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Expo East: Salatin challenges food system 'orthodoxy'

In a speech provoking an emotional response from Natural Products Expo East attendees, Joel Salatin called for an end to a prevailing “conquistador mentality” to farming and food systems in the U.S. in favor of “nurturing approach” he argued is superior and more sustainable.

“The orthodoxy out there is that nature is a reluctant partner we need to dominate and subdue,” Salatin said during Friday’s keynote address in Baltimore. “I would submit what we have learned is that nature is a benevolent lover that responds to our caresses and wants to bless us with abundance.”


Listening to the great Joel Salatin #expoeast #farmtalk #polyfacefarm #foodsystems #localfood

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Salatin, a noted author and face of Virginia’s Polyface organic farms, likened modern U.S. food systems to an orthodoxy likely to be reflected on poorly by future generations, not unlike orthodoxies that once held the world was flat, slavery was acceptable, and women could not vote.

Among the “orthodoxies” Salatin challenged during his address was a prevailing notion that “cheap food and high quality can occur at the same time.”

“The U.S. right now spends lowest per capita for food in the world, and the highest per capita on health care in the world. Do you think they could possibly be related?” Salatin said systems leading to processed food and industrial farms brought the cost of food down at the expense of the environment, and the ability for farmers to make good wages, with the help of agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which he said pushed a “food pyramid” encouraging Americans to eat less healthy than they ought to have been, and a “paranoid” consumer culture that believes sterile foods like soft drinks are safe while “living foods” like raw milk are not.

“We’d be a much healthier culture if the government never told us how to eat,” he said.

To the charge that organic and sustainable foods are too labor intensive and pricey, Salatin said “We have made an extremely strategic decision to trade management for drugs, capital intensity, energy intensity, segregated systems, and all the plethora of things that revolve around industrial food. We don’t apologize for the fact that our system is more management intensive. Part of management intensity is a trade off for all those internalized costs.”

He encouraged food producers to embrace technologies that can lower costs, such as Internet shopping, citing a neighboring Internet retailer, Relay Foods, which has sourced chickens and turkeys from his farm.

“One of the things that really kills the alternative natural food community and the local food integrity system is inefficiencies in distribution,” Salatin said. “We can get it produced but how do you move small volumes around the country? I have been really encouraged to see what’s been occurring with electronic amalgamation, or what I call electronic aggregation. As we apply it to food what we see is that the bricks-and-mortar edifice is becoming obsolete. Some futuristic business books are predicting the demise of the supermarket as we know it. That’s because running a cash register, maintaining the rent and the heating and the public restroom, and the handicapped access, is very very expensive.”

He acknowledged that some boutique natural/organic stores have “vilified” his farm for selling to Relay, but “we’re now selling 40% of our farm products through electronic shopping carts so we can go onto a truck more efficiently with pre-paid for sales and go right to the metropolitan center with enough volume to drop the cost per-item and per-pound down to where it runs circles around bureaucratic, warehouse oriented supermarkets.”

Salatin said sustainable food systems have been challenged by the fact that industrial farms received a boost as a result of advances in fertilization developed during ammunition-building efforts during World War II. Making up ground, he argued, was a matter of perspective: Valuing the “life in soil,” and “respecting the pig-ness of pigs.”

“The answer is not environmental abandonment but repentance and environmental participation to caress our womb,” he said to a rousing ovation. “We’re tired of the conquistador mentality. It’s time for the nurturing mentality.”

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