Grass-fed Beef, Free-Range Chicken, and USDA Organic: Language and the Sustainable Revolution

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Beyond the “free-range” label, humane pig stewards must provide pigs ample space to root and wallow, and, for sows, a place to farrow and nurse.
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Joel Salatin shares the exuberant message of Earth stewardship and sustainable farming with thousands of Mother Earth News Fair attendees every year.
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Organic farms multi-crop; cover-crop; and opt for traditional fertilizers and weed suppressants.

Members of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS tribe have a long, illustrious, and storied reputation as stewards of the Earth. I grew up with the magazine during the Vietnam War, the hippie movement, and the Watergate scandal. Through it all, our tribe remained politically bipartisan and religiously diverse. One thing we have always fervently agreed on is stewardship of this planet. We feel a sense of deep responsibility toward breathable air, healthy soil, and potable, plentiful water. We feel personally assaulted when public and private interests desecrate, pillage, and attack these precious resources upon which we all depend.

Over the years, our tribe has developed a vocabulary to promote and explain our views on the environment, self-reliance, and sustainability. We’ve fought for 100 percent grass-fed beef, free-range chickens, pasture-raised pork, USDA Organic veggies, and so much more. But today, powerful interests threaten to change the meaning of our language. Well, folks, our communication depends on preserving these vibrant words. Just like our land, our language needs to be fostered.

Define and Defend the Language of Sustainable Food

Pay attention to any food recall, and you’ll see a dozen brand names coming out of the same processing plant. As the food industry continues to centralize, this product and brand-name homogeneity only escalates. Finding and using a vocabulary of specificity will become more and more important for our tribe. We need to know our terms, own our terms, define our terms, and defend our terms.

A defining commitment of our movement is that we use organic fertilizers, such as compost, instead of synthetic fertilizers, and we mulch, cover crop, and weed to avoid using herbicides. We can be thankful that clever people have given us an ecological vocabulary. Think about the gift of Elaine Ingham’s “soil food web” to describe the complex relationship among organisms in healthy soil. Such a pregnant phrase stops simplistic chemical-pushers in their tracks and demands respect.

But look what has happened to the word “organic” since J. I. Rodale first popularized the designation in 1942. The term is now owned by industry and the government, and all sorts of questionable nuances are done in organic’s name. In poultry, for example, organic certification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires access to pasture or other outdoor environments, but with a huge caveat: If either inclement weather or the bird’s health is an issue, then outdoor access is no longer mandatory. The Cornucopia Institute’s aerial pictures of industrial-scale organic poultry farms show the blatant disregard of standards by the large certified players. The USDA couldn’t care less about this noncompliance. How many Americans buy scofflaw eggs at Walmart and think they’re really changing the foodscape?

Meanwhile, our true-blue integrity farmers produce pastured eggs light-years better than factory-farmed USDA Certified Organic eggs but can’t afford to get licensed. This is why I like to use the term “beyond organic” to describe nutritious eggs from pastured chickens. When we support the work of organizations such as the Cornucopia Institute, learn from them, and then foster the next generation of stewardship vocabulary, we preserve the meaning of the original language for the next generation.

Humane Always Means Free-Range

I’m also concerned about the “free-range” label used by poultry producers. Free-range chicken conjures up the image of chickens out on green grass — scratching, pecking, eating vegetation and bugs, and expressing their chickenness. However, the official USDA definition is simply “that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” Chickens can be classified as free-range if they’ve had a little bit of yard time (even on a concrete surface) but are usually confined.

I now prefer to use the phrase “pastured poultry.” Not only does “pastured poultry” provide more specific language, but it pushes the envelope by challenging those who would believe that free-range poultry has nothing to do with pasture. By doing whatever it takes to respect the chickenness of the chicken, we are doing what is fundamentally kind and humane.

Grass-Fed Beef Battleground

The “grass-fed” beef label is, sadly, the latest skirmish in the food wars. “Grass-fed” means next to nothing thanks to the USDA’s decision to deregulate the phrase. We’re seeing all sorts of grain-fed feedlot outfits calling their beef grass-fed if the animal eats any grass at all. This is understandably confusing to consumers.

When foodies and alternative farmers started using “grass-fed” a couple of decades ago, it was meant to distinguish between herbivores that ate an exclusively grass-based diet from those that ate any grain at all. This exclusivity carved a market niche and served as a point of discussion for thousands of conversations.

While many groups, such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, are calling for the USDA to regulate the “grass-fed” label, I’m calling for new language. I developed the phrase “salad-bar beef” to restimulate conversation about sustainable ranching and to encourage farmers to educate folks about why we do what we do, and how it’s different from what others do. We not only feed grass 100 percent of the time, but we put cows on amazing pastures and get healthier animals, pastures, and meat-eaters as a result.

Finally, the industrial food complex wants folks to believe that the term “safe” is objective, but it’s not. Safe from what? Today’s orthodoxy uses the lethal dose idea to determine safety. In other words, if something doesn’t kill you right away, then it’s OK.

Safe has come to mean sterile, but food should not be sterile. Food should be full of microorganisms — life! By industry standards, Coca-Cola is safe while raw milk or butter is unsafe. And yet I would suggest that drinking a glass of Coke every day is more unsafe than drinking a glass of good raw milk. Is a manufactured cheese-like substance that won’t mold for a year when squeezed out of a tube safer than cheese that grows mold and walks off the table in a couple of days?

Beyond Labels

Folks, our movement has always been about more than labels. They can’t label us, and they can’t label what we’re doing, because life and the language used to describe its grandeur are fundamentally spontaneous. Meaning, however, should remain constant. We are stewards of the Earth, who relentlessly respect and fight for the chickenness of chickens, the pigness of pigs, and the rights of a healthy ecosystem, on-farm and off.

As the industrial orthodoxy tries to confuse and adulterate, we must commit ourselves afresh to defending and stewarding our lexicon. We all owe Douglas Gayeton a debt of gratitude for his project, “The Lexicon of Sustainability,” which defines key words and holds them in purity. I hope we’ll embrace the stewardship of our language in the way we’ve embraced stewardship of the Earth. These two missions are inseparable and equally important. Now, go forth and have many meaningful conversations — but know your terms.

Joel Salatin raises beyond-organic chickens and salad-bar beef on pristine pasture at Polyface Farms. He’s the author of numerous titles available at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store.  

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