In 1900, the share of the American labor force involved in farming was nearly 50 percent. Today, it is less than 2 percent. This is due to industrialization, economies of scale, and trade, said Joel Salatin, Author and Co-Owner of Polyface Farms. However, Salatin cautions that greater efficiency has had its costs, and made our food supply more fragile.
“A part of the efficiency equation has been centralization,” he explained. “[But] with COVID, and now partly with the war in Ukraine, what’s happened is that the centralized, large-scale efficiency has shown cracks in the system.”
He pointed out that food-processing plants have thousands of employees, making them more susceptible to pandemic shocks than small-scale plants with fewer workers.
Salatin added that, “on our farm… where we own a little processing plant with 20 to 25 employees… I don’t wake up in the morning wondering [whether we] have violated some new government rule or COVID procedure, or something like that.”
Salatin spoke with David Lin, Anchor and Producer at Kitco News.
The High Cost of Low Prices
Although Salatin claimed that efficiency had lowered food prices, he said that it came with “externalized costs that were not captured at the cash register.”
“It took a couple of decades for the fragility to start showing up,” he explained. “We started to see it with Campylobacter listeria, E. Coli, food allergies… superbugs are a new phenomenon in the last thirty years caused by unprecedented consolidation of antibiotic and hormone use within the factory farming system.”
He pointed out that in the early 1970s, household spending on food was 17 percent of income, while spending on healthcare was 9 percent. Just prior to 2020, the figures flipped: households spent 9 percent of their income on food, and 17 percent on healthcare.
“There’s probably a relationship between cheap food and health costs, versus high-quality food and not being sick,” added Salatin.
He also said that the quality of soil has deteriorated, due to factory farming, and that “you would have to eat seven pounds of broccoli today to get the same nutrition as one pound of broccoli in 1930.”
Lastly, he pointed out that “obesity is way high, which is indicative of cheap food.”
“Sugar is cheap, protein is expensive,” said Salatin. “The obesity epidemic follows the cheap food policy, because candy bars are cheaper than pork chops.”
Black Swan Events
“Black Swan” events, like COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, have harmed agricultural supply chains, which demonstrates the food system’s “fragility,” said Salatin.
“One-in-five mouthfuls of food is produced outside the US,” he explained. “That’s the highest it’s been in history… There’s [now] the renewed interest in localization rather than globalization… [In other words]having smaller outfits that are less susceptible to the kind of shakeups that can be energy-related, health-related, regulatory-related, or relationally-related.”
He added that the “global system is highly inter-connected,” and that since Ukraine supplies “30 percent of the world’s wheat” and Russia supplies “20 to 25 percent of the world’s chemical fertilizer,” this affects food prices for everybody.
What is the solution?
Salatin’s solution to the problems in the food system was to increase the role of small producers who use traditional farming methods. To do this, he said he would “abolish the USDA” and allow for a free market in agriculture.
“If people are afraid of unsafe food, there would be private outfits, like the AAA in automobiles,” he said.
“It is time to leave the industrial, Neanderthal, barbaric government interventionists’ bureaucracy of food,” said Salatin. “Uberize it, so that you and I can exercise our food choice in voluntary, consensual relationships with our producers, and have voluntary, democratic access to food.”
To find out Salatin’s thoughts on food shortages and lab-grown meat, watch the above video.
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