United Poultry Concers
10 December 2010
Myth of Sustainable Poultry and Danger of the Local

“‘Green’ Eggs and Ham? The Myth of Sustainable Poultry and the Danger of the Local in the Works of Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver and Joel Salatin,” by Vasile Stanescu

Vasile Stanescu presented this analysis of the Locavore Movement at Poultry Concerns’ Ninth Annual Conference, on “Expert Discourse and the Problem of the Chicken,” Oct. 30, 2010, in Fairfax, Virginia. Vasile Stanescu is a PhD candidate in the Program of Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University and the recipient of distinguished awards and prestigious nominations for his writings on animal and environmental issues.

“Green” Eggs and Ham? The Myth of Sustainable Meat and the Danger of the Local
by Vasile Stănescu
The first thing I ask Salatin when we sit down in his living room is whether he's ever considered becoming a vegetarian. It’s not what I had planned to say, but we've been in the hoop houses with the nicely treated hens, all happily pecking and glossy-feathered, and I've held one in my arms. Suddenly it makes little sense that this animal, whose welfare has been of such great concern, will be killed in a matter of days. Naive, I know, and Salatin seems surprised. “Never crossed my mind,” he says…[1]
- Interview with Gaby Woods, The Guardian, January 31, 2010

I think there is an enormous amount of political power lying around on the food issue, and I am just waiting for the right politician to realize that this is a great family issue. If that politician is on the Right, all the better. I think that would be terrific, and I will support him or her.
- Michael Pollan, Interview with Rod Dreher, The
American Conservative, June 20, 2008

In 2007 Oxford University Press chose “Locavore” as the word of the year.[2] Such a move, while purely symbolic, at the same time speaks to the movement’s growing popularity and emerging significance in any discussion on food policy, environmentalism or animal ethics. The essence of the locavore argument is that because it is harmful to the environment to transport food over long distances (referred to as “food miles”), people should instead, for primarily environmental reasons, choose to consume only food that is grown or slaughtered “locally.” This idea of “locavorism” has been described and defended by a range of authors, such as Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Michael Pollan in his New York Times bestselling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and promoted by farmers like Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface farms and a featured personality in both The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the recent documentary Food Inc. However, despite this popularity, there is much I find deeply troubling in the various rationales given for locavorism.

For example, part of Pollan’s main argument against “organic” meat is that it represents a false pastoral narrative, something produced by the power of well-crafted words and images yet lacking ethical consistency, reality, or ultimately an awareness of animals themselves. Reflecting on his experience walking down the aisles of a Whole Foods supermarket, Pollan writes:

This particular dairy’s label had a lot to say about the bovine lifestyle: Its Holsteins are provided with “an appropriate environment, including shelter and comfortable resting area...sufficient space, proper facilities and the company of its own kind.” All this sounded pretty great, until I read the story of another dairy selling raw milk—completely unprocessed—whose “cows graze green pastures all year long.”

Which made me wonder whether the first dairy’s idea of an appropriate environment for a cow included, as I had simply presumed, a pasture. All of a sudden the absence from their story of that word seemed weirdly conspicuous. As the literary critics would say, the writer seemed to be eliding the whole notion of cows and grass. Indeed, the longer I shopped in Whole Foods, the more I thought that this was a place where the skills of a literary critic might come in handy.[3]

While I agree with Pollan about the need for literary critics in Whole Foods, many locavore advocates, including Pollan, succumb to the same error of creating an unrealistic literary pastoral in their uncritical paean to the free-range organic farmer. Therefore, as a literary critic, I hope to subject the locavore movement to the same critical scrutiny they have subjected to industrialized agriculture, in order to show how they themselves create an idealized, unrealistic, and, at times, distressingly sexist and xenophobic literary pastoral that carefully elides the violence being enacted against the animals themselves. My intention is not to discount the possibility of a more natural, environmentally sustainable food system—a goal I deeply support—but instead to reveal the potential dangers that focusing purely on the “local,” at the expense of the global, can contain for both the human and non-human animal alike.

Part I: The Environment

“The Vegan Utopia”

One of the most forceful rationales for the environmental benefits of a “local” food system is expressed by Michael Pollan in a chapter of the Omnivore's Dilemma titled “The ethics of eating meat.” Under the dismissive subheading “The Vegan Utopia” Pollan writes:

The vegan utopia would…condemn people in many parts of the country to importing all their food from distant places....To give up eating animals is to give up these places as human habitat, unless of course we are willing to make complete our dependence on a highly industrialized national food chain. The food chain would be in turn even more dependent than it already is on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers, since food would need to travel even farther and fertility—in the form of manures—would be in short supply. Indeed, it is doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern is the health of nature—rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls—then eating animals may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do.[4]

Pollan thus takes one of the animal rights’ movement’s most powerful arguments--the significant environmental degradation that the meat industry routinely produces--and inverts it.[5] It is now because of the environment that one is justified in eating meat--indeed required to do so--since the only alternative given by Pollan is a polluting globalization of large scale food importation. The argument, if true, is even more powerful than quoted here. If eating locally slaughtered animals is the only way to prevent global warming, animal ethics itself might well dictate the necessity of eating meat because habitat destruction (in part fuelled by global warming) is already causing mass species extinction at unprecedented rates. Such an argument, therefore, represents a particularly powerful and nuanced refutation to veganism and vegetarianism that I fear few animal rights activists, or animal studies scholars, have yet to adequately address.

Before I engage in a more detailed analysis of Pollan’s argument, I first want to note that it is simply factually untrue. What is most telling about the passage quoted above is that it lacks any form of citation or footnotes, forms of documentation which otherwise pepper Pollan’s books in other places of possible controversy. Pollan is not alone in this omission, for virtually every other locavore claim for environmental supremacy also lacks any form of documentation to back up repeated claims that being vegan is more harmful to the environment than eating locally slaughtered animals. Instead, locavores almost universally rely upon the “common sense" logic that since transportation harms the environment, the further a commodity must be transported, the more harmful it must be to the ecosystem. However, recent studies have brought this common sense wisdom into question. For example, a study conducted at Lincoln University in New Zealand shows that the way apples, lamb, and dairy items are produced in New Zealand makes them more energy-efficient to buy in the U.K. than those same products grown on British soil. The study concludes:

Food miles are a very simplistic concept relating to the distance food travels as a measure of its impact on the environment. As a concept, food miles has gained some traction with the popular press and certain groups overseas. However, this debate which only includes the distance food travels is spurious as it does not consider total energy use especially in the production of the product.[6]

Indeed, the only study to date to focus on whether a local or vegetarian diet is more helpful in reducing greenhouse gases, conducted by Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews at Carnegie-Mellon, reached the following conclusion:

Despite significant recent public concern and media attention to the environmental impacts of food, few studies in the United States have systematically compared the life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with food production against long-distance distribution, aka “food-miles.” We find that although food is transported long distances in general (1640 km delivery and 6760 km life-cycle supply chain on average) the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase, contributing 83% of the average U.S. household’s 8.1 t CO2e/yr footprint for food consumption. Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%. Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG-intensity; on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG intensive than chicken or fish. Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable- based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food .[7]

In other words, shifting from beef to vegetables for even a single day a week would in fact be more helpful in reducing greenhouse gases than shifting the entirety of one’s diet to exclusively locally produced sources. This conclusion makes sense when we consider the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change findings that meat production contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation industry, including all automobiles, combined.[8] In fact, recent research suggests that organic free range animals may, in specific cases, be more harmful to the environment than animal raised “conventionally.” As the Audubon society recently reported:

Ironically, data released in 2007 by Adrian Williams of Cranfield University in England show that when all factors are considered, organic, free-range chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming than conventionally raised broiler birds. That’s because “sustainable” chickens take longer to raise, and eat more feed. Worse, organic eggs have a 14 percent higher impact on the climate than eggs from caged chickens, according to Williams. “If we want to fight global warming through the food we buy, then one thing’s clear: We have to drastically reduce the meat we consume,” says Tara Garnett of London’s Food Climate Research Network. So while some of us Americans fashionably fret over our food’s travel budget and organic content, Garnett says the real question is, “Did it come from an animal or did it not come from an animal?”[9]

Lack of Land

While locavores imagine all factory farms eventually turning into more sustainable small-scale family farms, that ideal is simply not physically possible given the world’s current rate of meat consumption. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s recent report Livestock’s Long Shadow, over fifty-five billion land animals are raised and slaughtered every year worldwide for human consumption. This rate of slaughter already consumes thirty percent of the earth’s entire land surface (approximately 3,433 billion hectares [8483.128 acres]) and accounts for a staggering eighty percent of the total land utilized by humans.[10] Even when the land currently used for feed crop production is subtracted, as theoretically it might be in a fully local farm system, the total area currently occupied by grazing alone still constitutes, in the words of the report “26 percent of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet.”[11] And this number is only expected to grow as both human population and human consumption of meat and dairy continue to rise.[12] Therefore, in addition to problems of sustainability, meat consumption also entails a massive loss of biodiversity which, ironically, would actually be increased by a shift to a locally based diet, as even more land would have to be set aside for free-range grazing. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization report, “306 of the 825 terrestrial ecoregions identified by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF)…reported livestock as one of the current threats.”[13]

Nor would it be possible to keep such farms small, tied to the community, or even “local” in any meaningful sense of that term. As Joel Salatin himself admits to Pollan, in explaining why he primarily uses neighbours coming over to help out to kill the animals he raises: “That’s another reason we don’t raise a hundred thousand chickens. It’s not just the land that couldn’t take it, but the community, too. We’d be processing six days a week, so we’d have to do what the industrial folks do, bring in a bunch of migrant workers because no one around here would want to gut chickens every day. Scale makes all the difference.”[14] I will return to Salatin’s comment about “migrant workers” later, but my point here is that locally based meat, regardless of its level of popularity, can never constitute more than either a rare and occasional novelty item, or food choices for only a few privileged customers, since there simply is not enough arable land left in the entire world to raise large quantities of pasture fed animals necessary to meet the world’s meat consumption. And even if such a transition were physically possible, the resulting size of such farms would undo much of their supposed sustainability and community integration and hence their very purpose in existing in the first place. Unfortunately, this simple physical reality is ignored by many in the locavore movement, such as Barbara Kingsolver, who tells her children that they cannot have fresh fruit, during the winter, but instead must consume meat because it is, purportedly, more sustainable.[15]

Belgian Chocolate

Reading this literature, one is left with the feeling that local food activists themselves must realize the impracticality and marginal environmental benefit of following locavore practices, since many of them fail to follow with consistency the very practices they themselves advocate. For example, in preparing his local based meal on Polyface farms, Pollan admits, “I also need some chocolate for the dessert I had in mind. Fortunately the state of Virginia produces no chocolate to speak of, so I was free to go for the good Belgian stuff, panglessly.”[16] While this line of reasoning might make sense in terms of other arguments for going local, such as preserving local economies, in terms of global warming and green house gases it is clearly not intellectually consistent. Even if, for some unspecified reason, chocolate was essential for Pollan to have, it is not at all clear why that chocolate would have to come from Belgium instead of any of the more local sources of chocolate from within the whole of the United States (which also might be more effective in terms of preserving local economies). Indeed, most of the locavores mentioned continue to enjoy a variety of nonlocal based goods such as coffee, tea, olive oil, and (in my favourite example from Kingsolver) non-locally produced Budweiser.[17]

Nor do the business practices of Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface farms whom Pollan holds up as a possible model, make consistent environmental sense. For example, Salatin refuses to Fed-Ex any of his meat since, he says, “I don’t believe it’s sustainable—or organic, if you will—to FedEx meat all around the country.”[18] Instead, he tells Pollan that he will have to “drive down here” to Virginia to get it--all the way from California.[19] But asking customers to drive to Polyface farms in individual cars is a significantly less efficient way to transport goods than using a centralized shipping and distribution network combined with multiple products carried on a single fully loaded delivery vehicle. Yet Salatin is, in fact, proud of how far individual people will drive in order to purchase his food. As he posts on his own website, as a positive review from a customer, “I drive to Polyface 150 miles one way in order to get clean meat for my family.”[20] Hence, romantic notions of face-to-face contact and perhaps even the great American road trip seem to play a greater role in the Pollan-Salatin encounter than any environmental logic.

Indeed, one of the revealing ironies associated with all of the locavore proponents mentioned is the surprisingly large amount of driving, flying, and transportation they themselves regularly and apparently “panglessly” engage in. For example, Michael Pollan travels all around the country, from Kansas to California just within the pages of The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Kingsolver is even more extreme, leaving by car from Arizona so that that she can farm in rural Georgia, then driving all the way to Canada (from Georgia) for a family vacation, which she particularly enjoys because she is now able to consume so many food products which otherwise would have been out of season. As she writes, “Like those jet-setters who fly across the country on New Year’s Eve, we were going to cheat time and celebrate the moment more than once. Asparagus season, twice in one year: the dream vacation.”[21] Kingsolver and her family even fly to Europe, in part, to enjoy the local cuisine.[22] And Joel Salatin, who was unwilling to ship his meat to California, recently agreed to fly there himself for a talk at Stanford. Ironically, the talk was, in part, on the environmental benefits of a local economy. Perhaps a certain amount of irony and hypocrisy within the locavore movement can be justified by the argument that while still far from fully realized, it is on the path towards ever greater locavorism. What is distressing is the manner in which violation of even the basic ideas of locally based lifestyle occur “panglessly” and the manner in which the movement justifies itself via actions that are more harmful for the environment than the current food system, such as driving to purchase far away local produce or enjoying out of season food in Canada and Europe.

T-Shirts and DVDs

The one aspect of locavorism that most clearly belies the rationales given to justify the movement--not just in terms of the environment, but also in terms of protecting local business and protesting the abuses of globalization--is that it resolutely focuses only on the question of food. Neither Pollan, nor Kingsolver, nor even Salatin is attempting to learn how to weave his or her own clothing, although cotton, as an agricultural commodity, raises many of the same issues as imported food. Yet as the journal Environmental Health Perspective has recently documented, the environmental effects of the food industry and the fashion industry are quite similar in terms of both pollution and worker exploitation. According to the authors:

Cotton, one of the most popular and versatile fibers used in clothing manufacture, also has a significant environmental footprint. This crop accounts for a quarter of all the pesticides used in the United States, the largest exporter of cotton in the world, according to the USDA. The U.S. cotton crop benefits from subsidies that keep prices low and production high. The high production of cotton at subsidized low prices is one of the first spokes in the wheel that drives the globalization of fashion.

Much of the cotton produced in the United States is exported to China and other countries with low labor costs, where the material is milled, woven into fabrics, cut, and assembled according to the fashion industry’s specifications. China has emerged as the largest exporter of fast fashion, accounting for 30% of world apparel exports, according to the UN Commodity Trade Statistics database. In her 2005 book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, Pietra Rivoli, a professor of international business at the McDonough School of Business of Georgetown University, writes that each year Americans purchase approximately 1 billion garments made in China, the equivalent of four pieces of clothing for every U.S. citizen.[23]

Hence, at least in terms of “miles,” cotton is actually a more egregious example of ecological waste than food. Nor is this the end of the “clothing miles” as the United States purchases so much clothing that domestic charity outlets simply cannot process it all.[24] So the extra clothing is then shipped back to the developing world (where in most cases it was originally manufactured), which for some developing countries actually constitutes the number one import from the United States.[25] A single cotton t-shirt, then, comes from cotton grown in the United States, is sent to the developing world to be manufactured into clothing, then back to the United States to be purchased, and finally shipped to the developing country where the clothing is either donated or purchased. And what is true for cotton is equally true for almost every other product regularly consumed in the United States. Almost everything we buy today is both produced and consumed in a global marketplace and is therefore part of these exact same systems of production and distribution. In terms of shipping distance it is just as significant to discuss “clothing miles” “computer miles” or even “cell phone miles,” many of which are actually transported far longer distances than food and are far more toxic in their results. And in terms of non-environmental concerns, working conditions for many non-agricultural products may well be worse than for the more traditional rural labour of farming (excluding certain products such as coffee and chocolate).[26]

My point here is not to criticize locavores unfairly for minor hypocrisy or failures of judgment, neither of which undermine the logic of their argument as such. Rather, my concern is that a narrow focus only on “food” and “food miles” renders many other environmentally unsound practices invisible, whether they are conscious decisions to drive around in search of the best local food, or unconscious participation in the consumption of non-food goods with an environmental and human cost. For example, in Salatin’s online “gift store” in less than four lines he both states that, “We do not ship food items, anytime, anywhere, period” and, at the same time, advertises for nonfood based collectibles like Polyface tote bags and DVDs[27] and boasts that (for the latters), “All shipping is free! Please allow 2-4 weeks for delivery.” There is no discussion of how, where, or by whom any of these other products have been made.

Part II: The Danger of the Local

Blood and Soil

If being local is not then “really” about protecting the environment, what is it about? One answer has been suggested by Ursula Heise, in her recent book, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global.[28] Heise illustrates how the emphasis on “the local” within the broader environmental movement as a whole can exhibit a deeply disturbing strain of conservatism, provincialism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. Indeed, she goes so far as to excavate genealogically the Nazi rhetoric of Blut und Boden (blood and soil) to show some similar strains within contemporary environmentalism resonate with the National Socialists' interweaving of environmentalism with a hyper- nationalism based on a romanticized autochthonous relationship with both the soil and the local. Neither I nor Heise is suggesting that the locavore movement, or the move toward localism in environmentalism, is equivalent to Nazism. Rather, the relevance of Heise's analysis is that it shows how an outspoken concern for the environment can also contain and support right- wing conservatism-- against those viewed as alien to the speaker’s sense of his/her “local” community. In this connection, it is clear that many in the locavore movement are moved by a desire for a nonexistent literary pastoral, a nostalgia for a bygone age that never was. For example, Pollan invokes precisely this image in his description of his first local dinner at Polyface farms, when he writes, “much about dining with the Salatins had, for me, the flavour of a long-ago time and faraway place in America.”[29] However, the danger of this literary pastoral fairytale is not only that it is wholly misleading (the Salatins use ATVs daily to move around their cattle) but that it has the potential to mask the darker side of the nostalgic past, including narratives of exclusion and violence that an exclusive focus on the local” elides.

Women in the Kitchen

For example, since locavores choose to focus only on the question of food transportation, that focus at times blends into the negative portrayal of women, particularly feminists, who are frequently faulted for having collectively abandoned the kitchen, i.e. cooking meaningful and nutritious meals for the family. Such a claim naturally leads to another: a call for society to return to traditional gender roles of heterosexual men farming and ranching while heterosexual women cook and clean. For example, both Michael Pollan and the movie Food Inc. specifically hold up Joel Salatin and Polyface farms as a promising paradigm for a local based economy. But what Pollan does not tell us is that Salatin believes so firmly in traditional gender roles that in the past he did not even accept women as workers or interns for the farm labour aspect of his farm although they could work in the kitchen.[30] Salatin’s attitude—that the proper place for women is in the kitchen and that their role has somehow been “lost”—surfaced in a recent interview:

Hey, 40 years ago, every woman in the country – I'll be real sexist here – every woman in the country knew how to cut up a chicken... Now 60% of our customers don't even know that a chicken has bones! I'm serious. We have moved to an incredibly ignorant culinary connection.[31]

This critique of feminism presumably elicited no comment by Pollan because he shares a similar opinion. For example, in his review of Janet A. Flammang's book, The Taste of Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society Pollan agrees with Flammang’s essential premise, writing with approval, in his most recently published work, that “In a challenge to second-wave feminists who urged women to get out of the kitchen, Flammang suggests that by denigrating ‘foodwork’ -- everything involved in putting meals on the family table -- we have unthinkingly wrecked one of the nurseries of democracy: the family meal.” [32] Comments which merely replicated his earlier comment that the “decline [of locally produced meals] has several causes: women working outside the home; food companies persuading Americans to let them do the cooking; and advances in technology that made it easier for them to do so. Cooking is no longer obligatory, and for many people, women especially, that has been a blessing. But perhaps a mixed blessing, to judge by the culture’s continuing, if not deepening, fascination with the subject.” A comment which he links, in the same article, to the description of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" as "the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.” [33]

More surprisingly, Barbara Kingsolver, too, expresses explicit gender conservatism throughout Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, as when she describes feminism as “the great hoodwink of my generation” because it wrongly removed the woman from hearth and home. [34] Indeed, she takes great pride in transforming herself into the type of housewife who finally knows how to make her own cheese.[35] As Jennifer Jeffrey has written in a particularly insightful article, “The Feminist in My Kitchen”

One day during the Pennywise Eat Local Challenge, as I was dashing between meetings and wondering how on earth I was going to create an evening meal composed of local ingredients within budget with almost no time to shop, this thought flashed through my head: this whole eat local concept is so not friendly for women who work….

If eating local is still a challenge for me, what about women who, voluntarily or not, log 8 to 10 hours a day, five or six days a week, in an office or hospital or courtroom? What about women who, in addition to working long hours and commuting back and forth, also have children at home who need love and affection and help with homework? ...

Can we call ourselves feminists (simply defined here as people who desire the equality of all women, everywhere) and still suggest that an ideal dinner consists of handmade ravioli and slow-simmered marinara from vine-ripened, hand-picked tomatoes and a salad composed of vegetables that (let’s be honest) are Not Available at Safeway?

Jeffrey specifically connects her argument to Barbara Kingsolver’s book:

Barbara Kingsolver took a year of her life to grow a garden to feed her family, and proceeded to write a beautiful book about the experience, but what if she had done the same thing twenty-five years ago, near the start of her writing career? My guess is that such a book (if it made it to publication at all, which is doubtful), might not have had such a receptive audience, but more importantly, all of that weeding and watering and meal-planning might have distracted her from the hard, lonely work of learning to write.[36]

“All American”

If the locavore movement seems to be a dubious ally of feminism, it also seems uncomfortably close to nativist strands in the American discourse of race and nationhood. Consider, for example, the criteria that Joel Salatin uses to determine who will receive one of his now highly competitive internships on his farm. The very first requirement reads that the candidates must be “[b]right eyed, bushy-tailed, self-starter, eager-beaver, situationally aware, go-get-‘em, teachable, positive, non-complaining, grateful, rejoicing, get’erdone dependable, faithful, perseverant take-responsibility clean-cut, all American boy-girl appearance characters. We are very, very, very discriminatory." [37]Such a list of course seems to reiterate gender conservatism (since it is hard to imagine that a woman who wears only male clothes would be considered a "clean-cut all American girl appearance"). Nor, one imagines, would a man who wears women’s clothes, much less a homosexual or a transsexual, be considered an "all-American" boy. In fact it is odd that “appearance” is such an essential category of who Salatin will, or will not, allow to work on a farm. Furthermore, we must ask what an “all American” appearance even means in a nation of such vast racial and immigrant diversity as the US? It is not reassuring that Salatin received his undergraduate degree from Bob Jones University, the extremely conservative, evangelical Christian university that prohibited African-Americans from attending until 1975 and prohibited interracial dating in the year 2000 (leading to a media uproar and declining student attendance that finally forced the university to revise its policy).[38] Throughout its entire history, Bob Jones University has in fact prohibited, as official policy, all acts of homosexuality as perversion condemned by God.[39] Presumably, then, issues of racial inclusion, gay rights, or even social justice were not particularly strong motivating forces in Salatin’s earlier life. More to the point, however, Salatin has not repudiated this relationship with Bob Jones University, which in 2009 recognized him as “alumnus of the year." [40]

Salatin has also described the conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, an outspoken critic of gay marriage and illegal immigration, as “agendaless” and “truth-seeking."[41] And Salatin himself is prone to making remarks concerning migrant workers that seem to cast them in a negative or demeaning light. For example, in testimony in front of Congress on how to make a more transparent meat system, Salatin claimed “Industrialized food and farming became aromatically and aesthetically repugnant, relegated to the offcasts of society C and D students along with their foreign workers.”[42] Such sentiments should not surprise us. As Kelefa Sanneh writes in the New Yorker, “Agrarianism, like environmentalism, hasn’t always been considered a progressive cause, and there’s nothing inherently liberal about artisanal cheese or artisanal bikes….Rod Dreher, a National Review contributor and the author of ‘Crunchy Cons,’ is ardently pro-organic and ardently anti-gay marriage. Victor Davis Hanson, the author of ‘Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea,’ is also the author of ‘Mexifornia,’ about the dangers posed by immigration.”[43] In fact, farm worker unions attempting to use the movie as an organizing tool, have been repeatedly removed from the screening of Food Inc.[44]

It is therefore strange that Michael Pollan should on the one hand denounce the practice of harvesting organic produce using recycled biodiesel tractors as insufficiently progressive--because of the unfair treatment of Mexican farm workers in the process--while at the same time hold up Joel Salatin as a representative of the future vanguard of a progressive and egalitarian food movement.[45] As the British columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown recently argued:

Should good people be party to a vociferous movement which wants to refuse entry to "alien" foods? Look at the language used and you realize it is a proxy for anti-immigration sentiments: these foods from elsewhere come and take over our diets, reduce national dishes to third- class status, compete unfairly with Scotch broth and haggis, both dying out, excite our senses beyond decorum, contaminate the identity of the country irreversibly.

Turn to the clamour for the west to cut imported foods and a further bitter taste spreads in the mouth. If we decide – as many of my friends have – not to buy foods that have been flown over, it only means further devastation for the poorest. These are the incredibly hard-working farmers in the developing world, already the victims of trade protectionism imposed by the wealthy blocs. It means saying no to Fair- trade producers too, because their products have to travel to our supermarkets. Are we now to say these livelihoods don't matter because we prefer virtue of a more fashionable kind? Shameful are the environmentalists who are able to be this cavalier. They could only believe what they do if those peasant lives do not matter at all.[46]

In fact, the “locavore” movement may possess within it the same potential for anti-immigrant sentiment that the earlier “Buy American” movement displayed in the 1970s-90s period. For example, many of the same reasons now provided to support locavorism, including fears of globalization, support for union labour, critiques of exploitive labour practices in other countries, and calls to protect traditional American ways of life were earlier interwoven into a similar movement which, over time, degenerated into regional nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia. As Dana Frank documents in Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism:

Popular “Buy American” advocates promised, nonetheless, to protect and to serve the American people; but the inward-looking protection of “us” against the threatening “foreigners” spiraled downward into narrower and narrower clubbishness. What began innocently at the border of Orange County, Florida, or the State of Alaska ended less innocently at an economic border drawn by race or citizenship.[47]

There is therefore ample reason to worry that a contemporary movement to prevent the importation of goods from other countries will eventually rely on or mobilize nationalistic and xenophobic fears of other nations and peoples. And this worry is perhaps all the more relevant when the boycotted product is food, due to the deep connection between a culture's identity and the food it eats.[48] Hence, to stigmatize a food purely because of where it comes from runs the extreme risk of stigmatizing an associated people as well. Diversity may also suffer as a result. As James McWilliams writes:

A final paradox: in a sense, any community with an activist base seeking to localize the food supply is also a community that’s undermining diversity. Although we rarely consider the market influences that make community diversification possible, a moment’s reflection reveals a strong tie between cultural diversity and market access. Critics of globalization argue (often with ample evidence) that global forces undermine the world’s range of indigenous cultures — wiping out vernacular habits, wisdom, and languages. They overlook, however, how the material manifestations of diversity are brought to us by globalization.

Localization, by contrast, specifies what is and is not acceptable within an arbitrary boundary. In this sense, it delimits diversity. Anyone who doubts this claim should imagine what the culinary map of New York City would look like without open access to globally far-flung producers. It’s only because globally sourced distributors are able to provide specialized ingredients that Harlem, Chinatown, and Little Italy are such vibrant emblems of urban, culinary, and cultural diversity.[49]

Saving Souls

So far, however, I have ignored what is in fact the most chilling and disturbing aspect of the locavore movement--its naturalization and explicit justification of arbitrary and unnecessary violence against other animals. Here we return to Michael Pollan’s earlier claim, made in the context of putting locavore against veganism, that what solely motivates veganism is a desire for absolute moral purity, even to the point of destroying nature, in order to save the vegans’ “souls.” Pollan continues this theme throughout his text, referring to vegetarians as self-righteous and even claiming that they are “Puritans”: “A deep current of Puritanism runs through the writing of the animal philosophers, an abiding discomfort not just with our animality, but with the animals’ animality too. They would like nothing better than to airlift us out from nature’s “intrinsic evil”—and then take the animals with us. You begin to wonder if their quarrel isn’t really with nature itself.”[50] However, the irony of this argument is that while Pollan routinely depicts vegans as self-righteous puritans, the only examples that both he and Kingsolver provide are people who, for religious reasons, feel no complication about killing animals because they see the latter as utterly lacking souls. As Pollan writes, “When I was at the farm I asked Joel how he could bring himself to kill a chicken. ‘That’s an easy one. People have a soul, animals don’t; it’s a bedrock belief of mine. Animals are not created in God’s image. So when they die, they just die.’” [51] In fact, since nonhuman animals have no souls and are therefore wholly unrelated to people, Joel Salatin encourages even young children to slit the throats of animals:

Interestingly, we typically have families come – they want to come and see the chicken butchering, for example. Well, Mom and Dad (they’re in their late-20s early-30s), they stay out behind in the car, and the 8-, 9- , 10-, 11-year-old children come around to see this. We have not found any child under 10 that’s the least bit put off by it. They get right into it. We’ll even give them a knife and let them slice some throats.[52]

Salatin’s callous disregard for the bodily integrity or being of other animals is in fact all too representative of the proponents of locavorism as a whole. The intellectuals at the forefront of that movement, particularly Pollan and Kingsolver, seek to re-inscribe the very speciesism that locavorism at first seems to draw into question. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how a locavore movement ever could translate into an actual improvement of animals’ lives, since many of its most famous proponents hold that animals lack souls and accept "Man's" domination and consumption of them as the very definition of our humanity. For example, both Pollan and Kingsolver claim, with no citations, a laundry list of increasingly esoteric human characteristics which, supposedly, only eating meat has produced in humans, including large brains[53], all forms of social interaction including the undefined “pleasures of the table”[54], human free will,[55] and even “civilization” itself.[56] In the most amusing example of this attribution of human traits, Pollan suggests that the reason marijuana works on humans is because it mimics the effects of hunting within human brains. He writes:

Later it occurred to me that this mental state [while hunting], which I quite liked, in many ways resembled the one induced by smoking marijuana: the way one’s senses feel especially acute and the mind seems to forget everything outside the scope of its present focus, including physical discomfort and the passing of time….Could it be that the cannabinoid network is precisely the sort of adaption that natural selection would favor in the evolution of a creature who survives by hunting? A brain chemical that sharpens the senses, narrows your mental focus, allows you to forget everything extraneous to the task at hand (including physical discomfort and the passage of time), and makes you hungry would seem to be the perfect pharmacological tool for man the hunter.[57]

One of the oddest parts of the locavore literature, therefore, is that even as its proponents graphically and indeed poetically describe the abuses of the factory farms, at the same time they remove any reason why anyone should be concerned at all. Since animals lack souls, we cannot understand what, or even if, they think or feel. Moreover, our domination of them represents the very essence of what defines us as humans. Joel Salatin has in fact repeatedly spoken out against so-called “Prop 2” ballot initiatives around the country sponsored by the The Humane Society of the United States to outlaw the worst abuses of factory farming such as battery cages and gestation crates.[58] While Prop 2 initiatives are themselves controversial within the animal rights community (since they result in larger cages rather than no cages at all), Salatin’s position is that people should be legally able to do whatever they want with farm animals. Hence, he actually argues for less oversight and control of how farmers raise their livestock. While less government oversight may or may not, as Salatin claims, help small farms who “process” animals to expand their operations, it would exonerate existing practices that cause the horrific suffering of farm animals who otherwise now enjoy at least some protection under the law, however minimal. As importantly, the locavore position effectively undercuts future efforts to protect animals, since it naturalizes the primary relation of domination upon which all forms of violence against other animals hinge.

I Am a “Locavore” (and a Vegan)

None of this is to deny that “locavorism” does have a point to make. For example urban community gardening, farmers markets, Community Support Agriculture (CSAs), and organic farms which eschew the use of monoculture crops, pesticides, and treat their workers well are all important goals which locavorism helps to forward. The trouble with the locavore movement, however, is that it continues to articulate itself on the basis of a false dichotomy between “vegan and vegetarians” on the one hand, and conscious food consumers on the other, as though it were impossible to be concerned about the welfare of animals, the environment, and the broader questions of food policy and food justice all at the same time. Perfectly reasonable arguments against monoculture crops thus morph into unreasonable attacks on vegetarians. However, the reality is that many vegetarian and vegans, having already taken the step to self-consciously control and direct their diet, are frequently more aware of the dangers industrial farming practices pose and are therefore more likely to seek out ethically grown fruit and vegetables--wherever in the world these may exist. As Pollan and others have pointed out, confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or “factory farms” are economically feasible only because of the massive subsidies that the government routinely provides to large scale industrial farmers who grow vast acres of soy, wheat, and corn which in turn are sold to factory farms who are the largest consumer of such products in the United States. The question, therefore, is not whether we should end the movement for conscious consumption of all food products. Large-scale industrial agriculture really is deeply harmful to the environment, workers, and animals. Rather, the question is whether we can arrive at a new understanding and new articulation of the manner in which the locavore movement's goals are expressed and understood. What matters more than the overly simplistic notion of “food miles” is the total carbon footprint of our foodstuffs, as well as the total environmental impact of any food purchase. Coming at the problem from such a broader perspective can only mean significantly decreasing the amount of meat human beings consume, in addition to cutting back on the whole array of services, including clothing and electronics, now marketed in the global marketplace.

Finally, it deeply matters how and why these calls for “locavorism” are framed. In this connection, as I have shown, the tendency of many in the movement to unfairly and inaccurately criticize feminists and immigrants as corrupting to an idealized, romantic state of a local community is both deeply troubling and potentially quite dangerous. As the Buy American movement, originally started by anti-sweatshop unions, demonstrates, initially “progressive” causes that nonetheless fail to consider the intersections of gender, race, class, and citizenship can devolve into nationalism or xenophobic localism. In sum, the false dichotomy between the vegan and the local can be ended, so that both animal rights activists and food policy activists can unite into a shared and, therefore, more effective movement. We must build on the growing consensus on the need for a more just diet, but do so in a way that addresses the full panoply of social justice issues that a truly just and “green” diet must entail.


[1] Gaby Woods, “Interview with Joel Salatin,” The Guardian, January 31, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jan/31/food-industry-environment. Last accessed April 2010. A print version of this article also appeared in the Observer Food Monthly section of the Observer January 31 2010, 44.

[2] “Oxford Word Of The Year: Locavore” Oxford University Press Blog, http://blog.oup.com/2007/11/locavore/ Last Accessed April 1, 2010.

[3] Pollan, M., The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin Books, 2006),135-136

[4] Ibid., 327

[5] Of course Pollan himself also indicates this same environmental degradation of factory farming and his claim is that small scale local farm will solve the problem. My point here is simply that Pollan inverts one of the most common claims made by animal rights’ advocates.

[6] Caroline Saunders, Andrew Barber, and Greg Taylor, “Food Miles – Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand’s Agriculture Industry” Research Report No. 285 Lincoln University, New Zealand, July 2006. 93.

[7] Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews, Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States Environ. Sci. Technol., 42, no.10 (2008): 3508. Emphasis added.

[8] Richard Black, “Shun meat, says UN climate chief: Livestock production has a bigger climate impact than transport, the UN believes” BBC News, (2008) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7600005.stm. See also the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United States (FAO) report Livestock’s Long Shadow.

[9] Mike Tidwell, “The Low-Carbon Diet” AubobonMagizine.org Last Accessed April 1, 2010.

[10] Steinfeld and others, Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, (Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006), xxi.

[11] Ibid., xxi.

[12] “Growing populations and incomes, along with changing food preferences, are rapidly increasing demand for livestock products, while globalization is boosting trade in livestock inputs and products. Global production of meat is projected to more than double from 229 million tones in 1999/01 to 465 million tones in 2050, and that of milk to grow from 580 to 1,043 million tones. “(Steinfeld, Livestock’s Long Shadow, xx) To be fair Pollan has himself, in his most recent work, started to make calls for people to decrease their meat consumption. However these calls are both not stringent enough and not echoed in the wider movement. Given the exponential rate of projected increase for meat consumption, what is need is a significantly long term and across the board decrease of the number of animals raised and killed for slaughter not tepid calls for minor decreases in individual rates of meat consumption.

[13] Steinfeld, Livestock’s Long Shadow, xxiii.

[14] Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma 230, emphasis added.

[15] Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), 33

[16] Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, 263.

[17] Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 151.

[18] Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, 133.

[19] Ibid.

[20] http://www.polyfacefarms.com/story.aspx Last accessed April 1, 2001.

[21] Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 158.

[22] Ibid., 243.

[23] Claudio, L., "Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry,” Environmental Health Perspectives 115, no 9. (2007): A450.

[24] “Only about one-fifth of the clothing donated to charities is directly used or sold in their thrift shops. Says Rivoli, ‘There are nowhere near enough people in America to absorb the mountains of castoffs, even if they were given away.’” (Ibid. A450).

[25] “Clothing that is not considered vintage or high-end is baled for export to developing nations. Data from the International Trade Commission indicate that between 1989 and 2003, American exports of used clothing more than tripled, to nearly 7 billion pounds per year. Used clothing is sold in more than 100 countries. For Tanzania, where used clothing is sold at the mitumba markets that dot the country, these items are the number one import from the United States.” (Ibid. A452)

[26] For example in the case of clothing “According to figures from the U.S. National Labor Committee, some Chinese workers make as little as 12–18 cents per hour working in poor conditions. And with the fierce global competition that demands ever lower production costs, many emerging economies are aiming to get their share of the world’s apparel markets, even if it means lower wages and poor conditions for workers.” (Ibid. A450)

[27] According to the Environmental Protection Agency, DVDs are a particularly egregious source of e-waste pollution since they derive from rare mined earth materials, are virtually impossible to recycle, leach into water supplies, and produce toxic results for both the environment and human health. Furthermore, as a flyer made by the EPA for school children tries to explain “Once discs are packaged, they are ready to be sent to distribution centers, retail outlets, or other locations. Transportation by plane, truck, or rail requires the use of fossil fuels for energy, which contribute to climate change.”

[28] Heise, U. K., Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

[29] Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, 203.

[30] “Is Back to Nature Farming Only for Men?” Irregular Times http://www.irregulartimes.com/polyface.html accessed May 1st, 2009. Note: this may be changing due to outside pressure. However it was certainly the case when Pollan attended the farm. Indeed Salatin’s website, while stating that they will accept six men and two women, still reads at the beginning “ An extremely intimate relationship, the apprenticeships offer young men the opportunity to live and work with the Salatin's.” (emphasis added). It is unclear how many, if any, women have been allowed to serve in the farm labor aspect of the apprenticeship.

[31] Interview: Joel Salatin This article appeared on p44 of the Observer Food Monthly section of the Observer on Sunday January 31 2010 http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jan/31/food-industry-environment. Last accessed April 2010.

[32] Michael Pollan, “The Food Movement, Rising,” The New York Review of Books, June 10, 2010. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/jun/10/food-movement-rising/?page=3

[33] Michael Pollan,“Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” New York Times Magazine, July 29, 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/magazine/02cooking-t.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1&partner=rss&emc=rss. A version of this article also appeared in print on August 2, 2009, on page MM26 of the New York edition.

[34] Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 127.

[35] Ibid., 126-127 and 156.

[36]Jennifer Jeffrey, The Feminist in My Kitchen, http://jenniferjeffrey.typepad.com/writer/2007/06/one-day-during-.html Accessed April 1st, 2010.

[37] Joel Salatin, Polyface, Inc. Apprenticeships, http://www.polyfacefarms.com/apprentice.aspx Accessed May 1st, 2009. Emphasis added.

[38] Bob Jones University Statement about Race at BJU http://www.bju.edu/welcome/who-we-are/race-statement.php Last accessed April 1, 2010.

[39] Student Handbook, (Bob Jones University, 2005), 29

[40] “Headlines: Giving Due Honor: Accolades for Students and Grades” BJU Review Winter 2009 (Vol. 24 No.3), 2 http://issuu.com/bjureview/docs/bju_review_winter_2009__vol._24_no.3 Accessed April 1 , 2010.

[41] Lewis McCrary, “Cultivating Freedom: Joel Salatin practices ethical animal husbandry— no thanks to the feds.” American Conservative, November 1, 2009, http://www.amconmag.com/ Accessed April 1, 2010.

[42] Testimony of Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm, Swoope, Virginia United States Congress “After the Beef Recall: Exploring Greater Transparency in the Meat Industry” House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform April 17, 2008. While I agree with the view the migrant workers are exploited in factory farming systems it is unclear to be how grouping them intermediately with C and D students and referring to them as social outcasts helps to improve their working conditions. Please see footnote 23 for additional commentary on this point.

[43] Kelefa Sanneh, “Fast bikes, slow food, and the workplace wars” New Yorker Magazine, June 22, 2009, http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2009/06/22/090622crat_atlarge_sanneh Last accessed April 1, 2010.

[44] See multiple articles on the blog by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers(CIW): http://www.ciw-online.org/news.html Last Accessed April 1, 2010. Of particular interest is also the manner in which Chipotle utilizes its use of meat from Polyface farms to ward off criticism of its treatment of migrant farm workers.

[45] While it could be argued that Salatin’s comments about migrant labor only reflect concern about labor standards, Sanneh makes, I believe, an excellent rejoinder: “Proponents of homegrown food and (very) small business…sometimes talk about how artisanalism improves the lives of workers. But the genius of this loosely organized movement is that it’s not a labor movement; it’s a consumer movement.” Although I have searched extensively I can no evidence of where Joel Salatin has been directly working with farm workers unions to improve their labor conditions.

[46] Yasmin Alibhai Brown, “Eat only local produce? I don't like the smell of that: The language in this debate is a proxy for anti-immigration sentiments,” The Independent, May 12, 2008 http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/yasmin-alibhai-brown/yasmin-alibhaibrown-eat-only-local-produce-i-dont-like-the-smell-of-that-826272.html Last Accessed April 1, 2010.

[47] Frank, D., Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 243.

[48] For a review of some of the recent literature on this subject, see Sidney W. Mintz and Christine M. Du Bois. "The Anthropology of Food and Eating," Annual Review of Anthropology, 31 (2002): 99-119.

[49] James Mcwilliams, “Is Locavorism for Rich People Only?” New York Times Blog, October 14, 2009 http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/14/is-locavorism-for-rich-people-only/?pagemode=print. Last Accessed April 1, 2010.

[50] Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, 322.

[51] Ibid., 331.

[52] “Annie Corrigan, Joel Salatin And Polyface Farm: Stewards of Creation” EarthEats March 26, 2010 http://indianapublicmedia.org/eartheats/joel-salatin-complete-interview/ Accessed April 1 2010.

[53] Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, 291.

[54] Ibid., 272.

[55] Ibid., 297.

[56] Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,222.

[57] Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, 342.

[58] For one example among many see the interview “Joel Salatin - The Pastor of the Pasture” Mandy Henderson Columbus Underground February 28, 2010. http://www.columbusunderground.com/joel-salatin-the-pastor-of-the-pasture . Last accessed April 1, 2010.

nr-footer (12K)
Home | What's New? | News Releases | Action Alerts | PoultryPress | Resources | Merchandise | Links | E-mail