In chapter 8, “All Flesh Is Grass,” Michael Pollan introduces us to Joel Salatin, a “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer” (p. 125). When all is said and done, Salatin sounds like a fun guy, like someone who has made his small farm productive in multiple ways, on multiple levels. So three cheers for him, in the most neighborly way possible.
The problem is that Salatin’s libertarian streak, which I share with him, is not consistently thought out. He wants everybody to have an “opt out” option, and not have to deal with the government at all. But in Food, Inc., in which Salatin was held up as the dude, we were all told that a factory that had more than (I think it was) three regulatory violations was to be shut down. But a government big enough to shut down the evil factories is big enough to shut down a small sustainable yogi-fogey operation too. And anybody who thinks that major food processing problems cannot arise on small farms is suffering from a singular lack of imagination.
Like Salatin, I would want such (inevitable) problems to be solved by the market, but only ideology is going to say that if we go this route, there will be no such problems to solve. This is a fallen world, and we will not just have dirty factories and clean small farms. We will also have some dirty small farms and clean factories. And if the government really let us opt out, then that would result in real market competitions, and this would make room for competent niche farmers like Salatin, and it would also make room for the men whose farms have their own zip code, those men who want to feed the whole world.
Related to this, and behind all this, there is one other problem lurking that I believe needs to be mentioned as often as we get the opportunity. That other problem is a striking lack of gratitude for how many people are eating better (as in, eating at all) than they used to. The last fifty years has been a time of enormous blessing for the average inhabitant of this sorry planet.
“Taking a shorter perspective, in 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried on third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer” (Ridley, The Rational Optimist, p. 14).
So before proceeding any further with our food debates, let’s take a moment to bow our heads to give thanks, shall we? But in order to do this, one of the things we would have to count among our many blessings would be petrochemicals and heavy machinery.