How to Eat Animals and Respect Them, Too
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Editor's Note: For an opposing point of view, see "Why There's No Such Thing as Humane Meat."
Joel Salatin is no simple farmer. When he speaks, he at times takes on the air of a Southern preacher, philosopher, heretic, businessman, activist, or ecological engineer. Since Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the film Food, Inc. brought him to fame as the man who raises meat the right way, Salatin has become a sought-after speaker. But he still spends most of his time on his rural Virginia farm—with the chickens, baling hay, moving cows from one paddock to another. He is a self-described “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic” and has a penchant for perplexingly long catchphrases. It is perhaps Salatin’s unwillingness to compartmentalize that has made him such a compelling moral voice for the food movement. For Salatin, farming is inseparable from ethics, politics, faith, or ecology.
Salatin’s farm, Polyface or “the farm of many faces,” has been in his family for 50 years. At its heart is a practice called “holistic range management,” where cattle mimic the grazing patterns of wild herd animals. The strategy cuts feedlots out of the equation altogether and stores carbon deep in the roots and soil of Polyface’s lush perennial pasture.
There’s a missionary quality to Salatin’s farming. He speaks of his work as a ministry and as healing. He calls his animals “co-laborers” and “dance partners” and says he respects each animal’s distinctiveness. Who better to articulate an ethic of how, when, and whether we should raise and eat our fellow animals?
Madeline Ostrander: What do you think a sustainable diet should look like?
Joel Salatin: What would a sustainable diet look like? Oh, my!
Ostrander: Because it’s often talked about as a vegetarian diet.
Salatin: No, not at all. I think we need to go back to localized diets, and in North America, yes, we can really grow perennials, so there would be a lot of herbivore—lamb, beef—in a diet. And our fruits and vegetables, which have a high water content, would be grown close to home, preferably in our backyards. In 1945, 40 percent of all vegetables consumed in the United States were grown in backyards.
I think a local diet would have an indigenous flair. If you’re along the coast, you’d eat more seafood. If you’re inland, you would eat more herbivore and vegetables. If you’re in Florida, you would eat more citrus. Historically, it’s not about the relationship of meat to vegetables or whatever. It’s more about, what does this area grow well with a minimum of inputs?
Ostrander: Cows have gotten a bad rap lately for their contributions to environmental problems. What’s your response?
Salatin: Don’t blame the cow for the negatives of the industrial food system. All of the data that the anti-meat people use assumes an irrigated, concentrated animal feeding operation. Over 50 percent of the annuals that we grow in American agriculture are to feed cows. Cows aren’t supposed to eat corn. They’re supposed to mow forage. It’s completely inverted from nature’s paradigm. To use that inverted paradigm to demonize grazing, the most efficacious mechanism for planet restoration, is either consciously antagonistic to the truth or is ignorant of the kind of synergistic models that are out here.
Here’s the thing. There’s no system in nature that does not have an animal component as a recycling agent. Doesn’t exist. Fruits and vegetables do best if there is some animal component with them—chickens or a side shed with rabbits. Manure is magic.