A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion at UC Berkeley titled “Is Sustainable Agriculture the Future?”, in which Joel Salatin was a participant. For a while, I wasn’t even planning on going. For all my interest in asking Salatin what he thought of my calculations that suggested that his farm was less efficient than feeding grains to people, I didn’t expect a substantive reply.
At the last minute, however, a friend talked me into going, and I was able to ask Salatin a question. I have reason to believe that a video of the event exists, but I have not yet found this video, and as far as I know, it has not been made available. Thus, I’ll summarize the relevant parts of the exchange here, but I’ll update this post with video if it should become available.
The event consisted of a speech by Salatin, followed by some discussion based on a few prompts, followed by audience questions. Salatin’s answer to the first question in this last segment reminded me exactly why I hadn’t planned on going in the first place.
The questioner referred to something from Salatin’s speech, and then asked, “Don’t we need to eat less meat?” Salatin then asked her, “Are you a vegetarian?” as though her dietary choices had some relevance to the question. “Vegan,” she answered. Salatin proceeded to construct a straw man about all life being the same, before assuring the audience that he didn’t mean to be disrespectful and suggesting that the questioner lie down in her garden naked and see what gets eaten. He then went on to argue that animals have important ecological roles on farms, and that meat production can have important benefits like sequestering carbon and building up the soil.
I didn’t find this argument very compelling, particularly as a response to the question that was asked, but it allowed for a convenient segue into my question, which went something like this:
You talked earlier about the role of animals in sequestering carbon and building soil. There’s something else that’s important there, and that is the grain that is fed to the animals. Your farm wouldn’t work without that grain, and it’s not an insignificant amount. Do you get more out of the farm than you put into it? Is Polyface really sustainable agriculture, or is it just outsourcing the environmental degradation to the grain farm?
It certainly wasn’t the best question that one might have asked. In particular, it didn’t clearly articulate the point that much of the carbon and nutrients that farms like Salatin’s added to the soil was brought in through that grain.
Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised by the honesty with which Salatin responded. He said that it was a great question, and that I was exactly right. He explained that other people say his farm is sustainable, but he doesn’t advertise it as such. He said that consumer demand for chicken is such that he needs to use a lot of grain right now but added that there is a farmer in Australia (apparently Colin Seis, who has developed a technique called pasture cropping) whose farm does not require the grain input but can only produce poultry once every five years.
It strikes me as not entirely fair to attribute the amount of grain required by Polyface Farm to consumer demand for poultry. That grain isn’t merely poultry feed; it’s also fertilizer for the pasture. When Salatin talks about building up soil, most of the added nutrients are coming from the grain he feeds to his chickens. Seis’s pasture cropping may have the potential to reduce or eliminate that dependence on grain, but I haven’t been able to find much information on the inputs and outputs of that system.
I’ll conclude by cautioning readers not to make too much of Salatin’s acknowledgment that Polyface isn’t sustainable. In the literal sense, the word “sustainable” describes something that can continue indefinitely. I don’t know of any agricultural system (with or without animals) that is sustainable in that sense, though some are obviously a lot worse than others.
Next week, I plan to have another post up focusing on what we can and cannot conclude from my analysis of Polyface. I’ll look at statements made by Michael Pollan as well as discourse that has arisen from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, including comments from pastured meat advocates and vegan advocates.
Correction (2/15): The original version of this post referred to some discussion of nitrogen, rather than nutrients more broadly. On further consideration, I have realized that I misremembered that, and so I have corrected the post accordingly. I believe that the essential point of the post stands in spite of this correction.