Interview with Joel Salatin
November 26, 2009
Food recalls seem out of control these days. We’re not just seeing a few sporadic cases of food poisoning here and there anymore. I regularly publish recall alerts for hundreds of thousands of pounds of beef and poultry. Here’s a recent one for half-a-million pounds of beef possibly contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg if you factor in the pages upon pages of salmonella recalls.
It’s enough to make you scared of eating anything. In fact, it is enough to make us call our legislators and demand action! The problem is – we don’t ask ourselves, or our legislators, if we’re taking the “right” action. What we end up with are misguided attempts at regulation and laws written by academia and corporate agriculture, such as NAIS. Perhaps we need to take a step back and ask ourselves if we’re treating the symptom or the problem. One man who has done just that is Joel Salatin. I have been granted the honor of asking Mr. Salatin a few questions about our nation’s food supply – especially in regard to food safety – and without further digression I’d like to share his responses with you.
Do you think there are more cases of food-borne illnesses per-capita these days, or are we just hearing about more of them due to the media and better reporting by government agencies?
I believe we’re having far more per capita. While it’s true we’ve always had food issues, from botulism poisoning to undulant fever, the historic figures are very, very low. If you add obesity and Type II diabetes into the mix – in a way, they are pathogenically caused as well because the food is not real food; it’s pseudo food. Amazingly, we’ve become a culture that considers Twinkies, Cocoa Puffs, and Mountain Dew safe, but raw milk and compost-grown tomatoes unsafe. The fact that we have an entirely new lexicon of salmonella, listeria, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, campylobacter, E. coli, etc. speaks to the new generation and penetration of the current food borne pathogen situation. Furthermore, it’s hard to empirically measure secondary results of tainted food, like the things that occur when people eat genetically modified organisms, irradiated foods, or pasteurized milk. Some of these things take a while to develop into problems, just like infertile frogs, three-legged salamanders, and crippled eagles did not happen immediately when DDT was developed. The long lag between cause and effect is hard to measure, and very hard to quantify in today’s fast-paced data and news system.
Do you see a legitimate, defensible role for state and federal government agencies to play in protecting American consumers from food-borne illnesses? If so, what would that be?
No. This side of eternity, a perfect system does not exist. To assume that government agents are more trustworthy than business, or journalists, or farmers, is inherently ridiculous. Unscrupulous people exist in all vocations. That is why we have third-party independent accreditation that works fairly well in many areas, from certified General Motors mechanics to schools to Triple A to Underwriters Laboratories. Every time the government gets involved with these things, rather than being voluntary, they move into the realm of force, and that completely changes the dynamics. When the Sheriff shows up with an arrest warrant and a gun, that’s a very different dynamic than Triple A sending me a letter telling me they will drop my two star hotel status because their inspection found wrinkled sheets in Room 129. And that extra force allows the independent certification status to assume inordinate power, which ultimately attracts more unseemly characters to its model – both the regulators and the regulated. It all boils down to trust. Indeed, on my end I see incredible abuses from regulators, especially toward small operators. When people say we just need to create more honesty in the government program, they are speaking from incredible naïveté, in my opinion. We have more dirty food, more centralized mega-processing facilities, and less nutrition now than we did in 1906 when Teddy Roosevelt railed against the packing industry exposed by Upton Sinclair’sThe Jungle. Both Sinclair, and to a great extent Roosevelt, wanted much bigger government and far more intrusion into the marketplace. Within six months after The Jungle hit America’s shelves, meat sales dropped nearly 50 percent. Rather than waiting for this marketplace spanking to have its effect, Roosevelt and the industry created the Food Safety and Inspection Service. That organization and the incredible power it wields have systematically banished the embedded butcher, baker, and candlestick maker from America’s villages. We’ve had three overhauls of the system: 1947, 1967, and 2000 – and each time, within 18 months, the US lost half of its smallerabattoirs. People must realize that giving that power to the government is inherently flawed because it will inevitably attract abuses that more gentle, voluntary, privately-operated systems do not.
Is there another country in the world that has a safer, more equitable food production system that allows for corporate agribusiness to thrive without putting small farmers out of business and without endangering consumers? If so, what can we learn from them?
My sense is that most developing countries have far more food freedom. Whether it’s safer or not, I don’t know. But it’s certainly no worse. The point is that you can’t define safety necessarily. I consider pastured livestock and poultry safe; the poultry industry considers me a bioterrorist because the Red-winged Blackbirds commiserate with my chickens and will transport their diseases to the since-based, environmentally- controlled Tyson chicken houses, endangering the entire planet’s food system. We’re seeing studies coming out of land grant colleges now saying that meat laced with antibiotic residues due to subtherapeutic antibiotic feeding in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations is safer for consumers than meat carrying no drug residues. The fact is that those of us promoting a heritage-based food system are under assault by the industrial-governmental fraternity just as surely as Native Americans were nearly annihilated by government policy in earlier times. Largely for the same reasons. They threatened the American way of life (read Wall Street there) or they jeopardized decent western contrivances like Roberts Rules of Order and cobblestone streets. Read what the founders of our country said about the Naive American – “just barbarians”. By whose standard? And read what the government-industrial food complex says about heritage food – it endangers the world food supply because it’s not science-based; it plays to ignorant and duplicitous consumers; it’s a waste of land because we can’t afford these low production numbers, etc.
Historically, respecting an indigenous view while allowing techno-innovation has not been possible. The technology conquers and subjugates the heritage-based. The European Union is attacking heritage-based Polish sausage and Swiss artisanal cheese with a passion. My friends in China tell me that a thriving local food system exists there that would put America to shame. And people not far removed from the land know the difference between the good local stuff and the junk. They export the junk and eat the good stuff themselves. Oh that Americas would have such discernment.
What would a “sane” Food Bill look like to you? Or would there even be one?
We wouldn’t even have a Food Bill if I were in charge. The first response to that is: “But then the big corporations would just take over and it would be worse than today. After all, the free market is why we’re in the mess we’re in.” On the contrary, the U.S. has not had anything resembling a free market for well over a century. You could argue that ever since that big-governmenter Abraham Lincoln created the US Department of Agriculture, we’ve had inappropriate government agents meddling in the food system. The fact is that the terrible food things that have been developed have come at the financing, either directly or through research, of the government. Why does Monsanto get to park their recruitment bus on the campus of Virginia Tech for several days each year – for free? I personally have had numerous professors from Virginia Tech visit our farm and express great interest in researching some of our environmentally-friendly practices, but lament that they can only get seed funding from multi-national corporations so they can’t do this kind of research. Again, the framers of the Constitution very carefully spelled out the duties of the government, and they were extremely minimal. The reason was that as soon as an area of the culture comes under the authority of the government, that area quickly develops cronyism, a big business agenda, and lack of respect for dissenters, which is now what the local food movement represents. I would call it a freedom of food choice movement.
In my book Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, I quote at length from the written testimony of government food police who make no secret that they believe consumers cannot be trusted to make their food decisions. If choosing how to feed my internal three-trillion member bacterial community that is responsible for my health and energy doesn’t represent the most basic Malthusian desire for personal autonomy, I don’t know what does. The Constitution guarantees the Right of Contract, and yet the food police routinely waltz between the farmer and consumer, waving thousands of pages of regulations, and bringing along agents carrying big badges and sidearms to interfere with the right of contract. If we truly allowed unfettered right of contract, the entrepreneurial explosion of creative heritage-based food offered to the local marketplace would topple America’s industrial food complex.
The only reason America’s food is as industrial and non-local as it is, is because government force encourages such a system. Absent that meddling, thousands and thousands of local food entrepreneurs would spin circles around the subsidized, corporate-welfared food system.
Why don’t small farmers band together to lobby Washington? Could the combined power of thousands of small farmers compete with the centralized power of a few corporate interests?
Lobbying takes time. Lots of time. And numbers. And money. I’ve been trying all my life to encourage this, but like everyone else, I don’t have the time, money, or numbers to get it done. And too many small farmers still believe the government is a sugar daddy. So more than half the potential supporters are lobbying to get subsidies for small farmers instead of big farmers. Why don’t we forget about subsidies? Period. But we’ve raised a generation acculturated to believe government candy is free, and justified. And then certified organics also split up the small farmer group. That probably more than anything splintered what could have been a significant block. Now much of the time and energy that could be devoted to just creating market freedom are being siphoned off in suits and protests against industrial organics. We just still have way too many people who trust the government and think business is inherently evil.
First, let me be clear that the industrial food agenda, along with its complicit government fraternity, is evil. These folks lie, steal, cheat, kill, whatever. It’s an evil agenda, with evil planners, evil strategists, and evil execution. Certainly some sincere-minded and honest folks are caught up in it, but it behooves us to appreciate the evil ambition of these people. When Monsanto purposely used geriatric rats in their GMO feeding trials for the FDA, or cleverly falsified data to receive rBGH approval and infected and afflicted hundreds of thousands of dairy cows with mastitis, and then used crooked judges to agree that placing rBGH-free on milk labels on artisanal milk actually harmed consumers – that bespeaks an evil, deceptive company and agenda. And the rest of their cohorts are just like them. So nobody should think that these outfits have a benign, population-friendly agenda. And nobody should underestimate their connivances to advance their agenda.
That said, here’s my rule for legislation: if Monsanto is for it, I’m against it. If Monsanto is against it, I’m for it. Ditto large meat packers, the USDA, etc. A person is known by the company he keeps. These outfits aren’t Jesus spending time with sinners to bring them to repentance. They are Devils trying to dupe and destroy ecological, economic, and social wholesomeness. This test for legislation can save you lots of time and consternation trying to figure out all the details. I don’t have enough to time to read it all or understand the legalese. I listen to people I trust and assume the enemy hasn’t suddenly converted.
Thanks for asking these questions, and I hope my answers aren’t too rambling, but in today’s world, you can’t take these positions without some fleshing out and context.