As a vegan, reading Singer and Mason really just reaffirmed what I already know: our existing food system is unethical in nearly every way. Animal welfare, labor rights, environmental health, human health—you name it, industrial agriculture violates it. I believe, like Jake, that since I do not need to eat animals, I am morally obligated not to consume them. The New York Times recently published a photo journal about industrial agriculture (otherwise knows as “Big Ag”), which I was reminded of as I read Singer and Mason. The grand scale of the farms depicted is both breathtaking and horrifying. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/10/09/magazine/big-food-photo-essay.html?_r=0
We know that industrial agriculture is unethical and unsustainable, but what’s a viable alternative? I had the opportunity to explore this question at Growing Power’s conference in Milwaukee this week. Growing Power is a non-profit that works to empower communities through urban agriculture. The conference theme this year was “Let’s Scale It Up! Growing Food and Farmers: Best Practices in Growing, Distribution and Community Building.” Will Allen, founder and CEO, believes that urban ag is the way to revitalize communities, adapt to climate change, and grow food sustainably. Will emphasized that sustainable urban agriculture, which uses permaculture techniques such as aquaponics and hydroponics, is the food industry’s future. The model addresses the issues with Big Ag discussed by Singer and Mason, but definitely challenges Wendell Berry’s call to return to husbandry. Though the movement embraces some of the principles of husbandry such as care and connectedness with the soil and land, Will Allen’s mission is to move forward and scale up through new technology.
On Friday night, I was able to attend a panel with Will Allen, Ron Finley, and Alice Waters, who each discussed their perspectives on food systems, sustainability, and food justice.
“It’s not just what we eat, it’s how we eat,” said Alice. “So we don’t digest the values of fast food culture.”
Her quote brought me back to Berry’s assertion in “The Pleasures of Eating” that “eating is an agricultural act.” He also tells us that food has political significance—we cannot be free as long as consumerist culture and Big Ag control us. But it’s important to note that Berry’s criticism of the industrial eater and unethical food systems never considers that urban communities may be able to “return” to agriculture and become self-sufficient in their own way. Berry is very focused on rural life, which is understandable considering his background. His discussion of farming is problematic, however, in how it ignores American agriculture’s history of racial injustice. This country’s agricultural legacy was quite literally built on the backs of slaves. Many urban African American communities adamantly oppose a return to farming due to what their ancestors were forced to endure. But this resistance can be overcome if community members take ownership over their land and reclaim the agricultural industry.
There is no easy solution to the problems of industrial agriculture and its negative impacts on the environment, health, animal welfare, and human rights. But based on what I learned at the conference, I believe that change must come from the urban communities where the so-called “industrial eaters” are being exploited by a corrupt food system. Sustainable urban farming brings a number of environmental benefits, too, beyond production of local food. I am especially interested in the role urban ag plays in soil remediation. Berry, Burroughs, Leopold, and Whitman all write about soil and soil health. Soil is life. In the presence of unhealthy soils, unhealthy communities will grow. Listening to Will’s story and the stories of many others, it’s remarkable what cleaning the soil does for community health in urban areas.