by Joel Salatin
Is local food just a fuzzy fad, or can it actually feed the world? At a recent Augusta County Chamber of Commerce-sponsored agri-tourism panel discussion, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) Secretary Matt Lohr reiterated the current agri-business axiom that farms like my family’s Polyface Farm cannot feed the world.
To tell the truth, I grow weary of having to deal with this issue — even among my foodie and environmentalist friends. If local food can only be a cute aside from the real world of food production, then all the problems associated with global industrial food have no solution. If we really need Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and fumigated 200-acre strawberry fields in California’s San Joaquin Valley to feed the masses, we’d better get on board promoting those models rather than decrying their existence.
I have news for the VDACS secretary and his expert opinion: you’re wrong, Mr. Secretary — just like the secretaries before you, including Mason Carbaugh who punctuated his secretaryship with the diatribe that if the world went to organic farming, we’d just have to choose which half of the world would starve. In credentialed government and agri-corporate circles, this notion is gospel. In this column, I aim to bury that gospel with some cold, hard truth.
Truth No. 1: Nearly half the world’s edible food never gets eaten. It spoils in warehouses, never gets picked, bouncing along during long distance transportation it gets rejected due to slight blemishes or goes into the garbage due to confusion over “sell by,” “use by,” and “best by” dating labels. Much of what goes on plates never gets eaten. Peeling and prepping destroy more mountains of edible food.
Truth No. 2: Distribution is the only reason people are hungry; nobody is hungry due to a shortage of food. If you could wave a magic wand and double worldwide food production tomorrow, it would not affect one empty stomach. Mountains of food rot every day. A gun-toting Somalian stopping a Red Cross truck on its way to a refugee camp is not a food production problem.
Truth No. 3: There is plenty of land for farming. Unused land is everywhere. The U.S. has 35 million acres of lawn. How about all those irrigated golf courses around Phoenix, Az.? The U.S. dedicates 36 million acres to housing and growing feed for recreational horses. I’m not against lawns or horses, or golf for that matter, but to run around like Henny Penny proclaiming “we’re running out of food” is a bit premature when actually on these lands alone we could grow all the food America needs. Edible landscaping should be promoted by everyone. In Italy, the expressway intersections are divided into quarter-acre gardens tended by urbanites who spend their weekends connecting to their ecological umbilical: building community, having fun, growing food. Forget the batwing mowers—grow squash instead.
Truth No. 4: Science and technology have caught up with natural farming. Scientific aerobic composting, coupled with new biological understanding and high-tech infrastructure like drip irrigation, hoop houses, and micro-chip electric fence energizers give us tools and techniques Grandpa would have given his eyeteeth to have. The agri-industrial complex routinely accuses me of being a Luddite and wanting to move all of us back to swine cholera, brucellosis, wash boards, and one bath a winter. This condescension stems from the unfair perception that our side is stuck at 1900 in all aspects of life if we don’t accept chemical fertilizers and genetic engineering.
The fact is that composting is a modern innovation. Sir Albert Howard introduced the world to scientific aerobic composting in 1943, at the height of World War II. His research capped a frenetic search beginning around the turn of the century for an answer to the soil fertility problem. By 1900, people universally understood that neither the United States nor Australia could solve their soil deficiencies by simply moving west—there was no more west to exploit.
If you visit any living history farm museum, whether it be in Williamsburg or Plymouth Plantation, you will not see modern compost piles. It was simply not practiced—the Native Americans had to teach the colonists to put a fish in the three sisters hill of corn, squash, and beans to keep the soil healthy. The Museum of American Frontier Culture located in Staunton does a great job of showing the poor animal hygiene, poor grazing management, and disregard for managed biomass decomposition that dominated farming during the 1800s. That backdrop created the desperate search for soil fertility in 1900.
Out of the dust storms, “The Grapes of Wrath” and the end of “Little House on the Prairie,” two schools of thought emerged. One agreed with Justus von Liebig, the Austrian chemist whose vacuum tubes in 1837 proved to the world that all of life is just rearranged nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus (NPK). The other came from Sir Albert Howard’s decidedly biological paradigm: that life is more than mechanics, and is primarily about death, decomposition, and regeneration.
Howard’s innovation — aerobic composting — required efficient materials accumulation, careful biomass management, and appropriate application of the finished product. Unfortunately, his idea came before rural electrification, chippers, compact and user-friendly diesel tractors with front end loaders, and PTO-powered manure spreaders. So it took a while for the biological model to catch on.
Von Liebvieg’s chemical approach, however, benefitted from the war effort, because bombs were made out of NPK. The War Department pumped billions of dollars into the knowledge, manufacture, and economical distribution of chemical NPK.
Chemicals won, in short, because the world did not have a Manhattan project for compost.
(And, by the way, a compost Manhattan project would have fed the world without the collateral damage of three-legged salamanders, infertile frogs, and a dead zone the size of Rhode Island in the Gulf of Mexico—before the oil spill.)
People like me who espouse a biological fertility solution over a chemical one are not seeking a return to loin cloths and hog cholera. We want to leverage marvelous technological infrastructure to harness the power of solar-grown biomass regeneration. This is the system that will feed the world.
Truth No. 6: We don’t need vaccines and antibiotics to keep farm animals healthy. The rampant plant/animal/human diseases common in the early 1900s were symptomatic of animal and human crowding during the early part of urbanization and industrialization.
When people flocked to factories in the cities, they preceded electrification, refrigeration, stainless steel, piped sewage, electric fence, and canvas shelters. During that three-decade period animals were crowded into muddy fields, people – lacking lights — couldn’t see the dirt in their homes. It took several decades for infrastructure and technology to catch up with the urbanization/industrialization innovation.
The high tech gadgets that ecology-friendly farmers enjoy today allow us to spin circles around the scale and hygiene of grandpa’s farm. Thanks to electric fencing, polyethylene pipe, and portable shelters, we don’t need prophylactic vaccines and antibiotics to keep our animals alive and healthy. For the first time in human civilization we can raise more animals, on a commercial scale, in a more sanitary, hygienic, animal-friendly way than anyone could on a homestead a century ago. That’s pretty cool. And it does feed the world.
Internationally acclaimed farmer, conference speaker, and author Joel Salatin and his family operate Polyface Farms in Augusta County near Staunton, Va., producing and direct-marketing “salad bar” beef, “pigaerator” pork, and pastured poultry. He is also co-owner of T&E Meats in Harrisonburg.