Tag Archives: Joel Salatin

How Can We Bring Real Change to Our Food System? Three Ideas

I try to write on here about the big issues and controversies, and after all that information, there is always the same question to ask: what can we do about it? So in this post I’ll give some of my ideas, which upon first look may seem a bit vague or open-ended but only because everyone must take these thoughts in their own personal directions. As I am constantly saying, there is no one easy answer to all the problems with our food system. So here are my thoughts on what we can do to reclaim this industry. It is after all our food system.

1. Choose a diet that reflects your personal beliefs about what defines sustainable agriculture. I won’t tell you to go vegan or to buy only grass-fed beef or to eat all the animal products you want. I won’t tell you to avoid GMOs or to support the technology. I will write about my own opinions but in the end, these are your beliefs and your choices. All I’m saying is that it’s important to apply your beliefs to your every-day life. Maybe you want to take a weekly trip to the farmers market or start a garden to grow your own food. Maybe you want to avoid factory-farmed animal products or anything with palm oil in it. But it is important to realize that our diet is defined by what we do eat and what we don’t eat.

We have to support the products and producers we trust and avoid the ones that we don’t. If we each start to eat based on what we know and believe, the food system will slowly start to change to reflect our choices. As big and powerful as they seem in comparison to us, these big food companies must adjust to what the consumers want. And it is easy to find real examples of this change. When Wal-Mart decided to source its milk entirely from cows not treated with bovine growth hormone, the decision was based on consumer demand. When organic farming grew from nothing to a 30 billion dollar industry, it was because of the individual choices of consumers. (See the figure below.) Clearly, we have real power in our hands.

Graph from the USDA

Check out this video to hear what farmer Joel Salatin has to say about changing our food system for the better. Though Salatin speaks specifically about eating locally grown food, his message about active participation applies to any     dietary or lifestyle choices. I agree with Salatin that in some ways the current problems with our food system are caused by a “crisis in participation.” But we are the participants and this is our crisis to fix.

2. Constantly share, learn, and listen to others’ perspectives. In looking for new thoughts and ideas on the big issues, we will find the information necessary to inform our actions and choices. When we start to think deeply about how our dietary choices affect the environment, we will then encounter new ideas and perspectives. It’s an awesome, self-reinforcing cycle.

Five years ago I didn’t understand why anyone would be vegetarian. I didn’t want to listen to the opinions of any vegan. After a gradual change in perspective, I now choose not to eat any factory-farmed animal products. I try to think of my current beliefs as only a step along a path. And I know that sounds cheesy but it’s one of my strongest beliefs. We can’t just say “Okay I learned that x is bad so I’m not going to eat x any more and that’s it. Now I’m done learning and have done all I can.” We are never done learning. We have to question everything until we understand it fully. It easy to look for a quick fix, but that may mean a simplification of the issues and a misunderstanding of the whole truth.

When we can sit down and have an honest discussion with others while both teaching and learning, we will all become better informed. We will become more aware, more educated, and in turn more motivated to enact change.

3. For some issues that may seem out of reach, contribute to organizations you believe in. As powerful as our every day choices are, they can’t cover everything. For whatever reason, it may be impossible to support a certain organization with our every-day purchases. I remember doing a research project to try to answer the question: how can US consumers support sustainable agriculture and land use in Indonesia? Indonesia is an incredibly biodiverse, fertile, and agriculturally important country: the US imports many of its crops (namely palm oil) that make their way into our food. Still, our consumer choices here can’t completely fix their food system. So how can we help? After doing some research, I discovered Seal Your Cup, a division of Rainforest Alliance which helps small farmers grow crops in a way that is more sustainable for the farmers and the land. You can also support the cause by buying coffee or chocolate labelled with the Rainforest Alliance seal (below). Of course donations still help if you can’t find those products at the store.

In order for a product to bear this seal, it must be sourced from a farm whose practices are approved by the Sustainable Agriculture Network.

While reading about the potentially sustainable use of GMOs in developing countries, I learned about AGRA . This foundation that is financed by Bill Gates works to educate, connect, and provide materials (like high-yield seeds) to farmers in different African countries. Like Seal Your Cup, the NGO essentially brings power and leverage away from distributers to the farmers themselves. If you’re looking for an organization that’s closer to home, maybe you want to check out FarmAid. If you want to support the humane treatment of farm animals, you could give to an organization like Compassion Over Killing. Whatever the cause, someone out there is working hard to do the things we wish we could if we had the time and commitment. They definitely deserve our support and appreciate whatever we can give.


PS: I know that in this post I have provided very little detail as to the specific work of these organizations (and I should definitely do some more research myself). For that reason, I strongly encourage you to research tons of organizations more deeply before deciding who you want to support.

Innovative Agricultural Methods Mimic Nature

Nowadays I think a lot of our food choices are defined by labels: is this apple certified organic? Was this chicken “free-range” and “humanely-raised” on a family-owned farm? Though labels are definitely helpful and important, in this post I want to point out that truly good farming might defy a label or a certain list of requirements. It is an entire holistic approach. And often the correct approach takes after nature in some way. This approach is effective because nature’s cycles are efficient, sustainable, and waste-free, which is exactly what we are looking for in farming. One example is Permaculture, which you can read about in my earlier post. Not only are these methods fascinating, I think they have a lot of potential for growth if applied to our current conventional agriculture model. One such method is management intensive grazing.

Management intensive grazing or MIG is the name for a variety of methods of rotating livestock on separate patches of grass (also known as paddocks). This might sound kind of boring but I promise it’s pretty cool! Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms famously implements MIG with his cattle. In this method, different paddocks are sectioned off by electric fencing so that cows only graze in one area for a certain number of days at a time. Cattle rotate between paddocks at a precisely calculated time based on the number of animals and size of the paddocks among other things. It may not seem incredibly innovative or complex, but there is a lot of science behind the technique. It offers many benefits to the land and animals.

In letting cows find their own food, fertilize the ground with their waste, and roam around with lots of room, farmers avoid costs and inputs like feed, fertilizer, and antibiotics. These benefits are similar to those of regular old grazing, but because the system is controlled and managed so precisely, the benefits are maximized to get the most out of a given area of land.

Grass-fed beef is often hailed as a sustainable alternative to more conventionally grown beef, but critics point out its huge space requirements.  They claim that it would be impossible to feed the US on grass-fed beef because it would take too much space, about 35,000 square miles or 10% of US land according to one estimate. However, this estimate does not take into account the space-efficiency of MIG. With MIG, Joel Salatin can raise 85 cows on 100 acres, which is about 1.2 acres per cow, much better than the 2.5 acres per cow that the above figure was based on.

How can we fit more cows on the land by just moving them around? In rotating cattle through different paddocks, the animals are forced to eat grasses that might not be their favorite. They therefore get the most food out of a given area. Usually a cow eats the young, fresh grass closest to its comfy spot in the shade and ignores much of the rest. In a conventional system, each cow may need a few acres of land but it doesn’t eat all of the grass on those few acres, only 30-40% according to this paper. Though I can’t provide an exact number, I’m sure the figure is much higher on intensively grazed land.

Since the farmer is making the cows move around and eat differently, MIG might seem to go against the natural behavior and diet of the cows. Yet the cows’ diversified diet and increased movement is surely beneficial to them. And when MIG and other agricultural systems copy nature, they can’t do so exactly and completely because farmers are still aiming for production and practicality. In nature every loop feeds back into itself, but on our farms we take out the finished product to eat or use. That finished product is the goal of the endeavor so we can’t forget about it in the quest to mimic nature.

In subsistence farming, a family can effectively become part of the farm food chain because it produces only to feed itself. The loop is contained. But otherwise, and especially if a farmer is growing food for hundreds of people, the farm or pasture differs inherently from its wild counterpart because it extracts and distributes that finished product. The farmer must tweak nature to find a balanced technique that produces for us and still keeps the land and creatures healthy.

The use of cows’ waste to fertilize the land helps illustrate this balance. In a conventional feedlot, cows are so concentrated that their waste becomes a pollutive problem. But what can be toxic in such large amounts is healthy in more moderated amounts. Cowpies are a natural fertilizer for the grass and help return nutrients to the land. On conventionally grazed land, the cows’ waste is enough to benefit the land but not overwhelm it. And in MIG, with more cows per acre (known as a higher stocking rate), the cows’ waste is more concentrated to optimally fertilize the land. Whereas the conventional feedlot sacrifices the health of the environment to achieve its finished product most cheaply, MIG balances the need for productivity with a need to keep the land healthy.

MIG mimics nature in that it is designed to take advantage of the fascinating and surprisingly complex relationship between grazing animals and grass. This process starts when the cow takes a bite of grass. The grass plant likes to keep an equal balance of leaves and roots so it will shed some of its roots to make up for the lost leaves. In turn these roots decay into fertile soil, and provide room for air, water, and a variety of creatures which are all beneficial to the land. We wouldn’t see these benefits had the cow not eaten that bit of grass. The grass (and the land) are actually better off with the cow around. Yet this process would end if the cow were to come back, take another bite, and prevent the grass’s re-growth. Thus the cow must be moved to another paddock in order for the grass to recover, just as a field may lie fallow to replenish its soil’s nutrients.

MIG also increases the diversity of grass species in a field. Cows may eat and cut down taller grasses and in the process make room for shorter varieties. But the cow must be moved off the paddock before they can decimate any one species (as may happen on conventionally grazed land). This precise system helps to create a balance of several different species, each important to the function and fertility of the land. With this balance, we can maximize the land’s use of sun and water. For example, drought-resistant species can thrive in drier times and seasonal varieties can ebb and flow during different parts of the year so that the field’s grasses are making the most of the present conditions and resources. Keeping every patch of ground always covered in grass prevents weed growth and erosion to maintain a long-lasting fertile topsoil.

As Michael Pollan puts it in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “the grazing of ruminants, when managed properly, actually builds new soil from the bottom up.” Though many studies show that mismanaged grazing can severely damage land, we can see that grazing indeed has a positive effect on the soil if managed properly. I find it fascinating that the most efficient and sustainable way to graze land includes the use of electric fences when the free-for-all roaming of cows may seem more natural. We might not picture tons of electric fences when we think of happy cows out on pasture, but in this case a technology so seemingly unnatural is indeed our best tool to keep nature healthy. Go MIG!

I was originally planning on talking about a number of other techniques like aquaponics and conservation tillage, but there is so much to talk about with MIG that I got a bit carried away. I’ll continue to talk about innovative farming techniques in another post. Thanks for listening to me talk about cows eating grass for so long. Below are my sources for this post:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan