Wendell Berry, the poet, essayist, environmental activist, and farmer, once wrote that “eating is an agricultural act.” This is a statement that should both liberate us and implicate us — we are actors in the food economy, and every decision we make about what we eat and where we buy our food from is a vote for a direction that the food economy will continue upon, or newly take, to meet consumer demand. Unfortunately, most of us are extremely disconnected from our food’s lineage, and we’re unaware of our active role in the series of relationships that is global in scope. Our role, however, isn’t merely as passive consumers, although the industrial food economy prefers the relationship between the citizenry and the food on their plates from grocery stores to be an entirely transactional one.
Senator Cory Booker (D., N.J.) has somewhat called attention to the environmental impact that our eating decisions make in comments he made to VegNews. Booker says that the planet can’t sustain people eating the quantities of meat they eat today, and that Americans need to be encouraged to switch to eating fake cheese in order to mitigate the “environmental impact” that the “standard American diet” is making. Booker became a vegan after initially becoming a vegetarian in 1992. He also noted that his friends who are lovers of cheese have tried the fake stuff and loved it — and that the pizza at the New Jersey VegFest was phenomenal.
I find these remarks about vegan food dubious — I’ve tried the vegan diet, and it wasn’t becoming anemic and approaching a dangerously low BMI that made me throw in the towel; it was being told that I’d have to substitute applesauce for eggs as an ingredient if I wanted to bake cupcakes. (Booker says that eating eggs doesn’t align with “his spirit.”) Booker seems to suggest that Americans should become vegans or vegetarians if they want to save the world. If he were to explicitly make this suggestion rather than just nudge at it, I think we’d see a Robespierre-esque revolution from Americans who’d defend red meat as they would their right to own guns. My own qualms with the vegan diet aside, veganism is also an expensive diet to maintain, and not one that the poor can afford.
The issue, thankfully for carnivorous Americans, isn’t meat itself. Booker does bring up a good point, though. The industrial food economy is befouling our land and water. From corn to livestock, the methods implemented to produce the quantities that these industries are producing are destroying not only the Earth, but also small farms and their communities, where farmers have an incentive to care for the earth below their feet. As Gracy Olmstead writes in the New York Times, in the last 18 years, we’ve lost half of our dairy farmers due to factory farming. The Wall Street Journal warned in 2017 that “the next few years could bring the biggest wave of farm closures since the 1980s.” The 2018 farm bill benefited already-wealthy agribusiness with millions of dollars of subsidies, but small farms and beginning farmers received very little.
Berry puts it best in his essay Conservation and Local Economy: “The quality of attention decreases as acreage increases.” What incentive do factory farms with acres upon acres of land have to care for it? Their incentive to produce their crops is a financial one; they’re not producing for their neighbors, they’re producing food for people who often live states (or sometimes countries) away, in enormous amounts. Factory farms aren’t operating on property that they will care for because they’d like to conserve it for inheritance, as small farmers in rural American counties used to, and still do where they exist. The pesticides that factory farms require are often toxic to human health, but also the soil, where some pesticides are killing beneficial bacteria and fungi that maintain healthy soil. Monocropping (growing the same crop over and over again for years in the same plot of land) also depletes soil of nutrients, and necessitates a heavy dose of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to replenish the land. This exemplifies the lack of an intimate relationship and knowledge of the land — and a lack of prudence; after the land has been eroded enough, it’s difficult or impossible to salvage it for continued use. But there’s no skin in the game, so the land exploitation will continue, unchecked.
It’s not only the land we’re deforesting and polluting and eroding until it’s unable to function; big agriculture has also destroyed entire communities. When a food industry creates a surplus of food, driving costs down for consumers, it’s impossible for small, local stores and farms to compete and stay in business. In September 2017, there was a dairy glut, as dairy production outpaced the processing capacity. In the Northeast, dairy farmers had to dump their milk. Local dairy farmers suffer the most as the dairy industry continues to produce more product every year, and when they go out of business, it only serves the interests of the large dairies. As these corporations and wealthy businesses spread from community to community, local businesses and farms drop like flies.
The issue that Booker raises, and that conservatives especially should consider, is that of the sustainability of our current rate of consumption, but we should extrapolate further. Our planet’s resources are finite. We are consuming without self-restraint, but also without a sense of responsibility or consequence. We treat God’s creation with a blasphemous amount of violence and dispresepect — we also take from it beyond our needs, to an immodest extent that necessitates brutality and that unsurprisingly breeds the decadence of dumping milk because we can’t manage the glut. American farmers, who live on the land and off of it, who rely on it for their livelihoods and thus treat it with care through traditional agrarian practices, are being pushed out because of government handouts to agribusiness companies. The rural communities that conservatives claim to represent are being destroyed, and it’s becoming difficult to attract the next generation of farmers when little incentive remains, and when there’s a cultural prejudice against hard manual labor and rural-town Americans.
Conservatives should be the ones leading these initiatives to reform the culture and the industrial food economy, and to bring the economy back to our local spheres, where those making our food are closer and more accountable to ourselves, our neighbors, and our families. We can reduce the size of government by reacquiring the local economic self-determination we lose when we grow more reliant on the industrial food economy.
“A deep familiarity between a local community and a local landscape is a dear thing, just in human terms,” Wendell Berry told Yale Environment 360 in 2014. “It’s also, down the line, money in the bank, because it helps you to preserve the working capital of the place.”
Americans don’t have to stop eating meat to make these reforms. They must first accept that reforms would bode well for the economic health of local farmers, and that they can wield their purchasing power to direct the food economy along a path that benefits these communities by giving their business to small farms rather than gigantic ones. By doing so, we can move the culture and the environment in a direction of health and sustainability.