Clean Food: If You Want to Save the World, Get Over Yourself.

I’m a permaculture farmer. My goal is to develop natural ecosystems that produce food. My dream is a world with ready access to a diet that nourishes the body of the consumer, provides a living for the producer, and leaves the Earth joyfully habitable.

I share that dream with a lot of people who call themselves permaculturalists, natural farmers, plantsmen, or foodies. I fear, however, that this doughty lot of green thumbs and stock-folk and food advocates is succumbing to tribalism; forgetting that saving the world means saving all of the people in it; even the ones that love cheap burgers and Coke. We’re digging foxholes and making monsters out of people who don’t agree with us, or who don’t understand, or who do understand but are powerless to act.

Take this quote by Dr. Daphne Miller — author of one of my favorite books on the links between farming and health — at the end of her interview with Slow Money Journal:

“Americans are going to fall into two camps when all is said and done: People who buy cheap goods, regardless of quality, versus people who are willing and able to pay for things that are made with integrity. We are seeing the limits of the “buying cheap crap” approach.”

As much as I admire Dr. Miller, this is among the more judgmental things I’ve read outside of scripture. Among the implications:

  • People who buy cheap goods (food) are mindless imbeciles who’d just as soon drink gasoline as fair trade coffee as long as the price is right.
  • Whether you buy cheap or buy quality is a matter of WILL! There are those who are WILLING and those who are NOT WILLING! Oh, and able.
  • Those who are not willing and able are buying crap. You’re feeding your children crap. You’re killing the Earth and you’re killing yourselves. You’re in the wrong camp. You’re crap! Shame on you.

That’s not what Dr. Miller wrote, but language is meaningless until it’s interpreted in people’s minds. That interpretation is informed by the economic, racial, political, religious, family, and personal backgrounds of the individual who processes it. Language complimenting one person is a heinous insult to another. Imagine how that earlier statement — from a Brown/Harvard educated M.D. — reads to a lower-middle income family with no savings.

Dr. Miller’s comment is owed, in part, to the echo chamber into which she was speaking; the same one into which nearly all of us “clean food” advocates speak. It’s the one that asks easy questions and accepts facile non-solutions like “people need to pay more for food,” and “people need to eat less meat.” Folks like me have cultivated an insular world unencumbered by challenges beyond the margins — we may disagree about technical details in rotationally-grazing livestock, but we short circuit when asked how our system could possibly scale to supply half the current global demand for beef. Most of us have never considered such an enormous question with any seriousness. We’re surrounded by so much mutual love and affirmation that challenging ourselves doesn’t seem necessary. We’re generals on the eve of battle insisting we don’t need to study the terrain; we will win because God is on our side.


“Yes, the $8/lb ground beef is produced the way it should be. Yes, it’s good for my body. Yes it’s good for the Earth. But it’s eight freaking dollars, and my kid needs braces and protein. Bye Felicia, we’re going to McDonald’s.”

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