Another Take On “Local” Slaughtering. Another Impromptu Rant

Think of this as a follow-up to an earlier post about “local” slaughtering: An interesting and thoughtful essay over at Grist written by the typically thoughtful  Tom Laskaway.

The subtitle could be something like “You’re Damned if You Do, and You’re Damned if You Don’t.”

‘Cause, really, there’s just no pleasing the “pro-food,” “sustainable,” “eat local” folks. No way. No how.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for change. I’ve made that clear here over and over again, to the point of being a bore. (*1) 

But moving toward  a new future requires taking the present into account and understanding why things are as they are now. Any carpenter will tell you that you can’t start remodeling until you know something about the underlying structure of what’s already there.

The “local” folks don’t get that it’s impossible to return to a society that’s “local” in its orientation. (Barring, of course, some kind of nuclear holocaust that leaves us singing “Wooden Ships.”) (In which case, eating “locally” is gonna be the least of our problems.)

Put another way, we Americans live in an urban society with national markets and highly specialized agriculture (eg, Flordians grow citrus, and Kansans wheat) because specialization and national markets are the most the most efficient way to feed millions of people, the vast majority of whom live in cities (and therefore don’t produce their own food). (*2)

That means, for better or worse, we must also live with federal regulations. The whole point of the USDA is to create a national food system that is fair and safe for everyone, not just for a few. The reason that the USDA spends so much time negotiating with large corporations is because those corporations “own” the infrastructure necessary to produce and transport the food.

Americans created that national food system a century ago.

The effort began more or less randomly, as entrepreneurs responded to astonishingly rapid urban growth by creating corporate structures for moving food from one region of the country to another (eg, oranges from Florida to New York).

Over the course of several decades, Americans  figured out how to moderate that system of private enterprise with a dollop of  federal oversight, the goal being to keep food prices in line and the food itself safe.

The system, which provided inexpensive, abundant, and yes, safe, food in every state, not just a few, took decades to create because it took Americans that long to understand that they were no longer living in a “local” world.

So there’s a reason for the infrastructure.

Yank it out from under the dinner table — take away the large corporations that process and move millions of pounds of foodstuffs; take away the USDA —  and we’ll be back where we were 120 years ago: With unsafe food and a screwy hodgepodge of food laws that differ from city to city and state to state.

Again, I’m all for change. I believe that, yes, we can.

But let’s move forward, not  backward.


*1: Remember my historian’s mantra: if we know that the past is different from the present, then it follows that the future is ours to shape.)

*2: Yes, I understand that the “profood” people are most bothered by the fact that our food system is national and agriculture is specialized. But so far, none of them have offered an alternative — other than spending summers gardening and canning — that would support an urban society. Now if their end goal is to dismantle the cities and have all of us move to the countryside, well. . . okay. But they need to say so.

13 thoughts on “Another Take On “Local” Slaughtering. Another Impromptu Rant

  1. Hey Maureen. Guess what. We don’t have safe food number one. How many thousands of beef have been recalled this year? Secondly living in NYC it is quite easy to eat locally. What with 80 farmers markets and over 90 Csas. Seriously what planet are you living on?And once again i see you’ve returned to that old chestnut about going back to the past. What nonsense. Someone as intelligent as you should recognize that particular fact. And I also how you say there is no way to please the profood sustainable food folks. Absolute hogwash. I for one and most of my colleagues won’t impede anyone elses decisions. We are happy positive people. To say we go around policing is preposterous. And what’s more you know it. It’s funny because you announced this post as a rant. And true enough it is. You continue to add very Little to the conversation. Why don’t we have ourselves an interview? I think you’re readers would get a pretty good idea of who is more full of it after that. I’m available if u want some questions answered. Btw I just came from the new Amsterdam market in lower manhattan a wonderful example of a bountiful wonderful northeast urban market bringing in amazing goods processed and not into an urban environment. Most vendors sold out. There were over 70 vendors there.

  2. Thanks for the comments. Much appreciated. (Not sure where I said anything about “policing,” but I’ll take your word for it.) Again, thanks.

  3. When u say there is no pleasing us to mr that means we are compalining and whining rather than offering a full slate of positive ideas and initiatives. How about these? Dismantling the ridiculous farm bill. Putting money back into local food sheds that creates jobs. Creating a true free market like those Found at the over 7000 national farmers markets. Removing industry tailored regulations that keep small competitors out particularly when it comes to slaughterhouses and meat processors.

  4. From a UK perspective local food is pretty good where I live. Rural village of c1600 people. Numerous small farms round about. A local farm shop gets meat – beef, lamb and pork – from farms no more than 2 miles from the shop. Good range of vegetables from similar distance away. The other day I questioned him about a source for his apples. He apologised because they came from 3.5 miles away! Milk and dairy products from local herd. They boast that the milk in their bottle was in the cow either this morning or last night. And is no older. Pies, cakes and cookies from local baker. By the time we have added the cost of petrol to reach the nearest supermarket/mall, it is cheaper to buy in the farm shop. And the food quality is a great deal better. It is also fresher.

  5. Maureen Those of us in agriculture don’t want to see anyone sickened by one of our products. I don’t want to seem to minimize the impact or severity of a food borne illness. But let’s put some things in perspective. The CDC says each year only about 1 in 100,000 contract e-coli from any source in a given year. Those 100,000 people are eating 3 meals a day 365 days a year and only one of those meals makes a person sick. Double check my math, but I think that means that one meal out of every 109,500,000 makes a person sick. I’ll take those odds. Many cases could have been prevented by proper food handling in the home kitchen. We’re fighting the food safety fight in the field and in processing facilities, but I never hear anyone talking about what consumers really need to be doing in their homes. That’s where the ultimate responsibility lies. Maureen, you are right on–thanks for taking on the misconceptions. America has the safest food supply in the world and it gets safer every year. Jody DonohueDL Ranch,Founded in 1867 in the Tallgrass Prairie of Kansas.

  6. Peter, thanks for your comment. Our daughter and son-in-law live in London, so we’ve spent lots of time there, and I’m always amazed at how different daily life is because of the scale and size of the country. Seems amazing to me because of course the US is huge in size by comparison (3,000 miles from east to west; about 1500 from north to south). Jody, you’re with a ranch that dates to 1867? Jeez! Now that’s amazing. Really. While researching the book, I’ve read quite a lot about the role of Kansas in American agriculture. It’s fascinating.Thanks to all of you for your comments.

  7. Social comments and analytics for this post…This post was mentioned on Twitter by maureenogle: Another take on “local” slaughtering. Another rant. (Yes, I have an infinite capacity for ranting.) (blog entry)

  8. Hey Maureen!Localization is not something people advocate for no reason, or for some hippy dippy back to land throwback fantasy. It seems the reasons are never addressed by those that seem to disagree. Localization doesn’t mean 100% of everything MUST BE LOCALIZED. It means that the advantages to communities to localize are very numerous and will become much more so as oil get’s past the point where is it cheap to pull out of the ground. Eventually it will simply become too expensive to base agriculture on cheap petroleum. (not to mention the climate impact.)The other argument is that regions are being completely drained of people. Communities and towns dying because there is no economic base to keep people in the towns they grew up in. Most would love to raise their own kids there but the big boxes and disappearing manufactuing base has destroyed the means by which most people can support themselves. People are trying to find ways to survive in areas they have lived for generations.Localization is about building local capital in communities. It’s about circulating money locally so that people and their children can continue to live where they want to. It’s about having a strong economic base that can’t and won’t just pick up stakes when labor get’s cheap in another country and shareholders demand short term profits. We’ve seen how large corporations treat communities and we are looking to build a real alternative. Done with the race to the bottom, we are looking to build actual resilience. And that’s with out even touching the planetary impact of living lives so consumptive that it would take 10 Earths to support the average Americans life style if everyone were to pursue that path.Our current systems of regulation need to be rethought top to bottom in this context. Localization does not mean we abandon all federal over sight or all global trade. It means that we as a nation figure out how to ensure viability of life in town and in country for the benefit of all. We aren’t there yet. We also need to figure out how to get corporate lobbyists into their proper relationship with regulatory agencies so that corporate power is not in a position to dominate the discussion and the formation of regulatory frame works which usually ends up crushing small operations and competition. All big issues.

  9. Renewing and relocalizing our food system is not “going back to the past.” That’s a straw man argument. It is quite possible for Americans to get much of their food locally without sacrificing safety standards. In fact, millions of us do every day. And the number of small farmers selling direct to consumer or to the local grocery purveyor grows exponentially every year.I’m blessed to live in California, where I can get 100% of my food locally produced year round (I don’t buy packaged, processed foods), most of it organic or grass-fed. But as other commenters have noted, this is also possible in New York, Washington D.C. (where I used to live) and the U.K. This can be done pretty much anywhere in the U.S., especially if we quit subsidizing overproduction of inedible commodities on corporate farms and create incentives for producing real food. Relocalizing our food system doesn’t mean we throw out the national, or even the international food system. People want seafood, bananas, coffee and chocolate. Nor does it mean that we would suddenly lose all common sense, scientific knowledge, hygiene, or the will to protect ourselves. But it does mean greater food security, less fossil fuel usage, stronger community economics (dollars stay local), revitalized rural communities, more jobs, and farmers who actually get paid what their product is worth.

  10. And I might also note, as a farmer and environmental educator in a former, pre-toddler life, efficiency is the enemy of sustainability. What may appear to be an efficient food system in the U.S. is also a system rife with pollution and soil erosion, slathered in fossil fuels, abusive of ecosystems and farm workers, and highly vulnerable to man-made and natural catastrophe. It takes at least 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to bring one calorie of food energy to your table. Not so efficient, really.While we save money at the grocery store because of our “efficiency,” we are now paying twice that in environmental and human health costs.

  11. Maureen, i agree that the local food movement (much like the organic and vegetarian movements) has a tendency to go overboard in its prescriptions…or at least the most vocal proponents.You’re right that we can’t just scrap the system we have; we could but it would wreak havoc that we’re not prepared to handle. Local food supply needs to grow organically, and it is, both in terms of consumers and suppliers. It will, unfortunately, probably never be enough to supply all the caloric needs of the entire nation. (If it can, there will need to be a major change in urban lifestyles to make it possible.)The point should be to do as much as possible and it needs to be able to grow. On that last point, federal and state regulations have a part to play. Forcing small, local food producers into the national system will reduce the local ability to pick up slack and expand.There needs to be legislative recognition of the parallel production/distribution/consumption track. As it stands, the regulatory burden falls disproportionately on small producers. A small grazer in my state will soon be forced to RFID every head of cattle, whereas a large producer will only be required to tag 1/100 heads.The crafters of legislation need more than a hammer in their tool box. The only other option will be for farmers and consumers to end-run the system. But that creates the situation where the feds are infiltrating co-ops to bust raw milk distribution rings.Safety is important, but there should be some individual choice and responsibility factored in too. And it’s far less safe if we find ourselves in the end-run situation without any regulatory framework to deal with the fastest growing subset of agriculture.

  12. Thanks to Dawn and Liz for their comments. Much appreciated!I think Lex nailed the essence of the problem at hand: “caloric needs.”

  13. Re: Dawn’s statement on efficiency.That’s because we define efficiency in purely economic terms, that is, the word has been hijacked by the disciples of Adam Smith and held prisoner by the outdated industrial revolution model.Sustainability is actually more efficient if the metric is anything except labor cost. But this, of course, takes us to a different level of discussion…where we need to think about rewiring capitalism to deal with a set of initial conditions much different than the conditions present during the early years of the industrial revolution.


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