Anyone who is heartened by the recent surge of interest in local food ought to read this article by Blake Hurst, an industrial farmer who has heard the arguments and is not impressed. His point, which I think is right, is that food cannot be grown as the local/organic crowd would have it grown and still be available to consumers in the quantity and variety that modern society requires. In fact, industrial techniques were developed precisely to do that job, one that local/organic is incapable of doing.
Probably the clearest example is the experience Hurst’s neighbor had growing turkeys:
Lynn Niemann was a neighbor of my family’s, a farmer with a vision. He began raising turkeys on a field near his house around 1956. They were, I suppose, what we would now call “free range” turkeys. Turkeys raised in a natural manner, with no roof over their heads, just gamboling around in the pasture, as God surely intended. Free to eat grasshoppers, and grass, and scratch for grubs and worms. And also free to serve as prey for weasels, who kill turkeys by slitting their necks and practicing exsanguination.
Weasels were a problem, but not as much a threat as one of our typically violent early summer thunderstorms. It seems that turkeys, at least young ones, are not smart enough to come in out of the rain, and will stand outside in a downpour, with beaks open and eyes skyward, until they drown. One night Niemann lost 4,000 turkeys to drowning, along with his dream, and his farm.
Now, turkeys are raised in large open sheds. Chickens and turkeys raised for meat are not grown in cages. As the critics of "industrial farming" like to point out, the sheds get quite crowded by the time Thanksgiving rolls around and the turkeys are fully grown. And yes, the birds are bedded in sawdust, so the turkeys do walk around in their own waste. Although the turkeys don’t seem to mind, this quite clearly disgusts the various authors I’ve read whom have actually visited a turkey farm.
But none of those authors, whose descriptions of the horrors of modern poultry production have a certain sameness, were there when Neimann picked up those 4,000 dead turkeys. Sheds are expensive, and it was easier to raise turkeys in open, inexpensive pastures. But that type of production really was hard on the turkeys. Protected from the weather and predators, today’s turkeys may not be aware that they are a part of a morally reprehensible system.
Sarcasm aside, Hurst’s point is a valid one: it takes industrial techniques to raise 4,000 turkeys. Or the 11,000 chickens and 1,000 beef cows and hundreds of pigs that Joel Salatin raises each year—his techniques are clever and low-tech and inexpensive and humane and operated at a relatively low scale, but they are still factory techniques. And as successful as Salatin has been, he accounts for a miniscule portion of the food supply—the president of Chipotle, a fast food restaurant with 830 locations that has worked with Salatin, has said they need about a thousand more operations like his to supply just the pork their restaurants need. One thousand Salatins.
As I’ve written before, I think the critical divide is not between local/organic and industrial, but between subsistence and cash cropping. As soon as we are no longer growing the food to supply our own needs but to generate the cash with which we supply our needs, we have crossed that particular Rubicon.
And the Rubicon metaphor is deliberately chosen. As I’ve been writing lately, innovations such as the transition from local/organic to industrial are not reversible in any simple way. We can’t simply decide to undo the parts of the shift that led to results we didn’t like while retaining what we see as the beneficial parts.