Is there a moral dimension to the way we grow, market, eat and share food?

Joel Salatin, one of the world’s leading advocates of farming and food relocalization, makes a strong case that there is.

Salatin, a recipient of the Heinz Award for Environmental Leadership, was in Santa Barbara County earlier this week as part of the Carbon Economy Educational Series. He’s an advocate of small farms, local food systems, and the humane treatment of animals, and his work has attracted wide national attention.

“What makes Salatin so powerful on the farming scene is a unique mix of ingenuity, faith and business savvy,” writes David Grant in a November article for the Christian Science Monitor.

Salatin advocates community-based economic growth, and practices what he preaches by refusing to sell his products beyond a roughly four-hour drive from his farm.

He also promotes a more economical and humane way of raising livestock, based on the interactions we see in nature between animals and plant life. Salatin is highly critical of the way most farm animals are treated.

“A culture that views its life from such a manipulative, disrespectful stance will soon view its citizens and other cultures the same way,” he said. “It’s how we respect the least of these that creates a moral-ethical framework.”

His goal is to motivate people everywhere to “appreciate that how we farm is a moral question.” Salatin is part of a larger movement dedicated to rethinking the way we grow, market and eat food, as popularized in the documentary “Food Inc.,” and Michael Pollen’s best-seller “Ominvore’s Dilemma.”

“Food Inc.” documents the ways in which the highly mechanized food industry can be harmful not only to our health and the environment, but even to our very humanity. Pollen agrees, pointing out that eating is not only “an agricultural act” but “also an ecological act, and a political act, too.”

For him and other food activists, “how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world.”

One example of this is new interest in the age-old concept of “gleaning,” where, in Biblical times, the hungry were invited into farmers’ newly harvested fields to glean what was left over.

Even today, much edible food is left to rot in the field, often because cosmetic blemishes or odd shapes and sizes prevent the food from being marketable to large food chains, or even for selling at farmers’ markets.

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According to a USDA report, one-fifth of America’s food goes to waste each year — enough to feed 49 million people.

As a result, gleaning networks are opening up across the nation, organizing volunteers to go to local farms to harvest left-over fruits and vegetables for families, local food banks, and other community agencies that serve the hungry.

An interesting spin on that concept is called back-yard harvesting, where neighbors pool resources to harvest the unpicked fruit going to waste on trees in so many neighborhood back yards. Others gather and share the surplus produce from back-yard vegetable gardens.

Specific information on how to create these neighborhood programs, and others, including reclaiming underutilized plots of land and transforming them into community gardens, can be found on this local chapter website: www.backyardharvest.org.

As Michael Pollen writes: “The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and ... we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.”

A worthwhile goal for all of us.

Deborah is executive director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN). She can be reached at Deborah@sbcan.org, or 722-5094. Looking Forward runs Fridays, providing a progressive viewpoint on local issues.

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