Saturday, February 23, 2013


  We just watched a documentary film about a diet of veganism (plus no added plant fats/oil) as a way to stop and potentially reverse the adverse health effects of the standard industrialized diet. We're definitely not vegans, and we don't mention this film because it represents us or any of our views, but as farmers we take extra interest in all the various diet theories and their supporting arguments, and even diet theories that fail to offer good solutions can be helpful in assessing the problems.

  As we've discussed before, our diet theory -- if we had to give it a name we might call it "radically homegrown" -- isn't based on any kind of nutrition or health theories. In other words, we're strongly inclined to believe that eating a radically homegrown diet while completely ignoring the difficult questions of any and all nutrition theories will actually result in a healthier diet than following the advice of the world's most brilliant nutrition experts, whoever they may be. Are we saying that ignoring nutrition theories can lead to better nutrition? Short answer, yes. How could that be?

  First, nutrition science is invariably a very muddy field. If any of the fringe theories (like the one in the film we just watched) were scientifically compelling it would be more than a fringe scientific theory. That's not to say those theories are necessarily wrong, only that the scientific case for any of them is fraught with questions and legitimate doubts. On the other hand mainstream dietary advice like is embodied in the USDA food pyramid seems undeniably damned by its results. In other words, mainstream dietary advice is too closely tied to our problems to reasonably consider it any kind of solution. And, in any case, even if the nutrition experts could agree on a diet theory -- which they can't -- that still leaves the rest of us needing to eat but without the expertise to sort out the advice from conflicting experts. (The arguments that we always find most convincing are the ones making the case that the case for someone else's theory is grossly overstated.) In short, as with the documentary we just watched, every diet theory seems to lose any real scientific footing as soon as it moves beyond criticizing the standard industrialized diet.

  So the next question then: what reason is there to trust that a radically homegrown diet offers any better hope of nutrition? First, our current diet-related health problems are clearly the result of the industrialization of our food supply, and a radically homegrown diet is the only alternative (at least in the industrialized world today.) Secondly, although the nutrition science is very muddy, one thing that seems very clear to us is that the giant food and agriculture corporations (and the government and university systems that serve them) aren't fundamentally pursuing any kind of health (of persons, soils, waters, air, animals, communities, etc. -- which, of course, are all deeply interconnected), but rather all large corporations are structured so as to ensure a narrow focus on corporate and executive profit. Surely dependence on that corporate system, no matter how much it conforms to any superficial diet theory, is fundamentally at odds with good health. If we are to have any real nutrition choices at all, we're convinced the first step needs to be breaking loose of the corporate-industrial grip on our diets.

  In that light, a question this documentary raised, as all nutrition theories do for us, is how compatible is veganism with a radically homegrown diet versus dependent on an industrialized corporate food supply. There is a limited point on which we think vegans score some points here. In recent years vegans have commonly made the case that animal products increase our dependency on the evils of the corporate-industrial system. They'll say that animals are an inefficient use of grain crops, i.e. that the grain fed to animals would go a lot further if fed directly to people. If we lay the nutritional and gastronomic problems with that idea aside, we think it has to be conceded that they have a real point: raising animals strictly on field crops grown for the purpose of feeding animals is highly questionable. (So, of course, is raising annual crops for the purpose of feeding our cars, which now consume more of our most planted field crop (corn) than all farm animals combined.) The limits we see in their argument are that (1) exchanging dependency on large quantities of grain for dependency on smaller quantities of industrialized grain doesn't really solve the problem, and (2) although modern industrialized agriculture completely fails to realize it, animals offer all sorts of potential for making food out of things that aren't food to start with. The most important example of this second point is grass, and the benefits of grass are huge. Especially in regions like ours where much of the land is quite susceptible to erosion, a permanent cover of grass is surely the most sustainable farm use of land. Pasture also drastically reduces the pressure on farmers to depend as heavily or at all on herbicides, insecticides, fossil fuel-powered tractors and combines, genetically modified seed, etc. Much more could be said about the gains to be had from farm animals and from grass, in particular, but the point here is that animals offer lots of potential (even if commonly unrealized) for reducing our dependency on the corporate-industrial food system.

  This is a bit of a tangent, but to be clear, "pastured" pork and poultry and eggs even from "organic" (whether officially or unofficially) family farmers selling directly at small farmers' markets rarely redefine the equation any more than their supermarket counterparts: simply keeping animals on pasture while feeding them complete rations of combine-harvested annual field crops (which is the case with the vast majority of large- and small-scale "pastured" and/or "organic" pork, poultry, and eggs) does nothing to silence the vegan argument we've discussed. Swine and poultry and other animals certainly have lots of potential in a radically homegrown system of agriculture, too, but so long as farmers and consumers continue to measure these possibilities against the artificial cheapness of their industrialized counterparts any market for radically homegrown pork or poultry will remain practically non-existent. In the meantime, we would concede that vegans score valid points here, too.

  But truly grass-fed/grain-free beef and dairy (and goat meat, lamb, wool, leather, etc., not to mention wild game) does radically redefine the equations, not just historically but in accessible ways here and now. As practically the whole continent of Africa figured out before us, goat meat and, in our case, also goat milk may be the most sustainable products we produce, and we'd make nearly as strong a case for our beef and cow's dairy. There was an interesting and repeated contrast in the film we just watched that highlights some of these differences. Images of dairy cattle on pasture were contrasted more than once with huge, super-expensive, diesel-powered combines harvesting mono-cropped annual grains. Completely apart from all the questions of sustainability, is the corporate-industrial dependency of the implicit vegan model not starkly obvious, especially in contrast to the pastoral image of dairy cows? There are plenty of misleading pastoral images in today's food marketplaces, but here the vegan advocates (apparently unwittingly) chose images that exposed the flaws of their case. Small herds of all grass-fed livestock are rightly viewed as consistent with sustainability, small family farms, and community food sovereignty. Equivalently homegrown grain and pulse (dry bean, peas, etc.) crops are as non-existent in the industrialized world today as the radically homegrown pork and poultry we already lamented. As with pork and poultry, grains and pulses have plenty of potential in a radically homegrown system of agriculture, but that potential is largely lost to mass-produced corporate counterparts.

  One more thing deserves mention on the subject of veganism and a radically homegrown diet. With the diet promoted by this film as with every other example of veganism we've encountered, simple homegrown foods are replaced with fake counterparts: milk is replaced with rice or almond "milk" -- it's worth noting, too, that we live in the most dairy rich county in North Carolina, but rice and almonds, of course, aren't grown here and are very marginally adaptable if at all -- turkey with "tofurky," eggs with "egg substitute", etc., etc. Avoiding real milk or turkey or eggs commonly has the result of forcing consumers to turn to corporate-industrial foods from far away, often in less homegrown, more processed manifestations. This is an aspect of veganism to which we definitely object, and we suspect that it's an unavoidable aspect of any diet theory that shuns any major food groups.

  Obviously there's plenty of controversy to stir up with these questions, but there's also lots of room for agreement. Proponents of veganism and paleo diets and "traditional" diets and low-carb diets and the USDA food pyramid and raw foodies, etc. together with us, can all potentially agree that moving away from sugar and corn syrup, artificial flavors, preservatives, and sweeteners, white flour, pre-processed foods, confinement style animal products, and chemical-intensive field and garden crops would be an improvement. These are the most emblematic parts of the standard diet in the industrialized world in which we live. And it seems quite plausible that drastically reducing these things could indeed solve a majority of our dramatic, diet-related problems. Without paying any particular attention to any questions of diet or nutrition, pursuing a radically homegrown diet would necessarily accomplish all these things, and it's something any of us can understand unassisted (and unmanipulated) by any experts.