I’m a permaculture farmer. My goal is to develop natural ecosystems that produce food. My dream is a world with ready access to a diet that nourishes the body of the consumer, provides a living for the producer, and leaves the Earth joyfully habitable.
I share that dream with a lot of people who call themselves permaculturalists, natural farmers, plantsmen, or foodies. I fear, however, that this doughty lot of green thumbs and stock-folk and food advocates is succumbing to tribalism; forgetting that saving the world means saving all of the people in it; even the ones that love cheap burgers and Coke. We’re digging foxholes and making monsters out of people who don’t agree with us, or who don’t understand, or who do understand but are powerless to act.
Take this quote by Dr. Daphne Miller — author of one of my favorite books on the links between farming and health — at the end of her interview with Slow Money Journal:
“Americans are going to fall into two camps when all is said and done: People who buy cheap goods, regardless of quality, versus people who are willing and able to pay for things that are made with integrity. We are seeing the limits of the “buying cheap crap” approach.”
As much as I admire Dr. Miller, this is among the more judgmental things I’ve read outside of scripture. Among the implications:
- People who buy cheap goods (food) are mindless imbeciles who’d just as soon drink gasoline as fair trade coffee as long as the price is right.
- Whether you buy cheap or buy quality is a matter of WILL! There are those who are WILLING and those who are NOT WILLING! Oh, and able.
- Those who are not willing and able are buying crap. You’re feeding your children crap. You’re killing the Earth and you’re killing yourselves. You’re in the wrong camp. You’re crap! Shame on you.
That’s not what Dr. Miller wrote, but language is meaningless until it’s interpreted in people’s minds. That interpretation is informed by the economic, racial, political, religious, family, and personal backgrounds of the individual who processes it. Language complimenting one person is a heinous insult to another. Imagine how that earlier statement — from a Brown/Harvard educated M.D. — reads to a lower-middle income family with no savings.
Dr. Miller’s comment is owed, in part, to the echo chamber into which she was speaking; the same one into which nearly all of us “clean food” advocates speak. It’s the one that asks easy questions and accepts facile non-solutions like “people need to pay more for food,” and “people need to eat less meat.” Folks like me have cultivated an insular world unencumbered by challenges beyond the margins — we may disagree about technical details in rotationally-grazing livestock, but we short circuit when asked how our system could possibly scale to supply half the current global demand for beef. Most of us have never considered such an enormous question with any seriousness. We’re surrounded by so much mutual love and affirmation that challenging ourselves doesn’t seem necessary. We’re generals on the eve of battle insisting we don’t need to study the terrain; we will win because God is on our side.
“Yes, the $8/lb ground beef is produced the way it should be. Yes, it’s good for my body. Yes it’s good for the Earth. But it’s eight freaking dollars, and my kid needs braces and protein. Bye Felicia, we’re going to McDonald’s.”
-Bobby Q. Homemaker
Clean food people… we’re funny. We’ll say all day long that people don’t pay enough for food and they need to value food more. We’ll even take the concept of going the extra mile to buy food with “integrity,” turn it into a wedge, and drive it into the very heart of America, cleaving our collective body into the willing and unwilling.
But call our products “high-end” and we go absolutely apeshit.
I’ve heard all manner of gaslighting coughed into the air in defense of a $10/lb pork chop being called “accessible” (things I’ve definitely said in the past):
- “It’s more expensive at Whole Foods”
- “The grocery store ribeye is artificially cheap”
- “Pay me now or pay the doctor later”
I sat on a panel with representatives from Timbercreek Market and Local Food Hub in front of an audience of about sixty people. We were all asked a question about the accessibility of Local food.
They came to me last, after my co-panelists delivered answers in line with the bullets above; the same answers I certainly would have offered two years ago.
I blurted out, irritated, “our food is not accessible. It’s just not. It’s beyond the wallets of damn near everybody, it’s the biggest problem with sustainable food systems, and we’re criminally unserious about being leaders in sustainability until we propose solutions beyond economic relativism, wishful thinking, and see-sawing between charity on one hand and insisting that vulnerable, distracted people do all the heavy lifting of finding a way to afford our food on the other. And until we do start talking about those solutions… all this “save the world” stuff? It’s all bullshit.”
A hush came over the room like I’d just spilled some awful secret. The applause at the end of whatever else I said was long and loud. But I’m probably not getting invited back to any VNRLI events.
The food I produce is expensive. It’s high-end. I have customers who really have to stretch to get it, and they let me know it. They’re foregoing other creature comforts to help me make a living and keep the Earth of my grandmothers alive, and they’re doing it not as a gastro-political vote of the food dollar or out of guilt for their carbon footprint, but as an act of love. They’re holding our work and our mission to their hearts and saying “I believe in you.”
I remember it when I’m up to my shoulders in freezing water; when the inside of my truck reeks of four kinds of shit; when I come home covered in blood and muck; when I’m hauling water in 100-degree heat; when I’m herding pigs in a driving rainstorm and dodging lightning bolts to close up the hens. It reminds me that I’m not alone. The energy they impart is worth infinitely more than money; it’s the thing that lets me make a life as well as a living. And I’ll dare not call that gift anything less than what it is in order to call my food something — like ‘accessible’ —that it is not.
But not everyone can make that sacrifice.
Nostalgia and misguided notions about peasant food aside, let’s not pretend we really want to go back to the way food used to be. One of the great accomplishments of industrial food is an incredible leveling of what’s on the plates of the rich and poor. The biggest difference between what you eat and what a billionaire eats will generally be how food is prepared instead of what food is prepared. Rich and poor alike all have routine access to chicken, pork, and beef — you might be surprised how recently that wasn’t the case. And that abundance, especially of once-rare animal protein, has had substantial benefits for vulnerable people.
Industrial food, however, hosts an array potent externalities: environmental degradation, western chronic disease, inequities in distribution. Clean food responds to this by championing non-industrial, artisan farming methods. This creates a higher quality but far more expensive product relative to the competition; we respond with aggressive marketing and the whole “people need to value food more” shtick aimed at the consumer who is able to spend those extra dollars.
Meanwhile, the guy who is NOT able is rendered invisible by clean food’s elitist marketing, which is strange because a.) clean food insists it’s trying to save the world, yet b.) MOST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD ARE THAT GUY. There’s no solution for him except to put him at the mercy of various forms of feel-good charity. That seems fairly messed up.
Also messed up: a foodie telling some poor little boy that he can’t eat a 99 cent fast food cheeseburger because it doesn’t have integrity. Telling him how easy it is instead to save his ducketts and maybe he can have a grass-fed house burger at the end of the month as a reward, but in the meantime get your protein from these canned beans that you can’t actually bake because you don’t have a stove and, even if you did, your mom works two jobs and moonlights as an Uber driver so she doesn’t have time to heat that shit up anyway.
There’s no overstating how coarse it is for a person of means to have that attitude toward the poor. It’s straight out of 18th century Versailles.
Access to good food free of social and environmental externalities is a human right. It’s for precisely this reason I don’t bristle all that hard (any more) at the idea of cultured meat and hydroponics, even though I’m a food-forest-loving permaculture farmer. The food I produce is economically out of range for a large number of people, but access to good food shouldn’t be restricted to those who can afford to pay. Cultures and hydroponics could potentially scale to fill the affordability gap left by “traditional” clean food without the externalities. If technology can offer decent, affordable meat to people without environmental side-effects, I don’t have the right to reject that technology out of hand just because it’s new, weird, or might threaten my revenue potential.*
*You might ask, if cultured meat and hydroponics can feed the world, then why is your farm even necessary? The answer is that permaculture food forests — complete with trees, perennial plants, and livestock serving their critical functions in the water/mineral/energy cycles — are critical to economically viable environmental conservation. No matter how far tech goes, we still need breathable air, clean water, fertile soil, greenspace, and all the food we can responsibly produce.
“Clean Food” — the kind grown in/on living soil, minimally processed, eaten closest to the point of harvest, etc. — is part of the solution, not THE solution. Clean food advocates have to squarely recognize a.) the conflicts that exist at the intersection of environmental, social, and economic sustainability, b.) the disproportionate effects of those conflicts on the poor and lower-middle classes, and c.) the immorality and impracticality of insisting vulnerable people address those conflicts on their own, and judging them if they don’t.
We owe it to our customers, families, friends, and communities to be honest about where we fit in a sustainable future. If we’re serious about saving the world, we also owe that honesty to people who will never be our customers. Finally, we owe that honesty to our mission and our own sanity — the idea of this planet’s future health and happiness left to a choice between the average person’s pocketbook and their long-term moral considerations is a depressing notion with few precedents to buoy our hopes.
So lets build our soil and grow good food. But let the folks in the lab do their thing, too. Like it or not, we’re all depending on one another.
Chris Newman is a farmer in Virginia’s Northern Neck. He’s tall and skinny and is growing a great and woolly beard for totally non-political reasons. If you like what you’ve just read, please consider a click on that there green heart thing. And if you really like what you just read, maybe you’ll become a patron (contribute as little as $1/month!) so he can spend even more time writing, building foodscapes, and democratizing Local food.
Visit the farm, Sylvanaqua Farms, on Instagram @sylvanaquafarms