SEVERAL weeks ago, I received some comments on one of my previous columns that particularly piqued my interest.
I requested and was granted permission to share the comments anonymously. First, some background: The reader, a father currently involved in production agriculture, explained that his grown son has become a very passionate advocate of Wendell Berry's philosophy on society and food production and, therefore, is subsequently challenging much of the current paradigm within mainstream agriculture. The son's worldview represents a sharp ideological difference (albeit respectful) within the family.
Having said that, the father shared with his son my previous column, "Do You Really Want Simple Life?" (Feedstuffs, Dec. 16, 2013), that focused on Andrew Grace's documentary film "Eating Alabama" in which he details his endeavors (along with his wife) to maintain a year-long pledge to eat only food sourced from the state.
I had explained that they quickly discovered that their new lifestyle would be an uphill climb and could also get incredibly restrictive. That is, the vastness and complexity of our food system eliminates a lot of work on our behalf.
Perhaps the most important part of the entire documentary comes when Grace notes: "I'm starting to think that the year of local eating is one big gimmick. When this all started, we wanted to know if we could eat locally, seasonally, the way our grandparents did, and the answer was, 'yes.' But how we did it was so vastly different than our grandparents' day. ... We wondered if we could go back to the way things used to be, and the answer seems to be, 'There's nothing left to go back to.'"
I noted that while we might reminisce about better days in the past, society has evolved. Advancements in the food industry have allowed people to focus and specialize and be creative in all sorts of new ways. We're all better off as a result.
Therein lies the rub for many people, including that reader's son. After reading my column, he replied to his father as follows (remember, "nothing left to go back to" is Grace's observation, not mine):
"The sentiment that there is 'nothing to go back to' sticks with me. This seems to be such a hopeless comment but is probably true. It is then juxtaposed with the comment that society has 'evolved.' I guess it depends on what your definition of evolution is. On the one hand, there is this sentiment that food systems 50-60 years ago were better because they were more personal, seasonal and employed more people. To say that moving away from that is evolution seems to be a stretch and also doesn't take into account exactly who these food systems have benefited. The wealth from newer food systems seems to be more concentrated to not only fewer farmers but to the even fewer corporations that supply those farmers. In return, we have provided the world with cheap food, which has undercut the global markets (of Mexico specifically), causing more migration, higher consumption of cheap, high-sugar, high-fat processed food that has caused an obesity epidemic, and the ecological destruction is quite literally unspeakable. I would not call these 'advances.'"
He then goes on to explain:
"The bountiful access of food creating a better quality of life may be true, but if it is, it is only true for a small portion of society. Poverty, hunger and homelessness have not been alleviated by more cheap food. In my opinion, the author does not take the time to actually analyze whether or not modern agriculture has created more luxury and security than it has destroyed. ... (It) reminds me (of a) sentiment that I have heard recently ... to the effect of: modern society is going forward quickly down a narrow, destructive alley. The only way for us to go somewhere else is to turn around and go backwards for a bit, i.e., the only way forward is back."
What's the point behind sharing all this? Primarily, the dialogue precisely illustrates the real tension that occurs in the real world. The discussion about the priorities associated with food production, distribution and merchandising are occurring in households on a regular basis, and they're really important.
On a secondary note, it makes me wonder why we wrestle so much with these things in agriculture and food production, but why not in other facets of society? Maybe Feedstuffs readers can share that if they have a good answer.
*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.