Pollan Michael. 2006. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meal. New York (NY): Penguin Books.
The cheaper we make the cost of living the more expensive it becomes. Western Society has fine crafted the ways of perverting the natural order of life so that its people can benefit from it. We clone our corn, gorge our cattle on grains they were never meant to eat, and mutilate our pigs to prevent them from seeking relief from the depression of their lives. Our soils are swollen with toxins and our skies are choked with smog. Epidemics of obesity are on the rise but the price of your hamburger and fries just keeps getting lower. Am I coming off a little strong to you? Well, reading Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma make me very emotional, and not in the ‘sad sappy movie’ kind of way.
The subject matter that Michael Pollan touches on in the Omnivore’s Dilemma is capable of evoking emotions of anger, frustration, and guilt in me. However, Chapter Ten: Grass, also induced hope. When I read about The Conquest of Corn, I did not have much hope or faith that Western Society could ever change its ways. The system that arose from corn just seemed too integrated in our society today for there to ever be an alternative. I did not think that anyone cared. Or rather, I did not think that anyone cared enough to do anything about it. Then, Michael Pollan introduced me to Joel Salatin.
Joel Salatin is the owner and proprietor of Polyface Farms. His motto is all about natural organic foods and curing global warming with cow. Wait? What? But aren’t cows part of the problem? Well, yes, cows are part of the global carbon emission problem but that is only because of how we are raising them.
I learned earlier about the horrors of raising feedlot cows. Hundreds of cows are forced together in small, dusty, filth filled enclosures where they are force fed a diet of corn flakes and anti-biotics. These cows will never know a life outside these pens. They will never eat a single blade of grass. Salatin raises his cows as nature intended: on a diet of grass.
Salatin admits that his neighbours think he’s insane for the way he raises his cows. He is a grass farmer that practises rotational grazing and this means he moves his cattle every single day. By practising rotational grazing, farmers can mimic the natural grazing cycle of ruminants. “’Whether it is wildebeests on the Serengeti, caribou in Alaska, or bison on the American plains, multistomached herds are always moving onto fresh ground, following the cycles of grass.’” (page 193) The cows eat just about everything in the paddock but they are moved to fresh pasture before they can destroy the natural habitat.
The grass is then given a chance to grow but this time it’s fertilized by cow manure. The cows also spread the grass seeds and create shady safe havens with their hoof prints where water collects and seeds can germinate. Cows that are raised with rotational grazing are also kept healthy and free of parasites that they would otherwise get from staying confined in enclosures that accumulate with their waste. The best part of it, I think, is that cows get to be cows. Too often humans forget that animals can think and feel themselves. Rotational grazing cows aren’t tormented like feedlot cows.
I mentioned earlier that Salatin believes that his way of farming can cure climate change. How you may ask? Well think about it. Instead of raising his cows on corn, he’s feeding them grass. Yes, yes, I know I ready explained this but hold on. The grass farm that Salatin grows is not a monoculture like corn. It is a polyculture. There are dozens of species of grass growing in his pastures. “A diverse enough polyculture of grasses can withstand virtually any shock and in some places will produce in a year nearly as much total biomass as a forest receiving the same amount of rainfall.” (page 197) So what does this mean?
It means that Joel Salatin’s grass farm is removing thousands of pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year! Now, imagine. What if we replaced all of those monocultures of corn that we use to feed cows, with grass? Not only will our cattle be living healthier and happier lives, the grass would offset the emissions of fossil fuels. “For example, if the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year; the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road.” (page 198)
I was really struck by Salatin’s words. “’I’m just the orchestra conductor, making sure everybody’s in the right place at the right time.’” (page 212) I thought this was a beautiful metaphor. I think, to extend the metaphor further, agriculture should be like going to the symphony. The plants and animals are the instruments, the farmers are the musicians and conductors, and the consumers are the audience. A symphony isn’t just about the music. A symphony is about the hard work.. The instruments must be well cared for and tuned to produce beautiful music. The musician must know his instrument intimately and he must practise for hours to produce the right sounds. Finally, the audience doesn’t come to a symphony just for they music. They come to appreciate the hard work of the musician. They come to marvel at how instrument, musician, and conductor can come together to produce a masterpiece.
Yes, I agree that Salatin is idealistic in his views of farming but the fact that someone is trying makes me feel hopeful. There is another way for the system to work. Western Society does not have to live the way it does. We have options. Life doesn’t have to be expensive to be cheap.