I often post about what I’m doing and not so much about “The Why.” In this two part article, I am going to share my thoughts about that trendy concept, confront the iniquitous and pervasive idea that food is fungible (that is, food items are mutually interchangeable), and explain how the practices on my farm distinguish themselves from other systems.
Even quiet people need to make themselves heard now and again as there are some falsehoods that simply must be challenged.
Pro tip: if you want to follow my citations, such as they are, simply load another instance of this page in another tab and scroll to the bottom. WordPress AFAIK doesn’t really do foot notes so that’s the best you can do without needing to scroll up and down each time you see a footnote.
Part 1: Is Your “Why” Just a Glib Form of Advertising? Is Food Fungible?
Is Your “Why” Just a Glib Form of Advertising?
The world of business is aflutter: “People don’t buy your product, they buy the “why” behind your product.” “Tell the customer a story, they are buying your narrative, they are buying you!” A new era of understanding between corporate body and consumer is at hand!
If you’ve been following this company’s development, you’ll probably recall that I don’t spend a lot of time following this trendy advice. I know my why- in fact, I’ve instantiated it into my Holistic Context to help me in everyday decision making.(1) Every winter, before the season begins, I deliberately take a fresh look at my context and make necessary changes. This farm evolves with every passing season, just like I do.
I also think that it is, indeed, important for customers and clients to know a little bit about why you do what you do.(2) At the same time, I feel that a well intentioned desire to communicate stories to the broader world can easily begin to step over personal boundaries, becoming both overbearing and inauthentic. Allow me to explain.
Seemingly every day my upbringing in a politically moderate, quiet Christian American family becomes more apparent. I grew up in an environment where it was generally frowned upon to “wear your religion on your sleeve.” I was raised to treat other people with the same respect that I’d like them to extend to me. I was taught- and still believe- that no one has all of the answers; that someone may be “right” on an issue today, but wrong tomorrow. And that although many things change and having an open mind is the first step towards adapting to life, your principles matter. There are some things you let go of at your own peril.
I believe that, although relativism has its deserved place, some things are true even if said things aren’t exactly popular. My upbringing was pretty “old fashioned:” maintain your integrity, be honest, and do your best. If you do that, people with similar values will support you come hell or high water. Get in other peoples faces, engage in self aggrandizement, make unsubstantiated claims, and you’ll get your fifteen minutes of fame, but perhaps not much else. I was told that you don’t always have to be right or tell others they are wrong- the best lessons are often learned on your own in a moment of self-realization rather than through confrontation (civil or otherwise).
This view of the world- live and let live, stay grounded but flexible, prove yourself through your work and your words- suits someone with a temperament like mine. I am very introverted. My nickname after moving from Florida to North Carolina was “Webster.”(3) Even some of my teachers started calling me that. There are only a few topics that I like to talk about with other people. I like to speak only when I have something to say about things I’m passionate about, otherwise I’m a particularly quiet person.(4)
So perhaps it isn’t all that surprising that I have an aversion to evangelizing. Whether it is in the name of a religion, partisan politics, or for one cause or another, going out of my way to tell other people what I believe and to promote myself in the process has never felt quite right.(5) If I told you that I generally despise advertising and social media that probably wouldn’t surprise you either.
Now that I own a small business, this mentality would seem to be a self-inflicted hinderance. After three and a half years, I still don’t have a logo, I’ve run precisely one paid Facebook ad, and I’ve only “cold called” clients once back in 2018. And I did that through a mass email only after a friend basically told me do it now or I’ll do it for you. Thanks Chris!
Yet despite not “putting myself out there,” not “networking” constantly, and not selling my farm and services unrelentingly, I’m still here. More people know about my farm than ever and the number of opportunities continue to grow. I’m nowhere near where I’d like to be, but there is tangible progress each year and I’m not in debt, which means I‘m free. I have, indeed, accomplished many of the goals I set out for myself. Perhaps even the most important goals, which weren’t necessarily tied to “the business” as such, have been reached.
In many respects this path has served me quite well. At the same time, not having a “strong brand” and elevator pitch can be a disadvantage. When approaching a customer, how do you sell them your product if you have an innate dislike for comparing your work to others- making value propositions based on the idea that your product is better than the competition? If I make an argument, any argument, about my products then I am unavoidably saying something about my competition and their products. For example, if I tout my farm’s employment of no-dig/no-till methods to preserve soil structure as being better for the environment than tillage, then I am implying that products produced through tillage are worse. Now, I may believe this is true, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that is the case, but there is a fine line between arguing ideas and data and inferring character claims from those arguments.
I don’t want to say anything negative about another farmer’s character- even if I disagree with their practices. There are too few of us left to start a cycle of he-said-she-said that just looks childish and petty. And, I’ll get into this more in part 2, I’ve learned in the past few years that we can rapidly repair damaged ecosystems, so while my heart breaks for the ongoing injury to the planet, I have a deep well of hope to draw from. I take the long view (in part due to my love of history).
So if a customer has a choice between seemingly identical items, how do I sell my item without negatively describing the other? I don’t think this is possible. Are my products independently verified as being “better” than anyone else’s? No. They could be, I think they are, and I have “anecdotal” evidence to support my belief, but the cost of 3rd party verification is quite steep for a farm such as mine. Without data to back up my assertions, I tend to avoid making them in definite terms. If I had the data, I could clearly make the case that I’m talking about my work and no one else’s. The benefits would stand on their own merit without needing to employ arguments by comparison.
I always ask myself: do I know this to be true, or am I just passing off the theories, ideas, or experience of other people as my own?
Is Food Fungible?
Now, here’s the thing: after eleven years in this field, it has become quite clear that most people don’t know their soil carbon from their mycorrhizae. Say the word “rhizophagy” and watch heads explode. Foodies, restauranteurs, product developers, government officials, university researchers, and even farmers: it doesn’t matter. Everywhere I go, it seems that even basic knowledge of soil biology and how that relates to local ecosystem function and the biosphere at large is lacking at best and completely absent at worst.
That my farm is predicated on natural systems with millions of years of R&D goes in one ear and out the other while farming systems that demonstrably destroy soil, emit carbon, and degrade the environment (even slowly) are still met with applause and adulation. I’m not writing this to lay blame on anyone or any institution, I simply want to point out something: a person’s conception of farming is like many other things, imprinted early. Those childhood picture books of tilled, bare, exposed, eroding soil- of mud and monoculture (not to mention the treatment of animals)- are established as our normal. And so people cheer when the farmer gets out the plow and upends the foundation of life on earth. Look at all the birds eating the worms, how natural!
Maybe even the word normal doesn’t begin to describe it. Perhaps normal, traditional, necessary, virtuous. Even if these practices represent an assault on nature, the embodiment of the underlying process by which our civilization is sawing off the branch upon which it’s perched, these motifs get repeated over and over again. It’s not like anyone really expects the authors and illustrators of children’s books to know anything about their subject matter, right?
It surely doesn’t help that our governments, in their desire to do well by the “consumer,” have standardized the nutritional value of every kind of food. This tomato is equal to that tomato, this egg to that egg. In doing so, for the vast majority of the population, they’ve erased reality in favor of the law of averages. To give the devil his due, there is value in making abstractions from reality. It’s not that all averages are false and should be tossed out. The situation is more complex, however, when the average being used as a stand in for reality no longer bears any resemblance to the source. No one who has thought about this for more than five minutes can possibly accept those values as being universally true, but there isn’t any indication on a regular basis, say a sign in the produce section of a supermarket, stating: “Please note: the nutritional facts on the label may not necessarily reflect that actual nutritional content of the food we sell.” What does this standardization, this homogenization of the world around us do to our view of the world?
Take the recently touted blog post titled “You want to reduce the carbon footprint of your food? Focus on what you eat, not whether your food is local.”
This article, was shared around the globe faster than anyone could even read the thing. Data, science, a meta-analysis empirically quantifies the total green house gas emissions per kilogram of different foodstuffs. This blog post had it all, baby, and it fits my agenda. Share! I’ve done my bit for the environment now! Ahem… as I was saying, the data in the blog post is drawn from “the largest meta-analysis of global food systems to date, published in Science” and as such, should be considered extremely reliable. Which it probably is.
There’s just one glaring issue: the claim that this data analyzes “individual food products” is a bald faced, reductionistic fabrication. My issue with this study isn’t exactly that people don’t understand agriculture or ecosystems (who actually, fully does?); rather my problem is not just that this nonsense can go unquestioned. My “concern” here is deeper: that this nonsense can be so readily accepted as evidence to support the continued iniquitous and pervasive idea that food is fungible.
If a thing is “fungible,” then it is mutually interchangeable. Like money of the same currency. Or individual numbers, like this 1 and this 1- they are the same. It doesn’t matter which one you use to add up 1+1=2. Mathematics is certainly one place where abstracting reality has given humanity a powerful tool to enrich our lives. Unfortunately, reality is a lot more complex than this. Just because mathematics, physics, and other sciences are offering us unprecedented tools of understanding doesn’t mean we should employ blunt, unsophisticated abstraction to every problem we face.
There’s real danger in beginning to value and unquestioningly trust human constructs over the signals reality is sending us. When the stakes are as high as what to do in the face of a changing climate with nearly 8 billion human beings, a world in which nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons are a reality, and a couple of centuries of environmental desecration (amplified by our industrialized society) have left us a crippled biosphere, blind trust in abstraction is insane.
Believing that abstract thought itself will turn this situation around leaves out the fact that it will be actual human beings that make the changes. If we want to base our collective and individual response to perhaps the greatest challenge our species has ever faced on poorly done statistics, watch out. Doubling down on that insanity, the worshipping of our own creations (especially poor quality ones), is the height of hubris.
Simply put, you can’t render “food products” fungible because how the products are produced, where they are produced, and when they are produced change the total greenhouse gas emissions radically.(6) And when farmers integrate multiple enterprises on their operation in order to gain synergistic, compounding and cascading effects you can’t so easily tease out the individual data of each enterprise. Each enterprise doesn’t exist on its own. Nothing exists on its own. I’m not saying that just because it is hard that you shouldn’t try to investigate each component. I am saying that information gathered during that process needs to be put back into the larger context.(7)
The category “beef” is a fiction. Adding up data points from around the world, blowing out all differences of climate and practice, and then outputting a number to indict all beef as the worst product on the face of the planet isn’t sophisticated: it’s sophomoric level logic. And before you think this is all about the beef, the same goes for every single other product in the list.
Imagine, for a moment, that instead of comparing different so-called “individual” food products, the data set was comparing the categories of food, energy production, and transportation. For each category, the researchers looked at the total sum of greenhouse gas emissions- without breaking down each category by its component parts- and then declared that the production of energy should cease world wide to prevent catastrophic climate change. You’d look at the bar for the entire energy sector: coal power plants, nuclear, even the methane emissions from large hydroelectric dams- all rolled into one- and say “that’s not fair, you can’t lump ‘green’ energy in with coal!” It wouldn’t compute. The author of the piece would clearly have an agenda.
What about transportation? Would you cry foul if electrified rail systems drawing power from “renewable” energy were lumped in with large gasoline powered SUV’s stuck bumper to bumper in LA and then the “authors of the empirical study” drew the conclusion that all transportation systems are environmentally destructive and must be given up in exchange for a stable climate? I bet you would.
This is precisely what these kinds of “studies” are saying if they don’t differentiate between the individual components of a category before dismissing the entire category: it’s all terrible and it all needs to end. In other words, to hell with reality, this entire industry needs to be put to a stop now.
Ah, but you say I’ve made a logical mistake in moving up one category of abstraction. I went from “individual food items” to “food” in general. Electric trains bear no resemblance to single occupancy gasoline automobiles! Joshua is a fraud, he’s committed a sleight of hand.
Not so fast. A carbon negative cattle operation- verified by an established third party- that uses no soy from the Amazon and never sends its cattle to a feedlot to be pumped full of whatever happens to be cheap calories that day is not the same as one that does.(8) When the GHG impact of the carbon negative product is “111% lower than conventional beef” you cannot include them in the same category anymore and maintain any level of intellectual honesty.(9) They are as different forms of food as a small scale hydroelectric generator situated on a mountain stream is to the dirtiest coal fired power plants in China.(10) Just because they both produce energy doesn’t mean their impact is the same. This is so obvious that it boggles my mind that I need to write this article!
Let me state it again: the impact and the quality of an item are not related to global averages. These categories don’t exist in the real world. They are fictions that have little to no meaning in the context they’ve been used and in the media narrative at large. Global averages can be useful, but they must be appropriate to their context. They also must accurately describe the thing they purport to.
This example is just scratching the surface of the differences between foods that just so happen to share the same name (which are also abstractions: useful, but only up to a point).(11) Now, I don’t own any cattle. I help plants grow and then sell them to make a fair part of my modest income. But I care about this ongoing assault on reality itself by people who have no skin in the game. Food is not fungible, no matter which way you twist it. How things are produced matter.
One last example. If how things are produced do not matter, then how do you differentiate between products? If a tomato is a tomato is a tomato no matter whether it was grown and harvested by abused migrant workers in Florida or grown by your grandmother in her vegetable patch, then what is the difference between a rusted out old Ford Pinto and a brand new Tesla Model S?(12) They are both cars. If you buy the idea that all cattle are equal, you can’t then make the argument that the Pinto and the Model S are different.
What about the difference between a dress made by self employed dressmakers and one made in a sweat shop? Are you willing to tell me with a straight face that because these two things are both dresses that they are the same? That their environmental and social impacts are the same? Really? If not, then why are two food items produced in radically different ways somehow interchangeable parts? Ask yourself that question and wait for an answer.
Defending nuance and reality against dangerous abstractions is a battle I’m willing to fight. Farmers and primary producers in general are on the front line against climate change. They are the ones whose daily routines, financial stability, mental health, and willingness to change their operations matter the most if we are going to respond to the changing climate. Lumping the ones who are starting down the arduous journey into regenerative, holistic, agroecological systems in with destructive polluters and telling them- telling the world- that there is no substantial difference is a bridge too far.
Almost exactly five years ago, I tackled a similar question in a response to the particularly shameful documentary “Cowspiracy.”(13) The siren call of “pristine” logic and undeserved moral superiority is louder now than ever. In many ways, the rise of absolutist ideological positions has only accelerated since then. I highly recommend looking into the work social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shared through the cofounding of the Heterodox Academy. Ideological entrenchment continues to grow and poses a real threat to the future of our society. On their “The Problem” webpage, they write:(14)
“While a community of inquiry defined by intellectual humility, curiosity, empathy, and trust may hold many beliefs in common, few ideas will be beyond discussion, revision, or good-faith debate.
The surest sign of an unhealthy scholarly culture is the presence of orthodoxy. Orthodoxies are most readily apparent when people fear shame, ostracism, or any other form of social or professional retaliation for questioning or challenging a commonly held idea. [emphasis original]
The best way to defend against orthodoxies — or to neutralize them — is to foster commitment to open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement.
When these elements are missing, orthodoxies can take root and thrive.”
What we are facing today, the madness that the blog post which sparked this article in the first place is subject to, is nothing short of a new orthodoxy. Farming, and in particular, animal agriculture, is bad- very bad. Irredeemable, unforgivable, beyond salvation, immoral, damnable. Any evidence to the contrary can and will be buried under half truths and poor argumentation. Don’t get to know your farmer, don’t ask how your food was produced, just eat what is put in front of you.
I will not remain silent as this orthodoxy attempts to dominate the narrative and consolidate its hold on our culture at large.
Food is not fungible.
How food is produced matters.
Where it is produced matters.
Who produces it matters.
What those people believe matters.
Those people matter.
In Part 2, I will talk about how I produce food- with its pros and cons, its shortcomings and my attempts at correcting course, and how I believe the total opposite of what the reductionist, disturbingly over simplified media narrative has to say about food production in particular and the future of human beings on this planet at large.
(1) Holistic Management is a decision making system devised originally in the 1970’s by Allan Savory and it pairs extremely well with permaculture design. Follow this link to learn more
(2) That’s “why” every website has an about page. Link here
(3) Webster is American shorthand for “dictionary” after eponymous dictionaries published in the early 19th century that began codifying the split between American and British English. If you are wondering why that is a nickname: I was such a book worm that I would even read encyclopedias when I didn’t have another book around
(4) Incidentally, “Quiet” is an international best selling book by Susan Cain about introversion. I have another article on Introversion in Permaculture that has sat on the shelf for a while that probably needs dusting off
(5) During my college years I stepped back from this a bit, but my activism against torture and war crimes is something I feel upholds my dedication to truth, respect, and dignity
(6) This should be self evident, but apparently not so bear with me as I get to this over the course of the whole article
(7) This idea of “wholes within wholes” underlies the Holistic Management model
(8) Yes, I’m using White Oaks Pastures as a case study. I could use others and there will be many, many more if regenerative farmers start to get data from their own operation to rebut the iniquitous and pervasive idea that food is fungible
(9) If Quantis’ analysis isn’t solid enough for you, I’m going to need a very well researched paper explaining why
(10) Maybe. You caught me, I’m using examples for effect without putting the data here. Shock, horror. The audacity of not conducting a thorough scientific inquiry and having it peer reviewed to be gobbled up as “science says.”
(11) That we are even reaching the point where the meaning of words aren’t mutually intelligible anymore should scare you
(12) Modern slavery is real. Here’s just one example.
(13) “Cowspiracy & The Building Blocks of an Absolutist Position” didn’t gain much traction on the hosted page, but was spread globally and translated even into Italian. It was also my second to last post on DailyKos due to a growing culture of ideological purity that refuses to engage with uncomfortable ideas
(14) Heterodox Academy. “The Problem.” Accessed 12.02.2020. I’m not using a standard citation method so don’t spit up your coffee. 🙂 (OMG an emoji, in a footnote, what’s next a GIF?)