Jeffersonian Ends Through Hamiltonian Means
At the Grist Mill, Tom Philpott puts the spotlight on yet another big government "progressive" who wants to implement human scale economics through the leviathan state. Philpott links to David Kamp's review of Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma.
Kamp, Philpott says, generally shares Pollan's critique of the U.S. food system.
But to the big-picture problems presented by Pollan, Kamp demands big-picture solutions. And here is where I think Kamp, like many commentators on the vast-scale environmental troubles plaguing our culture, goes astray.
Kamp takes Pollan to task for his "too-nice" portrayal of of Joel Salatin, the pioneering Virginia farmer whose "beyond organic" methods make him the hero of Omnivore's Dilemma. (A while back, I reviewed Salatin's own book here.)
Although Kamp approves of Salatin's sustainable farming methods, he chides him for not getting on board to implement such methods as part of a "national solution." For that thoughtcrime, he is labelled an "off-the-grid crank." This, despite the fact that Salatin is
a successful small businessman who supplies 400 customers -- including restaurants in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Washington, D.C -- with beef, pork, chicken, and eggs. He has transformed his 100-acre plot into an important source of delicious food for his area -- all the while expanding its biodiversity by refusing to use chemical inputs.
And rather than withhold his farming wisdom from the broader world, Salatin is eager to share it....
In other words, Salatin has knit his farm into the economy that directly surrounds it, and documented his innovative techniques in hopes of inspiring other growers.
Kamp, on the other hand, favors a "national solution" in which the federal government (of course) plays a leading role.
Kamp yearns for big answers; he wants Pollan -- or Salatin, or the Justice Department -- to come up with a grand, sweeping solution to the environmental, social, and public-health disasters being wrought by our food-production system.
Yet such thinking merely mimics the industrial logic that currently dominates food production. Chemical-intensive agriculture arose -- with significant government support -- to solve the problem of rural labor shortages and rising urban populations. Genetically modified crops are now being flogged as the "solution" to the environmental problems caused by chemical ag.
"As one problem is being solved, ten new problems arise as a result of the first solution," writes E.F. Shumacher in his landmark Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973), a much-admired, little-read book whose observations are now honored mostly in the breech.
Salatin may have the answer, after all. The problem with our global-scale food production system may be scale itself. And the solutions (note plural) might lie in leveraging local knowledge and grassroots efforts to recreate local- and regional-based food-production networks.