back to my assertion that if you wouldn’t encourage your son or daughter to go into farming you are part of the problem.

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Seasonal: I can’t find a single bone to pick with seasonal other than I  would miss my out of season goodies — there are of course some places where cold winters make seasonal a matter of “store-able”  but that is in a way seasonal as well.

Organic: The concept of organic is a bit more straightforward.  When I can I want to purchase food that has as little chemical additives and as much nutritional value as possible.  In theory organic food works toward solving that problem, but since “organic” is a FDA regulated term it might well be quickly turned against the very ideals that breed it.  We are already seeing this to some extent. I want to say Organic is great!,  but I am not totally sold on it since the lable “organic” doesn’t mean as much as it should, or even as much as it is perceived to.   I am convinced of the damage pesticides, herbicides  and artificial fertilizers can have on the environment and I question the sustainability of  large scale monoculture farming without them and do not trust the argi-business behind it all.

And that is the rub.  Agriculture has become a huge corporate enterprise that doesn’t see individual people, doesn’t honor the dignity of the person, it only seeks to squeeze the most production for the least input at the lowest cost possible.  This is completely contrary to my ideal of the farmer-craftsmen who are honored by the communicates they serve, yet it may be in some ways unavoidable.   Since we are no longer a nation of farmers, since we have endless rows of houses with no space for gardens ( even HOAs that explicitly disallow vegetable gardening)  and apartment dwellers who can’t do more than have a pot or two on a window sill we need a mechanism to feed cities.

Large scale organics have a selling in point in that they can, right now, get a large amount of food onto the American table.  The problem  is that as the food industry has awoken to the idea that “organic” is a new consumer desire, it is not just the reaction of the moment, another Alar scare splash that will quickly fade, the idea of large scale organic becomes something much different than a natural system driven farm like Joel Salatan’s and become something entirely different.  The large food production machine has set its sights on organic.  Which will inevitably lead to the term organic favoring large commercial interests.  The more we allow (or even demand) that government solve our problems the more we place our welfare in the hands of politicians who will sell us out to the highest bidder who will always be big business.

Local: Recently I saw a complaint against the local food movement.  It was another take on the efficiencies of scale.   Overall what is worse for our selves and our environment: a local hot house tomato in February or one shipped from Southern California?   Is Local Food Better? Of course the most local food is the food in your own backyard.

Ethical: And here is the big problem, what is ethical?  Is it more ethical to feed the world on conventionally grown food, are we raising the prices of food by pushing for more expensive farming methods?

Admittedly my ideal is a touch different than the typical SOLE enthusiast – who would doubtlessly cringe at my brood of six carbon footprint producing offspring  – so it might be more fair to say that I am something all together different.  For example I do not shop in fancy fair-trade stores or purchase certified organic clothing or even think for a moment about the songbird holocaust caused by my coffee habit.    It isn’t that I feel that fair-trade is not worthy of supporting, it isn’t that I don’t want my clothing to be produced in a way that isn’t poisoning the water table somewhere, and I have nothing against songbirds, but I find there to be an elemental sophistry in much of the “green” movement.  The reduction of consumerism is far more relevant to living lightly on the earth than shopping fairtrade.  I might love a nifty, colorful purse made by hand by hemp growers in Bolivia, but isn’t it better for me just to do with one sturdy leather bag that I use for five years or more?   It is  more green to wear organic clothing if your alternative is to own less or shop garage sales and thrift or resale stores?   And if I am concerned about the songbirds shouldn’t I just deal with the withdrawal headaches and learn to love mint tea instead of shipping coffee beans halfway round the world?  So I find myself more often than not confused by my betters in the SOLE universe.  They espouse their particular version of what is sustainable and ethical but I find their views  seem wasteful, commercial, based on poor science and basically good for nothing but diminishing a sense of affluent guilt.  I am at heart a conservationist not an environmentalist and I am frugal and “simple” more than “green”.  But then again I know there are a lot of people much better at putting their ethics in the fore of their families food choices.  So I am not at all above reproach on this and I certainly don’t claim any moral high ground.

I am really not sure if this has a point or not, but since this is my own collection of vagrant thoughts called a blog here it is.

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