US: Food for the soul
Posted: August 23rd, 2009 - 7:05pm
Source: New York Times
YAMHILL, Ore. -- On a summer visit back to the farm here where I grew up, I think I figured out the central problem with modern industrial agriculture. It’s not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all.
More fundamentally, it has no soul.
The family farm traditionally was the most soulful place imaginable, and that was the case with our own farm on the edge of the Willamette Valley. I can’t say we were efficient: for a time we thought about calling ourselves “Wandering Livestock Ranch,” after our Angus cattle escaped in one direction and our Duroc hogs in another.
When coyotes threatened our sheep operation, we spent $300 on a Kuvasz, a breed of guard dog that is said to excel in protecting sheep. Alas, our fancy-pants new sheep dog began her duties by dining on lamb.
It’s always said that if a dog kills one lamb, it will never stop, and so the local rule was that if your dog killed one sheep you had to shoot it. Instead we engaged in a successful cover-up. It worked, for the dog never touched a lamb again and for the rest of her long life fended off coyotes heroically.
That kind of diverse, chaotic family farm is now disappearing, replaced by insipid food assembly lines.
The result is food that also lacks soul — but may contain pathogens. In the last two months, there have been two major recalls of ground beef because of possible contamination with drug-resistant salmonella. When factory farms routinely fill animals with antibiotics, the result is superbugs that resist antibiotics.
Michael Pollan, the food writer, notes that monocultures in the field result in monocultures in our diets. Two-thirds of our calories, he says, now come from just four crops: rice, soy, wheat and corn. Fast-food culture and obesity are linked, he argues, to the transformation from family farms to industrial farming.
In fairness, industrial farming is extraordinarily efficient, and smaller diverse family farms would mean more expensive food. So is this all inevitable? Is my nostalgia like the blacksmith’s grief over Henry Ford’s assembly lines superseding a more primitive technology? Perhaps, but I’m reassured by one of my old high school buddies here in Yamhill, Bob Bansen. He runs a family dairy of 225 Jersey cows so efficiently that it can still compete with giant factory dairies of 20,000 cows.