Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Newspaper Column - Salatin and Heinberg

Published in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, 24 Nov. 2008.

Joel Salatin is a small farmer with a big problem. Everything he wants to do is against the law or runs afoul of the “food police.” No, he isn’t growing anything illegal. His farm is not much different than farms in olden days, when food was produced organically and sold locally, before the advent of industrial food processes and layers of government bureaucracy.

“People are longing for this type of food,” he says. “Who would you trust—an industry bureaucrat or a local farmer?”

Salatin is a celebrity livestock farmer from Virginia who brought his message to a conference of organic farmers in Saskatoon last week. He’s been on TV, graced the pages of National Geographic, testified at a Congressional hearing and authored six books—all to promote a way of farming he says is under threat.

Case in point: He’s been called a “bio-terrorist” because he lets his chickens run free. The fear is that a sick duck might land and give his birds the avian flu. Industrial wisdom says that poultry should be raised indoors, something he is not willing to do.

Another case in point: Safety rules for the big meat processors are also applied to small butchers—even though the small butchers are not responsible for mass recalls and hundreds of deaths due to contaminated food. Yet these industrial solutions are so onerous and expensive they are putting the small guys out of business. According to industrial wisdom, livestock should be vaccinated and their meat irradiated so people don’t get sick. Salatin’s solution is to raise healthy animals, process them at a family-run facility and sell the meat locally.

Obviously, his customers like his food. His 550-acre farm supplies 1,500 families, 30 restaurants and 10 retail stores in Virginia. This highlights the disconnect between the industrial food system and a growing number of consumers who want old-fashioned food. His advice to organic prairie farmers: buck the trend, hold your ground and fight the industrialization of local food. Your customers will back you all the way.

Salatin’s speech at Organic Connections was followed by Richard Heinberg, a journalist from California who writes about the end of oil, who spoke by video-conference. Heinberg says the food industry—from farming to processing to transportation—produces up to 30% of carbon emissions. Without fossil fuels, modern industrial farming would not exist. Organic farming can help change that, says Heinberg, because it relies less on fossil fuels (no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which are made from fossil fuels) and it actually removes carbon from the atmosphere.

“A one-percent increase in organic matter in the soil is equivalent to capturing and storing 100 tonnes of CO2 per square kilometre of farmland,” he told the conference. “Agriculture could become our primary way of removing carbon from the atmosphere.”

He predicts a future in which more people produce and buy food locally, in which significant machine power is replaced with human and animal labour, and farms create energy by wind, solar and organic means.

I’m not the rebel that Salatin is and I’m not entirely convinced by Heinberg that oil will run out soon, but their perspectives give us food for thought. There are other good reasons to eat locally-produced “old fashioned” food—it’s healthier, tastier, better for the environment and supports rural families right here in Saskatchewan.

Blue Potato Pakoras
For the recipe see here.

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