Tuesday, August 9, 2011

You can't manufacture food security

This has been a good time to talk shit about the food industry. In California recently, raw milk sellers were arrested: it reminded me of when the medical marijuana dispensaries there were raided by the feds, as a battleground in the war of states’ rights. At the same time that fresh milk and dried herbs were being seized and destroyed, food-manufacturing giant Cargill was regularly selling meat that the USDA knew contained salmonella. No one died or even allegedly got sick from drinking raw milk from the California suppliers, but as one blogger astutely noted, if they had, it would have been easier to trace the bad milk back to its source. Cargill, on the other hand, is so big that they deal with other giant suppliers. Back in 2007, one of their beef suppliers sold them beef adulterated with E.coli strain 0157:H7. Right after the 2011 turkey recall, it was announced that Cargill is suing that supplier.

The USDA doesn’t consider salmonella a contaminant and only considers one strain of E. coli—the antibiotic resistant strain called 0157:H7—to be an “adulterant,” even though any strain of E. coli in your food can make you wicked sick. The difference in the worrying strain with all the extra numbers is that we don’t have a good treatment for this new strain, yet. This is the danger of the arms race against bugs: we come up with a spray or a pill that kills a bug that plagues us. We start using it all over everything, like people washing their hands with antibiotic goo that they keep in their handbags and on wall dispensers. Since there’s no where else for the germs to go—some of them need us as hosts, or to breed—the bugs evolve to resist our efforts. The game has just stepped up a notch. We see it as the problem of resistance against common sprays like Roundup, and germs that sicken humans and livestock, like E. coli and salmonella.

We can’t actually sterilize the planet against bugs we don’t like. I have the normal revulsion against icky things, including bugs, that lots of my peers do, with what we consider the privileges that protected us against a certain amount of suffering: we drank and bathed in clean water, and if we picked up parasites, our parents had us quickly deloused, dewormed, or otherwise dosed. The world is and contains within it robust, complicated systems that include these bugs. It’s part of the big plan of life that we will get diseases and sometimes die of them. It’s why I say it’s good that we want to reduce suffering, but we can’t imagine that there will be a world without disease or death. Our lives depend on the deaths of others, and even on our own deaths, and on the lives of those that depend on our deaths. Not just bacteria need us dead: our children need us to clear out to make room for them and our descendants.

I think my society’s attitudes toward life and death are at the root of our unhealthy food systems. It’s why we have no problem seeing everything we do as progress, and that more of the same will solve the problems that remain in the world. It doesn’t see our resources and how we prioritize them, or conceive of our problems and set about solving them, as being directed by any values. The only thing we seem to value is money, because it’s the one thing we consistently measure, and we translate every other cost—health care, environmental cleanup—into dollars in order to compare them.

I think people are very uncomfortable with choosing answers outside the mainstream. Usually, it’s a winning strategy to go with the herd. But sometimes the herd is wrong: sometimes the leaders have other agendas and priorities. Local councils representing the interests of a group of food producers are made up of people: they have families who eat their products, too. But the business interests of a farmer are much like yours: money’s tight, and you want a sure thing if you can get it. You don’t take risks you don’t understand. You grow what you have a buyer for. And so your interests become aligned with your employer, or with whoever’s buying your product and therefore calls the shots. A farmer who wants to be big and successful will embrace the model that the infrastructure already supports: cash crops, grown by conventional methods because that’s what the big buyers buy and what the loan officers at the bank want to hear, too. It makes cash sense to do this, and it makes the same kind of sense on up the line.

Put yourself in the mindset of the CEO of a corporation, beholden to make his stockholders money every quarter. The USDA thinks that it’s taking care of eaters because it’s taking care of farmers, because the farmers are convinced that their needs are as capitalists, and not as people who eat food. What’s for sale has nothing at all to do with what’s good to eat. It has to do with supply chains and the security of huge scale and inertia.

But you, cooking for you and your family and friends, do not make food decisions like Cargill. You can change how you eat today. Can you imagine how long it would take for all of those supply chains to change? We see how it changes when something ripples down from Washington DC. It can happen from a more local change, as when California or Massachusetts or New York leads the way by creating some local law: no saturated fats, or San Francisco causing the Happy Meal to sprout half a conventional apple. McDonald’s wants to be the same everywhere it goes, so even if you’re in Dubuque, you’ll get half an apple, too. Whole Foods Market is a national chain, and if you go in there looking for local flavor you’re going to be disappointed. You can start shopping at your farmer’s market, or the co-op, or an independent grocer. Making this change will have rippling effects on your life, too. You’ll cook more. You’ll learn about foods you hadn’t considered eating before, and ways to buy it you didn’t imagine, either. You can learn how to find your own, personal food security.