More "Eyes to Acres"—and Grocery Aisles, Dinner Plates, and Lunchboxes

I had the pleasure of spending last weekend in Kansas at the Land Institute’s annual Prairie Festival—an event that founder Wes Jackson called “an intellectual hootenanny” (my favorite phrase of the week). 

There, in between getting to know the cows, exploring the fields to understand the Land Institute’s work on developing perennial wheat varieties, and gathering around the bonfire, we were treated to a talk by the great Wendell Berry, poet, author, and genuine luminary on sustainable agriculture. 

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Berry issued a simple but powerful call. “The ratio of eyes to acres”, he said, “has to change.”

Lamenting the decline of farm culture in the United States, Berry explained how fewer farmers on the land today translates into fewer people to carefully watch over the land, assure its health, the health of the food being raised from it, and the health of the communities living on it. 

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But just as we need more eyes to acres, we also need more eyes to grocery aisles, dinner plates, and lunch boxes—and a lot more eye contact between consumers and the farmers that produce our food. When we as consumers pay attention to what we’re eating, where it’s coming from, and how it was produced, our power is real. Just look at pink slime.

Here at NRDC, we’re working hard to get antibiotics out of the livestock industry, where their massive use is contributing to rise of “superbugs”—antibiotic-resistance strains of bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella that put consumers at risk of acquiring serious, and even life-threating infections. Today, a whopping 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on farm animals that we eat. The vast majority are fed routinely in low doses to animals that are not even sick. The purpose: to make them grow fatter faster and to compensate for crowded and unsanitary conditions.

What does this have to do with Wendell Berry’s talk?

The American livestock industry has undergone a radical transformation in the last few decades, from one in which farm animals were dispersed across the country grazing primarily on pasture to a much less pastoral model. What we’ve seen is rapid and powerful consolidation of the livestock industry so that now just a handful of companies control the vast majority of meat coming to our restaurants and our stores, as well as the giant factory farms where the chickens, pigs, and cows that end up on our plates are produced.

One reason this has happened is because these factory farms are largely out of site to the majority of Americans. There are simply too few eyes watching.

The intrepid food folks at Grist recently published this excellent “primer” on factory farms—also known as CAFOs, or “confined animal feeding operations”—breaking down what the dominant livestock production system means for our meat today, including the role played by antibiotics. As the name suggests and the primer details, the way we’re raising the majority of our meat is unappetizing at best and destructive at worst. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We need more eyes. More eyes holding the government accountable for regulating the livestock industry. More eyes telling our grocery retailers that they have a role to play in getting safer, more sustainably produced meat into their aisles and that we expect them to play it. More eyes discovering ways to eat well with less meat. And more eyes focused on buying better meat whenever possible to support the farmers who are raising animals with good stewardship over their land, workers, flocks and herds. 

I keep hearing people ask, are antibiotics in meat the next pink slime?  I say, let’s make sure they are. And then let’s keep going. Yes we need more farmers on the land. But farmers can’t do it alone. We all need to put more of our eyes on our food.

“It seems to me that it’s a bad move to get into a contest between optimism and pessimism…The steadying requirement is for hope.”  - Wendell Berry (on the current political tug-of-war over agriculture and the environment).

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