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Joel Salatin responds to New York Times' "Myth of Sustainable Meat"
April 23, 2012 2:20 PM   Subscribe

Joel Salatin, proprietor of Polyface Farm, rebuts a NYT Op-Ed by James E. McWilliams.
posted by beukeboom (81 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Beukeboom, thanks for this interesting POV of Salatin. Truly, there is no "humane" way to raise animals for slaughter. None.

Oh, and congratulations, your post entered the blue at 4:20 pm. Well done, Gov.
posted by lometogo at 2:33 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Glad to see the rebuttal.
posted by feckless at 2:34 PM on April 23, 2012


Interestingly, in a lone concession to compassion, McWilliams decries ranging hogs with rings in their noses to keep them from rooting, lamenting that this is “one of their most basic instincts.” Notice that he does not reconcile this moral imperative with his love affair with confinement hog factories.

What I took from McWilliams' piece was that no raising of animals for meat is sustainable. Not that factory farms are better.

He does say "For all the strengths of these alternatives, however, they’re ultimately a poor substitute for industrial production."

But he isn't promoting industrial production. He's just saying don't substitute one horrible thing with another slightly-less-horrible thing and pretend that it's a good thing.

And he's pretty explicit about it in his final sentence:

"After all, it’s not how we produce animal products that ultimately matters. It’s whether we produce them at all."

There may be legitimate argument over the facts he employs (I can't testify to them), but it does seem like the rebuttal is focused against a misreading of the main thrust of the argument.
posted by sutt at 2:38 PM on April 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


He could have presented the main thrust of his argument without writing an op-ed that's 90% made up "facts."
posted by cmoj at 2:42 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Salatin was just here last weekend.
I wanted to do the dinner with him, but at $125 a plate, couldn't afford it.

While I agree with a lot he has to say--and will check out his (evidently) libertarian book on "environmental capitalism", there's a lot of weird stuff I hear from people closer to the whole slow-food and sustainability and animal rights movement: that he didn't allow females to intern on his farm (evidently just changed that); that he uses the same "broilers" as KFC, he just gives them 42 days of pasturing on non-organic feed (instead of 39 days in a cage), etc.
posted by whatgorilla at 2:46 PM on April 23, 2012


Let’s go point by point. First, that grass-grazing cows emit more methane than grain-fed ones. This is factually false. Actually, the amount of methane emitted by fermentation is the same whether it occurs in the cow or outside.
Huh? I'd never heard that before, and it seems unlikely. According to this EPA web page:
Livestock manure management. Methane is produced during the anaerobic (i.e., without oxygen) decomposition of organic material in livestock manure management systems. Whether the feed is eaten by an herbivore or left to rot on its own, the methane generated is identical. Wetlands emit some 95 percent of all methane in the world
Which is what I suspected when I read what Salatin wrote. If the grass were to decompose in a field, rather then in "wetlands" it wouldn't emit as much methane as it decomposed, rather, I would guess CO2 would be released, which is actually much less harmful per molecule as Methane when it comes to the greenhouse effect.
posted by delmoi at 2:48 PM on April 23, 2012


Salatin discusses his book at Google.

He's definitely got some political ideas I disagree with, but it's pretty hard to argue that he doesn't have first-hand knowledge of sustainable farming.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 2:56 PM on April 23, 2012


Eh isn't it pretty obvious that the real benefit of "sustainable meat" is that it allows market prices to more full reflect the true price of raising livestock, and that this higher true price incentivizes people to eat less meat?
posted by JPD at 2:56 PM on April 23, 2012 [20 favorites]


Sorry for the quickmeme but it was all I got.
posted by Space Coyote at 2:56 PM on April 23, 2012


I don't have the expertise to evaluate the claims of either author, but I'm glad to have read both essays, because
one of the biggest reasons for animals in nature is to move nutrients uphill, against the natural gravitational flow from high ground to low ground
is one of those profoundly simple ideas that feels illuminating to encounter, and not something I'd ever considered before.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:58 PM on April 23, 2012 [29 favorites]


> move nutrients uphill, against the natural gravitational flow

That's something salmon do well, going upstream
posted by hank at 3:25 PM on April 23, 2012


Bitteroldpunk, I had the same reaction.

But now I'm wondering: Why does nature care about an even distribution of nutrients?
posted by purpleclover at 3:26 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Truly, there is no "humane" way to raise animals for slaughter. None.

My husband just finished lashing hog panels to T-posts for the new pig pen, effectively doubling the space of the old one, to allow our pigs more grass to root in, a mud pit to wallow in, added shade for summer days, and room to run back and forth along the fence, pacing the dog. We'll be picking up half-a-dozen piglets in a few weeks, and the moment they step out of the trailer, it will be their first experience of sunshine and fresh air and their last moment of confinement. They'll be hand-fed scraps of our meals, and given a hose shower on hot days. They'll have bowling balls to push around and straw to burrow under. They will live their lives in full pigness. You're right--it's not humane, it's hoggish, and they will spend the next several months enjoying their lives *as pigs.* As for rooting--pigs have been more effective than any tiller at getting rid of grass, turning up rocks, and fertilizing the soil. The old pen site is now a garden, and it does grow.

Yes, I will take them to be butchered. But the way I raise them in the meantime seems to make them content and relaxed.

The chickens are laying like mad, and were thrilled to see the new load of compost that we put in the barnyard. They wander as they will, and come in to roost when the day's done. If we leave the top barn door open, they devour the barn cat's food. One day, they might be in the stock pot, but for now, they're scratching and pecking.

The turkeys have been delicious. Smoked turkey on freshly-made rye? Excellent. The tom is still strutting and spitting and drumming; the hen is sitting on two dozen eggs, and the jake helps her keep them warm. Turkey life.

We're due to get some broiler chickens this summer, and we're already trying to build the portable tractor. My worry is their reputation for not walking. At least they'll have fresh water, grain and grass and be protected from the numerous hawks and occasional eagles that cruise overhead. Because I really do believe that chickens do better on green than on wire and concrete. (Yes, I am lobbying for cows, so we can run the tractors after them, and the chickens can eat the yummy, yummy critters left behind in the dung.)

It's as humane as I can be, given that yes, I will be eating these animals. For them, it's more important that they should spend whatever time they have being the animals that they are.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:29 PM on April 23, 2012 [80 favorites]


I'm not familiar with McWilliams, but I get the impression that he's cultivating controversy in order to get attention. I agree with him that meat production (and consumption) is extremely problematic, but I doubt I would find his arguments about GMO and traditional agriculture to be very convincing. He definitely seems to set up strawman arguments about chicken breeds and nose rings in order to make nonindustrial farming look bad. If he simply wanted to point out that meat production is problematic even outside industrial farming, he wouldn't need to do that.
posted by snofoam at 3:43 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Truly, there is no "humane" way to raise animals for slaughter. None.

I'm not sure what this is supposed to mean. I can understand the idea that someone could think slaughtering animals is wrong, but that's not the same thing. If this statement were true, it would imply believing that it's inhumane to raise animals at all.
posted by snofoam at 3:55 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


But now I'm wondering: Why does nature care about an even distribution of nutrients?

Maybe it doesn't (at least not obviously), but nature is all about systems and sustainability.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:57 PM on April 23, 2012


"In the perfect world, Polyface would not sell eggs. Instead, every kitchen, both domestic and commercial, would have enough chickens proximate to handle all the scraps. This would eliminate the entire egg industry and current heavy grain feeding paradigm."

I was just discussing worm composting with a chicken-owning friend of mine, and she said that she'd happily take my (apartment-based) worm compost, because between the chickens and the dogs, she has never been able to generate enough food scraps for a decent compost bin. (And she'd happily trade eggs for compost, so I'm scoping out worm bin plans!)
posted by restless_nomad at 3:57 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I got this far in Salatin's reply, "Wetlands emit some 95 percent of all methane in the world; herbivores are insignificant enough to not even merit consideration. Anyone who really wants to stop methane needs to start draining wetlands. Quick, or we’ll all perish."

I admire the guy and I've been to his farm and eaten his pork, chicken, and eggs, but really dude?
posted by peeedro at 3:59 PM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


While we certainly raise far more animals and eat far more meat than we should, it seems pretty clear to me that animals have a place in almost any sustainable agriculture cycle. Traditional farm animals -- and I don't mean those horrendous ConAgra corn-to-meat conversion units, designed for the 20th century farm, but the animals that have evolved symbiotically with agricultural man over millenia -- fit pretty nicely into some specific roles. And by using them in those roles, e.g. to fertilize, or aerate, or plow, or pollinate (bees are livestock too!), you can do a lot more farming with a lot less (or zero) fossil fuels, and potentially lower impact than heavily mechanized farming.

You can also use some animals, goats and sheep in particular, to extract food out of otherwise un-arable land. Humans can't get much nutrition out of grass or scrub, but a goat can, and a goat can provide milk and eventually meat that humans can eat. It's a pretty nice symbiosis.

But it's an "everything in moderation" problem -- somewhere in the early 20th century (perhaps earlier), the industrialized world went from seeing meat as an occasional luxury to a staple, and the results have been both ecologically disastrous and staggeringly cruel. If some people feel that only way to break out of the current cycle is to go "cold turkey" (apologies), that's an understandable reaction. But I think responsible, humane, traditional farming like that practiced by Salatin -- at least insofar as I know of his practices from his own writing and Michael Pollan's, seems pretty defensible.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:04 PM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


but really dude?
That study cited in Wikipedia is 13 years old. Is that really definitive?
posted by Toekneesan at 4:06 PM on April 23, 2012


one of the biggest reasons for animals in nature is to move nutrients uphill, against the natural gravitational flow from high ground to low ground
is one of those profoundly simple ideas that feels illuminating to encounter, and not something I'd ever considered before.
It's also complete nonsense. The polyface guy is a religious nutter, and this is clearly a religious idea (the assumption that animals have a 'purpose', when in fact, they arose through natural selection for no reason other then their own)
posted by delmoi at 4:06 PM on April 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Yeah the methane comment was pretty stupidly snarky. I think the better response would have been to point out, yes methane from herbivores is significant, but the only reason we have such a ridiculous number of herbivorous farm animals is due to industrial feedlot factory-farms, and that if Salatin's sort of farming was the only source of meat, there would be far fewer animals producing methane. You can't have feedlot animal densities (or prices!) if you're farming like Salatin does, and that's a feature, not a bug.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:07 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


one of the biggest reasons for animals in nature is to move nutrients uphill, against the natural gravitational flow from high ground to low ground

But that's pseudo-scientific nonsense. Trees do it too, they take nutrients from deep in the earth and deposit them every fall to make fertile topsoil. Perhaps he can make a mystical explanation to fit his business model.

Or what demoi said.
posted by peeedro at 4:12 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Maybe it doesn't (at least not obviously), but nature is all about systems and sustainability.
Please. nature isn't "about" anything other then the the increase of entropy. The earth is not fundamentally sustainable, without human intervention all life will be extinguished in a few hundred million years as the sun gets brighter due to hydrogen/helium ratios changing, and the surface becomes so hot that the oceans boil away.

Given that life has existed for 4.5 billion years or so that means the natural 'lifespan' of earth's biosphere is mostly over. Prior to that the entire earth had been covered in ice at various points, the atmosphere changed from lots of oxygen to no oxygen over and over again, etc.

Eventually the sun will expand to a red giant, and swallow the earth whole.
posted by delmoi at 4:16 PM on April 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'm not familiar with McWilliams, but I get the impression that he's cultivating controversy in order to get attention.

I doubt it. He's a professor of history and an experienced journalist, and his books on food culture have been received very well by the academic community and the general public. I've also met him a couple of times (a good friend is a colleague) and he is the very opposite of an attention-seeking provocateur.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:18 PM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


We're due to get some broiler chickens this summer, and we're already trying to build the portable tractor. My worry is their reputation for not walking.

There are dual purpose breeds that don't have that problem. The cornish cross, the most commonly used meat breed, are a grotesque mutant whose abnormal rate of growth is crippling; their legs can't hold up their body mass. Maybe look into some of the heritage breeds? It takes a little longer for them to be table ready but at least they will be able to walk around, fly up to roost and dust bathe.

I was just discussing worm composting with a chicken-owning friend of mine, and she said that she'd happily take my (apartment-based) worm compost, because between the chickens and the dogs, she has never been able to generate enough food scraps for a decent compost bin.


Not to mention that chicken manure and worm composting don't work well together.
posted by echolalia67 at 4:22 PM on April 23, 2012


That study cited in Wikipedia is 13 years old. Is that really definitive?

No, but it gives you a good idea of what's going on. This EPA page was linked above, while US only shows, that in 2009 livestock are responsible for about 20% of methane production. Enteric Fermentation is livestock production of methane which is inline with the link I provided.
posted by peeedro at 4:25 PM on April 23, 2012


I'm not familiar with McWilliams, but I get the impression that he's cultivating controversy in order to get attention.

Sidehedevil's vouch notwithstanding, McWilliams has a history of getting his work into the public eye by writing contentious op-eds on such topics.
posted by Miko at 4:27 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Eventually the sun will expand to a red giant, and swallow the earth whole.
posted by gurple at 4:29 PM on April 23, 2012


Not to say Salatin isn't a nutter, but the article seems to fit into the genera "environmentalism doesn't work, LOL". I've seen articles "proving" that everything from hybrid cars to solar panels. Generally, they are ridiculous.
posted by delmoi at 4:31 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Please. nature isn't "about" anything other then the the increase of entropy. The earth is not fundamentally sustainable, without human intervention all life will be extinguished in a few hundred million years as the sun gets brighter due to hydrogen/helium ratios changing, and the surface becomes so hot that the oceans boil away.

Given that life has existed for 4.5 billion years or so that means the natural 'lifespan' of earth's biosphere is mostly over. Prior to that the entire earth had been covered in ice at various points, the atmosphere changed from lots of oxygen to no oxygen over and over again, etc.

Eventually the sun will expand to a red giant, and swallow the earth whole.


All very true. But that's a very nihilistic and extremely long-term view, no?

Up until the present, nature has adapted and evolved a workable system - an ecosystem. No doubt it will do so until everything burns up. The drive is survival, the method is whatever works.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:46 PM on April 23, 2012


Not that it matters, but I take issue with this phrasing, from McWilliams:

"There have been various responses to these horrors, including some recent attempts to improve the industrial system, like the announcement this week that farmers will have to seek prescriptions for sick animals instead of regularly feeding antibiotics to all stock."

It would be fairer and more accurate to say that a recent court ruling has cleared the way for the FDA to require the makers of animal feed to remove antibiotics from their products in response to concerns about growing antibiotic resistance. Here's one perspective on the situation from a farmer-doctor. And another, from The Atlantic. As his sentences stand, the larger context is obscured.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:52 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's also complete nonsense. The polyface guy is a religious nutter, and this is clearly a religious idea (the assumption that animals have a 'purpose', when in fact, they arose through natural selection for no reason other then their own)

Isn't that how natural selection works? If a species is particularly suited to a role that helps it survive, it's going to grow more and more into that role over generations. Sometimes, these roles involve multiple organisms, such as cows producing manure that helps grass grow. Eventually, nature stabilizes into these webs of relationships that keep everything in relative balance, on account of the fact that many other combinations existed at one point but weren't sustainable. Humans can, of course, help the process along with selective breeding, etc.

I think this is what Salatin meant, and there's no need to dismiss him as a nutter just because he isn't an atheist / doesn't describe his ideas with precise scientific language.
posted by archagon at 4:53 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


this higher true price incentivizes people to eat less meat?

That can work. Last year, Mrs. exogenous and I strolled into our local market and considered a Polyface steak offered for sale. It was about $50 and frozen - we passed.
posted by exogenous at 4:58 PM on April 23, 2012


There are dual purpose breeds that don't have that problem. The cornish cross, the most commonly used meat breed, are a grotesque mutant whose abnormal rate of growth is crippling; their legs can't hold up their body mass. Maybe look into some of the heritage breeds? It takes a little longer for them to be table ready but at least they will be able to walk around, fly up to roost and dust bathe.

One of the things I love about the elitist chickens I buy at the Green Market here in NYC is that the guy whose chickens taste best - you can really tangibly feel the difference in the leg bones. They are heavier and you can see where the tendons were attached. They are admittedly a little tougher, but the flavor makes up for it.
posted by JPD at 5:06 PM on April 23, 2012


To be fair, this statement from the McWilliams OpEd isn't entirely true:
Finally, there is no avoiding the fact that the nutrient cycle is interrupted every time a farmer steps in and slaughters a perfectly healthy manure-generating animal, something that is done before animals live a quarter of their natural lives. When consumers break the nutrient cycle to eat animals, nutrients leave the system of rotationally grazed plots of land (though of course this happens with plant-based systems as well). They land in sewer systems and septic tanks (in the form of human waste) and in landfills and rendering plants (in the form of animal carcasses).
It's not something that most people want to know about but your processed shit, the hard to dispose of parts called biosolids, are commonly sprayed back into agricultural fields.
posted by peeedro at 5:14 PM on April 23, 2012


The 'perfect world' in which every domestic and commercial kitchen comes with chickens attached is a reruralized world with far fewer humans, who spend much more of their time focused on subsistence farming. I think I'll be voting with my dollars to not support 'dying uneducated and semi-starving in my 30s if I'm lucky' as my utopia.
posted by Kwine at 5:15 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I cannot at all see why having a greater variety of farming practices is a bad thing. Let them claim their way to be the way all they want in words. They still have to prove it in the world. Unless, of course, it is inherently offensive for someone to think they are right and act on that alone, but then what possible justification did the original op-ed author have in doing just that?
posted by TwelveTwo at 5:29 PM on April 23, 2012


Well, a world with far fewer humans would probably be a good thing, as long as we get there gradually and before our fossil fuels run out. Salatin's approach looks like one possible way of getting there, even if it's not perfect. Industrial farming is definitely not the way to get there.
posted by archagon at 5:33 PM on April 23, 2012


Isn't that how natural selection works? If a species is particularly suited to a role that helps it survive, it's going to grow more and more into that role over generations. Sometimes, these roles involve multiple organisms, such as cows producing manure that helps grass grow. Eventually, nature stabilizes into these webs of relationships that keep everything in relative balance
Well, the problem is the implication of "purpose." Animals moving "nutrients" up hill may be something that happens, but if the particular animal does not benefit from plants growing in those locations then as far as the animal is concerned it's just a side-effect, not it's "purpose".

I also don't know how true it is overall, seems like most herbivores live on plains anyway.
posted by delmoi at 5:37 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Kwine, really? I think you're suffering from the slippery slope logical fallacy. In no way does "restaurants having the option of profitably using chickens to reprocess their scraps" imply subsistence farming.
posted by Buckt at 5:39 PM on April 23, 2012


And I'm with you, delmoi. It really doesn't seem likely that what Saladin says about animals being how nature moves nutrients uphill is true. As a person who studies ecology, I've never come across that idea before and I doubt it's scientifically tenable in any sort of "causative" way.
posted by Buckt at 5:41 PM on April 23, 2012



Up until the present, nature has adapted and evolved a workable system - an ecosystem. No doubt it will do so until everything burns up. The drive is survival, the method is whatever works.


Every ecosystem that survives is in a constant expansion at odds with countless others doing just the same. Predators will reproduce until famine. Prey will do the same. Even when placed at odds, they do so without stability, one always wins only to lose. Even environments undergo the same struggle. Forests produce the conditions best for forests. Swamps make swamps. Deserts make deserts. Every thing that looks like a circle in ecology is an ill-fitting spiral pressing on countless others, each composed of an infinity of spirals. There is no such thing as harmony. Equilibrium is imaginary. A closed loop, a unity, a harmony, all of these things do not exist, will never exist, and cannot exist. But if you wish to try to, by all means, go extinct. So I am sorry but we do not have the option of balance, and never did. The question then arises, how do we go about replacing the surface of the earth with our own environment without losing a drop?

With such a goal in mind it becomes unwise to so quickly discard relations between animals and plants; in that light, Polyface seems a good direction to take in our conquest of earth. We began with what, as some call it, the enslavement of species. It would seem a logical next step to begin enslaving entire chains of life. If there is any end point implied by sustainable food systems it is a forest planet where everything is ours for the consuming; trees that produce electricity, mighty elephant creatures that shit iPhones, oceans of fresh water. . .
posted by TwelveTwo at 5:46 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Miko, I think that people who write books on contentious topics tend to write contentious op-eds to publicize their work. I took issue with snofoam's phrasing, because McWilliams is already well known and well respected as a food writer, and this isn't a publicity stunt.

I disagree with McWilliams profoundly on this topic, but he's not trolling or any moral equivalent of same.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:49 PM on April 23, 2012


he is the very opposite of an attention-seeking provocateur.

It does seem that he changed the subtitle of the book from "How Locavores are Endangering the Future of Food" to "Where Locavores Get it Wrong" so I guess he at least toned it down a little bit. I read an excerpt from the book and was unimpressed. He basically sets up a strawman of locavores obsessed with food miles as the sole rationale why they would want to eat local food.

Maybe it's harder to sell a book that proposes pragmatic ways of eating responsibly without setting it up as a confrontation with hoity-toity locavores, but to me his approach undermines whatever appeal there is in his message. He surely is a nice guy, but I don't know him so I can only judge based on what he's written and how he and his publishers have presented it.
posted by snofoam at 5:55 PM on April 23, 2012


that's a very nihilistic and extremely long-term view, no?

Nihilism is the only true philosophy; everything else is just whistling past the graveyard.
posted by adamdschneider at 5:56 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


exogenous and I shop at the same place. I've never gotten the steak, but Polyface eggs are fantastic.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:04 PM on April 23, 2012


It really doesn't seem likely that what Saladin says about animals being how nature moves nutrients uphill is true.

Fully agreed that there is no purpose or intent, but I don't know that it is totally farfetched that it actually happens. I have heard or read, for example, that salmon bring a ton of nutrients when they come in to spawn. Whether Saladin's thing about hilltops is true or not, I have no idea, but I feel like there must be some mechanism for retaining or replenishing minerals and stuff in mountain soil.
posted by snofoam at 6:04 PM on April 23, 2012


The 'perfect world' in which every domestic and commercial kitchen comes with chickens attached is a reruralized world with far fewer humans, who spend much more of their time focused on subsistence farming. I think I'll be voting with my dollars to not support 'dying uneducated and semi-starving in my 30s if I'm lucky' as my utopia.


Utter nonsense. This ideal is not at all about going backwards, it's about going forwards sustainably. Everybody still wants and expects to use high tech labour saving solutions and the best of modern medicine, and be online.

And even so, if it is looking backwards, it's looking no further backwards than about 1900. Hardly the middle ages like you infer. Amish people, despite inbreeding, are generally as healthy as anyone.
posted by wilful at 6:05 PM on April 23, 2012


I read an excerpt from the book and was unimpressed. He basically sets up a strawman of locavores obsessed with food miles as the sole rationale why they would want to eat local food.

I think he sees that as a real problem. I agree with you that I think the problem is way more complex than that.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:17 PM on April 23, 2012


So I am sorry but we do not have the option of balance, and never did.

The thing is, we do have a much greater option of balance than that. We have the luxury of thousands of years of study and the ability to take a world view. Boom and bust is the natural way but, by and large, it's self-limiting. Input changes here, output changes there as a result; predator depends on prey and vice versa.

Do humans have the final say? Definitely not, but they can certainly approach their lot more intelligently. And humanely, if they so choose.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:20 PM on April 23, 2012


I think he sees that as a real problem.

For sure, there's no way I can actually tell if he's a troll or just a horribly misguided crusader. At least I didn't accuse him of being a shill for industrial agriculture and fertilizers, which is the third logical possibility. Apparently he is so blinded by an ideal of pragmatism and compromise that he's afraid of people eating locally and supports fantasy industrial farming where pesticides are used responsibly and GMO is used for something other than making crops resistant to herbicide.

If you say he's genuine in his beliefs, I'm not going to argue, but he is apparently incredibly foolish.
posted by snofoam at 6:34 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Amish people, despite inbreeding, are generally as healthy as anyone.

Wilful, I know this was probably just an aside, but this issue has nothing to do with the Amish or any other Anabaptist group. Amish farm in a variety of ways, some using antibiotics and fertilizer, and some using chicken tractors and rotating crop and pasture. This isn't their issue. The Amish I know who farm in sustainable ways do so because there is a market for it. See Kraybill's Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits.
posted by Toekneesan at 6:37 PM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't know whether it implies Salatin's model is valid, but the "pulsing of the predator-prey-pruning cycle on perennial prairie polycultures" sure pushes my alliteration loving buttons.
posted by TreeRooster at 6:41 PM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Toekneesan, finishing the aside, I was responding to the suggestion that smallholding type farming is a return to the dark ages with concomitant human misery. Which is silly.
posted by wilful at 6:57 PM on April 23, 2012


It seems like the real problem with this debate is that both sides clearly have a certain point-of-view, and benefit in some way from convincing people of that point of view, but neither one provides much in the way of convincing facts to support their conclusion. In other words, it seems like they both decided what they believed, and then tried to come up with facts to support it. If you're undecided on the matter, it makes for a rather uncompelling discussion.

Here is one example of a paragraph that I thought was rather wishy-washy from this article:
Apparently if you lie often and big enough, some people will believe it: Pastured chicken has a 20 percent greater impact on global warming? Says who? The truth is that those industrial chicken houses are not stand-alone structures...
This doesn't even consist of a refutation of McWilliams' point. Instead, Salatin says what amounts to "I don't believe you. And it's complicated," which I am quite sympathetic to, but it doesn't make an effective argument against McWilliams unless he follows up with a convincing attempt at estimating the impact of various sources.

McWilliams' article consists similarly of a lot of hand-wavy arguments that appeal to "common sense", but I don't think applying "common sense" to a system as complex as food production is sufficient.
posted by !Jim at 7:28 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was responding to the suggestion that smallholding type farming is a return to the dark ages with concomitant human misery. Which is silly.

It might also be important to consider that there are still plenty of places in the world where small farms are already/still the norm and yields can be improved by simple things like planting crops in rows. To the degree that they are adaptable to other areas, intensive farming techniques developed in the US could be a step forward for lots of people.
posted by snofoam at 7:32 PM on April 23, 2012


Instead, Salatin says what amounts to "I don't believe you. And it's complicated," which I am quite sympathetic to, but it doesn't make an effective argument against McWilliams unless he follows up with a convincing attempt at estimating the impact of various sources.

I got some of the same general impression you did, that Salatin did a poor job of rebutting some of the arguments, particularly the cows and methane one.

On the other hand, McWilliams just throws the pastured chicken 20% more greenhouse gasses thing into the op-ed with no citation or explanation, so I'm not sure how anyone would be able to address it directly when you don't know the source, methodology, etc. It seems like he's guessing that the methodology probably doesn't account for total emissions, but it might have been better for him to simply say "show me where that number comes from and then I'll address it."
posted by snofoam at 7:47 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


the assumption that animals have a 'purpose', when in fact, they arose through natural selection for no reason other then their own

Right up until we started selectively breeding them for specific traits, sure.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:26 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Locavorism/small-scale farming vs. industrial farming is an argument that will never gel into a solid case on any single measure. Each is good at something. But when viewed holistically, taking in all dimensions from culture, fair labor, environment, humane practice, regional food sovereignty, food safety, biodiversity, the commons, public health, etc., there is a pretty clear imperative. Anyone attempting to reduce the issue to a single metric is going to come out with a clear winner on that metric alone - but when you lump all the metrics together and view the food system as a whole in a social context, the conclusion that our contemporary industrial agricultural system is working well is unsupportable.
posted by Miko at 8:47 PM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


our contemporary industrial agricultural system is working well is unsupportable.

Well, I tend to agree, but you can't merely look at the small-scale/local-farming movement and decide it's the solution. Maybe the solution would look a lot like industrial-scale farming, but with some tweaks or tighter regulation, for example.

As I understand it, in many EU countries, many of the more egregious industrial scale farming practices we have in the US are banned or being phased out, but industrial farming is still alive.
posted by !Jim at 8:54 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Vermonters can't get enough local meat — and that's good news for beef farmers
Growers' coops, dairy conversions, and on-farm slaughter: all the animal drama you can take and more is happening in central Vermont.
posted by rossmeissl at 9:08 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, I tend to agree, but you can't merely look at the small-scale/local-farming movement and decide it's the solution.

You can't? It's certainly part of any smart solution.

These may in fact be the pilot locations and proving grounds where the "solution" is being worked out. Maybe the solution will look a lot like small-scale farming, but with some efficiencies.

Reining in the excesses of industrialization is not an incentive that comes from within the value set that promotes maximum industrialization. That's why it's important to include and observe other models as well. And for some communities, smaller-scale models are entirely sufficient and sufficiently efficient - to reduce the need for maximizing industrial production, relieving the burden of industrialism to push to unrealistic and harmful extremes.
posted by Miko at 9:15 PM on April 23, 2012


"In the perfect world, Polyface would not sell eggs. Instead, every kitchen, both domestic and commercial, would have enough chickens proximate to handle all the scraps. This would eliminate the entire egg industry and current heavy grain feeding paradigm."

My old boss quit the IT business and started his own business making suburban farming installations. Apparently it's pretty easy to care for them once everything is setup.

He'll even do a system that uses the nutrient rich waste water from a fish farm to automatically water a veggie garden.
posted by Talez at 10:10 PM on April 23, 2012


Nihilism is the only true philosophy; everything else is just whistling past the graveyard.

We believe in nothing, Lebowski. Nothing. And tomorrow we come back and we cut off your chonson.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:22 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Every now and then these weird agriculture op-eds and rebuttals come out of the woodwork, and every time I wonder about that hazy intersection between ideology and science... And how none of these authors seem to have any sense for scientific rigor.

The same dumb instinctive reductionism that makes for good opinion pieces can be used to criticize both sides of any argument, while contributing to neither.
posted by phyllary at 11:27 PM on April 23, 2012


Science talk makes bad copy. A good, popular, talked about opinion piece supports preexisting positions. Good, popular, talked about opinion pieces support either positions positive ("I agree that I'm right!") or negative ("I knew some idiots thought this!") will do, but, man, if you can do both at the same time, wow, you hit it out of the park. A perfect balance of appearing absolutely idiotic to outsiders, and iron-clad impenetrable support for insiders, that is just media gold. But that is all why science talk makes bad copy. Science don't do good, popular, talked about opinion pieces or editorials. Science only idiotic when it ain't science. Science only iron-clad invincible defense when it ain't science. Science when science is science. Entertainment is entertainment cause it ain't science.
posted by TwelveTwo at 12:06 AM on April 24, 2012


So from this and my other reading it looks like Joel Salatin can come across as a bit of a nutter, but are his books on farming any good? He seems to know how to run his own farm.
posted by bystander at 7:01 AM on April 24, 2012


bystander, Salatin describes himself as a "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-Farmer." It might be best to read his writings with that in mind, and an invisible marker in hand; if you can block out the preaching and evangelizing, the actual practices are quite interesting. I had the chance to meet his son, Daniel, who's doing a lot of the day-to-day management at this point. Under the (understandable) promotion of the Salatin name and the Polyface reputation, there's a ton of practical knowledge from the trenches. Daniel Salatin was particularly entertaining and well-versed in predator reduction and processes chickens like he can do it in his sleep. His wife spoke well on promoting farm products to restaurants and local customers. The Polyface website is well worth a look.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:15 AM on April 24, 2012


If you are looking for an overview on Salatin, The Omnivore's Dilemma has a good explanation of what he does at Polyface. I'd be inclined to think he knows what he's doing, but I could be wrong.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:14 AM on April 24, 2012


I'm responding to a specific position in the article:

In the perfect world, Polyface would not sell eggs. Instead, every kitchen, both domestic and commercial, would have enough chickens proximate to handle all the scraps.

"Not having to have chickens around every kitchen" is a feature that allows lots of other things to be around kitchens. Enough proximate chickens to every kitchen to handle the scraps would be a massive step back for urbanization and force a consummate decline in the wealth and well-being of humans, since density drives productivity. It's an idea for pushing people apart when it's people coming together that makes things better. It's not a serious position.
posted by Kwine at 9:49 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think people overestimate the cost and underestimate the benefits of having chickens. You get more than two chickens and suddenly you are knocking at people's doors in the middle of the night, clothes full of eggs, begging for friends and neighbors to take them, take any of them, all of them, just a few eggs, please. The eggs, the eggs, the eggs, there are too many eggs you cry. They've heard this all before. They don't answer the door. Their fridge too is overloaded with eggs. Eggs you've given them, eggs you've put into their house. Friends worry, but they do not say hello, they do not answer the phone, they do not open the door, all for the same reason, they are afraid, afraid to take any more eggs. You crumple to the cement of their porch. Your knocking, yelling, screaming, scratching, all futile. They will not open, they will not take your eggs. There is no way to eat these many eggs. These eggs are your ruin. Your end. Chickens, why did you ever get more than two chickens? What a fool you think to yourself, what a fool, you toss and turn in bed, the night ruined, stolen from you by poultry regrets. You shudder, a realization strikes, tomorrow there will be more eggs, the day after more eggs again, then after there will be more, and more, and more eggs, eggs forever, eggs never ending, eggs until the end of time.
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:58 AM on April 24, 2012 [9 favorites]


$50 for a steak? I was up at my uncle's farm for sausage-making this spring and I picked up 15# of ground beef and ~5# of steak from him for $60. They're pastured cows and seem pretty happy, not certified organic, but pretty close - according to my uncle, of course, although he didn't back that up with any scientific evidence.

It's always so refreshing to get out there and be around the animals, feed them and spend some time with them. I feel more human there than I do sitting in an office all day, gradually losing my will to continue living. But, perhaps the most humane thing to do would be for all of the humans to kill ourselves so we aren't "competing" and "interfering" with nature anymore?
posted by nTeleKy at 10:34 AM on April 24, 2012


It's as humane as I can be, given that yes, I will be eating these animals.

Which is of course a HUGE "given" ...

Neighbors opposed to backyard slaughter

Just throwing another derail out there ...
posted by mrgrimm at 2:26 PM on April 24, 2012


I think people overestimate the cost and underestimate the benefits of having chickens. ... You shudder, a realization strikes, tomorrow there will be more eggs, the day after more eggs again, then after there will be more, and more, and more eggs, eggs forever, eggs never ending, eggs until the end of time.

That is a strange "benefit" ...
posted by mrgrimm at 2:31 PM on April 24, 2012


mrgrimm, the neighbor walked over to see what we were doing just as we were getting ready to process a couple of turkeys. It might have been awkward were he not a hunter. That man can pluck a bird, let me tell you. His wife was a little less than happy to have a naked eviscerated turkey show up on her kitchen counter, however.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:28 PM on April 24, 2012


Which is of course a HUGE "given" ...

These are bred, domesticated animals which mostly wouldn't exist unless they were eventually to be eaten. Many varieties have already died out because they're not preferred by the industrial system - eating them keeps them, and their genetic material, alive in the world.
posted by Miko at 8:04 PM on April 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


To second Miko's excellent point about preserving genetic material: "The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a nonprofit membership organization working to protect over 180 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction. Included are asses, cattle, goats, horses, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys." Here's their conservation priority list.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:49 AM on April 25, 2012


Livestock are no more valuable than any other species.

"The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a nonprofit membership organization working to protect over 180 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction.

Swell. The IUCN Red List currently puts the number of "critically endangered" species at 3,879. Some of the reasons these species are endangered are because of livestock management.

Why is the genetic material of a Hereford cow any more valuable than that of a Twee River Redfin? I am curious.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:28 PM on April 25, 2012


Neighbors Opposed to Backyard Slaughter

What a bunch of nobs.
posted by wilful at 4:16 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Livestock are no more valuable than any other species.

But the same logic applies to livestock as applies to the preservation argument for any other species: they are genetically unique.

It may turn out that Breed X has a particular combination of traits that allows it to survive an epidemic disease, a severe climate change, a famine or some other change in conditions. All the commercial breeds we have today in fact owe their success to the manipulation of genetic material in the heritage breeds; if the conditions of success change, we will not be able to manage them without drawing on other genetic material to develop hardier stocks.

The less biodiversity we maintain in the world, the less flexibility we will have to adapt to changing conditions. We'd just be playing with many fewer dice and it would be a lot harder to roll sevens. Is a threatened rare breed animal more valuable than other breeds in and of itself, taken alone? Probably not. But is it more valuable if it represents an addition to the genetic material available to nature and husbandry practice, rather than repeating the same stock of material and sometimes even essentially cloning the already existing material? To that, I'd say yes. Increased biodiversity means increased resilience, for that species and for all other species which make use of it at any point in the food chain.

Your point about livestock management threatening other species is a very good one - but that is not a question of livestock breeds, but of management systems. If you deplore the environmental impacts of bad livestock management, you should by all means avoid and deplore input-intensive factory farming systems.
posted by Miko at 8:57 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


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