James McWilliams writes today in the Freakonomics blog that advocates of grass-fed beef are mistaken in asserting that until very recently, all beef was grass-fed. He’s right, as far as he goes: Agriculture experts advocated raising beef cattle on corn as long ago as the early nineteenth century. As one commenter pointed out, advocacy and practice are not the same thing. But they’re not always that far apart, either, and so I think it’s worth thinking about why progressive nineteenth-century agriculturalists thought corn-fed was better.
In this 2003 essay I argue that the desire for standards, because it tends to produce standardization, is antithetical to stewardship, which must be based on an intimate knowledge of unique persons and places. No set of standards, therefore — such as the national organic standards — can serve as a substitute or even a stepping-stone to true stewardship, and may even make that ultimate goal more difficult to reach.