Our relationship to food is shaped by our perspectives on nature and the land. Even for city dwellers who live far from farms, what we eat is influenced by what we understand about how food is grown.
There are many different perspectives. Where one person may see bucolic farms, pastures and domestic animals grazing along streams, another may see invasive weeds, fences cutting through natural habitat, and nonnative species polluting waterways. One person may see generations of a family producing food while another may see land occupied by settlers, rivers dammed and diverted, and traditional foodways destroyed. Still another may simply enjoy a walk outdoors in a pleasing landscape.
Growing up in a cowtown, as I did, might lead you to believe that dairies are a natural part of the rolling hills. You might feel a certain nostalgia for roads that weave past water troughs and barbed-wire fences that lean sleepily against nonnative eucalyptus trees and California bay laurels. You might have memories of childhood picnics outside a rustic rural creamery and punny freeway billboards from a local cheese producer. Cattle become a way of life for communities in dairy country, even for those who aren’t producers — cows become “normal.”
But move away from cattle country and the difference in the landscape is stark. Rivers are clearer and cleaner. Cattle in fields are replaced by wildflowers and grasses, more birds, deer, foxes, elk and other wild creatures. Lush woodlands, shrubs and grasslands thrive with vital biodiversity, unlike the overgrazed pastures that end up as monotonous eyesores.
The place where I was raised is romanticized as a region of small farmers and food hubs. But the truth is that these stolen Pomo and Miwok lands are now highly degraded, and many of the facilities that advertise themselves as family farms are enormous corporate factory farms and slaughterhouses that pollute the river, drain waterways, release enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, and contribute to the erasure of biodiversity. Rural communities, just like inner cities, are suffering from food systems that don’t serve them.
But legislation has recently been introduced to change that. The Farm System Reform Act is a federal bill to bring justice to U.S. farming by shifting away from the industrial, colonial models that have created so much damage. It would pause the expansion of massive factory farms such as mega-dairies. And it would break up the monopolistic consolidation of power of the corporations that control the meat industry, which rely on a factory-farm model that raises the risk of zoonotic disease outbreaks.
In 2020 COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking factories killed hundreds of workers and led to hundreds of thousands of cases of infection via community spread. As a result, some facilities temporarily closed. Because the industry has been consolidated into so few factories, there weren’t alternative places to slaughter animals and process meat. This led to the mass gassing and shooting of millions of farmed animals— proving that the meat supply chain on this enormous scale is undependable.
Mega-dairies increase their profits by confining thousands of cows per facility. Of course, this means producing massive amounts of manure. The waste is stored in lagoons that release methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide in decomposition, polluting the air of nearby communities. (It’s no coincidence that the largest U.S. milk-producing county is linked with the highest rates of ER visits for childhood asthma.) These lagoons also pollute groundwater and make local water undrinkable.
The Farm System Reform Act aims to ensure communities near factory farms can hold companies legally accountable for toxic environmental and public health impacts. Due to weak laws and enforcement, and the big meat monopoly, multinational meatpackers are accountable to very few and very little. The goal of this bill is to make sure this highly subsidized power block is held in check.
This reform is one way we can start climbing out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into by shifting the way we grow food, and what we subsidize, away from dangerous, destructive models of exploitation and toward just, humane foodways that nourish our communities with delicious, diverse, healthy, fair and sustainable food.
What’s at stake
The recent United Nation’s State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture report shows that disappearing biodiversity in the natural world threatens our ability to grow food and the overall wellness of our planet. This includes the ecosystems we need to grow food, from insects to bats to birds to wolves, worms, fish and trees. Once lost, biodiversity can’t be recovered.
Out of all the myriad foods we could produce, our food system focuses narrowly on industrial, highly processed meat. As discussed in a new book by Dave Goulson, Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse, our reliance on pesticides to grow this boring, processed, meat-heavy food is destroying insect biodiversity. Seventy-five percent of insect biodiversity has been eliminated in our lifetime. Where I live, western monarch butterflies have declined by 99%. I walk the neighborhood with my young son urging folks to grow native milkweed to protect these pollinators because I fear that they will disappear completely before he’s grown.
We must choose food diversity to support the biodiversity our future depends on.
What you can do
Collectively we can reimagine landscapes and allow the natural world around us to heal by learning better stories about food culture, traditions, and pathways to farming sustainably. We can act, we can eat differently, we can farm differently, and we can demand that our food systems are reformed. If you’re in the United States, urge your member of Congress to support a healthy and fair food system and pass the Farm System Reform Act.
As always, if you have questions, connect with me at EarthFriendlyDiet@biologicaldiversity.org. You can also leave comments on our social media accounts or catch me on Twitter to chat more.
For the wild,